Top Ten for 2012

It's year-end list time & I'll contribute with my top ten favorite reads of 2012. Not necessarily published this year, but discovered & loved by me since January 1, 2012. Presented in alphabetical order:

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore - Kristin Cashore is one of those authors who just works for me. Everything she writes, everything about her writing. She's the preacher, I'm the choir. I loved Graceling so much I didn't think Cashore would be able to top it -- but what makes the Seven Kingdoms books so amazing is that she didn't try to hit the same bull's eye over and over again. She built different targets and took fresh aim; Fire and Bitterblue are so different from Graceling and from one another.

Bitterblue is the most ambitious of the three; it's less perfect than Graceling, which plucked every string of my heart and left me in a swoon, but also bigger. It tackles bigger issues in a more nuanced way; it places the heroine in an impossible situation where escape is failure, and her goal is incremental change rather than success.

As an unpublished author, the story of how Bitterblue was written -- outlined with photographs in this post  -- is pretty inspiring.

The Information by James Gleik - An excellent book that shows the extent to which how we think affects what we think; that the methods of communication available to us (speaking; writing; the telegraph; the internet) mold and shape our view of the world, ourselves, everything.

This is another pet subject of mine -- I love thinking about how the medium affects the message (and the messenger), and discussions of how we offload parts of our brain onto the material world -- and this book is the best treatment of it I've run across since a favorite volume that Gleik cites in his first chapter, Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy.

Riveting, entertaining, thought-provoking. Give the first chapter, about African talking drums, a try. It totally hooked me.

A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant - Hands down the best historical romance I read this year, the best straight-up genre romance I read this year, and then, of course, just plain one of the best books I read this year. I explain why I loved it so much in my review, so I won't go over all the reasons again.

I read the second in Grant's Blackshear Family series, A Gentleman Undone, and admired it on its own but also as a companion piece to A Lady Awakened - the two books are mirror images of one another, stand-alone romances that are nonetheless more satisfying read in combination than in isolation. A good example for other romance writers who want to create series that are more than the sum of their parts.

Dirty by Megan Hart - Dirty was a revelation to me. It was the first, but not the last, erotic romance I read this year and showed me that erotic romance provides a really different set of narrative possibilities than the mainstream offerings. Dirty contains very explicit sex scenes, it's about the early stages of a relationship, and it closes on a positive note, but Dirty is pretty much never romantic.

It's darker and grittier than most romances, and even at the end the heroine's ability to trust and commit is uncertain. It's also beautifully written.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman - The word that comes to mind when I think of Seraphina is sublime. This YA fantasy is set in a sort of...late-medieval/early-Renaisance world and the heroine is a musician. It's a story about the clash of cultures (dragon vs human, in this case) and all the ugliness of war and prejudice are here, in an unstable peace treaty and everyday acts of violence, but what I remember most is the exquisite, gothic-cathedral perfection of Hartman's pantheon of saints, the way Seraphina is transported by music, the joyful strangeness of her garden of grotesqueries. The prose is exquisite, too, and it contains a very lovely romance.

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq - Houellebecq is one of my favorite authors, partly because every one of his books builds on his previous work in such interesting ways. I adored The Possibility of an Island and, perhaps, he couldn't get any more Houellebecquian than he did in that book with its definitive mix of brilliance and guttermouth filth, of pulp and erudition, of critique and fantasy. I call him post-individualist.

In any case, The Map and the Territory went in a different direction - he tackled the myth he's created of himself by making himself a major character & did so with, of all things, a wicked sense of humor. The book is overtly about making art, in isolation and in the spotlight, and about the experience of fame, which he seems to have finally grown comfortable with. It's amazing and thoughtful and way, way less virulently misanthropic than his earlier books (despite the fact that the main characters are still misanthropic loners).

Adrien English series by Josh Lanyon - I love a good mystery/romance series, and I loved Adrien English in particular for the dexterity of Lanyon's writing. I took a photography course back in college, long ago enough that we spent as much time learning to develop pictures in a darkroom as learning to take them. One thing my professor said that's stuck with me is that one indicator of a well-shot black and white picture is that it contains the whole range of shades from pure white to pure black. A lot of writers tend to get stuck on one side of the scale; light and funny or dark and angsty, but Lanyon's books hit every shade on the scale. As a character, the titular hero Adrien is good-natured and witty but also sensitive and frail, and Lanyon's prose can switch gears from invisible to lush at the drop of a hat.

The Adrien English books also pulled m/m (male/male) books out of the ghetto for me, which has led to a whole slew of other wonderful discoveries.

Captive Prince by S.U. Pacat - For example! Captive Prince is not a published book (yet). It is free online fiction and if I had to pick an overall favorite among the books I've read this year, it might win the top slot. It is, hands down, the best enemies-to-lovers romance I have ever read. And enemies-to-lovers is just about my favorite trope.

If you want to know why it's so great, check out this post that the author wrote for Anna Cowan & accept my assurance that the author understands tension because she executes it so perfectly in her books. Or just read Captive Prince. I think the beginning is a little rough but the first two volumes are complete and, by the end, I was book-drunk in a way that doesn't happen all that often anymore.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio - Most of these books arrived on my list thanks to a home-team advantage, as it were. I was already a fan of Cashore's prose and world; of Houellebecq; of mystery/romance series; of enemies-to-lovers; of information theory. Wonder is the exception. It hits none of my buttons. I do not seek out middle-grade books. I do not like 'issue books'. And yet I loved Wonder; it made me cry happy tears and it stunned me as an authorial tour de force.

R.J. Palacio's prose is simple. The chapters are short and straightforward. Really, this is a book for kids. And yet it is ultimately so complex, so nuanced, so open-hearted and generous. It's the multiple points-of-view that made the book for me, along with how effortlessly Auggie holds center stage.

Ember by Bettie Sharpe - And now we arrive at a book that didn't just push all my buttons - it mashed at them with a sledgehammer. It's an Angela Carter-esque erotic retelling of Cinderella that reimagines Cinderella as a black witch, Charming as a cursed prince, and the evil step-mother and step-sisters as cunning prostitutes. It picks up every element you remember from the Disney movie and either inverts, subverts, or perverts it.

It's perfect.


Review: A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant

Cecilia Grant has been floating around on my radar for a little while now - ever since the second in her Blackshear Family series released in May, and especially since I read Robin Reader's review of A Gentleman Undone over at Dear Author. Every good review I read made it obvious that her books would be right up my alley...and simultaneously increased my reluctance to read, because I hate to be disappointed.  But then I met Ms. Grant at RWA12 and she was both lovely and gracious; Courtney Milan took a brief detour from her talk on marketing to insist that "anyone who likes Sherry Thomas would love Cecilia Grant;" and I picked up a free copy of A Lady Awakened at the Bantam Dell signing.

All of that was more than adequately convincing.  (And what a bore all future such explanations will be, when my only reason for reading is that I happened across a good review, or the blurb appealed to me....)

I offer all this preface because, when you really think about it, high expectations are the worst.  A perfectly fine novel can be really disappointing if you crack the cover expecting greatness.  Overblown expectations will ruin your reading experience.

On the other hand, when your expectations have have expanded to truly unrealistic dimensions and the book is even better than you had hoped?  I want to make an Olympics metaphor because that's going on right now, even though I'm indifferent to sports and not watching any events, but also because the comparison fits nicely - when expectations meet reality, the result is awe.

So, yeah.  I am in awe.

A Lady Awakened pairs an uptight, upright heroine (Martha) blessed with an abundance of moral rectitude but a dearth of charm with a hero (Theo) who's handsome, charismatic, good-natured, and fickle.  An opposites attract story, at base.

Newly widowed, childless Martha has one month to impregnate herself before her deceased husband's estate passes on to his villainous brother.  She enlists Theo to give her daily doses of seed, hoping to keep the villain at bay with a quickening.

Theo prides himself on being a skilled and generous lover.  He's a sensual connoisseur who's learned to appreciate women in all their varied forms, and he's pretty cheerful about the idea of sex with a prim, crusading widow.  He sees the possibilities.

But Martha is determined not to enjoy herself.  Sex with her fist husband was a trial rather than a pleasure, and that's scarred her. What's more, she's deeply uncomfortable with her own scheme.  From the beginning, Martha knows that what she's doing is fraud, and immoral.  She justifies her own acts by refusing to enjoy the process, and she actively discourages Theo from making their sexual encounters at all enjoyable.

The rest of my comments are on the spoilery side, and probably best for people who've already read the book.  Click through to read.

What I loved about A Lady Awakened is how perfectly Martha's and Theo's character arcs intersect.  Early on, Martha disparages Theo and his conviction that sex should be about fun and pleasure.  She imagines a perfect conjugal evening, with an appropriately perfect husband - a churchman:

And as to marital obligations, likely a churchman would exercise his rights with a becoming modesty. Without so much fuss and fanfare as other men found necessary.  Afterward, he and his wife would lie side by side and talk.  He might try out bits of the sermon he was making that week, and ask her opinion.  She might tell him what she'd observed in visiting the cottagers that day.  Together they would confer, and hatch plans for bettering the lives of everyone in the parish....

[He] might come to his wife's bed some nights with no other purpose than to talk.  To know what were her ideas and judgments, and to share his own with her....

A Lady Awakened, 59

It's not that Martha doesn't think she could ever enjoy sex, it's that she believes sex should be secondary - maybe tertiary or, who knows, even lower on the list - in a relationship.  She sees pleasure as conditional upon respect, rapport, a meeting of minds and hearts.

And because Theo is such an agreeable sort of fellow, because Theo's primary goal is to be the perfect lover to whoever he's currently sleeping with, he slowly but surely shapes himself to fit Martha's dream.  He comes to admire Martha as a person, to consult her about his plans, and he obligingly makes the sex as brief and as bland as possible.

Just in time for Martha to realize that she was wrong.  She gets exactly what she asked for, only to realize that she doesn't want it anymore.  She's changed - but it's more than that. Her vision of perfection was flawed, the reality unsatisfying.  To me, that's the novel's real black moment - the moment of greatest intensity and despair - though the scene itself is companionable and pleasant, on the surface.

In some ways, the changes in Theo's character are more interesting than the changes in Martha's.  I felt Martha, how sharp her emotions were, how guarded she was, how much she needed to change and how reluctant she was to actually do so.  I rooted for her, especially when her behavior was prickly or cold.

Theo's journey felt more like a commentary on the romance genre, maybe even rebuke.  Because he starts out with the kind of attitude most heroes have at the end of their character arc.  He aims to please.  He tries hard to be the man his woman wants, in bed and out.  He's a nice guy, a good guy.  But Grant shows us, through a lens that only a woman like Martha can provide, that Theo has a serious flaw.

He overvalues his desirability.  He overvalues his sexual prowess.  He's entirely too content with himself - as a lot of cocky Romancelandia heroes are - until he meets Martha, who rips him to shreds.  Martha is not impressed, and Theo is forced to rebuild his ego almost from scratch.

There's one quote in particular from Theo towards the end that made me realize how far he had come, and how important it was that he change - that it wasn't enough, not by half, to make Martha loosen up and enjoy sex: "No lust, it developed, was so gratifying to a man as the lust that blossomed only after esteem had taken root. He might have gone his whole life without finding this out, if he'd never been exiled to Sussex." (A Lady Awakened, 276)

I'll admit that I found the ending unsatisfying.  Martha makes this spur-of-the-moment, out-of-character decision to hire Theo as a lover and that's necessary to make the novel happen, so I was happy to suspend disbelief and read on.  Her bargain with Theo played out beautifully, full of subtlety and nuance.  Both characters go on this tremendous emotional journey, though the action itself is quiet and subdued.

But all along there's the threat of this villainous brother-in-law and, to Grant's credit, there's no neat and easy solution.  When he finally shows up Martha finds out that he has two young sons, and Martha's fraudulent pregnancy is wronging them, too.

This is a pretty intense moral dilemma and Grant just doesn't have time to do it justice.   The big intervention and comic hijinks everyone gets up to - teaching the housemaids self-defense moves, for example - felt so thin and inadequate, especially in comparison to everything that had come before.  In the final pages, I couldn't rejoice at the knowledge that the villain is sent away to prey on women in some other part of the country, where the neighbors aren't so vigilant; that just seems like passing the buck to me, nothing to be proud of.

Anyhow, this is a minor quibble and I can't wait to read the next book in the series, A Gentleman Undone.  A Lady Awakened is magnificent, a new favorite and highly, highly recommended.

Ravishing in Red by Madeline Hunter

All romances end with a happily ever after.  That's a given.  A lot of romance authors try to spook readers into fearing that the promised HEA will never arrive, and I've always half-wondered if that's a mistake. I just finished reading Madeline Hunter's Ravishing in Red.  I thought it was magnificent, but at no point in time did I ever fear that the hero and heroine weren't going to make it.  Of course they would!  They were perfect for one another.  They treated one another with respect and affection, got along well, grew closer by slow degrees.

The thing is, as romance readers, we're really promised two things whenever we pick up a romance.  First, the Happily Ever After.  Second?  Lots of pain along the way.

Hunter delivers on that second promise.  Not by threatening the inevitable conclusion but, rather, by presenting us at the outset with a little emotional grenade.  Audrianna's father has been blamed for signing off on bad gunpowder, a mistake -- or, worse, conspiracy -- that left many young men dead.  Sebastian's brother is a maimed war hero.  Sebastian and Audrianna may be perfect for one another, but Sebastian seeks justice for his crippled brother while Audrianna seeks to clear her dead father's name.  They cannot both have what they want; the truth will hurt one of them.

She kept me guessing about the gunpowder all the way up until the end of the novel...which is to say, she kept me guessing about who would be caught holding the emotional grenade when it finally blew.

To me, that's a much more frightening conflict than the threat of a breakup.  Ravishing In Red is a romance novel so I know that Sebastian and Audrianna will be fine at the end.  I don't know how much Madeline Hunter is willing to bash at my heart along the way.  I don't know which of her characters she'll hurt, only that the gunpowder issue will resolve badly for someone.

In writing workshops, I'm generally advised to make readers fear for the relationship.  I'm told those are the highest stakes.  And perhaps only the masters can get away with taking a different route.  But by the time I turned the last page, I was very content as a  reader and full of admiration as a writer.