I started 2014 braced for a slow reading year, knowing that I should be devoting the majority of my time to wedding planning or finishing off the writing of my second Harper Impulse book. So it’s lovely that the first book to really wow me this year was a fellow Harper Impulse author, Carmel Harrington. Beyond Grace’s Rainbow has been an absolute smash hit, with rave reviews and awards all over the shop, so I knew it was going to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be so lovely. Following the eponymous Grace, the single mother of a toddler due to her ex-boyfriend’s alcoholism – in her battle with leukaemia. On top of the sob-fest, there’s also a rather gripping mystery sub-plot as Grace’s pals rush to discover the identity of her biological father in the hopes that he will be a bone marrow donor match and save their friend’s life. A story full of heart and sorrow. I also read Carmel Harrington’s second book, The Life You Left whilst on my honeymoon later in the year and enjoyed it enormously too!
Abrupt genre change for my second pick of January – the sophisticated suspense YA novel We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Whilst at first glance a novel that follows a group of privileged teenagers as they summer on their family’s private island isn’t a sensible choice for wintery, feeling-poor January, I was absolutely mesmerised and read it in one sitting. With a messy plot and structure that somehow works and the very definition of unreliable narrator, this isn’t an easy read, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
I do try to avoid putting mid-series instalments onto this list – especially if earlier books have featured in my “Best Reads” lists of earlier years – but sometimes I can’t help it. In February I devoured Cress, the third entry in The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer. We’ve had futuristic cyborg retellings of Cinderella and Red Riding Hood so far, and here we have Rapunzel. Cress, a girl who has been imprisoned and isolated on a satellite since her earliest childhood with only computers for company, a phenomenal hacker and therefore the Lunar Queen Levana’s secret weapon, able to easily monitor, spy, protect, hack, re-program and hide whatever and whomever she wishes. The wide-eyed, socially awkward ingénue Cress slots in beautifully with conflicted and sarcastic Cinder and brave and firey Scarlett – and their quest to prevent Lunar from obtaining any more power over the Earth and its federations. If you haven’t read The Lunar Chronicles yet, this is one bandwagon you seriously need to get on.
From cyborgs to contemporary, my second pick for February is Hannah Beckerman’s The Dead Wife’s Handbook. I was originally a bit concerned that this read might be slightly out of my comfort zone, in that I thought I’d get more out of it if I read it when I’m actually a mother myself, but I needn’t have worried. A beautiful, gentle novel following the eponymous “dead wife” Rachel as she watches her husband, daughter and extended family grieve over and then come to terms with her death. Starting on the first “anniversary” of her untimely, sudden death Rachel narrates what she can see and what she is learning from as the white clouds of her mysterious “afterlife” occasionally part and allow her a voyeuristic overview of the life she’s left behind. A wonderful read that’s best to pick up when you are in a reflective mood, and not to be rushed through but savoured.
March was a period full of excellent reads, as it was the month of my very first Harper Impulse Readathon! I read thirteen books, all from the Harper Impulse imprint, and whilst they were all romance stories, there was a real depth and breadth of sub-genres and styles and I thoroughly enjoyed every one. Really looking forward to my second go in 2015 and I’m looking for some Readathon buddies this time round!
Complete sucker punch of a book! Far From You by Tess Sharpe floored me in April. I knew it was going to be dark and twisty from reading other reviews, but I still didn’t anticipate the depth and complexity of what I took at face-value to be a YA contemporary love story with a bit of a murder-mystery vein running through it as the lovers worked to discover who had killed their best friend/sister. Grief, guilt, addiction, disability – all of these buzzword themes are evocatively portrayed, resulting in a book that’s surprisingly heavy – but without being heavy handed. Gut-wrenching grief is embedded in every scene, sincere and intense – enough to make my heart ache for a week after finishing. Amazingly impressive debut.
The end to a truly mighty series came in April. The third and final instalment in the forever-favourite Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, Dreams of Gods and Monsters. There was no slowing down – new characters were introduced and the story soared to out-of-this-world (quite literally) heights, as star-crossed lovers Karou and Akiva desperately raced to unite their warring peoples against the coming apocalypse. To discuss any further would be, of course, to spoil the series as a whole, so suffice it to say that this was a fitting ending to a truly special and beautiful series.
In the early summer of 2014 I barely read anything, because I got unexpectedly hooked on The Vampire Diaries series. I’m not sure how it happened (I blame Netflix), but I ended up watching all five existing series in the space of ten weeks. I barely had time for anything that wasn’t Damon Salvatore – and to that end in May I raced through the Stefan’s Diaries series of prequel stories. I did read the original Vampire Diaries novels by L. J. Smith when I was a teen, and I plan to do a re-read at some point (along with her Night World series, I loved those!).
A non fangirl favourite of May however was the twisty, thoughtful Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas. Clearly inspired by Amanda Knox and the Meredith Kercher case, the book follows the case of Elise, found brutally murdered whilst on Spring Break in Aruba with her best friend Anna and an assortment of friends. When Anna finds herself charged for Elise’s murder on the most threadbare of evidence, she struggles with being in a country not her own where it seems the media, the police and even her own friends believe she’s guilty of the horrible crime. You won’t know who or what to believe as you race towards the conclusion of this clever, taut thriller.
Breaking my “no mid-series entries” rule again in June, as a standout book of the year has to be Heir of Fire, third in the Throne of Glass fantasy series by Sarah J. Maas – it seems a year can’t go by without me waxing lyrical about this series! It’s getting bigger, better, darker, rawer and I loved all of the newly introduced characters. No more for usual fear of series spoilers, but here’s hoping Sarah keeps on upping her game – Book 4 is set to be phenomenal and I quite literally ache for it. Bring on September 10th 2015.
A controversial pick for July, as I know some people who didn’t get the buzz around this book, and it’s full of trigger content, but it really hit the spot for me. Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill is an impactful, frightening and important book. Whilst on the face of it the story is set in a dystopian fantasy world, it’s way, way too close in truth to the way our society and media actually operates. In a world where all female foetuses die, society has had to resort to “test tube women”. And whilst they’re fiddling with genetics anyway, why not go the whole hog? Little girls, bred for the purposes of becoming women who will please men, trained in a “boarding school” in all the womanly arts, raised to become one of three things: a companion (a wife and mother of sons), a courtesan (a prostitute) or a chastity (a teacher of all the little girls yet to come after). Our main character, frieda (the girls purposefully don’t get capital letters to their insignificant names…) is in her final year before ‘graduation’, and terrified she won’t come in the top ten of her class and therefore get a husband. frieda’s best friend, isabel, has always been the most beautiful and perfect girl in their class, but has started to act out, behave strangely, and – most worryingly of all – gain weight. frieda is torn between supporting her friend, or maximising her own chances by maintaining her distance. Powerful, gripping – and really, genuinely frightening in how close we actually are to a world like it.
An “Ol’ Reliable”, Rainbow Rowell impressed again this year. I read her adult contemporary, Landline, which follows the wonderfully-named but bit-of-a-bitch Georgie McCool who decides not to accompany her husband Neal and their daughters away for Christmas because she has to work. Sensing too late that this may be it for their rocky marriage, Georgie tries to call Neal, eventually getting through to him only by an old landline at his mother’s house. However, it’s not her husband Neal she gets through to, it’s a Neal fifteen years in the past, before he ever even proposed to Georgie. So George is forced to revisit her relationship from start to finish, the people that she and Neal used to be, and the people they have become after a decade and a half of knocking against one another. Were they ever even meant to be together? How did they end up in the sad state that they’re in? Full of Rainbow’s trademark humour and charm, this silly, soppy, sad tale that makes you re-evaluate your life. I may have read it in July, but it would also make a great Christmas read!
My reading took a hit in August as I raced to finish draft one of my second book for Harper Impulse and also prepared for my wedding day on September 5th. However I did pick up A Rogue By Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean, as she was an author I’d been recommended for years and years, and the book was discounted. What a fun surprise! The very definition of “Regency romp”, legitimate historical fiction but pacy, fun and sexy, with a strong and feisty protagonist. Lady Penelope Marbury finds herself, through necessity, married to the dissolute, disgraced and dangerous Marquess of Bourne, a childhood friend who was cast from society when he gambled away his ancestral lands a decade ago. Now a partner in London’s most exclusive gambling club, a prince of the city’s underworld, Bourne is insistent he will get his legacy back through any means necessary – even if he has to kidnap someone and force marriage upon them. From these inauspicious beginnings, Penelope and Bourne grow into a truly electric couple, with an intriguing cast of supporting characters, so I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of The Rules of Scoundrels series. Perfect if you’re in the mood for histfic with a little bite.
My Kindle took a pounding in September, as I went on honeymoon and read near-constantly! As a result I have three favourites for this month! And they’re all from perennially favourite authors. The first was the utterly charming and magical Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen – two words that I have used to describe everything she has ever written. Centring as usual around families and “everyday magic”, Lost Lake follows the Morris family, a family where the women fall so deeply into grief after their husbands die that they completely lose themselves. It’s been a year since Kate’s husband died and she’s been sleepwalking through life ever since. One day she “wakes up” and doesn’t recognise where she is – her overbearing mother-in-law has taken over her life, stifling her creative child, selling her house and business. On a whim Kate decides to seek out the eccentric great-aunt she hasn’t seen since she was a teenager, Eby, who owns the eponymous “Lost Lake”, a cabin holiday park in Southern Georgia. Chock to the brim with Sarah Addison Allen’s usual blend of magical realism, southern charm, the power of family, of communities and the past, I loved it.
Bit of a shaky start with my second pick; I wasn’t immediately ‘getting’ Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun, but because I’d absolutely adored her debut The Sky Is Everywhere, I kept an open mind and persevered. Twins Noah and Jude used to have a special bond. At thirteen they were inseparable. At sixteen their lives are vastly changed and they barely speak. The early years are Noah’s story to tell. The later years are Jude’s. What the twins don’t realize is that they each have only half the story. Expressive and unique, Jandy Nelson is a very, very talented writer, and knows how best to play so well with the very fine line between love and grief. This book demands of you the way that all impressive art does – which fits, as it centres very much around art. Like The Sky Is Everywhere this is a book I know I will be pushing on friends and periodically re-reading for always.
Ahh, Mhairi MacFarlane. Every year your books are on my “Best Reads” lists. Why aren’t you my best friend yet? I have a have a verging on disturbing writer-crush on you. Either way, It’s Not Me, It’s You was a veritable treat; I even described it as “the Christmas dinner of my reading year” in my review. Delia Moss decides to take matters into her own hands and proposes to her long-term boyfriend, who – a little startled – says yes. Whilst he’s at the bar buying the champagne, Delia receives a text from him, and it’s immediately obvious that it wasn’t meant to go to her, but rather, to his mistress. Before she even realises it, Delia finds herself single, moving away and starting a new job – in essence, beginning her life over from scratch and floundering spectacularly. Reading this book I laughed so hard I almost dropped my Kindle in the bath (therefore reading this book in the bath not recommended). I laughed so hard reading whilst lunching at my desk that I misted a colleague with a light spray of semi-chewed jacket potato (and she laughed too when I showed her the offending passage, so that’s all okay). Pure comic genius, with the warmest of hearts.
I was really intrigued to read The Body Electric, which Beth Revis had opted to self-publish. I knew from her Across the Universe that Beth did science fiction superbly, but this was even more impressive than I anticipated, keeping me on the edge of my seat the whole way through. It’s the 2300’s on Earth, which has – so far, so standard – been ravaged by a series of wars which has resulted in the creation of the Unified Countries which keeps the fractured world at peace. Ella, however, is not feeling very peaceful. She’s having hallucinations of her father – killed the previous year by a terrorist attack – and at his grave stumbles upon a boy who knows everything about her, claims they were desperately in love, but who she has absolutely no memory of. Full of stunning turns of phrase, relate-able characters, swoonsome guys and one of the most vivid dystopian worlds to ever be constructed in just one average-length book – and it’s a standalone to boot, those things are getting rarer and rarer.
An entry that was probably read by a fair few of you in 2014, the second half of October was taken up with the behemoth thriller I Am Pilgrim. The sheer scale of this epic story makes it almost impossible to summarise and all the more frightening for how this sort of thing could have actually happened, could be happening right now. We follow a super-duper secret agent, codename “Pilgrim” in his struggle to discover and stop “The Saracen”, a lone-wolf brilliant terrorist who has manufactured an apocalypse for the West. With deep, dark backstories and really satisfying character development for both Pilgrim and The Saracen and action piled on top of action – I wasn’t surprised to hear that author Terry Hayes is a veteran screen writer! – I was totally swept away by this story. But definitely wait until you’re in just the right mood before you tackle it.
Can I call this Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel “magical” when there’s no magic in it? Maybe it’s because of the focus on the magic of every day life, the things we take for granted, the things that lie beneath the veneer of it all. Set in the eerie aftermath of civilisation’s collapse after a virulent pandemic, this is “grown up” dystopia and very fine it is too. Twenty years after the Georgia Flu devastates 99.9% of the world’s population – and all its infrastructure – society is a collection of small, poor towns, where those “lucky” enough to have survived struggle to continue to do so. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the motto of the Travelling Symphony is “Survival is Insufficient”. They live a nomadic existence, moving between these tiny settlements, keeping alive the spirit of music, drama, fantasy, escapism. Jumping between characters, moving from “before” the flu to “after”, weaving together all the threads like a marvellous literary puzzle. An incredibly sensitive and intelligent read.
I’d adored AJ Nuest’s The Golden Key Chronicles and so I was so excited to hear that there was going to be a sequel series, The Golden Key Legacy. The first instalment, A Furious Muse did not fail to please! It took everything I loved about the Chronicles but turned things on their heads for good measure and to keep things exciting. No detail for fear of spoiling the Chronicles, apart from whole-heartedly recommending that everyone who might be in the mood for clever, snappy, racy fantasy to take a trip beyond the mirror with AJ…
I’d seen glowing reviews of Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Curse all year long, and had had it waiting patiently on my Kindle, but I never found myself convinced enough to actually start reading. One indecisive evening I decided to read a couple of pages of a few things that were on my TBR to see what grabbed my fancy. I never moved on from my “taster” of The Winner’s Curse, finishing it and its sequel, The Winner’s Crime in the space of about thirty hours. These beautiful books were an absolute joy to read, so rich and clever, sucking me right in and refusing to let me go – worst book hangover of the year for certain! The trilogy follows your ubiquitous star-crossed lovers: Kestrel, the daughter of the most eminent general of the conquering empire, and Arin, the now enslaved son of what used to be a noble family, back before the invasion. Both protagonists are flawed, both are in the wrong in their own ways, both make you root for them – but both are diametrically opposed. Full to the brim of twists and plots and intrigues, I absolutely cannot wait for the conclusion to the story in 2016. I can definitely see this becoming a benchmark series, or series of movies, so get in on the ground floor.
Finally in 2014, a read I know a lot of people treated themselves to this Christmas: My True Love Gave To Me, an anthology of festive short stories by a glittering list of YA stars. A huge variety of genres, characters, lengths, styles – I had been planning on dipping in and out throughout December but ended up racing through them all, before going back and re-reading a couple of favourites. Highlights for me were Midnights (Rainbow Rowell), The Girl Who Woke The Dreamer (Laini Taylor) and It’s A Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown (Stephanie Perkins) but they were all great! Certainly set me off feeling merry and bright – and I’ll certainly be revisiting my favourites each December when the tree goes up.