Now, my favorite reads from last year (all of which I still passionately recommend and think about!).
It was incredibly challenging assembling my top ten reads for 2013. So many standout, stellar books this year! In the end, my final top ten list is made up of the reads that emotionally rocked me in some shape or way, that I haven't stopped thinking about, that I have purchased or gifted for others.
Seven of the ten were written by women. Eight of the ten are historical fiction. (Pretty on par with other top tens since I've started blogging.) Four are part of a series, but only one is the end of the series; the rest are the start. Two are reads from Literary Wives, and both are books I wouldn't have read otherwise!
Stephanie Dray, Daughters of the Nile
This final volume in Dray's stellar, standout trilogy. Her three novels about Cleopatra's daughter make my top ten desert island picks for historical fiction. What I said then:
Here's the bottom line: Daughters of the Nile might be one of the best concluding volumes in a series I've ever read, and Dray's Cleopatra Selene trilogy among the best historical fiction trilogies out there. It has everything for hungry readers of historical fiction: rich and atmospheric details that evoke a foreign time and place, a standout cast of characters that live and breath, resonant themes and deep emotional interactions that are impossible to shake off, and some deliciously disturbing soap opera-y elements in case you were feeling safe.
Jennifer Cody Epstein, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment
I never anticipated loving this novel the way I did, especially since I have mild World War II fatigue. But in Epstein's hands, the familiar stories are new, and she reveals aspects of that conflict that were completely new to me. From my review:
Delightfully and disturbingly, Epstein's characters are human, warm and flawed. ... There wasn't a particular 'villain', per se, as most everyone was articulated in shades of gray. The descriptions of time and place put me immediately into the story, and I couldn't put this book down. The tension comes from needing to know who survives and at what cost; from the meager hope more than one ends up happy.
Kate Forsyth, Bitter Greens
I love fairy tales re-imagined, and Forsyth's book is standout. It's a massive, thick, rich tome, the kind of book you want to drown in, and drown I did. I wrote then:
Forsyth's writing is evocative and pretty without feeling heavy or ornate; she conveys a sense of time and place without the dreaded infodump. What I appreciated, as well was that she doesn't mince words about the way women were treated in these eras -- she creates strong heroines who are quite real but don't reek of anachronism.
Robert Goolrick, A Reliable Wife
I never formally reviewed this one, unfortunately, but it was a selection for Literary Wives -- one of two that made my top ten this year, and both books I wouldn't have read otherwise.
It's a kind of noir novel, with no noble hearts here, no heroes, just a twisted love story and flawed desires. I plan to write a formal review, but in brief: set in Wisconsin in 1907, the novel follows Ralph Truitt, a wealthy, sex-obsessed businessman with a broken heart and sad family story who takes out an ad for a wife. Catherine Land, a con artist and floozy, accepts, and reinvents herself as a staid missionary's daughter. Catherine plans to off him, but her husband asks her to find his long-lost 'son' (there's some concern about his parentage) and bring him back. This errand sets off, unsurprisingly, a series of events blah blah blah doom, heartbreak, conclusion!
Annabel Lyon, The Sweet Girl
I wanted this book upon seeing the cover; after reading an interview with Annabel Lyon, I knew I had to read this book. A marvelously emotional, inventive historical novel that plays with what we don't know about a long forgotten historical figure. From my review:
Little is known about Pythias, so Lyon created a life for Pythias that is wild, complicated, incomplete (the story ends around, I think, Pythias' mid-twenties.) The strength of this story comes from Pythias, who is smart and striking, emotive and honest. Lyon's writing style is precise and sharp, yet heavy with inference and intimation. Pythias speaks in polite obfuscation at times -- ever the lady -- until her experiences shift her from someone reserved and polite to someone who owns her agency, decisions, voice. The plot follows this subtle transition; at some point the story drifts into the fantastical, but whether it is really magic or just hysteria (we learn earlier from Pythias' young friend about the wandering uterus), there's a disquieting sense that the concrete reality Pythias grew up with may not be the reality of the world she lives in.
David Morrell, Murder as a Fine Art
I can't shut up about this book for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the author is the guy who invented Rambo. This smart, intriguing historical mystery hit every note for me, and I'm eagerly anticipating the second book in the series (which comes out spring 2015). From my review:
I had such a flippin' great time with this book. From the first page, I was sucked in, and the only reason I didn't finish this one in a day is that I made myself slow down and enjoy the journey -- I could have taken another 300 pages and been only slightly satisfied. ...
The Death of Bees
Oh God, this book gutted me. From the opening line, I was hooked. Occasionally gruesome, deeply disturbing, and disturbingly funny at moments, I inhaled this book with a mixture of delight and horror. Unforgettable, and still hard to describe. I wrote then:
This is me gesticulating wildly as I try to express to you how great this book is. This also means this review is going to be kind of meaningless because I'm still gasping for words.
The Passing Bells
A reissue of a 1970s release, this one still reads fresh and compelling. The first in a trilogy (I know!), it is so good, so atmospheric, so deliciously British, you'll be grateful there's two more books! I wrote:
Given the Downton Abbey craze, I was apprehensive about this trilogy: was it any good or just a marketing ploy to cash in while DA is hot?
Thankfully, happily, awesomely, this book is good. Great. Another meaty hist fic that satisfies. This review, however, is probably going to be a hot mess, because how do I describe what is contained in these 500+ pages without just squeeing stupidly?
Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife
Another read from Literary Wives, this one was tough for me. I hated it -- loathed it! -- and yet, couldn't shut up about it. In the end, it had to make my top ten because it was unshakeable for me. A fictional account of Laura Bush, this book rattled me and made me think about love, politics, loyalty, and everything in between. In my reflection for Literary Wives, this book gave me an ah-ha! about my marriage, too!
Victoria Wilcox, InheritanceWhile I wanted to loathe Alice for loving a man whose political beliefs are so antithetical to mine I literally get foamy at the mouth thinking about it, she has the same values and desires I do: to have the opportunity to spend her life with someone she loves and admires even she when doesn't agree with them.
Another first in a trilogy, this biographical historical novel follows drug addicted gun fighter and cohort of Wyatt Earp, John Henry "Doc" Holliday. Rich with detail, Wilcox sold me on this Southern anti-hero hero and made me care. I never thought I'd be so gripped! Dying for the second and third books. From my review:
I'll be honest, I never expected to love this book. Like it perhaps, but not love it, and that's because I never anticipated liking John Henry. He's a hard figure to genuinely admire and yet, by the end, I was completely taken with him. (Watch Justified? There's a long-standing 'villain', Boyd Crowder, who is pretty despicable; and yet, my wife and I are completely invested in/kind of rooting for him because he's sort of so damaged and vibrant and real. That's about how I felt toward John Henry.) I wanted to loathe him but Wilcox provides enough psychological and emotional insight so that I can't write him off as horrible. He's real and flawed and aspirational and completely stupid -- and so, so compelling to follow.