My reading habits have changed over the years: this year was definitely the year of the contemporary. Since it’s that time of year for reflection, I’ve looked back at some of my favorite books I’ve read. Thanks to suggestions on Twitter (I love being exposed to new-to-me authors through the latest “word of mouth” medium) I’ve discovered a few new authors this year, and continued my love affair with others that I’ve loved for ages. I found it interesting that quite a few books/authors that friends and acquaintances have raved about, I found ‘meh’. It’s a good exercise to remind me that reading is subjective for when my own reviews sneak up and attack my self-confidence.
Bear in mind that the list I’ve made for my favorite reads of 2010 is books I’ve read this year, not necessarily books that were published in 2010. A book is classified as a favorite read if it’s one I’ve re-read. Multiple times. One that makes me put the book down at the end with a sense of sadness that I have actually come to the end, because I want to stay in that world, to know more about those characters.
But best of all? Every single one of these books dragged me into the story until I’ve stayed up until 2 or 3 in the morning because I just couldn’t put them down. It was only once I was finished that I realized how deftly the author told the story and made me forget to put my authorly editors hat that’s so hard for me to take off. Since I’ve started seriously writing, the ability to make me forget to edit and simply read and enjoy — well, it’s priceless!
Oh, and the list below is not in order of preference, just as I remember them. I know that as soon as I hit post I’ll smack my forehead and say “How could I have forgotten (fill in the blank author-name)?” But it’s taken me over 3 hours to write this and it’s already far too long. So here goes…
1) Silverborne by Patricia Briggs. While the Mercy Thompson series isn’t shelved in the romance section but the Fantasy aisle, Silverborne was sooo romantic. Throughout the series, Mercy has been establishing a romantic relationship with neighbor and local alpha werewolf Adam Hauptmann (there has been an added entanglement from past boyfriend Sam, whom I also adore.) She finally made her decision and accepted Adam’s declaration that she was his mate in the last book, Bone Crossed, though you’ve known for a few books now what her decision would be.
It really was a book that I put down with a satisfied sigh, and I’ve read it more than a half dozen times since. That’s a real sign that it’s a keeper for me. I absolutely adore the world Patricia’s created, and the characters. Especially Sam and Adam. I’d say Yum but I feel it would be disrespectful. But still…Yum! (I should also mention I love her Alpha and Omega series following Sam’s brother Charles. Okay, so Charles is mated to Anna but I can have my fantasy that he’s still available, right? Or if I can’t, can I pretend to kill off Bran’s wife (who has the unfortunate name of Leah) and go after the Marrok himself? All three of the Cornick men are yummy…I really need to get away from that word, don’t I?)
Patricia is one of those authors who I admire because she can write so tightly, setting up a scene so you can visualize it without verging on over-description, letting us get into the characters’ skins and heads and identify with them. She’s at the top of my “I want to write like her when I grow up” list. Silverborne changed her listing from written in pen to chiseled in stone.
2. Simply Irresistible by Jill Shalvis. OMG why didn’t someone tell me about Jill earlier? If you did, why didn’t you make me listen? I absolutely adored Simply Irresistible and have since started buying Jill’s backlist. (I’ve already read the “Instant” series: Instant Attraction, Instant Gratification, Instant Temptation, more about those in a bit.)
When you start learning how to write, you struggle with how to show things about a character without resorting to telling, with balancing back-story…oh, I could go on and on. But on page 2 of Simply Irresistible, there was a paragraph that just left me gobsmacked and in awe:
…Exercising muscles she hadn’t utilized in too long, she smiled, and in celebration of arriving at her designated destination, she dug into the bag of salt and vinegar potato chips at her side. Chips cured just about everything, from the I-lost-my job blues, to the my-boyfriend-was-a-jerk regrets, to the tentatively hopeful celebration of a new beginning.
In two sentences, Jill’s given us an insight into Maddie and her backstory. “Exercising muscles she hadn’t utilized in too long, she smiled…” What a lovely subtle way of letting us know that Maddie’s not been happy for a long time. Then the next sentence tells you she’s lost her job, and her boyfriend and is about to start a new life. It would have taken me pages and pages to try and work that in. And the salt and vinegar chips? They play into it later too, as well as giving Maddie a quirk that most of us can identify with, whether it’s chips or chocolate.
There are two more paragraphs I’d love to quote from page 3, describing the rugged beauty of the area and also describing what it doesn’t have — blaring horns, etc — but it would make this too long (yeah, I know, too late) Suffice it to say, Jill’s going to be another of those authors I’m going to study to see if I can learn how to improve my own writing. And she’s definitely earned a place on that “when I grow up” list as well as earning Simply Irresistible a well-deserved place on my keeper shelf.
3) Jill Shalvis‘ Wilder Brother series. In Instant Attraction Cam has to accept that the life he had, the career he had, has changed thanks to a horrific snowboarding accident that left him unable to compete professionally anymore, and he has to stop running from accepting it. Katie survived a horrible bridge collapse (I flashed on the bridge collapse in Minneapolis a few years back, which helped me accept the reality of what she survived) and has embraced life to its fullest, refusing to allow her fears to hold her back anymore. The two are facing similar choices in life but approaching them separately, each helping the other to make a decision about their future.
Instant Gratification follows Cam’s brother Stone as he hooks up with city doctor Emma who is in Wishful while her father, the country doctor, recovers from a heart attack. I liked Stone, though I found Emma harder to connect with, but I’ll own that as my own issue as a reader. What I could connect with was the differences with city life to life in a snow belt. The way you have to approach going out the door, or even if you should go out the door, changes completely when you’re out in the sticks during a snowstorm.
Instant Temptation follows the oldest Wilder brother, TJ. The heroine, Harley, and he have a history, one that he’s not aware of. I really liked this couple. I liked that TJ owned up to what he’d done, and that Harley couldn’t immediately get over it when he apologized — and he did apologize (Yay for the alpha male who can do that!) I’m all for forgiveness but…if a dog bites me, I can forgive it but I’m not likely to try to pat it afterward. So I found Harley’s inability to just say “Oh, hey, well, if you say sorry, then everything’s hunky dory” more realistic.
What I loved about these books is how I felt I could walk down the street (or head up to our ski hills) and run into any of these characters. I LOVE stories that are in the normal world, with normal characters that I can identify with. (I lived in a snowbelt area with ski hills where the first seat in the bus was kept free for whoever had broken a limb on the slopes. So yes, I used to hang with snowmobile racers and downhill skiers. I even dated one.) So yup, I could buy into these characters, even if they were slightly more heroic than the guys I knew. (But hey, it is shelved in the FICTION section after all.)
What really impressed me, and what I’ll be studying as a writer, is how the conflict is from within the characters. There’s no world war to be stopped, no major geological disaster to be battled. You see, writers are constantly told there has to be conflict on every page to keep a reader interested. I can’t tell you how many books and seminars I’ve been to that tell me to write that bestselling novel you have to ramp up the conflict — you have to make the consequences something desperate that will make the reader root for the protagonist, usually by adding a ticking clock (sometimes literally, like a bomb is going to go off, sometimes more subtle, a decision that has to be made within a week that will tear the hero/heroine apart). But when adding in what I refer to as Big C Conflict, what happens is the characters, to me, become less…realistic. Less like someone I’d encounter, someone I could be. After all, how many of us really think we could stop a bomb by outselves, or go on the run with a strange who claims to be a former SEAL and the only one capable of saving my life?
I also have to remind myself that conflict doesn’t have to be big save-the-world CONFLICT, it can also mean “small c conflict“. The decisions that Katie and Cam face. The type of decisions we face every single day.And that’s what I want, both to read and to write, characters I can connect with, characters who overcome the type of problems I–and other normal mortals–face every day. And that’s what I loved about the entire Instant series — they were problems I’ve faced, or I could imagine regular/normal people having to make. Okay, so we may not have survived a plunge off a collapsing bridge, and may not have been world-class snowboarders, but we’ve all had fears and obstacles we’ve had to overcome.
4) Another contemporary series I adored this year was Victoria Dahl‘s Tumble Creek series. I’ve discovered not only do I love contemporary stories, but I love them when they’re set in small towns. Probably because I grew up in a rural location and can identify with communities where everyone’s related to everyone and it’s impossible to keep a secret because everyone’s into everyone else’s business.
Talk Me Down follows Molly, an erotic romance writer who returns to her roots in the small town of Tumble Creek only to tumble for the sheriff who isn’t quite sure what to make of Molly’s profession. I listed it on my Best Books of 2009 post last year, by the way. And looking back on it, I think it needs to be nudged up that list.
Lead Me On follows Quinn’s secretary Jane who is trying desperately to leave behind her red-neck blue-collar roots and become respectable, only to fall for Chase who is the type of guy she would have dated “before” she attained her ‘respectability’. I absolutely adored the hero Chase, and could identify with Jane’s struggle to leave her past behind. And *fans self* Victoria knows how to write sexy love scenes.
And again, I can see going grocery shopping and meeting any of these characters in the produce section. Or maybe the dairy section as they pick up a can of whipped cream. In fact, I think I may have. They’re all vibrant characters, with strengths and weaknesses that you can identify with. And I adore Victoria’s “voice” as she tells each story. She’s an author who I’d love to sit down with over coffee and ask a zillion questions, especially about how she manages to keep her contemporary voice so fresh while writing historicals at the same time. (I’ve tried it, it’s tough to keep the historical/contemporary voices separate.)
5) She’s Gone Country by Jane Porter is firmly entrenched on my keeper shelf. It wasn’t shelved in the romance section at my local Chapters but in the regular fiction section as it’s classified as Women’s Fiction. I’ve met Jane — she sat down with me and my critique partner over coffee when we were at an RWA conference in Dallas in 2007. She is all that is gracious and lovely as a person, and as a writer, she’s so talented. I loved She’s Gone Country for once again making me believe in the characters.
I liked that the heroine, Shey, is in her late 30s (I’m tiring of heroines who are my children’s ages. It’s me, it’s not them, but early 20 somethings still have so much to experience before they turn into the wise-souls some authors make them. Which is one reason why I stopped reading historicals — I just couldn’t buy into 19 year old heroines solving all their 30 year old hero’s problems.) Anyway, enough about me….
Shey’s dealing with the aftermath of a divorce after her husband has come out of the closet. (Yes, I do have friends dealing with this situation.) She’s taken her three sons back to her hometown in Texas and is struggling to provide for them. One of her boys decides he wants to be a rodeo star and Shey introduces him to a former high school crush, Dane. Dane, of course, is dealing with his own issues and the two dance around each other, and their problems, as they explore the relationship they didn’t have in high school while dealing with all the problems of small town life, and interfering family. That checked a whole bunch of “I can relate” boxes.
6) Shannon Stacey hit three home runs this year with her Exclusively Yours, Undeniably Yours and Holiday Sparks. Yup, they’re all contemporaries. (In fact, I think Shannon is one of the people who urged me (several times) to try reading Jill Shalvis’ books.)
Exclusively Yours was one of Carina Press’ launch titles. OMG what a great book they chose for their launch. If you like Jill’s writing, or Victoria’s, you’ll love Shannon’s as well. She has a knack of being able to weave several storylines together and make you care about each couple. Because not only does Exclusively Yours follow the main couple Keri (who is a reporter) and Joe (who is a bestselling author a la Stephen King) but Shannon follows two other couples in the Kowalski clan as they go ATVing and camping in the New Hampshire wilds. I fell in love with them all.
In Undeniably Yours, Shannon’s tag line One-night stand + two percent condom failure rate = happily ever after? hooked me right from the get-go. Joe’s brother (and bar owner) Kevin Kowalski and Beth hook up and have a night of wild and (they think) safe sex. Except that condoms are not 100%. Hence the tagline. Beth finds herself pregnant. Kevin, who would love to have a family of his own, mans up and proposes but Beth, who is a gypsy at heart, isn’t as sure it’s the right thing to do. And yes, the rest of the Kowalski clan shows up, each with a loudly voiced opinion on what should be done.
As the owner of a home with aluminum wiring, I TOTALLY empathized with the heroine Chloe in Holiday Sparks who turns on the microwave and blows a fuse. And the note her mother left her about the wiring — yup, been there too. I can’t turn on my hairdryer in my upstairs bathroom if someone is running the electric lawnmower off the power plug in the backyard. Nor can I run the dishwasher in the kitchen if I have the fireplace fan running in the family room (which is also on a different floor) without blowing a fuse. And sadly, I could identify with a scene where the hero Scott is trying to thread a wire through a wall into the attic and Chloe freaks out, afraid she touched a mouse while sticking her hand into the wall to catch the wire. (Head meet desk while quietly sobbing. Don’t ask about that one right now.) I always admire authors of novellas for managing to pack an entire storyline into 30,000 words. Shannon manages to pack a month’s worth of romance into Holiday Sparks without making you feel like you’re cheated of any storyline. She knows how to write a character I can connect with, to write a romance I can believe in, and leave me satisfied at the end.
7) After reading (and falling in love with) Lauren Dane’s Laid Bare last year (I listed it as one of my Best Books of 2009), I was thrilled to get my hands on this year’s continuation of her Brown Family series. Coming Undone follows Brody Brown, the big brother who kept the family together by giving up his dreams of art school and becoming a tattoo artist that is a continuing theme with all the characters. I loved that this big guy who would probably scare the bejeezus out of me in real life if I passed him in an alleyway had such a soft side, especially with Elise, his ballerina neighbor.
The third book in the series Inside Out came out this fall and I found myself falling in love with Cope as he hooks up with his heroine Ella (whom you meet in Laid Bare — she works in Erin’s cafe). Since Cope is Ben’s brother, Lauren weaves in the original threesome from Laid Bare into the storyline and you get a glimpse into the problems their lifestyle decision has brought upon them.
I don’t think I could choose a favorite amongst these three books, they’re all equally good. And I have already read each of them multiple times as I hope that Lauren’s talent rubs off and influences me to make my own writing better. Because, lordy, is Lauren ever talented at writing flawed yet believable and likeable characters. She’s another highlighted author on my “when I grow up, I want to write just like her” list.