Personal taste always dictates these lists of Top Books for the year and one of the strengths of this site and why it’s so successful is that almost every reviewer has different tastes (maybe not so much with Raine and Sirius who seem to think like twins) but for the rest of us ordinary mortals there’s definitely strong tendencies that you can spot. This year’s selections for my Top Books of 2012 and Honourable Mentions include books that I thought demonstrated authors who were on top of their game and there were even two debuts on the list among books by veteran writers. I consider my list of books to be memorable and maybe you will too.
If you followed my reviews over the years several trends will strike you: I love sports (especially baseball) and therefore books about sports draw me like a magnet; I also enjoy books about American politics and politicians. Kick ass adventures and high fantasy are other themes I can’t resist, in addition to murder mysteries, the more gory the better (serial killers anyone) . Cops in love stories – bring ‘em on, but I have to fight off Lasha for these, and now Stuart tells me he likes them too so that’s one more person from whom I have to hide these books. On the flip side, I don’t read books about rape or partner abuse when the author gives the abused an HEA with his abuser. Also, I don’t read books with overwhelming angst except in a few cases where they were written by authors whom I trust.
You saw the Guest Reviewers Top Picks yesterday; my list of Top Books is probably as different as night and day from theirs. Since all the reviewers have different tastes you can be assured of finding a reviewer whose tastes are closely aligned to yours and consequently books that you will enjoy.
There’s one rule on the site about these lists, we can only include books on our individual lists if we reviewed them, so there are many other books I loved authored by Jay Bell, Rick Reed, Kaje Harper, K.Z. Snow etc., but because I didn’t review them I can’t mention them here.
My Honourable Mentions could just as easily have made the list but I ran out of numbers.
My Top Books of 2012
This year I had a dilemma I never had in previous years, I couldn’t decide on my no.1 book and so I have three at the top of the podium taking their bows, although, after reflection, I have now changed the ranking slightly, giving Irregulars the edge:
No. 1: Irregulars This is the only anthology on the list and what a book! Astrid Amara, Ginn Hale, Josh Lanyon and Nicole Kimberling outdid themselves. Each author in this anthology is well known and well respected for their work which never ceases to amaze, but I think they fed off each other here and in the process gave readers something even more memorable.
The world of the Irregulars is like freshly mowed grass – sweet smelling but with a hint of decay under the beautiful smooth layers on top, and if you explore further you might find unexpected creepy crawlies, many of which are deadly. This is a fantastic series of ingenious and whimsical stories set in a dangerous world that I can only describe as incredibly imaginative, with characters that will blow your mind to smithereens. This awesome anthology is the standard against which I will judge future fantasy adventures.
Irregulars deserves a special category. All of the stories were exquisitely crafted and you will never meet any of the main characters anywhere else because they’re original. The stories are even more delicious and fantastic on the second and third reading, which makes this anthology definitely a DIK. What a glorious piece of literature!
The stories: Cherries Worth Getting by Nicole Kimberling; Green Glass Beads by Josh Lanyon; No Life But This by Astrid Amara; and Things Unseen But Deadly by Ginn Hale.
If you’re a fantasy reader and you haven’t read this book, what are you waiting for?
No. 2: (tie) First You Fall (A Kevin Connor Mystery) by Scott Sherman. I absolutely adored this book and the hero Kevin Connor. This is an outstanding read with all the elements for an exciting movie: A vulnerable hero, a complex, exciting plot, great supporting characters, and writing talent that would eclipse much more experienced authors.
This was Scott Sherman’s first published work of fiction and I was amazed at his writing ability. You won’t be able to put down FYF because you will be sucked into the very funny dialogue, fast paced action and the clever way the pop culture references are woven into the prose. First You Fall won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Mystery in 2009.
This book is the complete package: a complicated mystery, wonderful dialogue and prose, and three dimensional supporting characters who were so vivid they made the book come alive. Also, Kevin Connor rocks!
No. 2: (tie) The Starving Years by Jordan Castillo Price: I admire this author because of her vast imagination and the fact that she takes readers on a ride like no other. Her stories are never about what they appear to be on the surface and her plots always seem to run on adrenalin as everything around the characters is falling apart. The Starving Years is another example of how this author drags her readers through hell on a wild ride where there are no stop signs and all the barriers are blowing up in their faces. This is a classic high octane adventure that goes from high to higher and just when you think things couldn’t possibly get worse for our heroes it peaks.
In The Starving Years I felt as if I were living in1960 where hunger ruled. Three men unite to fight corporate greed in an alternate universe New York where the residents seemed to have gone mad and anarchy reigned.
Yet, in the middle of all the human trauma and tragedy was the sweetest romance between three very damaged individuals, each of whom had been beaten down by life and the people they trusted, so finding not one but two men to love was like a gift.
This is not a warm and fuzzy read, it’s gritty and teems with drama, betrayal and violence yet it manages in the end to be a story about trust and love. If you’re looking for a book that’s filled with excitement and danger as well as romance, The Starving Years should be on your list.
No. 4: Tigerland: Sean Kennedy is one of the premier writers of this genre and he’s at his best when he writes about complicated personal relationships. He shows his mettle here with a moving sequel that is even better than the original great story, Tigers & Devils. Tigerland has been a long time coming and I kept hoping that Kennedy would write the sequel to one of his most loved stories and characters, and he didn’t disappoint in this complex story about friends and lovers.
There is pathos, love, humour, drama, friendship, tenderness, romance and lots of fun in this book, which makes it stand above the rest. I didn’t think Sean Kennedy could improve on Tigers & Devils but three and half years later he comes up with another gem that made my heart ache, but at the same time made me feel that the characters could weather any storm. The emotions and bonds of friendship were like a live current running throughout the story.
If you loved the original story, this sequel is not to be missed. I hope that the author will consider writing a closing chapter from Dec’s POV as I would really love to know him better and understand his relationship with Simon from his perspective. Tigerland is not a standalone book so you should read Tigers & Devils first if you haven’t already done so.
No. 5: Armed & Dangerous by Abigail Roux: This is one of my favourite series and I’ve been reading these books since Cut & Run smashed into my consciousness 4 years ago with a pair of FBI Special Agents, Ty Grady (my favourite bad boy) and Zane Garrett (cool, calm and collected under fire, but don’t get him riled up). Armed & Dangerous is the 5th book in this series and is a sort of turning point in Ty’s & Zane’s relationship as well as the series because this is the first book written by Abigail Roux since the dissolution of her writing partnership with Madeleine Urban.
To be honest, I was concerned about how the series would evolve without both authors contributing but my fears were allayed as this is perhaps Abigail Roux’s best work as a standalone author. I did have some concerns about Ty’s character which seemed different, softer and not as edgy, and the amount of love and togetherness between him and Zane as opposed to the hard focus on adventure of the previous books was a bit disconcerting, but the story won me over with the brilliant pairing of Ty and Zane vs. Julian Cross, a charismatic former hired killer.
This is how I summed up this book in the review: A believable plot; Ty and Zane at their absolute best; an incredibly smart perpetrator who is always one step ahead and will do everything he can, including committing multiple murders, to eliminate the one person who could put him behind bars forever; a charming, suave, enigmatic, street smart former hit man who gave the impression of always being in control of the situation despite being handcuffed during most of the book; and a supporting cast of characters who almost steal the show, seemingly effortlessly.
No. 6: The Rare Event by P.D. Singer is one of my favourite books this year for many reasons. I love flawed characters, complicated plots, high stakes games whether they are in the financial markets, the political arena, or FBI Special Agents fighting for their lives at every turn, and did this author ever deliver! I thought this was an almost perfect book but one character kept me from giving it a gold star.
The Rare Event is extraordinary, with characters that are not easy to like, and pacing that is so fast I felt as if I were riding a wave that kept on building. I admired the author’s ingenuity, audacity and skill in writing a story based on the money markets, that evolved into an exciting adventure and love story. The Rare Event absolutely blew me away and changed my perception of the world of hedge funds. What a coup for P.D. Singer – IMO this is her best and most complex work to date as well as a wonderful journey into a world very few of us ever experience.
A word of caution on two fronts: If you hate cheating (or what appears to be cheating since Ricky’s and John’s relationship is not monogamous) this is probably not the book for you, but if you believe in redemption The Rare Event shows how someone can make a 180 degree turnaround and come out a winner when he realizes he has lost the most important person in his life. Also, this is not a light read as there’s a lot of information about the money markets in the book, and while it’s not an info dump because I consider most of it to be necessary, you should read the Glossary at the back of the book first.
If conflicted and complicated characters appeal to you, you will admire P.D. Singer’s gamble, which paid off. Her writing was incisive, fresh, lush as well as crisp and so darned enticing that I couldn’t put this book down once I got into it. I can’t imagine the amount of research involved, but for the author the investment paid off as she gave readers a knock it out of the park with the bases loaded book unlike any I have read in the past, general fiction included, as she showed that characters playing with other people’s money in the world of high finance had the biggest balls.
No. 7: (tie) To Catch A Fox by Ethan Day and Geoffrey Knight: What would this list be without a book or two by Ethan Day. In this case he’s writing with Geoff Knight who proved to be an inspired foil and they produced a book that is one of my DIK favourites.
In To Catch A Fox the thrills and chills started off with a bang as Day and Knight wrote an adventure that wrestled me to the ground, and when I was wiped out it kicked me to the curb to make sure I could no longer breathe.
The plot was intricate, intense and a wild ride from start to finish – a specialty of Geoff Knight – but what kept me engrossed were the wonderful well drawn, amazing and very flawed characters, an Ethan Day signature. One very fun character was a pet alligator named Snowflake who operated on the principle that people were food. Snowflake was definitely a hit. To Catch A Fox is full of well crafted characters, many of whom you will love or hate, and some are such manipulative scumbags that you will want to kill them yourself.
This book is the start of a terrific series and if Day and Knight keep up the pace and the great characterizations, and continue to give readers quality plots and new supporting characters, as well as adventures that are unadulterated on-the-edge-of-a-precipice fun, it will be a huge hit.
There is some scary violence which might be tough for a few readers (as if you couldn’t guess, with an alligator in the mix) so be warned.
No. 7 (tie) Out in the Field by Kate McMurray: I’m a huge baseball fan but this is not why Out in the Field is on this list. This absolutely stunning book about two baseball players, one at the end of his career and the other just starting out with a bright future ahead of him, touched me on many levels. I thought it was brilliant, moving, a wonderful romance and homage to baseball.
Matt Blanco, first baseman for the Brooklyn Eagles for 13 years is in his late thirties which is old for a baseball player and on his way out as an active player because of an undisclosed injury. When Matt saw Ignacio (Iggy) Rodriguez on the field he fell head over heels because he was exactly the kind of man he liked - young and Latin. A romance between two such men could not end well one would think, as both MCs are in the closet in a sport where you are not allowed to be openly gay, and it was played out under the bright lights on the field and in the dark under the sheets.
As the book progressed I was struck by Kate McMurray’s knowledge of the game. It’s difficult to find a romance around a particular sport where the author doesn’t commit some heinous error because he or she does not understand the game or didn’t do the research, and shouldn’t have written the book in the first place. I have read my share of these books. Thankfully McMurray erased all of those books from my mind with her wonderful respect for and homage to the game of baseball.
There is so much to this book and you will experience all the nuances, from the romance which was delicious and unpredictable, to the games that made the story resonate and gave it a layer of excitement and brought so much colour to it, to the vicissitudes of their relationship. Out in the Field is much more than a book about baseball, it’s also a love story for the ages.
No. 9 Inside the Beltway by Ellen Holliday. Stories about US politics and politicians appeal to me because usually politicians are such a corrupt breed and I’m forever looking for an honest one, if there were such an animal. I hoped to find out if Ellen Holliday would deliver this rare breed.
One reason I love stories about politics and American politics in particular is because most of the characters in these books are so flawed, the issues are almost incomprehensible, the objectives are unattainable, and everything is bigger than in real life. Manipulation, backstabbing and outright sabotage are not unheard of from those who should be above petty one-up-man-ship.
Senator Davis Hudson made the leap from the Senate back benches with one fell swoop and found himself as the leading contender to be president of the United States, but there was one major impediment that could stop his ride into the White House in its tracks if it became known: He was gay and had met the love of his life.
Ellen Holliday did a great job of showing the inner workings of the Senate without too many boring details, and in addition demonstrated the level of intrigue in a place where the members are revered but a few are unprincipled, barely restraining themselves when bent on revenge.
America will probably never be ready for a gay president, but If you’re looking for a clever, highly entertaining story about US politics and the presidential candidate’s romance with another man, you shouldn’t miss Inside the Beltway. A wonderful debut novel.
No. 10 Second Hand: A Tucker Springs Novel by Heidi Cullinan and Marie Sexton: I absolutely adored Second Hand, a story about making choices, letting go of old fears, and learning to fly without a net. In a world of low expectations and always being second best, Paul “just wanted to be the first choice for someone for once, just once.”
El was Paul’s polar opposite in every way. He was both a philosopher and a cynic, as his business of being a pawn shop owner, trading in the remnants of other people’s lives, exposed him every day to human frailties and failures. He had no expectations of anyone but had a heart of gold.
These two men were the most unlikely couple. Meeting Paul required that El make a massive shift in the paradigm of his life and recognize that just because someone was second hand didn’t make them any less valuable.
I love a well plotted story, but for me great characterizations trump the plot of a book. In Second Hand I got both, as the characters rocked as well as the plot and the only element that was better was the love between Paul and El. Just a simple love story with lots of heart. As Paul said in the end, “All I want is to be with you Emanuel. You aren’t my first choice or my second choice. You’re my only choice.”
No. 10 (tie)Where There’s Smoke by L.A. Witt: Yes, this is another story about US politics but it’s very different from Inside The Beltway. Is it cheating if the candidate is married but has his wife’s approval to have other lovers because they’re getting divorced? Shades of black, white and gray abound in this book and you have to choose your colour when the shit hits the fan. Romance readers are squeamish about books with so-called cheating, real or imagined, and you pass on so many terrific books because you have either had personal bad memories or just hate cheaters, period. However, this is a fantastic book and I would urge you to give it a chance. Why should you read Where There’s Smoke? Because of the great writing, the flawed characters and the absolutely incredible romance.
This story is a complex study of human emotions with every possible negative situation one could imagine, complicated by the intensity of being under the glare of a political campaign with the press baying at your heels; a marriage on the rocks that was presented to the electorate as the perfect couple; a gay candidate for governor living on the down low; a romance between the candidate and his campaign manager under the eyes of the paparazzi; a scheming relative who does everything he can to achieve his own ends; and the candidate’s wife on the verge of a mental and physical breakdown. How could this end well? You have to read the book to find out.
No. 11 Third You Die (A Kevin Connor Mystery) by Scott Sherman is the third book in this murder mystery series starring Kevin Connor, his boyfriend Tony and his best friend Freddy.
Like the other books in this series, Third You Die is a mystery with a romantic sub text and there is a large ensemble cast. The first thing I noticed about Kevin and Tony was the growth of their characters and relationship. Freddy who I absolutely loved in First You Fall is back and he doesn’t miss a beat even though he now has a steady boyfriend, sort of. He is, without a doubt, the funniest character as well as incredibly street smart and the sexual tension between him and Kevin is off the scale.
As for the mystery, the likely killers were considerable and I thought that was well scripted and I didn’t guess the perpetrator until three quarters of the way into the book. The plot was well executed and in addition to being funny it was tension filled, violent and gory in the end and the author showed considerable imagination in addition to demonstrating his skillful writing.
Third You Die is exciting, poignant, funny, violent, has great prose, dialogue that’s unforgettable, wonderful characterizations and some scenes you will want to re-read many times.
12. Second Time Lucky by Ethan Day. I can’t resist books by Ethan Day – they are like a drug that I inhale but can’t exhale. Second Time Lucky is the story of two men past their prime who had their once upon a time 15 years ago and screwed up.
On the evening of his 36th birthday Lukas was in a bar having a pity party while watching a parade of his exes with their new squeezes dance by. He was bemoaning the fickleness of gay men, as he contemplated his downward spiral from chief party boy to a has-been at almost 40. While experiencing a new emotion that he had never felt before – loneliness – Owen West, an old flame, showed up and changed the course of the evening and the direction of his life.
This book is vintage Ethan Day with the wonderfully funny, smart dialogue and prose that I have come to expect from him. His acerbic tongue was very much in evidence as he toyed with his characters, illustrating their weaknesses as they screwed up royally. Luke was one of Ethan’s most flawed protagonists as he found every possible avenue to wreck his life, but he was so vulnerable that he crawled into my heart and refused to leave. I kept waiting for him to step into a pile of dog poop every time he opened his mouth and he didn’t disappoint. Owen had his own share of baggage. When he met Luke he was separated from his partner of 11 years who had cheated on him. He was not a happy man.
The MCs were wonderfully crafted, sparkling, and so funny and warm that I loved spending time with them. The brilliant lines just kept on coming but it was the romance and family togetherness that sold me on this story.
Second Time Lucky is another gem by Ethan Day. Highly recommended.
No. 13 Four Corners by Kate McMurray: This is an inspired, wonderful story of four friends and about a love that overcame personal demons, major obstacles and time.
Four Corners, is a term for the four infield baseball positions and it’s used loosely here as an analogy for the four positions that Jake, Kyle, Adam and Brendan play in each other’s lives.
Since childhood, the guys had been teammates, best friends, brothers. Then one day, when they were twenty-five, Adam disappeared without a word, devastating his friends—none more so than Jake, who had secretly loved him since they were teenagers.
Then 5 years later Adam came back and decided he wanted Jake after all. But despite loving Jake and wanting to be with him he had some major issues around being gay – one concern he expressed to Jake was, how could a gay man just be a man and not be defined by his sexuality?
The story is mostly about Adam, a man who found his place at last when he realized that Jake was the most important person in his life. It’s also about how Jake dealt with his closeted lover, the camaraderie between four friends who had their own personal challenges and demons, and how they supported each other through good times/bad times, heartache, growing up, dealing with life’s curve balls and everything in between childhood to thirty something. There is so much to enjoy in this book – the wonderful characterizations, the emotions, the love, the joys, the paths not taken, and most of all the love between Adam and Jake.
Another wonderful book by Kate McMurray.
Neil Dalton and his best friend Jeremy Kelley are both suffering from PTSD and their lives have been virtually destroyed. Jeremy showed up at Neil’s apartment almost destitute 5 years after they separated when Jeremy enlisted in the armed forces. His family had told him to lose their telephone number when they found out he was gay and Neil’s wasn’t much better – he could go home but he had to leave his sexuality at the door. At Christmas Jeremy had nowhere to go so Neil invited him home for the holidays but would this turn out to be a huge mistake?
I’m the least likely person to enjoy books with lots of angst, but there are a few exceptions and that almost always depends on the author. L.A. Witt is well known for writing stories with angst but she makes her MCs believable and in addition, she doesn’t use angst as a weapon. From Out in the Cold is everything I really shouldn’t like: it’s very dark with not even a sliver of light, two MCs who are a half step away from disaster, there appears to be no possibility of a future for the guys, and their lives seem to me to be on the edge of a precipice at every turn. Yet I loved this book and couldn’t put it down, as Neil and Jeremy touched my heart and made me believe in their love.
To summarize: From Out in the Cold is engaging and compelling. PTSD is horrific and you will come to appreciate some of its effects – being out of control, the terror, the dreams, the night sweats, the coping mechanisms, and the consequences.This book will touch your heart.
And that is it for another year. I hope you find a few books on this list that you might have missed and maybe would like to read.
Errors and Omissions by Lee James
Stars & Stripes by Abigail Roux
A Rookie Move by Sam B. Morgan
Redemption by Olivia Duncan Craig
Escape Velocity by Anah Crow and Dianne Fox
Packing Heat by Kele Moon
Hope by William Neale
The Trust by Shira Anthony and Venona Keyes