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Reading Discoveries of 2016

2016 has been a hard year for a lot of people.  For my family it was a year of transitions, and although we’ve come out on the other side of those changes happier and healthier, there were many points in this past year where I’ve depended on books to provide comfort and light into my life when things were particularly hard.  I re-read a lot of old favorites this year or turned to reliable authors who were already known to me when I felt the most emotionally fragile.

However one of my greatest joys as reader is when I discover someone new-to-me and learn they have a backlist full of books for me to enjoy. Instead of doing a traditional best-of list or favorite-books-of-the-year list I thought I would share a list of authors who I discovered this year and whose books brought me joy.  Many of these authors are not debut novelists, some in fact are legends in the genre, but were simply new-to-me. I hope you to find someone to discover.

6a00e54ee394bf883301bb08ce8050970d-320wiN.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season completely rocked my world this year. A sprawling time-hoping science-fiction saga about a woman whose world is literally shaken apart. The story’s focus is on her determination to find and rescue her daughter amid the chaos. Jemisin's world building is masterful and the careful development of all the different relationships and  small choices that led to that cataclysm was completely engrossing. I loved the second book, Obelisk Gate was just as much. I can’t wait for the final book in this trilogy.  Jemisin’s draws a complex world with People of Color at the center of the narrative, and where race, class and gender issues all intersect with incredible skill.  If you only read one book of my list this year, read this one but I should warn you that while there are incredible romantic conflicts in this story, it is not a genre romance, HEAs are not guaranteed in any way.

6a00e54ee394bf883301b8d2065795970c-320wiSantino Hassell and Megan Erickson’s Cyberlove collaboration left me squeeing uncontrollably on twitter for days. Emotional, smart, funny, diverse and and scorching hot, these LGBT romances just made me happy. The main characters are quirky, gruff and flawed and incredibly compelling.  After reading  Strong Signal and Fast Connection, I ran out and bought books off both of their backlists and I continue to be impressed by the quality of their work. Both Hassell and Erickson have sky-rocketed to the top of my must-buy-list.

Mrfine_250 (1)HelenKay Dimon is a romantic suspense legend, but because I generally avoid books with buff Navy SEALs on the covers and if I am honest most romantic suspense, I had never read one of her novels till this year. I tried several, including some of her older M/F rom suspense novels but the series that made me a fan is her new M/M romance series from Loveswept, Tough Love, featuring deadly dangerous men secretly saving the world.  The team dynamics are fantastic and the supporting casts full and entertaining.  The romances were full of competence porn featuring witty bickering couples great at their jobs but terrible at feelings.

51dpBCJ-FoL._SX308_BO1204203200_To my eternal shame I hadn’t read any of  Beverly Jenkins’ historical romances until this year. I knew of her, met her at RWA and read books by her literary daughters but I had not actually read one of her books.  I read Forbidden with the #notabc, (not-a-book-club) twitter reading group. I was awed by the richness of Ms. Jenkins books, and how she seamlessly layers historical and cultural details while crafting beautiful romantic HEAs for black men and women. If like me you find yourself primarily reading a very narrow slice of historical romance (for example: white m/f regency roms) I urge you to read Ms. Jenkins and see what you have been missing and then check out Piper Hugely, Kianna Alexander, Lena Hart & Alyssa Cole for more awesome historical romance.

D1VuYrvJItS._SL250_FMpng_I started out the year reading one of Melissa Blue’s contemporary romances, "Under His Kilt"  and ended it reading her Dakota Gray erotic romance, Perv about man with a fetish for oral sex and the woman determined to teach him a lesson for the callous way he treated her best-friend. Whether she is writing as Melissa Blue or Dakota Gray her books were a ton of fun, very sexy with strong believable conflicts. I’ve already pre-ordered the next book in her Filth series out at the end of January, Hardcore on the strength of Perv.

I can’t fail to talk about the Kindle Unlimted authors, Anna Carven, Ruby Dixon, TS Joyce  & Suzanne Wright that caught my attention this year, since I spent a great part of this year binging on their books. This summer I treated myself to Kindle Unlimited subscription and gave myself permission to declare ARC backlog bankruptcy and read for fun without the pressure to review. It was glorious and just what I needed.

Because of the economics of KU, I was more willing to try books with weird covers, crazier concepts and indulge in a trope-heavy erotic romances that just made me giggle at first and later surprised me with the quality of their worldbuilding. These books are certainly a cut above the average KU book, but I probably wouldn't have read them all had I been buying the books individually and not accessing them via KU. If you have a powerful need for some hot SFR and paranomal romaances and already have a KU subscription check these out:

 

D1CDcs++wZS._SL250_FMpng_Ann Carven’s Dark Planet Warriors series is suspenseful and action packed. A space station is taken-over by seemingly hostile group of super-powerful aliens, but the real threat are the giant cockroach-like creatures they are chasing. Complex imperial politics, interplanetary diplomacy and a clash of 6a00e54ee394bf883301bb091bada8970d-120wicivilizations is the backdrop in these romances.  The stories are far from perfect but I wasn’t bored reading them.  


Ruby Dixon
’s Ice Planet Barbarians with their big blue hunter-gatherer aliens has grown into expansive family drama, as much about community dynamics as it is about people learning how to love across cultural and language barriers and surviving in a brutal environment with few resources.

6a00e54ee394bf883301b7c896be48970b-320wiTS Joyce’s Lumberjack shifters are funny and trope-heavy, but I got attached to  kooky trailer-park inhabiting shifters because of the multi-generational community full of strong friendships Joyce develops.

Suzanne Wright’s books are the most traditional of this quartet, featuring wolf shifters trying to balance B1qu-MZLx7S._SL250_FMpng_ pack politics with forbidden or inconvenient attraction. The Phoenix and Mercury Pack series are solidly entertaining.




A Study in Scarlet Women (Lady Sherlock Mysteries #1) by Sherry Thomas

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Charlotte Holmes, the  youngest Holmes daughter's incisive, logical mind and assertive attitude at first  delight, but  later irk her conventional father. Beautiful, soft and feminine, he wants her to satisfy herself by becoming a triumph in the marriage mart, while she rather be educated, so she might provide for herself without having to accept the many compromises and humiliations she has seen her parents endure in their loveless marriage.  When her father fails to honor his word to her, she takes drastic measures and leaves the family home to see employment and take control of her life.

Sherry Thomas's Lady Sherlock is not infallible, instead keenly observant, decisive, but occasionally naive Most importantly however is her determination to succeed and survive in a world that would very much like to see her fail. Thomas's reinvention of Holmes and Watson was fantastic.  The way the mystery unfolds, with it is twists and turns was incredibly engrossing. I listened to the middle five hours of the audiobook (engagingly ready by Kate Reading) yesterday and after reluctantly going to bed, immediately listened to the last two hours this morning as soon as I woke up because I need to know how things would turn out for Charlotte.

The real triumph of the book was the rich characterizations and fascinating motivations of all the major characters. There was great banter & tension and I loved the complicated multi-layered relationships, and their embedded hard to resolve conflicts. I feel bereft upon finishing the book, so much so that I might listen to it again and I can't wait for the rest of stories in this series. Thomas has created a rich world for Sherlock, established a strong cast of allies and antagonists and many fascinating mysteries to come.

One caution for  romance lovers, while Sherry Thomas is fantastic romance novelist and there is romantic tension in this book is very rich, it is neither the focus of the book nor is the romantic conflict one that will easily resolve itself into a HEA.


A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell #1) by Deanna Raybourn

51NzMcKLDSL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_I love historical fiction, mystery and adventure stories and this book had all of that and a touch of romance. This is the first book in a new mystery series set near the end of the Victorian Era, around the time of the Queen's Jubilee by Deanna Raybourn.  I loved Raybourn's Lady Jane mysteries and this series looks to be even more interesting.

Veronica Speedwell, a naturalist, who specializes in hunting rare butterflies, has just buried her last remaining relative, her adoptive aunt, in a small rural village. When she returns home to pack up her belongings and set off on her own she is attacked in her cottage by an intruder and rescued by a mysterious old German baron, who insists that her life is in danger and he is here to protect her. She reluctantly agrees to go with him to London (mostly to save herself the train fare) because he claims to have known her mother and might be able to tell her who her father was. He is however killed before he can tell her after leaving her in the care of a trusted associate, a gruff-disgraced former naturalist and adventurer, known as Stoker.

ACB-350Stoker and Veronica reluctantly team-up and they together and go on the run from those pursuing Veronica and work to solve the Baron's murder. The plot is twisty and the dialogue very clever and funny. Veronica and Stoker have great sexual/romantic tension as they forge their tentative partnership and I love the push/pull of their relationship. Neither of them are easy people, and both have lots of emotional baggage to overcome.  I enjoyed the colorful locations (a cluttered warehouse, a traveling carnival, a ramshackle ballroom stuffed with scientific treasure) where Veronica and Stoker take refuge and unusual  supporting characters  very much.  I am looking forward to reading Veronica and Stoker's future adventures.

I listened to this as an audiobook and the performance by the narrator, Angele Masters was fantastic, as she gave each character a distinctive voice without being distracting.


Gambled Away: A Historical Romance Anthology

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I loved this anthology. Rich characterization and intriguing stories about resourcefulness, resilience and redemption that are never repetitive despite sharing a common plot element.

As this anthology includes many of my favorite authors I hope many people take a chance and explore some of their other novels and that they team up again in the future.

All or Nothing by Rose Lerner: This story was surprising, engrossing and emotionally complex. It is a story about lust, longing, trust, hope and how important it is to hold on to truth.  Maggie da Silva's life is outwardly glamorous. She and her best-friend and lover Henny host a small gambling den, where together they charm aristocrats into emptying their pockets for chance to be singled out to gamble on winning Maggie's sexual favors.  Simon Radcliffe-Gould is a struggling architect and terrible gambler who can't resist coming every week because he is infatuated with Maggie. He is titillated and mortified when he wins Maggie. Torn between honorable intentions and desire, he persuades Maggie to pose as his mistress at house-party hosted by Simon's ex-lover, so he can complete a commission without getting sucked back into a relationship with him.  

Lerner is masterful in balancing the emotional tension in this story, as both Maggie and Simon have a lot they need to figure out about themselves, their needs and what they are unwilling to compromise on before they can even consider how to turn their temporary entanglement into something lasting. I don't think I will be done thinking about Simon and Maggie and the truths they hold on to for a very long time. I was particularly moved by Maggie determination to reclaim her Jewish faith. Maggie's feelings about her faith are rich and complex as she seeks away to live authentically despite the challenges of growing up without any access to those who might have taught her the traditions her family was forced to abandon because of religious persecution and forced conversion.

“The Liar’s Dice” by Jeannie Lin

Set during the Tang Dynasty, Lin's novella is part of her fantastic Lotus Palace series and features many familiar characters as secondary characters while still being completely accessible to those who have  not be lucky enough to read the previous books.

Wei-wei, Lady Bai, has always been a dutiful daughter but she has grown restless and seeks to experience a little of bit of the freedom that would have been hers if she had been born a boy. After borrowing her brother's scholar's robes she sneaks into her sister-in-law's tea house to experience for herself what she has only ever read about. On her way back home she runs into Gao a shady acquaintance of her brother  and together they stumble upon murder victim. Worried that the murder might be connected to her brother's recently uncharacteristic behavior and could inadvertently destroy her brother's newfound joy, they team up to solve the murder.

The Liar's Dice was essentially a mystery novella with a touch of romance. Wei-wei tests the limits of her freedom, confronts her brother and gets to know a mysterious but unsuitable man in Gao. The ending of their flirtation is hopeful but far from assured. As a mystery novella it was highly enjoyable, full of fantastic and fascinating detail but as romance it left me somewhat unsatisfied.

“Raising The Stakes” by Isabel Cooper  As Okies stream into 1938 California, desperate as dust storms and drought push them off their land, Sam, a card-shark, wins a magical flute that allows her to summon a otherworldy fae warrior to come to her aid.  After the initial shock wears off, the clever and shrewd, Sam enlists Talathan's aid in conning a greedy revival preacher in order to save her family farm from foreclosure. Sharp, cunning Sam bewilders and tempts Talathan with her forthrightness and hidden vulnerabilities and makes them both long for something more than temporary team-up.

Cooper grounds her fantasy with great period detail and sells the partnerships between the nomadic gambler and fairy warrior through humor and snappy dialogue, but the romance between them still felt tentative by the end.

“Redeemed” by Molly O’Keefe 

Guilt-ridden Dr. James Madison is struggling to figure out how to rebuild his life, camping out in a brothel and turning away his friends. Addiction has wrecked his career and nearly destroyed the life of his assistant, but it is the daily grind of recovery and re-integration into society that is wearing him down. 

When Helen Winters, the caged singing star of the titillating traveling "Northern Spy" act  arrives in to town, James can't decide if he should intervene when it seems that Helen is being drugged and possibly held against her will by her manager and guardian. 

Like the previous stories in O'Keefe's fantastic post-Civil War western series, Into the Wilds, Redeemed explores the complicated legacy of the Civil War on its survivors.  All the characters are richly drawn and the romance was emotional and heart-wrenching.

“Gideon and the Den of Thieves” by Joanna Bourne When Gideon Gage a trader and mercenary infiltrates the lair of London's most powerful crimelord,  Lazarus, he finds unlikely allies in Hawker and Aimee, two of Lazarus's most loyal subjects.

Hawker and Aimee are conspiring to protect the ailing Lazarus from challengers, through a campaign of distraction and misdirection  because they know that Lazarus's perceived strength is all that keeps their little band of street urchins and waifs from utter destruction. Lazarus might be the devil but he is the devil they know and count on.

Bourne's novella is set is near the very beginning of her Spymaster's series chronology.  A very young Hawker, at his most  vicious, sarcastic and feral and Aimee, french refugee who works as Lazarus' s fence, is everything her heroines usually are, independent, resourceful and deeply scarred by her past.  I enjoyed the novella's focus on Aimee and Hawker's friendship and their relationship with Lazarus.

 

The anthology is currently available for free through Kindle Unlimited but it is more than worth its regular $2.99 price tag.  I received advance copy from the authors for review consideration.

 


A Gentleman's Position by K.J. Charles

Charles-k-j-a-gentlemans-position-society-of-gentlemen-3I have been eagerly anticipating this romance since we were first introduced to Lord Richard and his trusted valet David Cyprian. Richard is the linchpin around whom all the Ricardians revolve.  The Ricardians (bisexual, gay or transgender) all look out for one another, protecting each other from those who would happily send them to the gallows for their orientations, preferences and predilections but it is Richard who sets the standards,  provides the listening ear or chastising word if needed and sees that the Ricardians problems are solved.  

David Cyprian however is really the person who makes it all happen.  Officially as valet he makes sure Richard always looks flawless but unofficially he the person that pays the bribes, gathers the illicit information and makes sure Richard has absolutely everything in his life go smoothly. He is the rogue with all the connections, who fixes the problems before Richard even has any inkling of them. He is incredibly proud of how far he has risen in life, but has not risen so far that he doesn't know how to work on the street.  

The one wrinkle in David and Richard's relationship is that while Cyprian is beyond devoted to Richard & Richard trusts him like he trusts no other their mutual attraction has become impossible to ignore. While David is more than willing enter into a liaison with Richard, Richard is resolute to never importune someone in his employ (unlike his father, who used and abuse anybody under his power). Their facade of mutual indifference crumbles completely in the aftermath to a surprise death-bed summons from Richard's estranged mother. 

Once their mutual attraction is no longer something they can ignore, Richard ends up hurting David while trying not to hurt him and as a result he is deprived of David when he and the Ricardians need him most.  Richard must convince David to return and if they all survive, help him figure out how they can be together.

I loved this romance. I usually avoid boss-employee/servant-master romances for all the reasons for all the same reasons Richard wants to avoid one. KJ Charles however has a great handle on the issues of consent, agency, dignity and the nature of partnership that are such a large stumbling block in their relationship.  I loved how hard it was for Richard to unbend, and realize he was wrong. Richard has to eat a lot of humble pie, and comes truly appreciate and recognize all that he has taken for granted in David. David also grows, setting boundaries and demanding Richard truly see him and value him. He is able to demonstrate that his love is not servile even if he is Richard's servant.  

Charles exploits the intimacy of David's role as Richard's valet to explore the anguish of denial and build sexual tension but the biggest loss they feel when they are apart is for each other's companionship. I loved that despite the deep chasm between them, it is the absence of their easy relationship, the effortless conversation, that wrecks them both. 

Like all the endings in the Society of Gentlemen series, I believe in David and Richard's love and felt hopeful for them despite having a great awareness of the many risks they continually face.  Charles also provides a great pulse pounding and satisfying conclusion to the overarching series plot. I highly recommend this whole series.

I received a review copy via NetGalley from the publisher Loveswept.  A Gentleman's Position by KJ Charles will be available starting April 5th.


Frederica by Georgette Heyer #TBRCHALLENGE

Heyer_0002This is my third Heyer and I enjoyed it just as much as the previous two I read. It is so much fun to recognize tropes and romance character archetypes, that I have seen in many later romances.  The Marquis is behaves like many later billionaire care-taking Alphas, discovering his ability to care and love for someone other than himself as he tries to love an independent woman who doesn't fall at his feet or dangle after him.

Frederica Merryville is the story of a managing young woman of small fortune who has declared herself a spinster at twenty-four. Frederica the eldest sibling, has been raising her younger siblings since the death of her mother.  With her father's death she was able to take control of the family finances and engineer a way to bring her siblings to London. She plans to launch her beautiful younger sister Charis into high society in hopes of securing for her a comfortable marriage.  She appeals to a very distant relation, Vernon, the Marquis of Alverstoke, in hopes that he might help them.

The Marquis of Alverstoke circulates at the very top of Tonnish society.  A thirty-seven, Vernon is confirmed bachelor and a flirt, he has no time or attention for people who bore him, including clingy mistresses, and his demanding sisters. He prides himself in his selfishness and cynicism. Curiosity and boredom inspire him to visit Frederica, and Vernon ends up charmed and inspired by the fresh chaos of her household (she has two rambunctious younger siblings and a very large dog) to maliciously trick his sister into sponsoring the Merryville sisters and pose as their guardian.

For most of the novel, Frederica is blind to how the Marquis has slowly been falling in love with her, while his friends and family are struggling to understand why he would act so uncharacteristically, mistakenly believing him to be infatuated with Charis. I loved that he falls in love with Frederica slowly, recognizing her intelligence, and sense of the ridiculous.  His love for Frederica opens him to new relationships and he develops an independent relationship with the two younger boys, Jessemine and Felix, enjoying getting to know them for their own sakes. He is also develops a growing concern for his loyal secretary's future prospects. Frederica

5133AnbAYBL._AA300_I was bored to tears like the Marquis by the romance between Charis and Endymion and I could have skipped this whole subplot except that it is the trigger that wakes Frederica up to the fact that she has been living vicariously through her sister and enabling her worthless brother Harry to shirk his responsibilities. Her anger at and awareness of how misplaced her efforts have been is the push she needs to realize that she is worthy of grabbing at her own happiness.

I am going to declare this is was my March #TBRChallenge book in that is one of the many Heyer novels recommended to me in the last year. 


A Queer Trade by K. J. Charles

K.J. Charles has built a fascinating magical Victorian world through her numerous Charm of Magpies related novels.  I'm not completely caught up on the main Charm of Magpie books, but I couldn't resist jumping ahead to read this one because is features victorian era black hero.  A Queer Trade is the prequel to Rag and Bone which was released last week and I am currently in the middle of reading.

Crispin Tredarloe's master dies while he is away visiting family and returns to discover his master's heir have started emptying the house and have disposed of many magical papers. He is desperately searching for the paper waste man that hauled away his masters' spells before they can harm someone and expose him. This particularly urgent because Crispin Tredarloe isn't simply a magician's apprentice but an illegal warlock. If the blood magic is exposed and traced back to him, his life might be forfeit.

Ned Hall's trade might be unusual trading in paper, recycling people's old letters, and discarded notes into wrapping and packing, but it is honest work, and its freed him destitution after his family cast him out for being gay. His attraction to Crispin is quickly tested by Crispin's casual snobbishness and likely insanity.

I love how Charles's is aware of  and then layers various impediments and conflicts into Ned and Crispin's relationship, race and class differences on one end, and then give them a shared understanding of familial rejection.  I look forward to reading more about these two.


March RT Reviews

Knit Tight by Annabeth Albert I love knitting. I always carry a project with me and knit at every opportunity. I was equal parts wary and excited when I started reading this romance but I loved it. It got the knitting right and I found the romance very lovely and honest, especially as they struggled to make time for each other and to accept love. I will be looking for more of Annabeth Albert's work in the future.

Duty Before Desire by Elizabeth Boyce I was initially really enjoying this story. I am sucker for the rake reformed & fake relationship tropes but I ended up deeply disappointed with it.

All Chained Up by Sophie Jordan This RS-tinged romance lost all momentum in the last few chapters and ended with a deflated whimper.


Backwards to Oregon by Jae


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Luke Hamilton has been living as man since, her mother died when she was 12. Guarded and reserved Luke awkwardly tries to avoid the advances of Fleur, a prostitute former military buddies have paid for as parting gift.

Although warned by the Tess, the brothel's owner and one of the few people privy to Luke's secret that Luke's has special needs that require her discretion, Fleur, whose real name is Nora is puzzled and distressed by Luke's reticence and brusque refusal of her services.  

Both Tess and Nora are truly shocked however when Luke returns to the brothel with a marriage proposal shortly after rescuing Nora's young daughter from a ugly altercation on the streets. Confused, wary but convinced of Luke's good-nature Nora agrees to join Luke on the grueling cross-country journey from Missouri to Oregon in hopes of providing herself and her daughter a more promising future.

Along the way Luke and Nora grow closer but their marriage is tested in several ways by the journey and the secrets they keep from each other.

I believed in this romance and the conflicts and tensions that drive Luke and Nora to make the unconventional but believable choices they have made. Jae carefully developed the characters and built up the tension around their secrets, slowly unwrapping the pasts that shaped them.

The only low-light in the novel for me was one of the encounters the caravan has with a Sioux, where a Lakota man tries to trade a pony and young woman for the red-headed Nora or Amy, much to Luke's frustration.  Up to that point the novel had done a good job staying away from stereotyping Native Americans. That scene felt unnecessary to the story.

 


Viscountess of Vice (Regency Reformers, book 3) by Jenny Holiday

51-mDlewAnL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_To tonish society Lady Catherine, Viscountess of Cranbook is a somewhat scandalous widow whose pleasurable but short liaisons with younger men draw little notice.  When an old associate of her late husband asks her to join his espionage ring, and pose as courtesan in order to help uncover a plot against the British government, the risks are an incentive rather than a deterrent. But her task becomes harder and more complicated when she meets James Burnham. James is doctor and earnest social reformer who engages Lady V out of a very personal desire to understand the reasons women enter prostitution at all levels.  At first she enjoys tempting and needling him but sincerely comes to like and admire him. When Lady V uncovers a scheme involving children that deeply distress her but is of little interest to her home office handlers she turns to James for help, endangering both their lives and reputations.

I really enjoyed getting to know Lady Catherine's backstory and watching her struggle to discover her personal ethics and boundaries.  While her interest in James prompts some of it, it is really her own journey to finding purpose and meaning in her life.  I  found James's journey less compelling and complete, as he lets go of past resentments .  However their romance and the sacrifices they have to make for it was wholly satisfying.  I liked the humor and playfulness to Catherine and James initial interactions. I particularly like how Catherine comes to consider James's feelings without giving up her agency and autonomy.

I very much enjoyed the historical details and the broader scope of Regency life, Holiday portrayed in the Viscountess of Vice. I will be going back and reading the previous Regency Reformers books, to catch up on this different corner of Regency world.

 

I received a review copy of The Viscountess of Vice from the author.