Happy New Year’s Eve, friends, and welcome to the final Best Of list of 2017! In a year that, for some of us, has been difficult to find things to be grateful for and to remain hopeful of, there has been one constant–the books into which we escape. I remain ever grateful for the joy they bring, and thankful for the authors who continue to share their stories of love and hope with us.
Here’s to a 2018 that finds us all reaching out to each other in a spirit of community, in search of ways to make the world a little kinder place to exist. Peace and blessings to you all.
And now, in no particular order, here are my favorite books of 2017!
Paragon: The Vertex Trilogy by Soren Summers – One of the more impressive feats accomplished in this series, which I didn’t process until the final scenes of Paragon, is just how claustrophobic the setting is, and how brilliantly Soren Summers draws readers into this oppressive survival-of-the-fittest atmosphere, thanks in large part to the limited POV and Jarod’s present tense narration. In Monster, the bulk of the storyline takes place within the Vertex compound which, while sprawling, is isolated and heavy with danger and pathos; Parasite is confined to the Hive, the abandoned mall that became a survivors’ shelter, where its residents are often little more than bait and moving targets for the zombies just outside its doors; and in Paragon, it’s a mélange of everything, but the more cloying and confining element of this book is encompassed within the basest subliminal fear it engenders. It’s the not knowing what to expect around every corner, whom and what to fear most, and if there is anything ‘out there’ beyond the walls of Pleasance even worth fighting and living for that gets you.
Everything Between Us: A Story of Love and Chaos by Stephen Hoppa – Boy howdy, kids, this book is a wee bit filthy and I loved it.
First off, let me start by stating unequivocally that if you’re looking for a sweet and tender romance, this is not that book. Author Stephen Hoppa not only offers up a wildly dysfunctional relationship in the making in Everything Between Us, but there’s a bit of humiliation kink at play in Nate and Ethan’s dominance and submission as well. The beauty of it, though, is that while it doesn’t fit the traditional definition of romantic, these characters still managed to touch my heart in myriad ways, and I have to give the author much respect for his ability to write around some of the darker themes and elements in a way that still allowed me to see this couple as deserving of a happy ending.
The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian – The story’s slow burn of attraction is written so well against the professional and personal distance Georgie and Lawrence attempt to maintain, each for his own reasons, and I loved the stark physical contrast of these two men. Cat Sebastian drew each scene to perfection, crafted a historical setting that grounds readers in the time period without burdening the storyline, and brings Lawrence’s home to the fore in such vivid detail—think the west wing of the Beast’s castle. There isn’t a single character introduced that appears as nothing more than set dressing, and the dialogue helps tell the story as well as the narrative does. When Georgie and Lawrence begin to give in to and act on their attraction to each other, the tension shifts from denial of their feelings to the secrets Georgie is keeping, and the fact that his intentions weren’t at all honest, not to mention legal, when he began this particular con. The conflict of conscience that leads to the novel’s touching and tense climax was really the cherry on top of the story’s sweet romantic arc.
Vintage: A Ghost Story by Steve Berman – There are some light and so sweet moments in this novel, but make no mistake, there is a dark side too, and that darkness may not be palatable to some readers. Goth Boy ran away from home for a reason. He can communicate with the dead for a reason. Some of the ways those people died are heartbreaking and ugly. And Josh’s visitations…they become more disturbing and threatening. There’s a cemetery scene that’s so, so excellent and terrifying; Berman wrote the hell out of that scene in particular, and it might just be my favorite in the book—which is saying something because there’s so much I loved about this novel. But, there are memories that come to life in the telling of this tale, some that left me horrified because they are powerful, so be aware that this is Gothic Horror and not Teen Romance Lite with a side of Paranormal ghost story.
Stoker & Bash: The Fangs of Scavo by Selina Kray – I loved every single thing about this book: Kray’s voice and gift for grounding the reader in the time and place; the mystery and the story of the fangs; the way she introduced and then layered her characters until they became real and fascinating and diverse people within the framework of their story. Most of all, though, I loved the evolution of Kip’s character. He’s often described as unremarkable, but so is everyone when compared to Bash, and his history is fascinating, especially when it comes to a past that haunts him. Tim’s efforts to smother and squash his attraction to Hiero was as touching as his denial that any sort of future, never mind happiness, with the beautiful and enigmatic and confounding man could be for a man such as him.
Kray writes with such grace and substance, which made this book a pleasure to get lost in for a while. And anyone who invokes Wilde (he had to get his inspiration from somewhere!) is doing everything right in my book.
Recovery by Amy Rae Durreson – One of my many favorite things—because the entire book is one favorite thing after another, to be honest—is the way Durreson populates every one of these stories with an array of characters who each stands out in their own way. From dragons to selkies to nixies to a hydra to pirates to the Queen of the River to the humans who populate Aliann, Recovery is filled from cover to cover with characters that enrich the whole of the story and fire the imagination; in particular, the pirate Kastrian, Prince of the Sea. I ended up loving him a lot more than I thought I would, and it appears he will feature prominently in the next book(s), as will another of Arden’s brothers, Markell. Another highlight among the many is I absolutely love that this world allows for strong male and female and non-binary characterizations. Durreson doesn’t populate this series with caricatures or cookie cutter characters, which I appreciate as much for their representation as I do for the smart dialogue.
Rule Breaker by Lily Morton – It’s not such an easy feat to find a contemporary category romance novel that rises to the top of, and even transcends, the abundance of good gay romantic fiction out there. Rule Breaker does. It makes its own excellence seem effortless, owing to the author’s way with words, sense of humor, and instincts for drawing a character such as Gabe with just enough vulnerability to temper his multitude of sins. There is a warmth to this novel that contradicts Gabe’s coldness, a sweetness that overcomes the bitter wreckage of Dylan’s heart. When the inevitable happens, the devastation is awful. When Dylan and Gabe are given a second chance, the outcome is breathtaking.
There isn’t a single thing I didn’t love about this book and the way its story and characters are crafted. Fair warning, though: this is one of those marathon binge reads. Once you start, you may not want to stop until The End. And then you may want to start reading it all over again. Yeah, it’s that good.
Be My Best Man by Con Riley – It’s a nifty trick to tell a complicated story and yet make it feel so quiet and uncluttered and natural. The dialogue reveals the characters and tells their story, as well, and they evolve organically while their circumstances lend a sense of realism to the problems they’re facing. The bonds of friendship and family figures prominently, and this serves as an important layer in Vanya and Jason’s story, through Jason’s brother and his fiancée as well as the closest thing to a family Vanya now has, friends Kaspar and Anna.
Every single moment of watching Vanya and Jason grow closer is beautiful, and I love how their difference in age was the least of the obstacles in their getting together. So much of this is owed to Vanya, to his experiences and dreams, his seeing Jason’s heart and character rather than focusing on the way time has marked Jason’s features and grayed his hair. I also love that their relationship isn’t rushed in the least. For things to have moved too quickly would have been disingenuous to their entire relationship and the things Vanya is keeping from Jason. Not to mention the fact that I wouldn’t have had the wonderful opportunity to play witness to the way the title is the heart of the story.
Axios: A Spartan Tale by Jaclyn Osborn – Stripped down to the sum of its parts—a romance, historical fiction, or a hero’s journey, this book succeeds on all fronts. Every scene in this novel is crafted with an eloquence that in some ways is reminiscent of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. If you’ve never read that novel, it’s one of the highest compliments I can pay to Axios. If you have read that novel, then you’re more than familiar with the level of excellence this equates to. Trust me, I don’t compare books to Miller’s brilliance lightly. Some of the romantic passages Osborne crafted, however, evoke the same depth of love that Achilles and Patroclus shared, and when spoken by Eryx, a man not often given to emotion, those words resonate all the more.
The hardest part of loving a book is when you have to let it go and move on. Axios: A Spartan Tale is one of those books that has it all: romantic to the extreme, picturesque in a way only an accomplished wordsmith can achieve, with a warmth and a playful humor contrasting the merciless reality of war.
Hexslayer by Jordan L. Hawk – Once again, Jordan L. Hawk makes the setting and atmosphere of this novel come to life, as if it is itself a character that shifts and sets the tone and mood of each scene simply by being present in the narrative. It’s some powerful good scribing when you can ‘feel’ a scene through the author’s choice of words, and it’s one of the things that makes this author’s books so much fun to read—the ability to disconnect from reality amidst the sights and sounds and smells of another world, and then emerge on the other side of it with more characters to love. I always love the animal mannerisms that emerge from the human side of her familiars, as well. It’s such a fun method of layering their characters with distinction.
Jamie’s backstory lends a note of heartbreak to the storyline, one that made me wish we’d got to know his ex-lover a bit more intimately before he died. We also get a much clearer picture of the overall series arc in Hexslayer, which promises to be exciting, compelling and will surely breed more death and mayhem before Hawk types The End on this series.