Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: The Year In Review

Well, 2011 was an interesting year for me, both reading- and life-wise. The biggest change, of course, is that I finally moved out into my first apartment, and that affected my reading habits in a number of ways. Firstly - moving took a lot of time and planning, and left little time for reading. Secondly, carrying more than 300 books from my parents' house to my tiny apartment really put my reading and book-buying habits in perspective. Thirdly, I discovered Tumblr, which is the timesuck to end all timesucks.

Lastly, and this is the kicker - the apartment I ended up moving into is only twelve blocks away from where I work, so I've now been walking to and from work every day. It's nice. It's relaxing. And I save money because I only really take the bus to go to specific places like the mall or my parents' house for Sunday dinner.

But let me put this into perspective - I was raised in a suburb. I've more or less been taking public transportation to and from school/work/social life since I was seven years old. Waiting for the bus, taking the bus, transferring - that has essentially given me two times a day, every day, for the majority of my self-aware life that I can lose myself in a good book. That's not to say I don't read at other times, not at all - but suddenly not having those two times put a significant dent in my reading pace, and suddenly I had to find a time to read more. The result is that my reading slowed down considerably this past year, and I've only started bringing it back up to scratch recently.

....but I also got an XBox 360 for Christmas so who really knows at this point?

Anyhoo, all told, I only managed to review 38 novels, slightly less than half the number of books I read last year (79).

In writing news, I scrapped my fantasy romance The Duke of Snow and Apples, and have been rewriting it as a YA, tentatively titled Snow and Apples, and actually won NaNoWriMo for the first time because of it! A lot of people asked about the change, and really there are a lot of reasons, but mainly I did it because I actually feel a lot more comfortable reading YA. I have a young mindset, a young voice, and I'm still inexperienced in a lot of ways and I personally realized that by writing romance at this stage in my life, I was bound to wander into territory in which I have no personal experience and would have to rely on derivative writing.

But, despite my lower reading rate, I did manage to read a lot of very brilliant, as well as mind-meltingly terrible books this year. As I have done in Previous Year Round Ups, I'm basing my Best and Worst lists based on letter grade rather than number. My Best List is Comprised of all my A+ reviews, and anything that received a D+ or lower made it onto the Worst List.

ANIMEJUNE'S SIX BEST BOOKS OF 2011:

Your Scandalous Ways,
by Loretta Chase. Romance. A+
It's really, really hard to go wrong with Loretta Chase. One of Chase's best features is her use of unconventional settings in her historical romances. This sumptuous novel takes place in Venice, as a jaded spy tracks down a notorious courtesan who's suspected of hiding letters that could unmask a traitor to England. Take a heroine who is entirely unashamed of her oldest (and highest paying!) profession and pair her with a hero who thought his spirit of adventure had all but died out, and what you get is a richly evocative, unconventional, and exotic romance.

A Lady Awakened, by Cecelia Grant. Romance. A+
And now we move on to the brilliant debut by Cecelia Grant. Her rigidly practical and controlled heroine also turns sex into a business venture, when she pays an irresponsible rake to have sex with her in the hopes of conceiving a false heir to prevent an actual scoundrel from inheriting her husband's estate. Her refusal to enjoy the act, however, forces the good-hearted and determined hero to take drastic romantic measures.

Indiscreet, by Carolyn Jewel. Romance. A+
Jewel also gives us an historical romance with an unconventional setting - when our heartbroken hero meets our ruined heroine in Turkey, only to end up having to rescue her from an evil pasha's harem. Lush detail, vibrant settings, and a meticulously developed hero and heroine make this a novel a true gem.

The Shadow and the Star, by Laura Kinsale. Romance. A+
Of course, my Best-Of List would be meaningless without a Laura Kinsale title on it. It seems that Exotic Settings were my ultimate kink this year - Chase gave me Venice, Jewel gave me Turkey, and here Kinsale gives us Hawaii - where our ninja-trained hero was raised before travelling to Victorian London to unexpectedly fall in love with a penniless seamstress. Yes, he's a ninja. With ninja powers. And secret babies and sharks and demon swords all factor into this story. Kinsale flawlessly combines outwardly weird story elements into a fascinating and entertaining whole.

Flowers from the Storm, by Laura Kinsale. Romance. A+
Yes, Laura Kinsale made my list twice. Surprised? You shouldn't be. Flowers is Kinsale's acknowledged masterpiece - a heartbreaking tale of an arrogant, brilliant mathematician Duke who is brought low by a stroke and deprived of his ability to produce and comprehend speech. He is rescued, in more ways than one, by a Quaker heroine who, while pious, is far from simple. A breathtaking novel.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Cathrynne M. Valente. YA. A+
Valente broke my heart with The Orphan's Tales, and she puts it back together again with this Victorian-influenced children's novel about an enterprising young girl who travels to fairyland and discovers it's not all fluffy, Disney cuteness. Uniquely lovely and horrifying as only the best children's fiction can be - because it's not a real adventure if you don't have the pants scared off you at least once.

Now, much like the Force, there was also a Dark Side to my reading experience this year. I've been quite sparing with my F grades on my blog - and this year, I gave out two. Without further ado, here are:

ANIMEJUNE'S TOP FIVE WORST NOVELS OF 2011

Tumbling Through Time, by Gwen Cready. Romance. D+
This hot mess of a novel messes with time travel, alternate histories, metafiction, Patrick O'Brien novels, Colin Firth, and fashionable shoes and completely fails to bind any of it together with any sort of logic or sense. Our heroine is apparently thinking of writing a novel, then gets transported - thanks to a Gypsy-cursed pair of shoes - back in time to deal with the irate hypothetical character of her hypothetical novel, who is simultaneously an historical figure in the middle of a war that is actually happening, while an unexplained entity possesses the heroine's body in the present and gives it a boob tattoo while simultaneously trying to have sex with a bunch of people. Confused yet?

Lord of Legends, by Susan Krinard. Romance. D
The hero is a unicorn who is transformed into a human man by an evil fairy prince in order to seduce a half-fairy woman into the fairy realm, but what really doesn't make sense about this ponderous, hypocritical and misogynist romance is how the hero manages to be so completely uninteresting while doing it. The author also clearly indicates to us who is the Heroine and who is the Villainess - the villainess is the woman who has a lot of consensual, enjoyable sex with a lot of people, whereas the heroine is the Pure Virgin who looks down on adulterers while having sex with a unicorn man while her husband is MIA. The moral of the story is, If You Have Sex and You're A Woman, You're Evil - Unless the Man Your Cuckholding Your Husband With Is A Unicorn.

Until You, by Judith McNaught. Romance. D
Another book in Judith McNaught's "Brain Injuries Make Romance Easy" series of insultingly twee, misogynist romances. A shapely redhead takes a blow to the head in front of a wealthy Earl who mistakes her for a highborn beauty, and her subsequent mental disabilities (particularly her inability to understand sex, ambition, or social rules) render her incredibly attractive to the hero. Until she actually remembers her own name - then she's tossed out on her ass as a "lying whore" and has to beg the jaded, woman-hating hero to take her back.

The Lady and the Libertine, by Bonnie Vanak. Romance. F
A helpful book for women who've been drugged, kidnapped, and either blackmailed or coerced into having sex with violent stalkers - it just means he's in love with you and it's up to you to change him into a better person! In this lovely novel, the hero steals a sacred jewel from a damaged heroine, threatens to take her to jail unless she has sex with him when she tries to steal it back, and then chloroforms her and ties her naked to a cathouse bed when she refuses to marry him. But it's because he's so tortured!

Whitney My Love, by Judith McNaught. Romance. F-
Yes, McNaught made it twice on my Worst List. Surprised? The ultimate in romance fail - where the heroine is just so stubborn, feisty and unconventional that the hero is simply forced to hit her, sexually assault her, and rape her in order to get her to see reason. And of course, when the hero discovers that his Perfectly Logical Reasons for treating the heroine like garbage are wrong - well, he's just Too Proud and Majestic to be Allowed to Apologize. Wrong and hateful on nearly every level. Whitney, My Love is my Worst Read of 2011. Congrats!

And now, the best of the rest:

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. YA. A-
Pros: Great social examination of media. Cons: So-so sci-fi worldbuilding.

A Dance with Dragons, by George R. R. Martin. Fantasy. A-
Pros: Vastly detailed world and characters. Cons: Slow pacing.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. Fiction. A-
Pros: Lovely characters and English village setting. Cons: Bizarre ending.

Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage, by Jennifer Ashley. Romance. B+
Pros: Well-drawn characters and realistic romantic conflict. Cons: Completely unnecessary suspense subplot.

Lord Carew's Bride, by Mary Balogh. Romance. B+
Pros: A delicious Beta hero and a kickass ending. Cons: Low conflict.

A Summer to Remember, by Mary Balogh. Romance. B+
Pros: Great characters and character development, particularly the heroine. Cons: Slow pacing.

Room, by Emma Donaghue. Fiction. B+
Pros: Terrific premise, excellent use of limited/unreliable POV. Cons: Constant kid-speak can be irritating.

The American Heiress, by Daisy Goodwin. Fiction. B+
Pros: Lovely detail, lots of drama. Cons: Ending abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying.

Here On Earth, by Alice Hoffman. Fiction. B+
Pros: Great secondary characters, creative re-telling of Wuthering Heights. Cons: It's Wuthering Heights.

The House At Riverton, by Kate Morton. Fiction. B+
Pros: Great atmosphere, good upstairs-downstairs drama and historical detail. Cons: Some "surprise" plot points obviously telegraphed.

His At Night, by Sherry Thomas. Romance. B+
Pros: Gorgeous writing, laugh-out-loud comedy. Cons: Fake identity renders romance slightly unbelievable.

Dark Angel, by Mary Balogh. Romance. B
Pros: Interesting hero with a dark past. Cons: Uneven pacing and conflict.

Forbidden, by Jo Beverley. Romance. B
Pros: Virgin beta hero, interesting conflict. Cons: Too much inner whining.

The Summer of You, by Kate Noble. Romance. B
Pros: Excellent atmosphere and characterization. Cons: Flimsy plot.

One Night of Scandal, by Teresa Medeiros. Romance. B
Pros: Heroine is delightful beyond all reason. Cons: Hero is mopey beyond all reason.

Then He Kissed Me, by Christine Ridgway. Romance. B
Pros: Complex secondary romance. Cons: Shallow primary romance.

Bad to the Bone, by Jeri Smith-Ready. Urban Fantasy. B
Pros: Unique vampire worldbuilding. Cons: Doesn't work as a standalone.

I'm Not Her, by Janet Gurtler. YA. B-
Pros: Good emotional development, realistic depictions. Cons: Relentlessly depressing, manipulative plotting.

Something About You, by Julie James. Romance. B-
Pros: Strong heroine, some nice humour. Cons: Romance isn't memorable, mystery plot isn't really a mystery.

Talk of the Town, by Karen Hawkins. Romance. B-
Pros: Interesting story idea. Cons: Cheesy secondary characters and corny small town setting.

Immortal Champion, by Lisa Hendrix. Romance. C+
Pros: Good historical detail, good secondary characters. Cons: Contrived conflict, annoying anachronistic heroine.

The Duff, by Kody Keplinger. YA. C+
Pros: Good interaction between heroine and friends. Cons: Dickwad hero, major family problems glossed over unrealistically.

The Sharing Knife, Volume One: Beguilement, by Lois McMaster Bujold. Fantasy. C+
Pros: Interesting worldbuilding. Cons: Ridiculously low conflict and slack pacing.

To Ruin the Duke, by Debra Mullins. Romance. C+
Pros: Sensible protagonists. Cons: Cray-cray storyline.

Tangled Up In Love, by Heidi Betts. Romance. C
Pros: Some interesting protagonist interactions. Cons: Exaggerated conflict, too many Meddling Matchmakers.

Something Borrowed, by Emily Giffin. Chick Lit. C
Pros: Solid writing. Cons: Bitter, envious, passive heroine is a major drag, and conflict is lessened by the Major Bitchification of the romantic rival.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire. Fiction. C
Pros: Well, it probably sounded like a good idea at the time. Cons: Pretentious, poorly-plotted, nonsensical "symbolic" bullshit.

The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount, by Julia London. Romance. C-
Pros: Uh, the book fits easily into a purse. Cons: Starts conflicts but doesn't finish them, plot is flimsy, character development makes no sense.

5 comments:

  1. I've read 3 of your top 5 and can see why you've rated them so highly. Those are my top two Kinsale books too. Lord of Scoundrels still remains my favourite Chase book, though I did enjoy Your Scandalous Ways. I have A Lady Awakened on my Kobo just waiting it's turn based on the wonderful reviews I've seen on it.
    As to your worst, though it's been YEARS since I read Whitney, it's one I still remember with loathing as well as Until You. I haven't read any of your other worst.

    And I'm glad that the Big Move has been such an excellent game changer - less room for books excepted of course.

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  2. I haven't heard about the Duke of Snow and Apples in a while! I hope it will turn out wonderfully as a YA novel!

    I'm still searching the bookstores for Flowers from the Storm and A Lady Awakened. I loved your reviews!

    Belated Happy New Year!

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  3. annaR8:05 AM

    McNaught is difficult for writers with feminist sensibilities (which includes me), and that is a shame as her stories are engaging and romantic. I used to love ALMOST HEAVEN and PARADISE as among the best romances ever written, but they don't hold up when re-read today because our romantic ideals have evolved past "it's my fault that you hate me so".

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  4. annaR8:06 AM

    PS Sorry, I obviously meant "readers" not writers in the above post.

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  5. I actually have less problems with McNaught because of feminist sensibilities -- which I assure you, I have, but tend to ignore while reading romance -- but because her type of storytelling really doesn't appeal to me. It seems very twee and I really dislike more than one big misunderstand/guy being a jerkwad/forgiveness per book.

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