I always hope that I’m going to start the year with a couple of strong books, particularly as I never seem to get as much reading done as I’d like to over the preceding Christmas period. Well, January 2016 was certainly no disappointment; looking back I loved pretty much every book I read that month!
One particular highlight was Truthwitch, the first in a new series by Susan Dennard that I’d heard ALL THE HYPE over during 2015. I’d read and enjoyed the first book in Susan’s first series Something Strange and Deadly (steampunk zombies, it was great! Need to finish that series) and so, whilst remaining wary of the hype machine, I picked up a copy of Truthwitch immediately after its release. The book follows witchy best friends Safiya and Iseult, who are living in the nineteenth year of an agreed twenty year peace. The book alternates through their POVs as well as the POVs as two main male characters – and so there is a hearty dollop of fantasy romance here – but the main vein running through the book is the strong female friendship. Safiya and Iseult are Threadsisters, which essentially equates to a powerfully bound friendship. Safiya is a rare type of witch – a Truthwitch – meaning obviously that she can discern lies, and in the tense context of political intrigue and brewing war, she’s a useful commodity to have. With pretty much faultless world building and a headache of a cliffhanger, I can’t wait until the follow up Windwitch comes out (only a month to wait now!).
January also had one of my contenders for Book of the Year. I’ve had all of Ruta Sepetys’ books on my TBR for what feels like ages – her back catalogue is raved about – and so when I got an ARC of her upcoming release Salt To The Sea I picked it up to have a quick look, thinking that it sounded quite heavy and that I’d probably end up saving it until I was in a specific mood. I ended up basically not putting it down until I had finished and my initial review back to the publisher basically consisted entirely of the sentence “This book completely levelled me!” Light-touch historical fiction (a real “facts and feels” treat), the book shines a light on one of the most devastating – yet unknown – tragedies of World War Two. As the war draws to a close across Europe, the novel follows the POVs of several disparate characters, all refugees fleeing towards a better life, embarking on the Wilhelm Gustloff – a German military transport ship evacuating German civilians from Prussia in front of the Red Army’s advance, a vessel hindsight informs us is doomed to be sunk by a Soviet submarine with the loss of over 9,000 souls, including around 5,000 children. Despite knowing “the ending”, the book never falters, never flutters. The story is dark without being depressing. I’d recommend this book to everyone, even those who usually don’t get on with histfic.
Post-apocalyptic dystopia meets Jane Austen you say? WHERE DO I SIGN. I hadn’t heard that much about Diana Peterfreund’s For Darkness Shows the Stars, but when I did, I jumped straight on board. A clever retelling of Persuasion, it’s set several generations after a genetic experiment goes wrong, causing widespread and serious birth defects. Shaken, humanity has split – and those in charge are known as Luddites, a quasi-Amish type society who have banned most technology, a knee-jerk reaction to the science and industry that got them into this mess in the first place. Elliot North is part of the Luddite nobility, and boy does she know it. Years ago she refused to run away with her childhood sweetheart, family servant Malakai, choosing duty to her family over her heart. The estate is floundering – her father and her sister insist on spending money that they don’t have – and so Elliot begins to experiment a little with the outlawed technology, knowing that it can help her provide more food for her estate staff over the coming winter. Meanwhile, the lower classes (the descendants of the original generation born with the genetic defects) are on the rise – and Elliot finds herself forced to rent part of her land to the mysterious Cloud Fleet, a group of shipbuilders that includes renowned explorer Captain Malakai Wentforth – Elliot’s former lover, who now seems entirely set on being utterly nasty to her (there’s the Austen!). Charming and fun, this is a really original coming of age tale.
Abrupt genre change – I spent most of March deep in the detailed “true story” of Wu (“The Chinese Empress who schemed, seduced and murdered her way to become a living god” – as the strapline helpfully summarises) – a biography by Jonathan Clements. For all the subject is hailed as a “feminist icon” (and, charmingly, “bugbear of Chinese conservatism”) I had never heard of the woman who began as a lowly concubine and became the only female to have ruled China with the title of Emperor, ending up so hated that her own children left her tombstone blank. Quite a simple and accessible account – which is good, because I know next to nothing about Chinese history.
I try and avoid putting series continuations on these lists – particularly when previous installments have been included in other years’ – but I can’t help but mention Morning Star, the final entry in Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy. It has got to be one of the best series I have ever read. I can’t say too much for fear of spoilers, so I’ll recap what I said about the plot of the first book in last year’s list: Darrow is a ‘Red’ – the lowest caste in his “colour-coded” society. He and his kind toil underground day and night, believing that their work is terraforming the planet of Mars for future generations, knowing this to be noble. However Darrow comes to know that humanity have been living on the surface of Mars for generations and the Reds are no more than gullible slaves to the higher classes. Longing for justice and with nothing else to lose, Darrow agrees to participate in the ultimate ‘Trojan Horse’ – to pose as a member of the ruling caste, the Golds, and compete in a Battle Royale-type tournament to become a master among them… Morning Star was an amazing ending to a spectacular series. You need to read these books. No matter what your favourite genre, there’s something there for everyone – and despite the fact it’s a sci-fi/dystopian world the politics, situations and characters are just so relateable with what is perhaps some of the best world-building I have ever seen. There will be a million gushing reviews of this book (and no doubt one day a film) so suffice it to say: this series was magnificent and this book, perhaps the best of an excellent lot. Read them.
I went on an early summer holiday to the Greek island of Zakynthos in April with My Map Of You, the first full length novel by Isabelle Broom that I’m sure is on many people’s lists this year. A contemporary romance with an unhurried mystery at its core. Protagonist Holly seems to have a good life: good job, good boyfriend, good friends, but when she receives a letter from Greece telling her that she is now the owner of a house on an island there which belonged to a recently deceased aunt she knew nothing about, she flies there to sort out the estate. A lovely little book with a warm cast of secondary characters and world building so on point that you’ll feel the sunburn.
So despite all my good intentions not to put series continuation on this list, May was full of them. Plus, my Best Reads compilation would NEVER be complete without the inclusion of a Sarah J. Maas book… A Court of Mist and Fury is the follow up to Beauty and the Beast retelling A Court of Thorns and Roses, which I very much enjoyed. ACOMAF was even better. With one of SJM’s patented kick-ass heroines, grown-up feeling romances, passion and politics, if the third book is just as good then this series may take over from Throne of Glass as my favourite world from SJM. I can’t say much (damned spoilers) but I am absolutely loving this ‘twisted faery-tale’ series.
I’d raved, raved, raved about Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Curse and The Winner’s Crime which I devoured in the space of about thirty hours back at the end of 2014. Book number 3, The Winner’s Kiss, was a worthy finale indeed. 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. My initial review of the series as a whole was that it was “damn near perfect” and “a forever favourite”. The strong, slow-burn romance paired with so much genuinely clever military strategy and political intrigue – no battle is won without a good gamble…
So much cute contemporary in June, I couldn’t choose between them. First up was Lobsters by writing duo Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison. A terribly British American Pie, protagonists Sam and Hannah are both planning on getting rid of their pesky virginities over the summer before heading off to uni come September. Starring an honest and authentic sounding group of British teenagers with a charming, earthy humour that reminded me of The Inbetweeners at points, I loved the banter and the modern British pop culture references. A quick, highly entertaining and original read.
Another mainstay of my annual favourite reads list is of course, the incomparable Mhairi McFarlane. This year’s offering was Who’s That Girl? – and starred the perfect “anti-heroine” Edie, whose problems all start when she is caught snogging the groom at his wedding reception. Ostracised by everyone she knows, shamed online, her boss suggests an extended sabbatical. He has the perfect project to fill it – ghostwriting an autobiography for hot new acting talent, Elliot Owen, which will involve her moving back to her home town of Nottingham and moving back in with her father and prickly younger sister. At first it seems like the sort of woman who’s very self-important, and kisses married men while they’re still in their wedding suit, is a very hard sell for a sympathetic protagonist, but I completely fell in love with Edie over the course of her story. The freshness of a MMcF heroine is often in this – modern, familiar, complicated women for whom it’s not all a love story, but explores concerns around friends, family, career and Life with a capital L. If you haven’t gotten on board the Mhairi fan-train yet, hop on.
A real surprise to finish off June, I started reading Just Haven’t Met You Yet by Cate Woods on my flight to New York, anticipating an easy, pick-up/put-down read, but I got more than I expected. Percy James has a pretty stable life – okay job, good friends, steady boyfriend. Out of the blue she is approached by a representative from Eros Tech, an agency that brings together soulmates using data about people mined from the internet, their mobiles, etc. Percy has been identified as a match for one of Eros’s super wealthy clients… but she originally says thanks, but no thanks – she’s already with someone, after all. Eventually, of course, curiosity overcomes good sense, and thus begins a witty, twisty, engaging story that I can’t talk about anymore for fear of spoiling.
I’m going to find it very difficult to talk about Bird Box by Josh Malerman. A post-apocalyptic horror – “something” is out there, and if you set eyes on it, it drives you mad. You’ll murder your pets, your friends, your children, before killing yourself. Unsurprisingly, it is staggeringly effective at culling 99% of the human race. The rest, like the protagonist Malorie, cower in safe houses, eating standard post-apocalyptic fare of canned goods, blindfolding themselves whenever they absolutely have to go outside and relying on their other senses to get around. It’s even harder going for Malorie – she’s pregnant. The story is told over two timelines – one, where Malorie attempts to escape the safehouse with the two 4 year old children she’s trained from birth to hear to an almost super-human level, and the other, following the collapse of the world as Malorie knew it four and a half years earlier, the establishment of the safehouse, and everything that brought her to her desperate escape. I had to stay up super late to finish reading – and even when I did my heart was pounding so much I found it hard to get to sleep!
I found myself craving some histfic, but I wasn’t in the mood for anything typical. After cruising Amazon for a while, I one-clicked America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray, the wonderfully rich and researched biofic of US President Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph—a woman who kept the secrets of the most enigmatic founding father. From her childhood on the family estate, and her teenaged years in the glittering French court, as scandal, tragedy, and poverty threaten her family, Patsy must decide how much she will sacrifice to protect her father’s reputation, in the process defining not just his political legacy, but that of the nation he founded. I devoured this meaty but fast-paced read, all about a woman and a historical period I knew next to nothing about.
Another recurring star of my annual reads list is Taylor Jenkins Reid, and this time it’s One True Loves. The very blurb of this story makes you wince – In her twenties, Emma Blair marries her high school sweetheart, Jesse. They travel the world together, living life to the fullest and seizing every opportunity for adventure. On their first wedding anniversary, Jesse is on a helicopter over the Pacific when it goes missing. Just like that, Jesse is gone forever. Emma quits her job and moves home in an effort to put her life back together. Years later, now in her thirties, Emma runs into an old friend, Sam, and finds herself falling in love again. When Emma and Sam get engaged, it feels like Emma’s second chance at happiness. That is, until Jesse is found. He’s alive, and he’s been trying all these years to come home to her. Now with a husband and a fiancé, Emma has to now figure out who she is and what she wants, while trying to protect the ones she loves. Obviously this is a heart-wrencher of a read, one that you race through but don’t want to end all at the same time.
Another contender for read of the year was Miss You by Kate Eberlen – definitely winner of the book I wish I’d written award anyway. This cleverly structured read follows Gus and Tess, who meet in passing one day when they are eighteen. They’re obviously meant to be together, but over the course of the next sixteen years fate and circumstance intervenes again and again, and they never quite manage to meet. We follow them both through their first person narratives as they grow and change, leading to a very impressive and satisfyingly deep and complex read. A completely addictive story, I couldn’t put it down, and will definitely be looking to enjoy a re-read before too much longer.
I’ve raved about Katey Lovell’s Meet Cute series before and said how much I was looking forward to a full length work from her. In September my wish came true with the charming The Singalong Society For Singletons. Monique and Issy are teachers, housemates and lovers of musicals! Their Friday night routine consists of snacks, wine and the Frozen DVD. So when Monique’s boyfriend moves to America for a year and her sister Hope moves in because of her own relationship woes, Friday nights get a new name… ‘The Singalong Society for Singletons’! It’s a chance to get together, sing along to their favourite tracks from the best-loved West End shows, and forget the worries of work, relationships and love (or lack of it). But when Issy shares the details of their little group further afield, they get some unexpected new members who might just change their opinions on singledom for good… This is a great homage to the old-school charm of musicals and a wonderfully fresh, quirky and romantic read. Not that it’s all jazz hands and romance – Katey isn’t afraid to show the good and the bad, and presents a cast of very real characters, who have felt like old friends every time I dipped back in.
I’m breaking my no series continuations rule yet again, but I have to give a nod to the finale of Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles, Winter. An absolute whopper – over 800 pages – but the story absolutely flew by and definitely left me satisfied. The Lunar Chronicles takes place in a futuristic world where humans, cyborgs, androids and sinister moon colonists all coexist and each of the four instalments is a new take on an old tale (Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and here, Snow White). The Lunar Chronicles, now complete, is cemented as an all time favourite series.
The Imposter Queen by Sarah Fine is a tale brimming with magic, prophecies, friendship and betrayal, about what it’s like to have a destiny, to be the “chosen one” your whole life, to prepare yourself to be queen and one of the strongest magic wielders that ever lived… and suddenly have that destiny ripped out from underneath you. This is what happens to protagonist Elli, who has been raised for almost her entire life to become the leader of her people and the caretaker of the strongest magic known to man once the current incumbent dies. When this happens though, the magic doesn’t arrive, and eventually Elli realises that her priests intend to kill her off so that the magic is free to pass on to the next heir. Fleeing the temple and the capitol, she stumbles upon a band of rebels she’s been brought up to fear and fight, and eventually discovers more about the world, and her true place in it. An compulsively readable start to an interesting new series.
I always knew the name Sharon Shinn as a staple fantasy author, an autobuy for many, although I haven’t had the opportunity to read too much of her. By the end of December I was a little burnt out on contemporary, Christmassy reads and so decided a little high fantasy was in order. Troubled Waters is the first book in a series (of ostensible standalones) where people believe that five essential elements rule all things and guide their lives. Protagnist Zoe Ardelay receives astonishing and unwelcome news: she has been chosen to become the king’s fifth wife. Forced to travel to the royal city, she manages to slip away and hides on the shores of the river among the city’s homeless. It is there that Zoe realises she is the matriarch of the family governed by the water element – and as she unlocks the mysteries of her bloodline she also begins to reveal the secrets of the royal family. A compelling coming of age tale combined with good world building and great political intrigue, I think this is a series I’ll be continuing soon into 2017.