2009 was full of good (finished the first draft of my romance novel!) and bad (got rejected for grad studies...), but mostly it involved me discovering and commenting on other blogs and becoming absorbed into the social world of blogging and reading that I hadn't discovered before. I started writing a few more commentaries (basically on how Not To Lose Your Shit as an Author and a Critic, and the argument of Sex in Romance), which people started commenting on in turn.
I made blogger friends (Katiebabs, the Booksmugglers, KristieJ, Barbara, Lusty Reader, KatiD, Leslie, Raych, Carolyn Crane, Kmont, Jessica, Trelaina) and I even made author friends (Leanna Renee Hieber, Julie James). I joined Twitter this year and it's only made communicating easier with other bloggers and authors (including Laura Kinsale and Courtney Milan!).
I even Guest Dare'd for the Booksmugglers, discovering Linnea Sinclair in the bargain!
I started taking more part in the social side of reading that I didn't before - this was the year I actually participated in Book Blogger Appreciation Week, and ended up being nominated and eventually shortlisted for Best Romance Blog (the award which eventually went to the fantastic Book Binge). Yeah, I didn't win, and there have been a lot of complaints about the event, but I discovered so many more blogs thanks to BBAW (such as Rip My Bodice and Books I Done Read) that I never would have discovered otherwise.
Also - this year I discovered RWA Nationals, and wow, was it a once-in-a-lifetime-experience! I met all sorts of people (reader, blogger, and author) and probably carried away far more free books than were good for me.
As well, I ended up reading a whole lot more than last year. In 2008, I wrote 37 reviews. In 2009, I ended up reading and reviewing 63. Almost double the amount! As for my Best of and Worst lists - there aren't going to be any special or consistent numbers this time around. Instead I'm going to stick to the good ol' letter grade. I didn't think it'd be fair to, say, have a top 10 list that involves most of the A+ and A graded books but leaves some out - and, for the same reason, I'm not going to add books that just got Cs and C+'s to the Worst List to pad out the number.
Let's start with the Good, first:
11. The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, by Jennifer Ashley. A.
This book really has a lot going for it - great storytelling, fascinating characters, and no clear villain still alive to point the finger at. My favourite aspect of this novel is that even though Lord Ian, who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, tells Beth that he's incapable of loving her, it's clear from the start that he can and does - the beauty of his characterization and development come from how he slowly realizes that he's been experiencing love all along, but was just incapable of identifying it in himself without help from others.
10. Not Quite a Husband, by Sherry Thomas. A.
Now this was a Second Chance Challenge that did work. Bryony, honestly, is one of my favourite heroines of all time - and writing the blog entry describing just what it was about her that got me to empathize with her brought me to tears because I've experienced a lot of what she went through. I understood her isolation and her insecurities, the comfort she took in her separation from the real world. I understood how she reacted to Leo's flaws, while at the same time I empathized with Leo and felt sorrow for both. Mostly, I loved reading about her painful joy while experiencing a second chance at love - thanks to Leo's intense grovelling.
9. Devil's Cub, by Georgette Heyer. A.
By now I've read three of Heyer's novels, and so far this is the only one that's really impressed me. We have a dashing but spoiled and hot-headed hero, and a downtrodden plain jane heroine. Combine the two, add a stray bullet and a skanky ho sister, and you have a deliciously frothy road romance where our hero learns that actions have consequences, women holding guns shouldn't be taunted, and that he really must check to make sure the woman he's abducting is an actual slut and not just a Ho for Show.
Similarly, our reasonable Heroine discovers that Bad Boys are Hawt, Good Boys are boring, and that one really must check to make sure the mysteriously wise old man she divulges all her secrets to is just a mysteriously wise old man and not her love interest's dad.
8. Fast Women, by Jennifer Crusie. A.
Like all the best Crusie novels, Fast Women combines light and dark, humour and tragedy. While tagging along with the heroine's long journey to recover her mojo and self-esteem after a crushing divorce, the reader also taps into murder, conspiracies, and the very real marital woes of other main characters that demonstrate that marriage isn't all Happily Ever After - it takes work, and the strength of this novel comes from reading how the heroine and hero work (and work and work) to make sure their romance lasts. Along with a smart mystery and crackling dialogue, we also have well-rounded characters on both sides of the gender line - there are no demonized exes, and no obvious villains (relationship-wise - of course the murderer is a villain!).
7. Just the Sexiest Man Alive, by Julie James. A.
Truly a marvellous debut - complete with a goofy but sexy celebrity hero who discovers his World's Sexiest Smile isn't valid currency with the heroine, a strong heroine who doesn't allow her personal relationship problems to affect her mad courtroom skillz, and a storyline that doesn't compromise our protagonists' professions and career ambitions.
For anyone who's ever hated those romantic comedies that end with the heroine or hero giving up a big promotion or quitting their jobs to get with their Soul Mate - read this book. Yes, romantic heroes and heroines, you are allowed to have a job that's important to you and still struggle with relationships!
6. Almost Heaven, by Judith McNaught.
Okay, so I'm not exactly a fan of all her books, but McNaught's Almost Heaven is a sweet and satisfying tale of learning to trust after being betrayed. While our protagonists both learn they were tricked long ago by a vindictive third party, re-exploring their love isn't a simple matter of flicking a switch on and off. In one of the smartest uses of the Big Misunderstanding plot, McNaught shows how each protagonist re-enters their relationship holding something back, afraid that the happiness they've discovered might just turn out to be another trick, and how their love can't truly flourish until they're willing to give up everything. Well-written and empathetic (with a take-no-shit heroine), Almost Heaven is a literary treat.
5. The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. A+.
Okay, there's been some controversy on the Interwebs as to whether this is a romance or not, because of the ending. Well, I for one will come out on the side that this is a romance. Unabashedly. We have a hero who bounces back and forth through time but mainly towards events that matter a lot to him - and more than any other time and place, he winds up running into his wife/soul mate - over and over, through different periods of his and her life. Despite the less-than-happy events of the end, the hero and heroine are forever changed for the better by the miracle that allowed them to find each other, and if that isn't a romance - or at least romantic - than I don't know what is.
4. For My Lady's Heart, by Laura Kinsale. A+
Ah yes, the book that set off my perpetual fandom of Laura Kinsale. A complex and well-characterized medieval where our Princess is more accustomed to rescuing herself from her tower than depending on anyone else, and a knight who clings to his (doomed) vow of chastity like the last broken spar of a sinking ship. For those readers who love seeing complete opposites (calculating aristocrat, honest warrior) thrown together to mingle, react, and change, I heartily suggest For My Lady's Heart.
3. His Every Kiss, by Laura Lee Gurhke. A+.
Shame, shame on me for abandoning Laura Lee Gurhke after the so-so Wicked Ways of a Duke, because I almost missed this stunner: a composer tormented by a constant ringing sound in his head thanks to a concussion hears music for the first time in years while he's around a starving violinist, and he'll do anything - anything - to keep her close enough to help him finish his long-awaited symphony. It's difficult to get more tormented than this hero, who's barely been able to think over the constant whining sound in his head, and now he has to deal not only with the possible love of his life, but a secret baby, too!
2. Natural Born Charmer, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. A+.
Again, another book that came out of the blue after reading a so-so novel first. I liked Match Me If You Can, but it was nothing special, so reading Natural Born Charmer was a pleasant kick to the face (uh...). What could have been the time-honoured Tortured Hero with Horrible Childhood plot turns into a story about how the hero's Neglectful Parents have changed their lives for the better, and how our stubbornly cute heroine pulls the hero's self-pitying head out of his own ass so that he can discover this amazing fact for himself.
And, ANIMEJUNE'S NUMBER ONE READ OF 2009 IS:
Our hero, S.T. Maitland, is a formerly-dashing folk legend turned bumbling fool thanks to a shot-to-hell inner ear that screwed up his sense of balance - but even the fact that he can barely walk in a straight line won't stop him from coming to the rescue of a beautiful damsel, no matter how many times he trips over himself trying. His romantic view of the world helps thaw the grieving heroine and re-introduce her to the joys of living. Can it get any better? I think not.
As with the good, however, there must come the bad. The really, really bad. Thankfully, I didn't find so much bad this year to round out a full Top Ten list - so you'll simply have to be satisfied with the six novels I read that couldn't keep themselves above a C- grade.
6. Scandalous By Night, by Barbara Pierce. C-.
I see-sawed several times in my expectations/reactions to this novel. As readers know, I was squicked out by the first chapter excerpt, but upon reading the next couple of chapters, I was quite intrigued! It looked like we had a developed, three-dimensional villain; it looked like we had complicated family drama that couldn't be solved in an easy, unmask-the-traitor manner; it looked like our heroine was realistically torn in her loyalties between the villain and the hero.
Looks can be deceiving - beneath the veneer of originality is a story by turns predictable and creepy. Turns out our developed villain really is just a cartoonishly sex-addicted evil poisoning MILF, the heroine is a doormat, the hero is forceful, exploitative and cruel, and the novel ends without solving the hero's family problems! (NOTE: as it turns out, I met Barbara Pierce at RWA 2009 and asked her about the abbreviated ending - turns out she'd planned to extend the story into part of the next book, but the publisher cancelled her series so she had to cram what endings she could into this book. As sad as it is, I still have to review the finished product and the ending was crap - not really the author's fault crap, but still crap).
5. Untouched, by Anna Campbell. C-.
Ugh. Many people love this book, or so I'm told. It has an interesting premise, to be sure - a young lord is declared mad and then imprisoned by his evil uncle who wants to control his fortune, and the heroine is kidnapped and taken to the hero to sate his sexual needs.
Unfortunately, we have to deal with a whinging doormat weakling heroine who blames herself for everything that goes wrong in the world, including but not limited to the hero's inability to give her an orgasm on the first try. Add to that innumerable and completely ridiculous, unnecessary and page-wasting sex scenes (including a sequence of three consecutive back-to-back scenes of frantic humping that made me want to throw this book under a lawn mower), overwraught purple prose, and an inconsistent and poorly-developed plot.
4. Half Past Dead, by Zoe Archer and Bianca D'Arc. D.
I wanted to like this book, since Zoe Archer was kind enough to offer a free ARC and she's great fun on Twitter, but the fantasy-nerd in me couldn't get over the inconsistent and contradictory world building of her story, "The Undying Heart." The zombie hero can still get it up even though the story establishes he has no blood circulation, and the incompetent Mary Sue heroine's hired by a secret organization to track evil wizards despite a) having no magic training, b) having no weapons training, c) her crusading experience consists of handing out pamphlets.
And the overall-good-storytelling-and-basic-writing-ability-nerd in me wants to chop off the head of Bianca D'Arc's shuffling, brainless entry "Simon Says," about a guy with angst. I guess. And zombies. And the heroine he ruined for all other men because he's just that awesome. I think. And I think they hunt zombies. Listless, cliched writing and absolutely blank characters.
3. The Last Heiress, by Bertrice Small. D-.
Where do I start with this book? How about the flat, childish heroine propelled by a single motivation that is repeated over and over (we GET IT, you want to herd SHEEP)? How about the cowardly manbaby hero who'll get with the heroine but won't marry her because he's much too scared to ask his Daddy for permission? How about the redundant and ultimately pointless scenes of Tudor court life that allow the author to cram in every last scrap of historical research she did, despite the fact that they have no bearing whatsoever on the story? Or how about the groan-inducing sexual euphemisms like "love lance," "love juice," and "love passage" during intimate scenes? Pick one! Pick them all! Just don't make me think about this stupid book any longer than I have to!
2. Wild Blue Under, by Judi Fennell. D-.
This was a silly, silly book. However, the silliness like the fish puns and the cartoonish worldbuilding and the murderous albatrosses in this book are not what made this novel stink like week-old tuna left in the sun. In a discussion I had with a reader who liked the novel, she told me I obviously too this book too seriously.
If "taking a novel too seriously" means expecting cause-and-effect in plotting, or expecting plot threads integral to the novel to be wrapped up, or feeling entitled to characters who behave like realistic human beings, or expecting random deus ex machina solutions to problems to be explained and not just packed away under the ludicrous "the gods decided it but don't want to tell you why" excuse, then I can't really imagine how not to take a book seriously. The central mystery of the novel is solved in a heartbeat by Zeus without ANY REASON GIVEN, the reason the heroine needed to be dragged to the ocean turns out to be false but we're never told the real reason she needed to grow a mertail despite the fact that IT'S THE MAIN MOTIVATION BEHIND THE ROMANCE PLOT, the hero's reversion to his merman form doesn't work the way it's supposed to the first time but that's never explained (although the "gods promise it won't happen again"). I can tolerate feathered spies. I can handle a jokey parody setting - but even jokey parody settings need to be consistent and established for a novel-length (series length!) story.
But even a dimbulb heroine who believes she's fatally allergic to 75% of the Earth's surface doesn't make this the worst of the worst. Oh no. Not nearly.
FOR YOUR READING PLEASURE, ANIMEJUNE'S ABSOLUTELY WORST READ OF 2009 IS:
Our heroine, whose hobbies include taking photos of adowable puppies, worshipping her perfectly-perfect daddy, harbouring an unwarranted prejudice against lawyers, and curling herself into a fetal ball and sobbing herself to sleep at the first mention of trouble, learns that her now-deceased mother was a bank robber, and that to keep her unexpected inheritance she needs to get Mean Ol' Mummy's accomplices to pay up. Needless to say, she finds a cute fella who reminds her of her perfect Daddy - and wouldn't you know, she reminds him of his perfect Mummy! Thankfully, when they marry, she won't have to give up her precious, all-knowing Daddy - Daddy actually says (I'm not making this up), that he's not giving her away - he and her hubby will just "share her."
Don't worry about the vomit, readers - the heroine's 1, 000 000 Yorkshire terriers will make short work of it!
So that's it for 2009, folks! Here's hoping to some fun reads in 2010. And now, to round out my post - the Best of the Rest of Gossamer Obsessions 2009:
Loretta Chase, Lord of Scoundrels – A-
Mary Balogh, Slightly Wicked – A-
Guest Dare for Book Smugglers – Linnea Sinclair, Games of Command – A-
Julie Anne Long, The Perils of Pleasure – A-
Jo Goodman, If His Kiss Is Wicked – A-
Gaelen Foley, The Duke – A-
Mary Balogh, and co., It Happened One Night – combined grade B+
Eloisa James, Duchess in Love – B+
Julia London, The Hazards of Hunting a Duke – B+
Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Match Me If You Can – B+
Suzanne Enoch, After the Kiss – B+
Mary Balogh, Slightly Scandalous – B+
Julie James, Practice Makes Perfect – B+
Leanna Renee Hieber, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker – B+
Mary Balogh, Slightly Tempted - B+
Meljean Brook, Demon Angel - B+
Tessa Dare, Goddess of the Hunt - B+
Julia Quinn, When He Was Wicked – B+
Courtney Milan and co., The Heart of Christmas - B+
Eloisa James, An Affair Before Christmas - B+
Julia Quinn, Romancing Mr Bridgerton – B
Judith James, Broken Wing – B
Teresa Medeiros, Yours Until Dawn – B
Jane Austen, Emma – B
Eloisa James, Your Wicked Ways - B
Kate Noble, Compromised - B
Jane Feather and co., Snowy Night with a Stranger - B
Connie Brockway, So Enchanting - B
Amanda Quick, Second Sight – B-
Julia Quinn, To Sir Phillip, With Love – B-
Sabrina Jeffries, One Night With a Prince – B-
Liz Carlyle, Three Little Secrets - B-
Judith McNaught, Something Wonderful - B-
Eloisa James, Desperate Duchesses, averaged grade B-
Georgette Heyer, These Old Shades - B-
Nina Bangs and co., This Year’s Christmas Present - B-
Elizabeth Boyle, Love Letters from a Duke C+
Nora Roberts, Blue Dahlia - C+
Nalini Singh, Caressed by Ice - C+
Charlaine Harris, Dead Until Dark – C
Nalini Singh, Slave to Sensation – C
Sophia Nash, The Kiss – C
Jo Beverley, Hazard – C
C.L. Wilson, Lord of the Fading Lands – C
Adrienne Basso, The Christmas Countess - C