Interestingly, my absolute favorites of the year were books I listened to rather than read. In every case, I’d say they were excellent books to begin with and a strong narration enhanced my enjoyment, but I think it’s just chance that my top “reads” were audio. Links to my reviews, if I wrote one.
Overall Best, Most Memorable, Most Engrossing Book:
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson, read by Robin Miles. Yep, non-fiction. Wilkerson weaves the stories of three people through her history of the 20th-century migration of many African Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North and West: Robert Foster, George Starling, and Ida Mae Gladney. Wilkerson’s respect and affection for her subjects, and their trust in her, is evident in her intimate record of their lives. I’ll remember these people for a long time. There are stories of racism and tragedy here, yes, but also stories of success and joy. The book moved me to tears more than once.
It also made me think about my own childhood in a city which was transformed by the migration, and the people I knew growing up who, I now realize, must have been descended from Southern migrants (or were migrants themselves). I gave this book to my parents for Christmas, and I’m looking forward to doing a little oral history of my own–discussing the Chicago of my childhood with them.
Except I Forgot I Also Listened to These in 2013:
The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold (narrated, respectively, by Lloyd James and Kate Reading). Politics, religion, unlikely (middle-aged!) heroes. So much to love and think about in these books. If I had to pick one over the other, I’d probably go with Paladin, because of Ista, a woman who thinks her life is essentially over (and a failure) but who gets another act.
Graffiti Moon, by Cat Crowley. A novel where voice is at the center, brought to life by a trio of narrators (Ben Maclaine, Hamish R. Johnson, and Chelsea Bruland). Self-discovery, artistic expression, and a nice romance.
Favorite Romances (Historical):
A Woman Entangled, by Cecilia Grant. I read this on summer vacation so never wrote the review it deserved. It’s “quieter” than Grant’s previous work, but in my opinion the best paced and plotted; it still plays with genre conventions, though in a less showy way. I like that Grant has done something different with each book, the tone and style changing to suit the story, but is still developing a strong, recognizable voice. I hope she has a long career.
The Sword Dancer, by Jeannie Lin. An unusual setting (Tang Dynasty China), plenty of well-written action/adventure, and a moving, understated romance. Like my favorite Regencies, Lin’s novel takes the constraints of the society in which it is set seriously. I added a lot of Jeannie Lin to my TBR after reading this one.
Favorite Discovery: Alyssa Everett. I haven’t outright loved one of her books yet, but I do really like her voice. Everett was published by Dorchester, and now that she’s been picked up by Carina, I’m hoping to watch her get even better.
Favorite Romances (Contemporary):
The Other Side of Us, by Sarah Mayberry. A category romance from a master, featuring grown-ups. Two walled-off people figure out how to open themselves up to each other. Pretty much my favorite thing in romance. The only 2013 contemporary on my list, mostly because I read very few–there are plenty in my TBR.
Again, by Kathleen Gilles Seidel. A workplace romance where the work matters, and characters who (mostly) act as smart as we’re told they are. This book was an absolute joy.
A Personal Matter, by Karyn Langhorne. I just finished reading this, and I’m not sure it will end up seeming like a 5-star book to me, but it’s up there. I’ll write more about it soon. Laura Vivanco recommended this to me in a discussion of romances with POC characters/authors (this is an inter-racial romance with a white hero and black heroine). She said it’s her favorite contemporary, but some people complain that it’s boring, and I was sold. As my list shows, “quieter” books have really been working for me.
Like Again, this is a workplace romance with two smart characters; they are prickly and kind of emotionally closed off, for good reasons. Love doesn’t solve Alayna and Ben’s problems or save them. It’s not even really the catalyst for change. It just happens alongside all the other shit in their lives, and they decide they need to make space for it. Part of what made this so interesting for me is that it shared some plot points with a couple of much-praised 2013 books that I had mixed feelings about (I’m trying not to be spoilery, though I guessed what was going on with the hero really early on). This book, published in 2004, is longer, slower-paced, and with much less emphasis on lust and sex. And for me, it dealt much more successfully with some serious themes than fast-moving, sexy books aimed primarily at an emotional gut-punch reading experience. I think it will hold up for me on a re-read because it appealed to my head as much as my heart, and for me, more restrained emotion is often more moving.
Trends In My Reading:
I read less romance in 2013, and less of it was new; my love for Again and A Personal Matter shows why. A lot of the current trends in romance don’t appeal to me and I’ve been feeling a bit disenchanted with the genre.
What did I read instead? A lot more mystery, my first genre love, but I didn’t give a single one of those 5 stars. That might be because I’ve been reading mystery so much longer that it takes more to impress me, or because I don’t belong to an online community discussing the genre in depth, or just because nothing really blew me away. Thanks to recommendations from various online friends, I especially enjoyed classic writers like Dick Francis and Helen MacInnes and mysteries with gay protagonists by Joseph Hansen and Michael Nava.
I’ve been reading more literary fiction, too, but I didn’t find a novel that I both admired and loved, which is what makes a book a standout for me. I think the best literary novel I read last year was Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (here’s a great post by Rohan), but I found much of it a slog (which might be the point, really). I’m hoping for more success with my literary fiction next year.
In 2014, I want to keep reading more literary fiction and non-fiction, both of which enriched my reading life this year. And I want to fall in love with romance again–but that might require being a really picky reader.