Best of 2014: Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire

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I know, I know, I’m horribly late on finishing my best books of 2014 list. But I promised you 10, and I’m giving you 10—better late than never, right? Can’t even blame vacation this time; I’ve just been busy getting sick (ugh) and working on rewrites for The Demon Within (yay!) since I got back. But I’m sitting down, putting my nose to the grindstone, and finishing the list. But the nice thing about books is that they never go out of date, and you don’t have to worry about them leaving the movie theaters or anything like that. So even if I’m a little late, these books aren’t.

So my next pick for the top 10 books of 2014 is Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire.

The book description:

Rose Marshall died in 1952 in Buckley Township, Michigan, run off the road by a man named Bobby Cross—a man who had sold his soul to live forever, and intended to use her death to pay the price of his immortality. Trouble was, he didn’t ask Rose what she thought of the idea.

It’s been more than sixty years since that night, and she’s still sixteen, and she’s still running. They have names for her all over the country: the Girl in the Diner. The Phantom Prom Date. The Girl in the Green Silk Gown. Mostly she just goes by “Rose,” a hitchhiking ghost girl with her thumb out and her eyes fixed on the horizon, trying to outrace a man who never sleeps, never stops, and never gives up on the idea of claiming what’s his. She’s the angel of the overpass, she’s the darling of the truck stops, and she’s going to figure out a way to win her freedom. After all, it’s not like it can kill her.

You can’t kill what’s already dead.

Not until now.

Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series is one of my current favorites in urban fantasy. It keeps getting better and better, and it’s definitely worth a read if you haven’t done so already. I chose to focus on this book, though, because a) if you haven’t read the October Daye books already, jumping in at The Winter Long—the 8th book in the series, which was released in 2014—is just going to confuse the crap out of you, and b) Sparrow Hill Road is just so different from anything else she’s written. To tell you the truth, it’s different than anything else I’ve ever read.

I also just really, really dig ghost stories.

Sparrow Hill Road follows Rose Marshall through her afterlife as a road ghost, funneling the spirits of those who die in auto accidents into the afterlife. As the book was originally a set of short stories, the novel has an ambling, non-linear quality to it. Some readers might not like this, but I did; it seemed to fit Rose’s perception of the world as a ghost. The stories are tied together by Rose’s quest to evade Bobby Cross, the man who killed her in 1952 and who continues to chase her spirit long into her afterlife.

I was struck by the Americanness of the novel. America has always been a nation of cars and highways, and the entire novel revolves around that. McGuire has taken our America’s relative lack of history, our culture of fast food and fast cars and yearning to escape, and turned into a mythology. It’s incredibly well done, and surprisingly creepy.

It is also, at times, an achingly sad story. As Rose remains perpetually 16, doomed to wander the ghost roads forever, the world and the people she left behind slowly die. It’s always 1952 for Rose, but the living go on without her. I think that’s one of the appeals of ghost stories for me: this idea of always being on the outside looking in, longingly, at the world of the living. Rose is sometimes called upon to escort the people she was closest to in life to their afterlives. It’s one of these moments that provide the saddest—and the best—scene in the story.

There are moments of joy and moments of pain and moments of excitement in Rose’s afterlife, and all are told in such beautiful, precise detail that you feel them along with Rose. Sparrow Hill Road is not your usual fast-paced, kick-butt urban fantasy, but for those of you who are looking for a great ghost story, or for those of you who are looking for something different than the norm, it’s definitely worth the read. This is a stand-alone novel, but I hope McGuire revisits Rose and her friends at the Last Chance Diner; there are more stories left to tell here.

Best of 2014: Forged by Desire by Bec McMaster

My fifth pick for my best books of 2014 list is Forged by Desire by Bec McMaster.

The blurb:

A FEAR SHE CAN’T ESCAPE Ten years ago, Perry fled her thrall contract to find sanctuary among the Nighthawks. In that time, she’s become a respected woman of the Guard, and she’s wanted Garrett Reed for as long as she can remember. But when a new case takes a chillingly familiar turn, Perry finds herself once again in the path of a madman…only this time, there’s nowhere left to run.

A DESIRE THAT CAN’T BE TEMPERED Out of their depth and racing against time, Perry and Garrett must learn to trust the desire sparking between them…or risk losing themselves forever to the darkness stalking London’s streets.

I discovered McMaster’s London Steampunk series earlier this year. I was instantly captivated, and I read all the books in just a few days. McMaster’s taken familiar elements—vampires, steampunk—and mixed them up in a way that’s completely new and unique. In McMaster’s London, men of the nobility infect themselves with the “craving virus”—the disease that causes vampirism. In small doses, though, the craving virus causes increased strength, enhanced healing capabilities, and longer life. It can be controlled—until it can’t anymore and the infected turn into mindless vampires.

McMaster’s London is obviously a fantasy world, but I love the way she incorporates the classism and sexism that were so pervasive in real-life Victorian London into the fantasy.

This is the fourth book in the series, and it follows Perry, a Nighthawk (a law enforcement group for the infected) with a dark past. She’s been in love with her partner, Garrett, for years now, and Garrett has remained pretty much…oblivious.

Perry is a woman living in a man’s world; though she can and will wear a dress when the occasion arises, she prefers her fighting leathers. After an illicit kiss, Perry has been putting distance between herself and Garrett, fearing his rejection.

Garrett, who has recently been promoted to leadership of the Nighthawks, has been dropped into a role that doesn’t fit comfortably, and he misses his best friend. At the same time, he can’t stop himself from focusing on his newly discovered attraction to her. (This was, in fact, my one minor complaint with the book: they’d been partners for years, but it wasn’t until he saw her in a dress that he realized he was attracted to her? Oy.)

This will appeal to fans of Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London series. (Evernight, the fifth book in that series, was also featured in my “best of 2014” list.) It will also appeal to people who like their steampunk with a heavy dose of romance. Each book has a stand-alone storyline, however, there’s a heavy amount of world building in the first book, Kiss of Steel, so you might be a little bit lost if you jump in mid-series.

Best of 2014: Romancing the Billionaire by Jessica Clare

Romancing the Billionaire (Jessica Clare)

First of all, I have to apologize for being terribly, horribly behind on posting and my best books of 2014 list.  The holidays came and hijacked me, and I just haven’t had a chance to post or update or do much of anything since then.  As a matter of fact, I am still on vacation, and I will be until January 3.  I have a few more of these posts written, but I still have several more to write.  Between my day job and rewrites on The Demon Within, I am completely, utterly, massively burned out.  My brain is just exhausted, and I need this last week of peace and quiet before I can get back to the grindstone again.  So I’ll do my best.  The best of posts will get published, but I won’t get all 10 up before the end of the year.

With that out of the way, the next pick in my best books of 2014 is Romancing the Billionaire by Jessica Clare.

The blurb:

The Billionaire Boys Club is a secret society. Six men of astonishing wealth. But there’s one thing money can’t buy. When it comes to love, success doesn’t come so easily…

Jonathan Lyons. Playboy, billionaire, and adventurer, he lives life on the edge. When he hears that his mentor, Dr. Phineas DeWitt, had a secret journal that leads to a legendary artifact, Jonathan takes action. It stirs his blood, but it comes with a heady challenge: DeWitt’s daughter Violet. She has what Jonathan needs. And she’s not giving it up it to the man who broke her heart.

Violet is Jonathan’s weakness—he’s still in love despite their volatile breakup a decade ago. But Violet’s memories have a sharper edge. She’s never forgiven him for abandoning her. Or so she thought. When Jonathan’s attentions turn seductive, she’s in danger of falling for him all over again. And she can’t help but wonder…does he really want her, or just what she’s hiding?

Jessica Clare’s Billionaire Boys Club series has been a not-so-guilty pleasure of mine for about a year now.  Ever since I read Beauty and the Billionaire—which featured the beauty and the beast trope, one of my personal favorites—I’ve been hooked.  These fun, frothy books feature just the right combination of sexy romance and fantasy indulgence—how many among us get to date billionaires?—to whet your appetite when you’re in the mood for some light reading.

This installment features Violet, a schoolteacher whose workaholic, absentee father has just died, and Jonathan, Violet’s long-ago lover and her father’s former protégée.  Jonathan and Violet had a passionate relationship as teenagers, and they parted under bad circumstances.  Ten years later, they’re drawn together again after the death of Violet’s father to follow through with his last wishes: a scavenger hunt that takes them through their own shared past.

I’m a big fan of the trope of lovers reuniting after a long time apart; it always seems to give the relationship more weight and depth, not to mention more conflict.  Violet and Jonathan have a lot of hurt and misunderstanding to overcome before they can hope to be together again.  It’s also great to read about a couple whose relationship has already evolved beyond that initial stage of excitement and awkwardness.  Violet and Jonathan’s interaction is, at least at first, tinged with bitterness and regret, but there’s also this witty rapport that comes out of their mutual knowledge of one another.

This is not going to be the book for everyone.  It’s definitely lighter than my usual fare, and the only fantasy element is the dream of mingling with the 1%.  But it’s well-written and fun, with mystery and romance that keep you engaged throughout.  It’s also easy to jump in at any point in the series, so feel free to pick this one up first and work your way backward.

Best of 2014: Evernight by Kristen Callihan

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My next pick for my top 10 books of 2014 is Evernight by Kristen Callihan.

The blurb:

Once the night comes . . .

Will Thorne is living a nightmare, his sanity slowly being drained away by a force he can’t control. His talents have made him the perfect assassin for hire. But as he loses his grip on reality, there is no calming him-until he finds his next target: the mysterious Holly Evernight.

Love must cast aside the shadows

Holly cannot fathom who would put a contract on her life, yet the moment she touches Will, the connection between them is elemental, undeniable-and she’s the only one who can tame his bouts of madness. But other assassins are coming for Holly. Will must transform from killer to protector and find the man who wants Holly dead . . . or his only chance for redemption will be lost.

I love Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London series. Callihan combines a richly developed world with compelling characters and romances. Steampunk is becoming more and more popular now, but when the series debuted in 2012 it was one of the first I’d read. I loved the juxtaposition of historical, technological, and magical. Callihan thinks outside the box when it comes to the paranormal. Each of her paranormal beings feels new and fresh, even the ones we see commonly in paranormal fantasy (vampires, werewolves). Rather than follow established rules and mythologies, Callihan throws them all away and creates her own.

But the main reason I read these books—and where Callihan really shines—is with romance building. For me, the most thrilling part of a romantic novel isn’t the sex, but the sexual tension: when you can feel the desire between the characters building and evolving.

Nowhere are Callihan’s talents on better display than in Evernight. The book follows the relationship between Will, a Sanguis demon (a vampire who feeds on human emotions through blood and other body fluids) and Holly, a human with the ability to control metal. Because of (circumstances I will not disclose because they spoil the previous book), Will is turning into metal—and Holly, with her unique powers, is the only one who can control his pain and madness. He literally cannot stay away from her. Swoon! (I say this with the full acknowledgement that, if my boyfriend could not stay away from me, I would go crazy and likely defenestrate him within a week. Maybe less. But my own hypocrisy aside, it’s really sexy in book form.)

Each book in the series has a stand-alone storyline and focuses on a different couple, so you can pick up at any point in the series without significant problem. However, you’ll be missing out on a big chunk of worldbuilding—which is one of the main appeals of the series—if you don’t start at the beginning, so consider picking up Firelight first and moving through the series in chronological order. You won’t regret it.

Best of 2014: Banishing the Dark by Jenn Bennett

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My second pick for my top 10 books of 2014 is Banishing the Dark by Jenn Bennett.

The blurb:

In Book Four of the beloved urban fantasy series Romantic Times calls one “for your keeper shelf,” the ultimate mother-daughter fight is about to go down.

Complicated does not begin to describe Arcadia Bell’s life right now: unnatural magical power, another brush with death, and a murderous mother who’s not only overbearing but determined to take permanent possession of Cady’s body. Forced to delve deep into the mystery surrounding her own birth, she must uncover which evil spell her parents cast during her conception…and how to reverse it. Fast. As Cady and her lover Lon embark on a dangerous journey through her magical past, Lon’s teenage son Jupe sneaks off for his own investigation. Each family secret they uncover is darker than the last, and Cady, who has worn many identities–Moonchild, mage, fugitive–is about to add one more to the list.

Banishing the Dark is the fourth, and final, book in Bennett’s Arcadia Bell series. I, for one, am very sorry to see it go. Bennett’s world is incredibly fun and well-realized, populated with Earthbound demons with specific “knacks”—supernatural abilities—and human magic-users. Cady, the protagonist, is one such human magic user who comes to find out that the magic Moonchild ritual surrounding her conception have given her more power than she realizes, and that her beloved parents were not the people she thought they were.

But what has always drawn me to this series most is the characters, especially the supporting cast. Cady’s boyfriend, Lon, an Earthbound demon, is strong and reserved, a dominant personality who is capable of allowing Cady to take the lead when necessary. He’s significantly older than Cady (42 to her 25), which is realistically treated as an obstacle to their burgeoning relationship. By book 4, their relationship has become more established, but Bennett continues to find ways to keep their dynamic feeling fresh and compelling.

Lon’s son, Jupiter, is intelligent, exuberant, and talkative. He’s the complete opposite of most of the moody teens you see in fiction—and, quite frankly, in real life—and he’s a joy to read about. Banishing the Dark marks the first time he’s had point-of-view scenes in the series, and they’re great fun.

Unlike many fantasy series, where the main attraction are the supernatural aspects of the story, it’s the human factor that keeps me coming back to this series.

Bennett also has a way of writing suspenseful scenes that keep you glued to your seat. I read the book in one sitting, unable to put it down. Book 3 ends on a cliffhanger, and I spent a year anxiously awaiting this book. Once I got it, I wasn’t disappointed.

The arc of the series does build from book to book, so I’d recommend starting with book 1, Kindling the Moon.

Best of 2014: Burn For Me by Ilona Andrews

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So it’s the end of 2014, and in that spirit, I’ve decided to post about my 10 favorite books of the year. Here are the caveats:

–Only books published in 2014 were considered. (I read some AWESOME books in 2014, but they weren’t published this year, so I didn’t consider them for this list.)

–I am arranging the books alphabetically by author. (Sorting them beyond the top 10 would just be too complicated for me.)

–This is a completely subjective list. I have not read every book published this year, not by a long shot, and I just picked the top 10 based on the books I liked the best, the ones that really stuck with me. I am always looking for suggestions for more books I might enjoy.

–I’ll post another entry every few days until I get the top 10.

So for my first entry: Burn For Me by Ilona Andrews.

The blurb:

#1 New York Times bestselling author Ilona Andrews launches a brand-new Hidden Legacy series, in which one woman must place her trust in a seductive, dangerous man who sets off an even more dangerous desire . . .

Nevada Baylor is faced with the most challenging case of her detective career—a suicide mission to bring in a suspect in a volatile situation. Nevada isn’t sure she has the chops. Her quarry is a Prime, the highest rank of magic user, who can set anyone and anything on fire.

Then she’s kidnapped by Connor “Mad” Rogan—a darkly tempting billionaire with equally devastating powers. Torn between wanting to run and wanting to surrender to their overwhelming attraction, Nevada must join forces with Rogan to stay alive.

Rogan’s after the same target, so he needs Nevada. But she’s getting under his skin, making him care about someone other than himself for a change. And, as Rogan has learned, love can be as perilous as death, especially in the magic world.

What I loved about this book: Ilona Andrews (the pseudonym of a husband-and-wife writing team Ilona and Gordon) is/are one of the best fantasy writers out there. Period. If they ever got divorced, it would be a huge loss to the speculative fiction world.

Burn For Me is the start of a new series. One of Andrews’ strengths is world building, and they did not fail us here. The ability to use magic has created a caste system, and the country is dominated by powerful magical houses. Nevada is not one of these houses. Her family barely scrapes by on the revenues from her private detective work. But she has a powerful and rare gift—the ability to distinguish truth from lies—that she keeps hidden from everyone except those closest to her.

The book reminded me a bit of one of Andrews’ earlier words, Bayou Moon, in that Nevada is surrounded by a strong, supportive, colorful family. As such, Nevada, unlike many other heroines in the urban fantasy genre, has a profound sense of responsibility and family devotion, and she has a strong support network at her back.

Rogan is a tougher nut to crack. He’s abrasive, at times cruel, and frequently acts like a jackass. But there are glimmers to him that make you think that maybe he’s not as “mad” as he pretends to be. He’s everything you know you shouldn’t want in a boyfriend—but damn, he’s a lot of fun.

Speaking of fun, Ilona Andrews is one of the few writers who can make the villain—a pyrokinetic named Adam Pierce—almost as compelling as the hero. Andrews posted a blog entry several days after the release of the book asking readers whether they thought he could be redeemed. The discussion became very heated, no pun intended. How many other modern writers do you know who can inspire that much passion over the bad guy?

Even though the book has been marketed as a romance, it reads more like an urban fantasy. The romantic relationship here is more prominent than it is in Andrews’ Kate Daniels series, but it is definitely a slow burn, and it’s not the only thing going on here.

Bottom line: If you like complex world-building, intelligent heroines, badass but also possibly wounded heroes, and edge-of-your-seat fantasy stories, this one is for you. I have never picked up an Ilona Andrews book and been disappointed. This year, with both the release of Burn For Me and Magic Breaks, their seventh Kate Daniels novel, their awesomeness streak has continued.

Stay tuned for the rest of the top 10!