Welcome to Smugglivus 2011! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2011, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2012.

Who: Janine, a great reviewer and one of the bloggers who contribute to Dear Author – one of the most excellent and comprehensive Romance (with the occasional review of UF, Fantasy and YA) sites around.

Please give it up for Janine, everybody!

I’m excited to have the honor of participating in Smugglivus for the first time this year! My favorite book list for this post will differ from the best books of 2011 list that I wrote up for Dear Author, in that there I included only 2011 releases, and here I will discuss some of my favorite reads published in other years.

Since I’m a fiction writer myself, I’m excluding from this list every book which might present a conflict of interest, whether it’s because the author is a fellow Agony/Ecstasy author or because she helped me with my novel in progress. I’ve also confined my list to relatively recent books that remain in print, because nothing sucks more than getting all pumped about a book and then discovering that there isn’t a copy to be easily had. Without further ado, here are five great books I read in 2011:

1.The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

This year I reread Megan Whalen Turner’s YA fantasy series, and rediscovered all the reasons I love them: intrigue, adventure, and deeply romantic relationships. Book one, The Thief, is written for a younger audience and has a slow start, but by the end of the second book, The Queen of Attolia, I was totally in love with the multifaceted thief Gen and couldn’t wait to see what he would do next. The King of Attolia is the third book, so skip the next paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers for books one and two.

Book three opens with Gen in the role he took on to be able to marry the woman he loved: King of Attolia. But Attolia is a country the Mede Empire is eager to subsume, whose elite is comprised of barons equally eager to double-cross their monarch. Gen never wanted to be king, so he’s determined to be more merciful than his ruthless wife yet keep her on the throne. What is a reluctant ruler to do? The answer is revealed gradually through the eyes of Costis, Gen’s personal guard. Honorable to the core and loyal to his queen, Costis begins the book despising Gen, who to all outward appearances is a joke. But as Costis begins to realize that there is far more to Gen than outward appearances, an odd bond is forged between the two men, and Costis finds his loyalties tested. Filled with assassination attempts, romance, humor, and clever scheme upon clever scheme, The King of Attolia is a triumph of both plotting and characterization. I loved every page.

2.A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant

At Dear Author we count books releasing in the last week of this month as 2012 books. Because it will be another year before I have an opportunity list it on a Dear Author best of the year list and because I read it in 2011, I decided to include it here.

With that preamble, let me state that A Lady Awakened is one of the best historical romance debuts I have ever read. Pimping it is difficult because on the surface, it sounds like an unsavory story: a severe, uncompromising widow forces herself to compromise her ethics and sleep with the feckless heir of a baronet in order to conceive a fraudulent heir, because otherwise, her property will go to her late husband’s brother, a man who raped the household’s maids. But A Lady Awakened is all about what lies beneath the surface, and Grant chooses each word with care as she tells the story of two people who gradually unearth each other’s secret hopes.

Introspective and thoughtful, A Lady Awakened is a novel of country life and quiet epiphanies, and of a touching love that blossoms from the most unlikely beginning.

3.The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Book two in Rothfuss’s fantasy series, The Wise Man’s Fear, came out this year, and while I still haven’t finished reading it, I’m grateful for it, since its publication got me to pick up book one, The Name of the Wind. After battling a dangerous, spider-like creature, Kote, an innkeeper in a small backwater, agrees to tell his life story to Chronicler. The unassuming Kote is actually Kvothe, a musician and arcanist (magic user) whose name precedes him. He’s done many things in his life, including kill a king. Now, as he tells Chronicler how his adventures began, we learn about his childhood as part of a traveling actors’ troupe, the death of his parents at the hands of mysterious magical beings, his years on the streets of Tarbean, and finally his entry into the university, where he studies magic and searches obsessively for the means to avenge his family.

The younger Kvothe is so smart, funny and charming that it’s impossible not to like him even when we can see that he is about to land himself in hot water. Meanwhile, the Kvothe who narrates the story is a very different person, far more somber and full of recriminations. How did Kvothe get from point A to point B? And what will happen to him after his tale is told? While the answers aren’t supplied in the first book, the questions kept me turning the pages and Rothfuss’s terrific prose, as well as Kvothe’s contradictory facets – wily scheming alongside loyalty and honor, piercing intelligence alongside stubborn blind spots – made this book one of my best reads of 2011.

4. The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

I know, I know, I live under a rock. But yeah, I only got around to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy in the past year. And while I thought The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was entertaining, my favorite in the series was the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire. This book finds Lisbeth Salander the victim of a conspiracy between men who want to cover up murders by pinning them on her. But if there’s anyone who refuses to take victimhood lying down, its Lisbeth. And while she plots her revenge on the conspirators, Mikael Blomkvist, Lisbeth’s ex-lover and co-sleuth, is determined to clear her name.

There are some weaknesses in the Millennium trilogy – Blomkvist’s universal appeal to women seems almost inexplicable – but Lisbeth is a fascinating character, and here she takes center stage. Not only is the plot twisty and the villains’ scheme convoluted, but some of the revelations about them are stunning and Lisbeth’s indomitable strength is greatly satisfying.

5.Summer’s End by Kathleen Gilles Seidel

When this 1999 novel, a cross between romance and women’s fiction, was reprinted this year, I took the opportunity to read it and was very glad I did. The story of Amy and Jack, who meet after their parents marry, is part romance and part story of how a blended family works out its issues. Not only do Amy and Jack face internal obstacles, Amy’ siblings (Jack’s stepsiblings) haven’t completely accepted their father’s marriage to Jack’s mother, and Amy and Jack don’t want to get in the way of that acceptance. But over the course of their stay at a summer retreat, as the family members’ issues rear their heads, Jack and Amy come into their own and learn to go after what they want. What makes this book so satisfying is Seidel’s psychological acuity. Her characters are so complex, so real, so competent and yet nevertheless so easy to relate to, that they make this book an engrossing read.

Okay, enough about my favorite reads of 2011. What books am I most keenly looking forward to in 2012? In the spirit of New Year’s Eve, here is a countdown to my most anticipated books:

9. Insignia by S.J. Kincaid

I’ll acknowledge upfront that much of my interest in this YA dystopian debut is due to the fact that the author is the younger sister of my critique partner, Meredith Duran. But the fact that Insignia was acquired in a significant deal by the publisher of Veronica Roth’s Divergent (one of my favorite 2011 releases) is just as big a reason why I’ve been salivating for this story of a teenage con artist offered training to become the government’s secret weapon during the Third World War.

8. Scandal Wears Satin by Loretta Chase

Scandal Wears Satin is the sequel to one of my favorite reads this year, Silk is for Seduction, and features the sister of Marcelline, the heroine of the latter book. Marcelline eclipsed her sisters in Silk, but I love Chase’s blend of comedy, romance and emotion, and I can’t wait to read more about the other Noirots.

7. Confessions from an Arranged Marriage by Miranda Neville

Recently Neville, the author of fresh-feeling Regency era romances peopled by endearing characters, announced what I’d long suspected: Confessions from an Arranged Marriage will feature the pairing of the clever-tongued, politically inclined Minerva Montrose and the seemingly shallow, sports-mad Blakeney. I’ve been hoping that this pair of total opposites would get their own book since The Dangerous Viscount came out. Neville has hinted that Blakeney has a disability and I have a guess as to what it might be, but I won’t spoil it for other readers.

6. Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Roth’s accomplished debut, Divergent, was a riveting novel, with a memorable heroine. Tris was a compelling mix of vulnerability and toughness, competitiveness and selflessness, who arrived at a deeper understanding of the meaning of courage over the course of the book. Divergent ended on omething of a cliffhanger, and I want to know what happens next! As stupendous as Roth’s first book was, I felt the ending was its weakest part, so I’m also curious to see whether Insurgent will be as suspenseful, action-filled and unputdownable as its prequel.

5. Tangle of Need by Nalini Singh

I’m totally hooked on Singh’s paranormals. In 2011 she came out with not one but two books that landed on my best of 2011 list.

Tangle of Need is her next Psy/Changeling entry. Like everyone else, I want more of the Ghost, but until his book comes out, I’ll be very happy to read about Riaz and Adria.

4. Another paranormal series I’m loving is Shana Abe’s Drakon series, beautifully crafted historical paranormals about dragons who can shift into human shape. Abe’s writing is gorgeous, her characters flawed but very strong. It doesn’t appear to have a title yet, but the next book in this series has an unusual setting – England in 1915. The heroine is an orphaned girl who does not know she isn’t human. The book comes out in the Summer of 2012, and it will be a long wait until then.

3. Not Wicked Enough by Carolyn Jewel

I adored Jewel’s last two historical romances, Scandal and Indiscreet. I love this author’s smooth writing and her characters manage to both fascinate and elicit my sympathies. I’m tempted to make a horrible pun on the author’s last name, but I’ll resist that impulse and say that I am really, really, really looking forward to reading this one.

2. Fair Game by Patricia Briggs

I’m a huge – and I mean huge – fan of Briggs’ “Alpha and Omega” (Charles and Anna) series. Charles is a werewolf assassin who must quell his possessive instincts around his new mate, Anna, a rape survivor. Meanwhile, Anna’s journey has been one of coming to terms with her new werewolf nature and learning that she has inner strength and power. The relationship between the two is both dark and tender, a very rare combination in my experience. I await Fair Game with baited breath.

1. A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant

My most anticipated book of 2012 is the sequel to Grant’s A Lady Awakened. I can’t say that it’s because the hero captured my imagination in the earlier book. Rather, it’s Grant’s fine, thoughtful writing, the psychological depth of her characterization, the complete freshness of her ways of seeing and presenting the people whom she writes about, that has me addicted. A Lady Awakened was the loveliest book, the rare historical debut that completely entranced me, and I long for more of this author’s voice.

Thank you, Janine!

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5 Responses to Smugglivus 2011 Guest Blogger: Janine of Dear Author

  1. Michelle says:

    I am always awed by how beautiful the cover of King of Attolia is, and how the artist really got the story. There are so many little details on the cover that make me squee with joy-the ring, the fancy clothes, Attolia’s hand on his shoulder. Sigh.

    Thanks for the heads up on Loretta Chase.

    I have Patick Rothfuss’s books on my TBR pile.

  2. Angie says:

    What Michelle said re: the cover of KING. So happy to see it on a best of list this year!

    And I own a copy of NAME OF THE WIND. There’s really no excuse for not having read it yet. Thanks for the nudge, Janine.

  3. Laurie L says:

    This is my first Smugglivus (since I only discovered the fabulousness that is Book Smugglers recently, thanks to my other fave blogger, Angieville!) and now my TBR list is overflowing with anticipation! I have to agree, just mentioning “The King of Attolia” actually makes me mist up a little, it touched me so greatly. Sigh…

  4. Glad all of you loved The King of Attolia. And Angie, I hope you enjoy the Rothfuss!

  5. [...] year, my Smugglivus post covered the upcoming 2012 books I was anticipating most keenly. Recently, I took a look at it and [...]

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