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Happy New Year!! I thought I would start off 2017 by celebrating the best of the books I read last year. Rather than do my usual Top 10 list, I thought I’d try something new this year and list my favorites in various categories, with links to (and quotes from) my reviews.

BEST HISTORICAL FICTION (WWII)

A Moment Forever by Cat Gardiner

A Moment Forever Cover LARGE EBOOK

A Moment Forever is not a book you merely read; Gardiner ensures you actually live the story — from the overindulgence of Long Island’s Gold Coast to the wartime excitement in the Big Apple, from the airfields and USO dances and the fashions of the ’40s to the solemnity of Paris 50 years after the roundup of its Jewish residents for deportation. There are so many layers to this story, and I never wanted it to end.

BEST HISTORICAL FICTION (OTHER ERA)

Lost Among the Living by Simone St. James

lost among the living

Simone St. James is a new-to-me writer, and as soon as I finished Lost Among the Living I determined that I must read her previous novels, which all seem to be equally suspenseful. I loved her writing here, particularly the passages that describe the intensity of Jo and Alex’s relationship, which enable readers to feel Jo’s grief and the frustration inherent in not knowing Alex’s fate. I also liked that while there was romance and passion, Lost Among the Living is at its core a ghost story, but it’s so much more than that. St. James shows the impact of the war on the returning soldiers and the women whose men never came home, as well as the blurring of the boundaries between social classes and how greed and selfishness can tear families apart.

BEST AUSTEN VARIATION (REGENCY)

Mr. Bennet’s Dutiful Daughter by Joana Starnes

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Mr. Bennet’s Dutiful Daughter is a beautifully written novel, with just the right amount of angst to move me to the brink of tears without making me put the book down in despair. Starnes has a knack for putting Elizabeth and Darcy in impossible situations, delving deep into their souls, and keeping readers on the edge of their seats as they wonder how a happily ever after will be achieved. I loved the pacing of the novel, and Starnes does a wonderful job evolving their relationship through many ups and downs as they navigate the challenges posed by their families and themselves.

BEST AUSTEN VARIATION (MODERN)

Without a Conscience by Cat Gardiner

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Like Denial of Conscience, Without a Conscience is sexy (definitely for mature audiences only) and exciting from the very first page. Gardiner is a fantastic storyteller who weaves clever plots and navigates Darcy and Liz through the twists and turns while further evolving their relationship. In the midst of the danger and excitement, Gardiner provides plenty of humor, and the obvious rivalry between Liz and Caroline had me laughing out loud several times. The novel is perfectly paced, and there’s just something about Gardiner’s writing style that has me hanging on every word.

BEST AUSTEN VARIATION (SECONDARY CHARACTERS)

The Trouble to Check Her by Maria Grace

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The Trouble to Check Her exemplifies why Grace is one of my favorite authors of Austen-inspired fiction. Her attention to detail in terms of character development and the history of the era is fantastic, and I hope there is another book in the series (mainly because I want to find out what happened to Jane Bingley after her falling out with Elizabeth Darcy).

BEST AUSTEN VARIATION (OTHER)

The Elizabeth Papers by Jenetta James

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I enjoyed reading both Elizabeth’s diary and about the rocky start to Charlie and Evie’s relationship and their determination to find Elizabeth’s papers. I especially loved how James showed that even Austen’s beloved couple likely didn’t have a perfect marriage, and by telling that story from the point of view of Elizabeth, readers are able to see her insecurities and her frustration while having little clue what Darcy is thinking or feeling, which creates just the right amount of tension. I also loved getting a glimpse of the Darcys and their family years into their marriage, so they are no longer bright-eyed newlyweds but older and wiser and settled into their life together. Charlie and Evie’s story was exciting and even had some similarities to Darcy and Elizabeth’s, and Charlie’s client, Cressida Carter, is very Caroline Bingley-esque. The dual narratives were seamlessly connected, and the shifts between the two were timed perfectly to ensure readers can’t put the book down.

MOST UNIQUE AUSTEN VARIATION

The Many Lives of Fitzwilliam Darcy by Beau North and Brooke West

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The Many Lives of Fitzwilliam Darcy is unique and exciting. It made me laugh, and it left me in tears, so much so that my husband kept asking if I was okay and I worried I would short out my Kindle! It’s been a while since I’ve been so emotionally affected by a Pride and Prejudice variation. It’s absolutely one of the best books I’ve read this year, possibly one of my all-time favorites, and definitely one I won’t forget!

BEST HOLIDAY NOVEL

Lucky 13  by Cat Gardiner

lucky 13

Oh, how I loved this novel! Gardiner is a master at bringing Jane Austen’s characters into the present day and turning up the heat (and the laughs). From their heated arguments to their heated encounters at the jaw-dropping calendar audition and the chest-oiling photo shoot, I couldn’t get enough of this Lizzy and Darcy. The secondary characters are equally entertaining, from Jane, the supermodel with a secret, to Caroline, the matchmaking poochie mama, and especially Charlotte (aka “Punky) and Darcy’s cousin, Rick (aka “Preppy”), who are the most obnoxious of the numerous matchmakers.

BEST POETRY COLLECTION

The Jane and Bertha in Me by Rita Maria Martinez

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Martinez’s poems are full of vivid imagery (“The Bertha in me sleeps until three in the afternoon and sits on the back porch with a cup of Earl Grey that quells the desire to chop up her crotchety landlord,” from “The Jane and Bertha in Me”), sensual (“Charlotte’s manuscript sepulchered like an incorruptible saint, splayed on its back like a woman whose architecture I want to touch,” from “At the British Library”), insightful (“Pain caused by first love never truly subsides,” from “Jane’s Denial”), and even humorous (“She’ll be sorry for canoodling with the missionary, thinks Rochester, who’s exceeded his cursing quota and looks like Wolverine,” from “Jane Eyre: Classic Cover Girl”). Martinez even writes about Brontë herself, from her different personas to the migraines she suffered through in order to create her “pristine prose” (from “The Literature of Prescription”).

BEST SHORT STORY/COLLECTION

“Tea Time” by Tiffani Burnett-Velez

tea-time

I finished reading “Tea Time” in less than half an hour, and I was satisfied with the abrupt ending even though I wasn’t ready for the story to be over. The final few lines pack a punch and made it a story I won’t soon forget. I can’t wait to read more from Burnett-Velez.

FAVORITE COVER

Undercover by Cat Gardiner

undercover book cover

Gardiner is a fantastic storyteller who had me hooked from the very first page. The use of slang from the era, her vivid descriptions, the steamy scenes, and the murder mystery are handled so perfectly that I could picture the entire book in my head, as though I were actually watching a black-and-white hard-boiled crime drama on the screen. She moved Austen’s characters into 1952 New York City in a way that felt true to them. I loved that she gave Darcy a painful back story and that Elizabeth and Jane weren’t the best of friends. Gardiner’s portrayal of Georgiana as a modern and independent though innocent and sheltered young woman is handled beautifully, as is Lydia’s downfall at the hands of Slick Wick.

****

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Some of the more memorable 5-star books from 2016 (click the covers to read my reviews)

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denial-of-conscience

undeceived

COAOEB cover

Miss Darcy's Companion front cover_V4

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Liebeslied-Final-Kindle

the forgotten room

What were your favorite books of 2016? I’d love to know!

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fall of poppies

Source: Review copy from William Morrow
Rating: ★★★★★

We were a wounded people — walking wounded — with some of us more scarred inside than our exteriors revealed. Who and what was going to glue us together again?

Love.

(from “After You’ve Gone” by Evangeline Holland in Fall of Poppies)

Quick Summary: Fall of Poppies is a collection of stories by nine contemporary best-selling authors all set on or near Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. Each of these stories beautifully tell a tale of love and hope, but also loss and pain. These stories detail the ways in which World War I, or the Great War, forever upended lives. From a young girl who finds love while helping create facial masks for wounded soldiers to an airman whose fear of loneliness prompts him to make a spontaneous offer right before going into combat, Fall of Poppies shows the impact of war, both the horrifying and the uplifting.

Why I wanted to read it: I’m drawn to stories set during the Great War, and I’ve enjoyed novels by several of these authors in the past.

The Stories: “The Daughter of Belgium” by Marci Jefferson * “The Record Set Right” by Lauren Willig * “All for the Love of You” by Jennifer Robson * “After You’ve Gone” by Evangeline Holland * “Something Worth Landing For” by Jessica Brockmole * “Hour of the Bells” by Heather Webb * “An American Airman in Paris” by Beatriz Williams * “The Photograph” by Kate Kerrigan * “Hush” by Hazel Gaynor

What I liked: I loved all of the stories in this collection, and it was hard to choose my favorites. The settings are varied, including an abandoned hospital in Belguim, an estate in England, the sky above the trenches, and various places in France, and the characters are all unique and memorable in their personalities and circumstances. This variety, coupled with the ability of each of these authors to quickly pull readers into their stories, made me want to read the entire book in one sitting but also made me glad that the chaos of daily life forced me to savor these stories over a longer period.

What I disliked: I only wish that I could’ve spent more time in each of these stories to see how the characters fared years after the war.

Final thoughts: People have a tendency to remember exactly where they were during important dates in history, and Fall of Poppies shows where the characters in each story were — both physically and emotionally — when the Great War ended. In the aftermath of the war, countless people wondered how to move forward and rebuild their lives after they lost so much, but these stories show that even in the midst of all the grief, there was a sense of relief and hope. At a time when I’m culling tons of books from my library and keeping very few new arrivals in the interests of space, Fall of Poppies has earned a permanent spot on the shelves and likely will be re-read at some point. Definitely a contender for my “Best of 2016” list!

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the Fall of Poppies tour.  Click here to follow the tour.

Disclosure: I received Fall of Poppies from William Morrow for review.

© 2016 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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the forgotten room

Source: Review copy from NAL
Rating: ★★★★★

But it was better this way, wasn’t it? Better that she pretended it hadn’t happened. Better that the door to the room upstairs remained shut, because what beckoned beyond it — she had a vague impression of colors and vibrancy and imagination and laughter, something extraordinary and never ending — was nothing more than a fairy tale.

(from The Forgotten Room)

Quick summary: In 1944, Kate is a doctor at Stornaway Hospital who is drawn to one of her patients, Captain Cooper Ravenel, who seems to recognize her from somewhere, though she’s never seen him before. The mystery of a miniature portrait and a ruby pendant bring them together while the reality of their lives outside the hospital threaten to keep them apart. In 1920, Lucy is a secretary for a dashing lawyer whom she believes holds the key to uncovering her true identity, but she is captivated by a smooth-talking art dealer from Charleston who is looking for the truth about his father. In 1892, Olive is a housemaid seeking revenge against the wealthy family who tore her family apart, but her attraction to the charming, artistic Harry Pratt could be her undoing. The Forgotten Room is a beautifully written collaboration by Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig that follows three generations of women as they navigate society’s constraints, love and loss, secrets and betrayals — all connected to an attic room in a Gilded Age mansion in Manhattan.

Why I wanted to read it: I’m a big fan of Karen White, and I was intrigued by the mystery and the World War II setting.

What I liked: I loved this novel from the start. The women’s stories switch from chapter to chapter, and the layers of the mystery are gradually and beautifully unraveled. The writing is so seamless, it’s hard to believe that it’s a collaboration among three authors. I felt like I truly knew and understood all three women, and I loved that each was ambitious, hardworking, and strong.  There were some aspects of the story that were predictable, but there also were some twists and turns that I didn’t expect. I also equally enjoyed each of the narratives, which is unusual for me when the story shifts back and forth in time.

What I disliked: Sometimes it was hard for me to keep track of all the characters and their connections, but that’s only a minor quibble. There are some pretty amazing coincidences that occur throughout the novel, which are hard to believe, but it is fiction after all.

Final thoughts: I was surprised by how emotional I was at the end of the book. I liked that the stories weren’t all happily ever after and tied up neatly, but that made me a bit sad, too, because I’d grown so connected to the characters. The Forgotten Room is a rich novel with memorable characters whose stories span more than five decades, from the Gilded Age to Prohibition to World War II. The authors did a fantastic job with each setting, and the pacing was spot on. I really hope they team up again for another novel!

Disclosure: I received The Forgotten Room from NAL for review.

© 2016 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Public library
Rating: ★★★★★

I’d had to learn everything from pounds, shillings, and pence to the proper technique for securing a hat with a single long pin; I’d borne all of it under the bruising weight of an impossibly profound grief.  And my brain was at last getting used to it all–to the foreignness, of course, but also the unexpected fact that it was so…ordinary.  Strange, without all the modern machines and clothes and conveniences, and yet familiar.  Bread tasted like bread.  Rain fell as wetly as ever.

Julian was still Julian.

(from Overseas, page 19)

I’m not a big fan of romances, but after reading Mrs. Q’s review of Overseas, I knew I had to get my hands on this book, and I immediately put it on hold at the library.  Beatriz William’s story of a timeless love and time travel set in Amiens, France, on the Western Front of World War I in 1916 and on Wall Street in 2008 hooked me from the first page, and thankfully I had no plans this past Sunday because I spent the entire day just eating up this book.

Overseas is narrated by 25-year-old investment banker Kate Wilson, who has worked hard to land a position in the Capital Markets department of Sterling Bates and sworn off men in the process.  She keeps her cool in an atmosphere of butt-kissing and back-stabbing, but she’s caught off guard when Julian Laurence, the billionaire head of a hedge fund, shows an interest in her, then just as suddenly disappears from her life.  Their paths cross a few months later, and there’s no denying that the attraction between them is still there.

Julian is very gentlemanly and old fashioned, a man who longs to take care of the woman he loves, but Kate is a modern, independent woman.  When a scandal erupts at Sterling Bates, it pains Kate to have to seek shelter with Julian, who senses a danger that he can’t possibly explain to Kate.  He’ll do whatever it takes to protect her and take care of her needs, even insisting that all of his money and possessions also are hers, but Kate finds it all a bit stifling.

At the same time that Williams takes readers through all the ups and downs of Julian and Kate’s relationship, she also transports them back to the Great War, telling the story of Captain Ashford, a famous war poet, and the woman who loves him so much she’ll do anything to prevent him from going back to the front.  The way in which Williams merges the two stories kept me on the edge of my seat, and just when I thought I had it all figured out, she’d surprise me again.

Overseas is one of those books that requires readers to just go with the flow, to not think too much about the why and the how.  Even when the professions of undying devotion got to be a bit too much, even when I felt that the secondary characters could have been better developed, I was still captivated by this story and had to know how it would all play out.  Williams made me care about Kate and Julian and made me believe their story, no matter how unbelievable it really was.  I honestly was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book; it definitely has its flaws, but it offered some mindless fun for a lazy afternoon.

Book 12 for the WWI Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I borrowed Overseas from the public library.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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