The Cultural Gutter

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The Great and the Good

Chris Szego
Posted December 22, 2011

I was a little disappointed by how many Romances I liked this year.  Mostly because  I wanted to love so many more of them.   But as always, some titles managed to rise above the rest.  Here are some of my favourites from this year.

Black Hawk, Joanna Bourne

Adrian Hawkhurst was a (terrific!) minor character in three of Bourne’s previous novels.  This, at last, is his story.  Adrian is an English spy;  Justine de Cabrillac is his French counterpart. Their attachment starts when they are young, both having emerged out of horrifically abusive childhoods into honed and dangerous individuals.   Readers follow them through the French Revolution, through the Terror, the fall of Robespierre, through the rise and fall of Napoleon. Adrian and Justine are on opposite sides, but they aren’t enemies. They’re a matched pair, and neither one is whole without the other.  Once again, Bourne delivers a master class in characterization, plot and pacing.  This time she also adds one of the most moving and powerful love scenes I’ve ever read.  The only thing I didn’t like about this book is that it ended.  Thankfully, Bourne seeded the story with enough fascinating minor characters to keep us entertained for many books to come.

A Lady’s Lessons in Scandal, Meredith Duran

Revenge; missing children turning up just in time to inherit fortunes;  this plot is almost Shakespearean in scope.  Newly orphaned Nell Whitby intends to kill the Earl of Rushden for wrongs done to her family.  But when she breaks into his home, she realizes that the former Earl died months ago.  His successor, Simon St. Maur, discovers to his shock and delight that Nell is, in fact, the long-lost missing daughter of the former Earl, and thus a great heiress.  But what makes the book so good – and so appropriate to this year – is Duran’s thorough understanding and depiction of the vast gulf between the classes.  Nell learns that not all problems can be solved with application of money.  And Simon gets a glimpse of how hard life can truly be for those not born to the purple.  Excellent, and timely.  Should be required reading for anyone who wants some historical context for the London riots (or OWS, for that matter).

Black Ties and Lullabies, Jane Graves

I’ve enjoyed many of Graves’ books, including several that she wrote as Jane Porter, but this one really stood out for me.  Jeremy Bridges is a computer guru millionaire;  Bernadette Hogan is his bodyguard.  When an attempted kidnapping forces them to spend the night together, Bernie ends up pregnant.  Again, part of what drew me to this story was the cross-cultural clash.  Bernie is former military.  She’s focused and hardworking, and doesn’t see the point of frills in her life… or anyone else’s.  Jeremy works just as hard (which was nice to see), but lets himself enjoy the fruits of his labours.  Wallows in them, to be precise.  Bernie wants him to sign away all rights to the child.  Jeremy wants a chance to create the family he’s never had.  Family is at the heart of this book:  the one’s we’re born to, the one’s we make;  how they derail our lives, and just how far we’ll change to make them better.

The Rose Garden, Susanna Kearsley

I wrote most of a column about this book, so I won’t say much more here except that it starts out full of sorrow and moves to a place full of grace and hope.  Gorgeous, and well worth reading.  And re-reading.

Goodnight Tweetheart, Teresa Medeiros

This is the lightest book on my list.  Abigail Donovan’s first book was a NYT bestseller and an Oprah pick.  Her second book is going nowhere, along with her career.  But when her publicist signs her up for a Twitter account, she encounters fellow user Mark Baynard, a professor on sabbatical who is travelling to all the places she’s longed to go.  As she connects with Mark, Abby begins to regain her confidence, and starts to write again.  But the thing about the internet is, you can be anyone you want.  And Abby discovers that not everything Mark has told her is true.   This novel could have been gimmicky and total fluff.  But though much of the story is told through tweets and DMs, Medeiros reaches unexpected emotional depths.  The pace is breezy, but the content packs punch.  It’s also the only Romance on the list that doesn’t have a definite happily-ever-after ending, just opens the door to the possibility of happiness.  A real pleasure to read.

How to Bake a Perfect Life, Barbara O’Neal

I’m still a bit iffy about including this book on the list.  It’s more uneven than many of O’Neal’s other titles, and I found the physical layout, with bread recipes at the end of many chapters, somewhat distracting.  BUT.  But… the connection between Ramona and Jonah, who meet first when she is a pregnant teenager then again in middle age, is pure and utterly lovely.  And one of the intertwined stories, that deals with a soldier badly wounded in Afghanistan, is intense and full of the practical consequences of that stupid, wasteful conflict.  It doesn’t match up to O’Neal’s best books, but I couldn’t stop reading it, and bits and scenes stayed with me for a long time.

Money Shot, Susan Sey

I read Sey’s first book because I wanted to read this one.  Her first book surprised me;  this one blew me away.  Maria di Guzman (Goose), is a Secret Service agent.  She’s smart, sexy, and always in control.  That is, until she ends up on Mishkwa Island, investigating the possibility of counterfeit.  There she meets Rush Guthrie.  A former military sniper, he’s now a Park Ranger, who finds that peace and quiet of his home is bringing him slowly coming back to life… a process that Goose’s arrival accelerates.  As Goose goes after the bad guys, Rush goes after Goose.  It could have been a procedural kinds of story; or even an inverted sort of caper.  Instead, Sey wrote a book of searing emotional intensity.  Goose’s past is a minefield, and her control is just a disguise. With Rush’s help, and his policy of scouring, unadulterated honesty, she begins to truly accept herself for the first time.  It’s not a perfect book, perhaps, but it resonated so strongly on an emotional level that I instantly forgave any small flaws.  Can’t wait to see where Sey’s going to go next.

Lover Unleashed, J.R. Ward

The world of Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood, with its extraneous ‘H’s, fight scenes, and intensely damaged heroes, is as addictive as crack, though nowhere near as damaging to the neurotransmitters.  This entry is about a female vampire, Payne.  She is a warrior, which is unheard of in vampire society, and she has been imprisoned much of her life because of her desire to fight and protect.  When she is seriously injured in combat, trauma surgeon Manny Manello is brought in to operate on her spine.  Manny is tough, competitive, and human.  But medically skilled as he is, it’s his emotional connection to Payne that heals her most.  Another excellent entry in the BDB, both for the main storyline, and the way it furthers the love stories of several of other characters.  Beginning a primary Romance as a subplot in another book is something Ward has always done beautifully;  in this novel, she also revisits earlier characters to show that happily-ever-after is a work in progress.  As usual, I’m left jonesing for the next fix.

The Cloud Roads, MarthaWells

I’ll admit it up front:  this one’s not a Romance.  It’s a Fantasy.  But there is the hint of a love story, so I’m going with it.  Moon has traveled across much of the Three Worlds.  He has lived among many different groundling races, but has never met another person like himself, with ability to shift between a groundling form and a winged form.  Since the only shifters he’s ever met are the terrifying and destructive Fell, he keeps his abilities to himself.  But when he’s ejected from yet another groundling settlement, he meets Stone, a Raksura like himself.  Stone convinces Moon to accompany him home, which starts all of the Raksura on an adventure they couldn’t have imagined.  Wells’ tone is pitch perfect, and her world-building is both magnificent and so subtle that it’s hard to see the breadth of it until you’re done gulping down the book as fast as possible.  Or maybe that was just me.  This is one of my picks for Best Book of the Year, and I cannot recommend it highly, or often, enough.


Chris Szego wishes everyone Merry and Happy, and reminds you that only total morons drink and drive.




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