14 for 14: My Best Books of the Year


2014 digital numbers

I do three different “best of the year” lists in different contexts. This is my personal list, but…I also do a Best Ebook Romances of the year for Library Journal, and I’m one of the judges for the SFR Galaxy Awards, which is effectively a best SFR of the year list.

So there are repeats. After all, if it was one of the best in one context, there’s an awfully good chance it will be one of the best in another if applicable. Even so, when I looked at my A+, A and A- reviews for the year, I had too many choices.

That being said, I have wondered whether I could (or should) keep going with the theme of “besting” the same number of books as the year. So far, it is working all too well.

bollywood affair by sonali devIn the romance category, I have three that stood out from the other terrific books I read this year. A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev was an absolute standout. (It’s also on my LJ list). Dev’s book is a slow burning romance and an introduction or exploration into Indian-American and Indian culture. Her heroine is a good girl with a little bit of defiance, and her hero is a bad boy who discovers how much fun it can be to be good.

Jeffe Kennedy’s Mark of the Tala is a great fantasy romance and the first book in her Twelve Kingdoms series. In this one, what I loved was the number of different ways that the road to hell gets paved. Her hero and heroine want to do the right thing for both their peoples, and are lucky enough to fall in love in the process. But this is a story about the fight for the soul of two kingdoms, and a lot of men do evil in the name of either good or power. This one goes surprisingly well, if sadly, with Maleficent.

Robin York, better known as Ruthie Knox, told one of the best New Adult stories I have read so far in the genre in Deeper and Harder, the story of Caroline and West. These are real people facing real problems, including a “wrong side of the tracks” type of love story. They overcome a lot of obstacles, with a lot of love, but also quite a bit of heart-rending pain.

No Place to Hide by Glenn GreenwaldI read a bit more nonfiction than usual this year, and two titles have stuck in my head long after I finished. Partially for the topics they cover, and also significantly for the marvelous writing style. No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald reads like a spy thriller, but it is a cautionary tale about the case of Edward Snowden, the NSA papers he released, and the subsequent persecution of the reporter who covered the story. It will make you look at everything you read that purports to be true with a much more critical eye.

Forcing the Spring by Jo Becker reads like a legal thriller, but it tells the story of the fight for marriage equality using the lens of the case against Prop 8 in California. Becker was embedded with the legal team during the five years that this case wound its way to the Supreme Court, and her “you are there” style of reporting will keep you on the edge of your seat.

ryder by nick pengelleyTwo books don’t fit into categories at all well. Ryder by Nick Pengelley is action/adventure, with a heroine who is a combination of Indiana Jones, Lara Croft and Robert Langdon from The DaVinci Code. Ayesha Ryder kicks ass, takes names and discovers secrets that weren’t meant to be revealed in a delightful thriller.

The Bees by Laline Paull feels like a bit of an allegory – it is social commentary about human behavior disguised as bee behavior. But it is also a story about listening to your own inner voice and absolutely NOT blooming where you are planted. You will find yourself rooting for the bee, and laughing at some of her observations that hit close to home about both bees and us.

The urban fantasy series Mindspace Investigations by Alex Hughes continues to wrap me in its web. This year’s entries in the series are Marked and Vacant, and the one word titles represent something in the life of the series protagonist, Adam Ward. Adam is a recovering drug addict, a police consultant, and a telepath. He’s also in love with his equally damaged but otherwise normal police partner. The layers created in this post-apocalyptic but still mostly functioning version of suburban Atlanta are fascinating. It is just close enough to now to recognize what is still going right, and what went wrong.

queen of the tearling by erika johansenIn epic fantasy, my favorite this year was The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. This is in the classic mold of the hero who is raised in obscurity to become the ruler, but the hero is a heroine. This one has the feeling of the King Arthur story, but with a Queen instead. So Queen Kelsea is a fish very much out of water who has to learn fast to save her kingdom. Unlike so many retellings of the Arthur story, Kelsea operates in shades of grey; good choices can have every bit as costly an outcome as bad choices, sometimes more costly. She is learning by the seat of her pants while attempting to preserve her kingdom and fighting with everyone on all sides. A marvelous coming-of-age epic fantasy on a grand scale.

But this year, so many of my memorable reads were in my first love, science fiction.

Two books that I am not going to say a lot about because it’s all been said. These were bestsellers and were covered everywhere.

ancillary sword by ann leckieJohn Scalzi’s Lock In is a murder mystery wrapped in a near-future science fiction setting that, as is usual for Scalzi, has as much to say about our current society as it does about the future in which the book is set. This one works on multiple levels, and has a surprising twist that will tell you a bit about yourself as well. Great fun and an awesome read.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie is a worthy sequel to the “sweeping all the awards winner” Ancillary Justice. This series is fantastic space opera with a unique point-of-view character from a galaxy-spanning empire with a fascinating culture and a very different way of managing its far-flung holdings. Whatever you might have heard about how good this series is – it’s even better than that.

damnation by jean johnsonJean Johnson’s Theirs Not to Reason Why series concluded this year with two books, Hardship and Damnation. Johnson’s series, like Leckie’s, is epic space opera, but Johnson is firmly in the military SF camp with this series. Her heroine rises through the ranks of the Space Force as the story is told, while she fights an interstellar war, first as a grunt, but eventually as Commander of the Armies. The thing that makes this series unique is that her heroine, Ia, is a precognitive who knows what has to happen, but still has to move heaven, earth, the central command, and everyone she ever meets into the right place at the right time to save the universe in a future that she will never live to see. Awesome from beginning to end.

Soulminder by Timothy Zahn was a complete surprise. Zahn is probably best known for his Star Wars fiction, but this is something completely different. As with Scalzi’s Lock In, Soulminder is SF of the laboratory type, where it is a scientific discovery that fuels the story arc. Also as with Lock In, there is a definitely plot thread about the way that humans will take something potentially good and pave the road to hell with it. (Soulminder was published before Lock In, so any resemblance is unintentional). For hard science SF, Soulminder has a surprising amount of story concerned with keeping one’s soul. It is a tale that embodies the principle “for evil to flourish, it is only necessary that good men do nothing.” It’s also about what happens when those good men stop doing nothing.

forever watch by david ramirezLast but not least, The Forever Watch by David Ramirez. If you threw Gorky Park, Blade Runner, one of Robin Cook’s medical thrillers and Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang into a blender, along with spice from The Matrix and Madeline Ashby’s Suited, you might come up with a story that has some resemblance to The Forever Watch, but it wouldn’t be nearly as good. The Forever Watch is epic SF of the generation ship type, and it was one of those books that I shoved at people because I was so captivated. And it has one of those ending plot-twists that makes you re-think the entire story.

And that’s my top 14 for the year. 2014 was a wild ride, and I can’t wait to see what 2015 has in store! What were your favorites of 2014? Do share! We all need more awesome books to read!

Review: Harder by Robin York

harder by robin yorkFormat read: ebook provided by NetGalley
Formats available: ebook, paperback, audiobook
Genre: new adult romance
Series: Caroline & West, #2
Length: 353 pages
Publisher: Bantam
Date Released: July 1, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Caroline still dreams about West. His warm skin, his taut muscles, his hand sliding down her stomach. Then she wakes up and she’s back to reality: West is gone. And before he left, he broke her heart.

Then, out of the blue, West calls in crisis. A tragedy has hit his family—a family that’s already a fractured mess. Caroline knows what she has to do. Without discussion, without stopping to think, she’s on a plane, flying to his side to support him in any way he needs.

They’re together again, but things are totally different. West looks edgy, angry at the world. Caroline doesn’t fit in. She should be back in Iowa, finalizing her civil suit against the ex-boyfriend who posted their explicit pictures on a revenge porn website. But here she is. Deeply into West, wrapped up in him, in love with him. Still.

They fought the odds once. Losing each other was hard. But finding their way back to each other couldn’t be harder.

My Review:

deeper by robin yorkIf you have not read the first part of Caroline and West’s story, go back and pick up the monumentally awesome Deeper (reviewed here). The story in Harder is so much deeper if you read where they are coming from.

This pair of stories is exactly what “new adult romance” is supposed to be about: people in that first stage of adulthood who are making decisions that will echo through the rest of their lives, no matter what happens.

In the case of Harder, the story is about whether these two college students will not just face their very adult problems, but also find a way to go beyond survival into thriving in the future.

This story is “harder” because it is both more difficult for Caroline and West to find a way back to each other, and because the theme goes to the question of the ways in which we make our lives harder for ourselves, by closing off options that we think might be hard, instead of striving and finding out.

At the end of Deeper, West leaves both Caroline and college in order to go back to his depressing and depressed home town of Silt, Oregon. It’s not just that his sister needs him, but that West has never believed that he was entitled to a life and happiness of his own. He expected to have to go back, and when it happens, he’s resigned rather than surprised.

He’s always been sure that Caroline deserved better than him, never acknowledging that what Caroline did or did not deserve was not a decision that was his to make.

West tries to push her away, but she’s the only light in his darkness. That he’s made his world darker than it needs to be, all on his own, is not something that he ever considers. But in the middle of too many nights, he calls her just to hear her voice.

And when his mother’s ex-boyfriend shoots his deadbeat father, West calls Caroline. He doesn’t ask for her help, but she gets on the first plane to Oregon. She wants to help. He wants someone to take care of his kid sister Frankie. Caroline wants West back.

West does his worst to make sure she leaves him. And she does, but not before making him think about what he’s doing; to her, to himself, and to his sister.

It’s the hardest thing in his life to realize that every single thing Caroline told him was right. It’s the second hardest to take his sister and his screwed up self back to college. It’s the third hardest to let Caroline all the way back into his life.

It takes him forever to figure out that the best way he can give his sister the good life that he wants for her is to live it with her, with Caroline. Frankie can only learn how to be her authentic self if West can learn it first.

Escape Rating A+: The first half of this story is a hard read. Absolutely excellent, but painfully hard. Deeper ended at the point where Caroline and West separate. It was the right ending for the story, but devastating to read.

Harder picks up where Deeper emotionally left off. Caroline and West are hundreds of miles apart and they have no future together. And neither of them can get over that fact, or move past each other to build a new life.

Of course, West feels that he doesn’t have a life, and isn’t entitled to one. As far as he’s concerned, his only purpose in this world is to protect his sister Frankie. He’s willing to sacrifice himself and everything he might ever be just to keep Frankie safe.

Then the situation hits rock bottom, and the best way for West to keep Frankie safe is to get her out of Silt and away from their neglectful mother. And West only has one place to go; back to Iowa and college. Back to Caroline. Except not.

Deeper was Caroline’s story. West made her see that she was something beyond the terrible pictures, and that if she wasn’t “fine” there was a way to get better.

Harder is West’s story. Caroline refuses to take “fine” for an answer, and refuses to stay out of his and Frankie’s life. Just as he made her think, helped her to get stronger, in Deeper, she does the same thing for him in Harder. But the journey is harder, because they both know what they’ve lost, and because West has so little faith in himself.

If you like contemporary romances featuring real, believable characters facing real problems and coming out strong and together, you’ll love Harder, very, very hard indeed.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: Deeper by Robin York

deeper by robin yorkFormat read: ebook provided by NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genre: New Adult romance, Contemporary romance
Series: Caroline and West #1
Length: 400 pages
Publisher: Bantam
Date Released: January 28, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

When Caroline Piasecki’s ex-boyfriend posts their sex pictures on the Internet, it destroys her reputation as a nice college girl. Suddenly her once-promising future doesn’t look so bright. Caroline tries to make the pictures disappear, hoping time will bury her shame. Then a guy she barely knows rises to her defense and punches her ex to the ground.

West Leavitt is the last person Caroline needs in her life. Everyone knows he’s shady. Still, Caroline is drawn to his confidence and swagger—even after promising her dad she’ll keep her distance. On late, sleepless nights, Caroline starts wandering into the bakery where West works.

They hang out, they talk, they listen. Though Caroline and West tell each other they’re “just friends,” their feelings intensify until it becomes impossible to pretend. The more complicated her relationship with West gets, the harder Caroline has to struggle to discover what she wants for herself—and the easier it becomes to find the courage she needs to fight back against the people who would judge her.

When all seems lost, sometimes the only place to go is deeper.

My Review:

Deeper wraps a heart stoppingly beautiful love story around a life-shattering problem, and shows the strength of spirit of a young woman who grows up stronger for her broken places.

But the problem that begins the story nearly breaks Caroline’s soul and spirit, and is unfortunately all too real in the 21st century combination of constant connectivity, cyberbullying and sexting, mixed with the age-old issues of sexual harrassment and sexual abuse, usually by males over females.

The resultant nasty cocktail is revenge porn, where someone takes what society considers “dirty” pictures of a young woman and bombs them all over the internet without her consent. Because the woman is a legal adult, even though she is photographed without her consent, posting the pictures online is legal. Anything that happens to her afterwards is considered her problem.

And that’s what happens to Caroline Piasecki. Her ex-boyfriend snapped a picture of her giving him a blowjob with his cellphone. When they broke up, he posted the picture everywhere he could think of. Then, of course, he denied having posted it. As if it could have been anyone else.

The damage was done. The scumbag didn’t just post the picture, he posted her name and the name of the college they attended. He wanted to make sure that he trashed her reputation. That everyone who saw her on campus, that anyone who ever Googled her name, saw that picture first.

It was one hell of a spiteful revenge for breaking up with him. Especially since Caroline was planning to go to law school, and that picture is not going to make getting recommendations for internships at law firms any easier.

Caroline is someone who has always had a perfectly orderly life, and now everything is completely out of order. Her plans are ruined. She has tried so very hard to be good. To be careful.

Her universe is shattered. The whispers follow her everywhere. And she can’t help but start to feel them reach inside of her.

It takes Caroline a long time, and a lot of help from her friends, to start to live her life again. A life that is not defined by the whispers and lies.

There is one hell of a lot of strength involved on her part. Also pretty much of a “two-steps forward-one step back” approach to dealing with moving on from the very huge problem.

But the biggest assist she gets is from West Leavitt. He represents a different choice in life. Lots of different choices. West is a young man who seems to be living in the moment, but actually isn’t. Where Caroline plans everything, West looks spontaneous.

But he’s not. What he is, is someone from an entirely different life who has grabbed this brief moment of time for himself, because he’s sure it will be taken away any second. What he doesn’t reveal is much about himself.

At first, West gives Caroline something that no one else does; a space with no BS. He may not disclose much, but he also doesn’t expect her to filter what she’s feeling. She doesn’t have to pretend to be okay.

And out of that lack of pretense, comes everything.

Escape Rating A+: Deeper is a story that will haunt you long after you turn the final page. This is a book that lives up to the promise of the genre tag New Adult; it delivers a deeper, richer story than a young adult novel. In New Adult the protagonist is supposed to have a problem to solve that will have an impact on their adult life. There are no easy answers in this book, only hard questions and tough solutions.

Deeper is Caroline’s journey. She starts the story in the midst of a meltdown of epic proportions, and she’s melting down for reasons that are big and real. She treats the “porn attack” as a problem to be solved, or hidden from, and can’t face people’s scorn. So she hides. She feels as dirty as if she deserved the comments people, mostly men, fling at her everywhere.

The story is her transformation from the young woman who is victimized to the one who stands up for herself. In the beginning, she feels like she IS the pictures. She feels abused. In the end, the pictures are the pictures, but they are not herself. This does not mean she is not being attacked, because she still is, but she is owning her defense.

West’s story is told in counterpoint to Caroline’s. He comes from such a different place than she does, and he conceals everything about who he really is until nearly the end of their relationship. Their love story is very slow building, and that’s a terrific thing. Caroline isn’t ready to love someone until she stops being a victim and starts taking control of her life. And part of that control is telling West that they can’t have a real relationship until he is willing to admit that what they have is actually a relationship.

He wants to protect her, but part of the point of the story is that Caroline has gotten strong enough that she doesn’t need his protection any more. She needs to make her own decisions, and for that to work, she needs his trust, and his truth.

The ending of Deeper will make you reach for the kleenex, because it concludes, exactly where it should, but not where you want it to.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.