Best of 2017 + update

I've been slow with updates, so first off, how about some news? I'm working on edits for the first book in my new Sweetness and Light series. Here's a bit of a teaser--the title is BED OF FLOWERS. I got the first round of edits back just before Thanksgiving and, well, haven't gotten much work done since. The world's smallest violin is doubtless playing in the background as I inform you that I spent most of December on a family vacation in Peru, and did not have much time to work. But now the holidays are over and my nose is pressed firmly to the grindstone.

I'll have more to say about BED OF FLOWERS once I've finished the first round edits. At that point, I'll be able to set a release date and do some fun things, like show you all the beautiful cover I've got in the bank and write up a blurb. 

I wish I were a faster writer. I'm on the slower side and, on top of it, I really like BED OF FLOWERS. I conceived it as a Beauty and the Beast story where Beauty has agency--you know, in the fairy tales it's her father who steals a rose and then Beast who's trying to break his curse. I wanted a Beauty who makes her own messes and then gets herself out of them. And it's evolved into a neat book--instead of the classic rose, I'm delving into the mid-nineteenth century mania for orchids. It's worth the time it will take to make it as good as it can be. 

In the meanwhile, I read a fair bit this year and that means it's time for a top ten list. Links are affiliate links. So, without further ado, the best books I read in 2017: 

THE BLACK COUNT by Tom Reiss--This is one of those books that tells a specific, unique story in such a way that it changes the way you understand a much broader swath of history. In this case, the subject is Alexandre Dumas--father of the novelist and inspiration for some of his son's most popular stories. Born a slave in St. Domingue (modern day Haiti), Dumas followed his father--a Marquis--to France and joined the French Revolution. He rose through the ranks, became a General, commanded the Army of the Alps, and so he had a long way to fall when Napoleon, who hated him, seized the reins of power. 

This book has changed the way I think of Napoleon, just as a start. It breathed enough life into the comic caricature of Napoleon as a petty, selfish tyrant that I can't quite find it funny anymore. It's a worthwhile take on the French Revolution and, most damningly, demonstrates exactly how the achievements of people of color are erased from history. 

Really, really worth the read. 

A CONSPIRACY IN BELGRAVIA by Sherry Thomas--This book sent me on a mystery kick that I'm still working through. It was so good that I wanted more, and more, and more... but there are only two books in the Lady Sherlock series, so I've had to look for substitutes. 

I love this take on Sherlock, where the great detective's genius holds center stage but the rest of the cast has the opportunity to shine, each one with talents and insights that are necessary to the successful resolution of the mystery. It captures the essence of Sherlock but adds a generosity of spirit that is quintessentially feminine. 

Truly a pleasure to read and I'll be devouring the third in the series on release day, no doubt. 

ACT LIKE IT by Lucy Parker--The most delightful contemporary romance I've read in ages. Dialogue as crisp and fizzy as a glass of champagne. Swoony Saturnine hero, whose personality is just sour enough that his sweet moments send you into a swoon. The setting, high-end London theater, is aspirational and fascinating and feels real. I've already done a re-read, and I don't do re-reads. 

GHETTOSIDE by Jill Leovy--If you've been trying to self-educate about criminal justice and mass incarceration in the US, you've probably asked yourself, "But what's the answer? How do we do this right?" 

GHETTOSIDE is about a murder investigation in Los Angeles. But it's also a pretty good attempt to answer that question. It follows a superb detective who doggedly pursues his case until he finds the killer. He puts in the work, pounds the pavement, persists without encouragement. If murders go unsolved but broken brake lights are routinely ticketed, something is badly wrong--and in some communities, it's routine for 60% of all murders to go unsolved. That's unacceptable & GHETTOSIDE insists, eloquently, that there's no excuse for such systematic failure.

The Penric and Desdemona novellas by Lois McMaster Bujold--I read a fair bit of epic fantasy this year. Some of it was really, really great and yet it's this series of novellas by Lois McMaster Bujold that rises to the top of my list. I did a lot of traveling this year and when I was really dreading a long flight, I'd load up one or two of these Penric & Desdemona novellas. When I got on the plane, these were always the books I opened first and most eagerly.

They're set in the world of the Five Gods, which I really enjoy. The hero, Penric, starts out as a young man of a scholarly bent who, not entirely by accident, finds himself possessed by a demon. The demon is Desdemona. She lives inside of him, incorporeal but very powerful. They forge an increasingly harmonious working relationship as Penric makes his way in the world, first struggling to find his own path and eventually, when he's ready, using his abilities to help others. 

Bujold is a master whose particular talent is creating memorable, larger-than-life characters. Case in point: I hope there are more of these novellas forthcoming because I just enjoy spending time with Penric and Desdemona.

SARAH J MAAS, THE COMPLETE WORKS--2017 was the year I read every single book by Sarah J Maas. As I wrote in this post, I'd actually tried one of her books before and decided we weren't a match. But I was wrong. The neatest thing that Maas does is write tropes completely straight... so that there's a real impact when she turns around and throws a grenade at them. Her books are brilliant and epic and I loved them all. 

THRONE OF GLASS would be a good place to start. 

TEAM OF RIVALS by Doris Kearns Goodwin--I am realizing that even though I spent most of this year abroad, a lot of my reading was pretty specifically American in context--TEAM OF RIVALS is another case in point. This is not a new book & it's won more awards than I could count. It's a book about Abraham Lincoln the politician, about his peculiar ability to be strategic, insightful and clear-eyed without ever tipping into cynicism. And it describes a time when the country was divided in ways that feel frighteningly familiar.

If you, like me, have been looking to history for insight about the present, this is an excellent choice. 

THE DEAL by Elle Kennedy--I read this book around the beginning of last year and it feels like aeons ago, another lifetime. I was still living in Kentucky, getting ready to move. It really has been quite a year, hasn't it?

Anyway, I read the whole Off-Campus series back to back, hardly coming up for air between books. Like CONSPIRACY IN BELGRAVIA, THE DEAL had me searching for more books featuring athlete heroes. I glommed Susan Elizabeth Philips and Sarina Bowen because of THE DEAL. 

So it's THE DEAL that makes the list. College-set romance between a hockey player headed for the pros and a girl who, quite sensibly, assumes that the smoking hot star athlete is a player who wouldn't take relationships too seriously. He proves her wrong. Great chemistry between the leads, great dialogue, good romance.

TH WITCHER NOVELS novels by Andrzej Sapkowski--I admit, I read these books because I enjoyed the video game. I wanted more, the game is complete, so... I went back to the source. And boy am I glad I did. 

If you aren't familiar with the games, the Witcher novels have been compared to George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books. This is accurate, insofar as both authors must have ambivalent feelings about the TV show/games that popularized their books. And Sapkowski's fantasy world is grim, like Martin's, explicitly preoccupied with the nature of power. But Sapkowski is a little bit more focused--his world is full of magic and technology is roughly medieval but his take on imperialism is depressingly, bitingly current. 

There are more differences between the two authors than similarities, I'd say. Martin is verbose--he gives you so much detail you can smell the air and taste the food as his characters eat. He gives you a sprawling cast, dozens of POVs so that you really understand every side of every conflict. Sapkowski tells the story of one small family; all five books follow Geralt of Rivia's quest to spare his daughter from the schemes and machinations of powerful people who want to use her for their own gain. 

I found the whole cycle riveting but the ending (fair warning to romance readers) is bittersweet at best. The series starts with BLOOD OF ELVES.

DUKE OF SIN by Elizabeth Hoyt--A historical romance that could have been written just for me. The hero is an unapologetic villain who's bewildered by his own feelings; he's not used to having them. The heroine, Bridget, sees him clearly.

Val has a fantastic voice, unique and fully realized, and he never really changes. There's one instance, early in the book, where Bridget successfully curbs Val's violent impulses. But there's another, toward the end, where she fails. The order of those two events is important: love doesn't make him a good person. A better one, sure. But there's no magic wand.