Saturday, 27 January 2018

Best Reads of 2017: Part 1

It's almost the end of January, and - after a long, stressful end to the year on the academic front - I've finally got my ass into gear to publish my Best Reads. In 2016, I set this post up as my 5 best reviewed reads, 5 best un-reviewed reads and 5 best not published in 2016. Given the marked lack of reviewing in 2017 comparative with 2016, I was unable to do the same this time around. Instead, I've just chosen my best 15 books of the year.

As always, narrowing a year's reading to a handful of books is extremely difficult. I chose the featured books not just because they were outstanding, extremely enjoyable books, but also because they stuck in my mind for some reason. This may be originality or uniqueness of concept, outstanding execution and exquisite worldbuilding and/or characterisation. It is almost always a combination of all of the above, sometimes also accompanied by a sense that a book I loved hadn't been given its due when it came out, or in the end of year Round-Ups. 

So, without further ado, I present you with my 15 Best Reads of 2017. (This post was initially just the first half, but then I never got around to doing my second post, so I edited this one and collated them into August).

1. The Future Chosen by Mina V. Esguerra
(m/f NA romance in fictionalised setting)

Technically, I'm cheating on this one: it was published in the last few days of 2016, but I couldn't bear to leave it off. It's the romance between two young political hopefuls in a fictional country where only one person from each 'family' is allowed to enter the public service, meaning that - in order to have a relationship - one of them would have to bow out of political life. When I reviewed it back in February, I called it "suspenseful and sweet and clever and just so good". To that, I would add, 'extremely feminist' and 'a nuanced portrayal of oligarchy and elitism'. 

2. Peter Darling by Austin Chant 
(m/m fantasy romance with trans MC)

This queer Peter Pan retelling was everything I never knew I needed. When he can no longer bear his life as Wendy Darling in the real world, Peter Pan flees back to his childhood refuge of Neverland, only to find that Captain Hook now inspires an entirely different set of feelings. The initially immature Peter and ennui-stricken Hook offset each other perfectly in a unique rendering of the enemies-to-lovers trope. Chant's Neverland is reminiscent of old Grimm fairytales, both in the trials and suffering the characters must face, and in the sense of hope and possibility offered by a world unfettered by mundane laws and boundaries. 

3. Pretty Face by Lucy Parker 
(m/f contemporary romance)

Parker's second foray into the London theatre world was just as thrilling and fulfilling as her first, the much-lauded Act Like It. I'm a sucker for characters snarking at one another to hide their attraction, and Pretty Face has that in spades, along with a heroine fighting against being pigeon-holed as a sexpot, a grumpy theatre director and an age-gap trope. 

4. Tempting Hymn by Jennifer Hallock 
(m/f historical romance)

The poignant and sweet romance between a missionary workman and a fallen Filipina nurse during American colonial rule in the Philippines, Tempting Hymn was another early-year review before I got dragged down into a vortex by university work. The heroine's story - that of being seduced, bearing an illegitimate child and trying to build a better life for herself and her child after being ostracised - is one of eternal relevance, as is Hallock's exploration of the differences between preaching the tenets of a faith, and living them. 

5. An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole 
(m/f historical romance)

I'm not alone in thinking that this was one of the most outstanding contributions of 2017. The story of Elle, a freedwoman who goes undercover as a slave in the South to spy for the Union during the Civil War, has garnered a lot of praise both inside and outside Romancelandia. That's how it should be, because it's an exquisitely crafted story with so much to say about relationships, race, gender, history and society. 

6. Beauty Like The Night by Joanna Bourne 
(m/f historical romance)

With her lyrical writing style, strong sense of historical place and continually strong central romances, it's hard to imagine Bourne releasing a book that isn't an instant favourite. In my opinion, the Spymasters series is unparalleled in its depictions of self-sufficient, strong heroines and the men who respect them, and - after following Sevie since her infancy - it was wonderful to see this youngest member of the Meeks Street family come into her own and meet her match. 

7. Small Change by Roan Parrish 
(m/f contemporary romance with bi MC)

In the last few months, Romancelandia has started talking about the "Cinnamon Roll hero", a term that calls up the caring and soft hero without implying he is anything less for his lack of alpha-ness. The hero of Small Change, Christopher, is - in my opinion - a total CinRo hero. He owns a sandwich shop, through which he meets Ginger, a prickly bisexual Jewish tattoo artist. Ginger and Christopher's two-steps-forward, one-step-back dynamic - in which Christopher shoulders most of the emotional labour as he attempts to sort through Ginger's relationship hang-ups - was unlike any other portrayal I'd ever read. I umm-ed and ahh-ed about including it because its nothing flashy, but in some ways it deserves its place here even more so for just being a quiet, emotional romance that so beautifully undercuts our cultural narratives about unlovable women and emotionally aloof men. 

8. The Truth of Things by Tasha L. Harrison

(m/f contemporary romance)

If I had to sum up The Truth of Things in one word, it would be 'powerful'. The central romance is between a cop struggling with the racism of his department and a photographer who finds herself the target of that racist brutality. To be honest, I can't really find too many more adjectives to describe it, because it was so many things at once. Just go read it. 

9. A Taste of Honey by Rose Lerner
(m/f historical romance)

Lerner's Lively St. Lemenston series is continually outstanding, and this novella in particular was a breath of fresh air. About a hesitant baker hero and his assertive and ambitious assistant, it's dirty, sweet and showcases the historical realities of the British working and artisan classes. 
(m/non-binary historical romance)

Like Lerner, Charles is an auto-buy author for me, and this conclusion to her 'Sins of the Cities' series didn't disappoint. As always, both the mystery plot and the romance are beautifully crafted, and anyone who says that a non-binary main character is too 'modern' or 'ideological' can bog right off. Pen was gorgeous, and Mark so bloody sweet.

(m/f, m/m & f/f historical romances)

Not being American or particularly into musicals (with the exceptions of a few classics that I grew up with), the whole Hamilton thing has mostly passed me by. But that didn't mean that I couldn't enjoy these novellas set around Hamilton and the Revolutionary War. They were all gems, but my favourite was undoubtedly Rose Lerner's story of a cross-dressing female soldier who accidently comes into her husband, who believes her dead.

(m/f historical romance)

Throughout this series, set around a fictionalised version of the Space Race, readers have seen the dire state of astronaut Mitch Dunsford and his wife Maggie's marriage. This poignant novella is their second chance romance, and watching them try to untangle their misunderstandings and communication break-downs and work out where to go from here is both heart-breaking and heartening, if that makes any sense. 

(m/f contemporary romance)

Wrong To Need You was another popular favourite this year, and it's not hard to see why. Angsty forbiddden romance, long-time love...this hit all my buttons. 

14. Dance with Me by Alexis Daria
(m/f contemporary romance)

Alexis Daria's 2017 debut Take the Lead and the follow-up, Dance With Me, were strong contenders for the Best of list. In the end, I went with Dance With Me because I am a total sucker for Russian-speaking heroes and prickly heroines, not to mention women who are going to do this damn thing all by themselves, thank you very much. 

(m/f/m erotica)

The Boys Next Door is probably my favourite erotica of all time. Eminently relatable characters, a solid plot, plus an off-the-scales heat rating. 

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