Saturday, April 29, 2017

My Favorite #Books #AtoZChallenge #amreading

Welcome to my own version of April’s “A to Z Blog Challenge” – a list of 26 of my favorite books, connected as well as possible to the letters of the alphabet.  This is not really the way the blogging challenge is supposed to work, but I simply don’t have the time or stamina to post every day for 26 days.  So I’ve done similar posts in the past instead, focusing the past two years on A to Z Game of Thrones characters and places in anticipation of the spring premiers of the television show, but this year, much to my dismay, it won’t return until summer (plus, I’ve done it twice already—if you’re a fan of the shows or books, the links are here and here).  So here are some books that truly pulled me in and gave me hours of enjoyment—which is why I read, for pleasure.  Most genres are represented, since I read a fairly wide variety, but my preferences will probably be apparent to anyone perusing the list.  Hope you find a new book to try!

A is for:  A Song Of Ice And Fire series by George R. R. Martin (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and A Dance with Dragons). The epic fantasy saga that inspired the television show, these novels are full of plot twists and turns, shocking developments, rich characters, medieval fantasy, and exotic places. The world-building alone is a staggering feat, and I anxiously await the next in the series.

B is for:  Belle Cora by Phillip Margulies.  I can't believe more people don't know about this book - I thought it was fantastic.  I'd never heard of it, either, so I found it by chance--I happened to walk by it propped up on a shelf as a recommendation at the library.  The cover grabbed my attention and the blurb did the rest.  This is the story of Arabella Godwin, a/k/a Belle Cora, a good girl who, through a series of misfortunes, falls from grace.  Set in the 1800s and loosely based on the life of a real madam, this book has everything: history, romance, secrets, suspense, betrayal, triumph, and tragedy.  It is long, which only makes it more epic in scope...I felt like I knew Belle intimately by the end.  And the research and attention to historical detail is evident throughout.  I learned quite a bit in the best way possible--immersed in an unputdownable book.  

C is for:  Chase, Eve – Black Rabbit Hall. This book, like The Lost Girls (also on the list) melds two stories: the lives, and tragedies, of the four Alton children as they spend a summer in the late 1960s at their Cornwall estate, nicknamed Black Rabbit Hall, and the implications of these past events on an engaged couple 30 years later.  Black Rabbit Hall is itself a compelling character, Gothic and atmospheric, a place where time seems suspended.  The prose is beautiful, the writer's voice unique, and the comparisons to Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and several of Kate Morton's books are well-deserved in my opinion.

D is for:  The Drowning People by Richard Mason.  I read this years and years ago, and never forgot it. It was one of the few books that I could absolutely not put down. The spooky, atmospheric narrative mixed with psychological suspense and the history of an angst-ridden love affair keep me turning pages and ignoring my responsibilities until I was finished.

E is for:  Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp.  One of my all-time favorites, this YA book is both a sweet romance and a spooky ghost story.  In fact, I would call this book a huge inspiration for my writing, as it's that combination of ghost story/love story that I find addictive.  My father brought Jane-Emily home from the library when I was around 8 years old, and I read it over and over, then requested it regularly when I needed my Jane-Emily fix.  A few years back, I purchased my own copy (finally!) from ebay and read it to my kids.  The ghost of 12-year-old Emily still delivers chills even after all these years as she unleashes her wrath on 9-year-old Jane--but of course the romance piece was there as well between the hunky Doctor and Jane's young aunt Louisa.

F is for:  Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor.  As a fan of historical fiction and historical romance, I’m always on the lookout for new titles, and this one popped up as a Goodreads recommendation for me.  It was published in the 1940s, and actually banned in Boston due to some of the risqué subjects and scenes!  Set in 17th century Restoration England, this is the story of a penniless and pregnant young girl who uses anything and everything she has at her disposal to climb the rungs of society and to pursue the man she wants.  Fascinating history and a flawed character add to the intrigue of the plot.  Often compared to Gone with the Wind, which is right below.

G is for:  Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.  A classic.  Scarlett and Rhett are one of my favorite fictional couples.  I love Scarlett for being the anti-"Mary Sue": she's not very sympathetic, and she's certainly no saint (much like Amber, above).  She's feisty, selfish, and ruthless, but also strong, driven, and fearless.  Rhett can't help but love her.  Rhett can easily admit that he's no gentleman according to Southern society standards, but it soon becomes clear that he is a hero when it counts.  Their powerful story is set amongst the unraveling of a way of life in the south and the Civil War, as well as the aftermath.



H is for:  The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons.  It's difficult to put into words how much I loved this historical romance novel, as well as the second in the trilogy, Tatiana and Alexander.  I admit I had a few doubts when I began the first book--WWII-era Leningrad does not seem like the most romantic setting, and in fact, the things that happened once the Soviet Union entered the war were downright horrific.  But throughout the years, the struggle, and the horror, Tatiana and Alexander hold on to their love, even when separated.  My heart ached for what these characters went through, and Simons captures the brutal history with amazing accuracy while still delivering a poignant--and often steamy--love story. 

I is for:  Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati.  Historical romance recommended for fans of Outlander and The Tea Rose, two of my favorites.  The many and sometimes omniscient points-of-view keep the reader a little separated from the characters, but the descriptive language made me feel as though I could see every part of Paradise, Hidden Wolf, the brush, and Lake in the Clouds. A forbidden romance between an Englishwoman and a frontiersman raised by Native Americans, and great adventure in a New York settlement located in the rural wilderness of New York in the 1700s.

J is for:  JoAnn Ross -- Blue Bayou.  Bad boy Jack returns to his hometown to find his teenage love, Danielle, has also decided to make a life for herself back in Blue Bayou after the death of her husband.  The young lovers were torn apart once by tragedy, and past and present collide as secrets are revealed and connections are discovered, and this romantic suspense/contemporary romance is an entertaining beach read with a hot alpha hero who whispers Cajun terms of endearment.  I’m a big fan of reunion romances, a common element in many of my own novels, and this is one of my favorites.

K is for:  Katherine by Anya Seton.  Originally published in 1954, this is the historical account of the unlikely and forbidden love affair between Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, in 14th century England.  Their romance persisted through wars and uprisings, arranged marriages, and deadly plagues, despite not only these obstacles but also their vastly different stations in society.  An excellent account of a true story that impacted the royal lines of England forever.

L is for:  Landry, William – Defending Jacob.  Legal thrillers aren't always a go-to genre for me, but this one was an out-and-out page-turner that I literally could not put down.  I brought my Kindle to my son's baseball games so I could read a few pages between innings.  The story revolves around a lawyer defending his son against murder while not entirely convinced of his innocence.  The level of tension and uncertainty reminded me of Gone Girl.

M is for:  Madeleine’s Ghost by Robert Girardi.  One of my all-time favorites. The ultimate combination (for me) of ghost story, love story, mystery, and history, this novel moves between the gritty streets of a run-down neighborhood in Brooklyn and the steamy bayous of New Orleans.  A captivating mix of romance, history, and the paranormal, this book has it all: intrigue, mystery, secrets, star-crossed lovers, and a haunting.  Another title that served as inspiration for my own writing.

N is for:  Nora Roberts – Midnight Bayou.  Another mix of romance and ghosts, set in Louisiana.  I could not put this book down...literally.  I loved the New Orleans bayou setting and intertwining of past and present.  A sassy Cajun heroine and a hunky ex-lawyer-turned-carpenter embark on a passionate journey to uncover the dark secrets of Manet Hall. 

O is for:  Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.  The first book in the series that inspired the television show, this is one of my absolute favorites, with a mix of romance, history, and paranormal elements.  Time travel sweeps the heroine Claire Randall from 1945 to the Scottish Highlands of 1743, where she encounters Jamie Fraser, a young, fierce warrior with a sweet and innocent side.  When fate throws the Highlander into a more permanent relationships with Claire, a strong and competent combat nurse from the future, he nicknames her "Sassenach" - Outlander in his Celtic tongue.  I love everything about Jamie - his speech, his insight, his courage, and his protectiveness.  Claire is already married...but in another time and place.  The couple must face this conflict and many more in the dangerous and uncertain times of warring clans, political upheaval, and the Jacobite rebellions.

P is for:  The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.  An epic historical fiction set in 12th century feudal England.  The building of a cathedral is central to the plot, but there is drama, intrigue, betrayal, romance, war, religion, and royal affairs woven throughout, resulting in a suspenseful tale with characters that come to life.  Descendants of those characters populate the sequel, World Without End, which is set in the same town two centuries later and was also one of my favorites…and in doing this post, I discovered a third book in the series, titled A Column of Fire, will be coming out in the fall of 2017!

Q is for: the Quarantine series by Lex Thomas—The Loners, The Saints, The Burnouts, and The Giant—a YA dystopian thriller series described as "Lord of the Flies in a 21st century high school setting".  When a high school devolves into chaos following a military quarantine, survival becomes a desperate challenge.  With no adults left inside to fill the vacuum of authority, violent gangs form as social cliques band together to maintain strength in numbers.  But protagonist David Thorpe and his younger brother, Will, have been always been loners...and now, it's just the two of them against the rest of the students.  These young adult books had the added bonus of grabbing the attention of my two teenage boys and not letting go, and that’s saying something.  Both my kids could NOT put these books down, even my older reluctant reader.  In fact, when I packed the second in the series for him for our trip to London, he finished it in a few days and I had to download the next one and share my Kindle!  

R is for:  The Winter Rose by Jennifer Donnelly, the second book in The Tea Rose trilogy.  All three books are fantastic works of historical romance, and they can be read as stand-alones, although there are character connections that join them together.  The Winter Rose is my favorite, as I adored the main characters, India Selwyn-Jones and Sid Malone.  India, a naive but fearless young female doctor in 1900 England, encounters East London's crime lord Sid Malone as she tries to improve the lives of her poorest patients.  The obvious clash in their social stations is just one of many conflicts that work against these two damaged souls.  This amazing story takes the reader on an incredible journey as the characters fight to find their way back to each other.

S is for:  Smith, Wilbur – River God.  This is an older book, published in 1995, set in an even older time--Ancient Egypt, circa 2,000 BC.  This is the first book in Wilbur Smith's Ancient Egypt series, and I'm so glad a friend told me about it.  While I had my misgivings when I realized the entire story would be told in the first person Point of View by a eunuch slave, it worked really well, and the engaging narrator Taita was even able to bring the forbidden romance between Tanus and Lostris alive for me.  And while Taita is a literary "Mary Sue", the author knew what he was creating and he had fun with it.  Fair warning to animal lovers like myself—I almost put the book down because it begins with a graphic hippo hunt.  But I'm very glad I didn't. This novel really brought Ancient Egypt alive, and while I wouldn't call it "romance", there are several wonderful love stories woven into all the history, intrigue, and adventure.

T is for: the Twilight saga by Stephenie Meyer.  Yes, I admit it, I enjoyed these books.  Paranormal romance is one of my favorite genres, and I think Meyer is a gifted storyteller.  She created perfect conflict between the two main characters and wove in mystery, angst, and danger.  Edward is mysterious, witty, intelligent, but also a dangerous predator.  Already striving to be a "good" vampire, his love for Bella allows him to overcome his primal instincts.  Protective, polite, and ridiculously handsome, it's obvious why Bella falls for Edward.  It’s less obvious why Edward would fall for Bella, since her character is definitely a Mary Sue.  But Midnight Sun, the unpublished version of Twilight written from Edward's viewpoint, helps reveal the qualities in Bella that Edward treasures: selflessness, kindness, and loyalty. 

U is for:  Coal Run by Tawni O’Dell.  I love everything O’Dell writes, and this was the follow-up second novel to her breakout debut Back Roads.  Her stories usually offer a dark and gritty setting that becomes a character itself: a rural Pennsylvania coal mining town with little left to offer the families who gave their lives to the mines that sustained them for generations.  Against this backdrop, her stories weave past secrets, family drama, compelling characters, suspenseful mysteries, and the reverberations of local tragedies into beautifully written page-turners set against the struggling, and often dying, mining towns of Pennsylvania.  



V is for:  Valley of Bones by Michael Gruber, the second in the Jimmy Paz trilogy.  These books are so much more than typical police procedurals, and I was absolutely blown away by the first novel, Tropic of Night.  Valley of Bones didn’t disappoint, in fact, I think I tore through it even faster.  This thriller follows the Voodoo Murders case of Tropic of Night, and as Paz investigated a new death, the backstory of the main suspect—her “confession”—takes the reader on a compelling, exciting, and gut-wrenching journey.  There are touches of the paranormal in these books, but obviously, I embrace that, and it’s done very well.  Night of the Jaguar is the third in the series, and I enjoyed that one a great deal as well. 

W is for:  Whitney My Love by Judith McNaught.  A very well-known historical romance that became the second in the Westmoreland series, although this one was published first.  The arrogant and dashing Duke of Claymore wants Whitney for himself...yet she wants Paul, her childhood love.  For me, this story paralleled some of the relationship conflicts in Gone with the Wind, but this novel is set in 1800s England.  Certain scenes in the story are controversial, but that is part of what made these characters feel so real - they are flawed.  They make terrible mistakes.  And the emotions I felt throughout the story - my heart actually hurt at some points.  The sexual tension had me turning pages well into the night, desperately hoping Whitney and Clayton would get their happy ending.

X is for:  Lexicon by Max Barry.  This novel was recommended by several people I trust--otherwise, I'm not sure I would have tried it, based on the blurb describing a school that teaches the 'art of persuasion'.  But, these readers share my passion for certain other books, and their excitement had me interested.  And then the first page of Lexicon had me hooked.  This book is so much more than the description can even attempt to cover.  It's a page-turning thriller with dark humor, crisp dialog, powerful romance, ancient mystery, and a frightening look at the possibilities that arise from a dependence on technology and the ease of data collection.

Y is for:  Young, Heather – The Lost Girls.  Parallel stories unfold in this beautiful blend of historical fiction, literary fiction, and suspense.  A little girl's disappearance from the family's summer lake house in 1935 is never solved.  But in her final year of life, one of the girl's older sisters records the story in a journal, which she leaves, along with the house, to her grandniece, Justine.  As Justine fights her own demons by seeking refuge in the remote house on a Minnesota lake, we slowly learn the details of that fateful summer.  This haunting novel captured my attention immediately and kept me turning the pages.  A poignant and captivating debut.


Z is for:  Wizard and Glass by Stephen King (Book #4 in The Dark Tower series).  First off, I should say many SK books rank as my favorites, and this one is representing the group because it’s my favorite one in King’s The Dark Tower series, which begins with The Gunslinger.  This epic high fantasy series portrays a memorable cast of characters on a quest to find The Dark Tower, complete with touches of the spine-tingling horror King is known for.  The journey through this world, which has "moved on", takes readers through bleak landscapes, deserted cities, desolate beaches, and magical spots that connect to our own world.  Wizard and Glass carries us back to Roland’s past and offers key insight into his motivation, but it also tells the story of his lost love, Susan Delgado.  There were so many exciting scenes and shocking twists in Wizard and Glass, and although the first book in the series can be a little challenging to get into, it’s worth taking the time to go on this journey.    

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