Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Coming to My Bookshelves in 2010

My reading journal for 2010 is ready, and I should be getting a package very soon that will contain my first reads of the new year. I’m most excited about the debut novels of some writer friends, beginning with Courtney Milan’s Proof by Seduction, a January release, and continuing with Sara Lindsey’s Promise Me Tonight in February (Her second, Tempting the Marquess follows in June), Maggie Robinson’s Mistress by Mistake in May (and Tempting Eden by Margaret Rowe, her alter ego, in June), and Tiffany Clare’s The Surrender of a Lady sometime in the fall.

I really think January 26, the release day of Laura Kinsale’s Lessons in French, her first book since Shadowheart in 2004, should be a national holiday so everyone can rush to bookstores to buy the book. I feel almost that strongly about Julia Spencer-Fleming’s One was a Soldier. I’ve been waiting since May 2008 to know what happens to Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne. I expect complications. Also, I can’t wait for Tessa Dare’s Stud Club trilogy or for Eloisa James’ first stand-alone romance (a Cinderella tale!) or a new historical from Christina Dodd or the continuation of Nora’s Bride Quartet or Jennifer Ashley’s follow-up to The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie or. . . Well, you get the idea.

My book calendar already lists nearly 170 books that I look forward to reading in the coming year. I gloat over the riches on this list. In February, I have almost a book a day to anticipate. Romance (historical, contemporary, and a smattering of paranormal and suspense), women’s fiction, mysteries, general fiction, even a few reissues of old favorites—all are on my list. I know others will be added as friends recommend books, as some books generate buzz on the boards and blogs, and as more release dates are announced. Looking at my book calendar, I’m sure 2010 is going to be another very good reading year.

Before sharing what’s on my list of coming attractions, I need to warn you of some things:
• This is not an inclusive list; it is my list. It contains the genres and subgenres I read, the authors whose books I always check out and usually buy. It includes only print publications since I rarely read ebooks.
• Sometimes there are discrepancies about release dates. I used the date given by my source, and some sources list books released at the end of the month with the following month’s titles. I know Amazon gives the exact release date, but I’m not anal enough to check 168 titles on Amazon.
• The books for each month are not listed chronologically. I list them alphabetically by author under each month. If you are interested in specific release dates, you can probably find them on Amazon.
• The abbreviations are for me. I think they’re clear, but if anyone wants a key, let me know.
• I realized only when I put the list together for this blog that almost all the authors on the list are women. What can I say? These are the writers I read. Maybe my preference is my reaction to all those years in English classrooms where reading lists consisted mostly of works by DWMs.

What books are you most looking forward to in 2010?

The Book Calendar

January (14)
1. Death of a Valentine (Mys) M. C. Beaton
2. How I Met My Countess (H) Elizabeth Boyle
3. Forbidden Falls (C) Robyn Carr
4. Sleep No More (RS) Susan Crandall
5. Mistress Shakespeare (HF-pbR) Karen Harper
6. Ravishing in Red (H) Madeline Hunter
7. The Truth about Lord Stoneville (H) Sabrina Jeffries
8. Sinful Surrender (H) Beverley Kendall
9. Lessons in French (H) Laura Kinsale
10. Proof by Seduction (H) Courtney Milan
11. To Tempt a Saint (H) Kate Moore
12. The Secret of Everything (WF) Barbara O’Neal
13. At the Duke’s Pleasure (H) Tracy Anne Warren
14. The Prodigal Wife (HC-WF) Marcia Willett

February (28)
15. The Viscount’s Betrothal (HH) Louise Allen
16. Aunt Dimity Down Under (HC-Mys) Nancy Atherton
17. Dark Angel/Lord Carew’s Bride (H-R) Mary Balogh
18. A Rather Charming Invitation (RS) C. A. Belmond
19. The Stanforth Secrets (H-R) Jo Beverley
20. Naked Dragon (Fant) Annette Blair
21. Laced with Magic (ParaMys) Barbara Bretton
22. The Golden Season (H) Connie Brockway
23. If Books Could Kill (Mys) Kate Carlisle
24. Angel’s Peak (C)Robyn Carr
25. Tempt Me If You Can (C) Janet Chapman
26. The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (GF—HC) Jerome Charyn
27. Cool Hand Hank (SSE) Kathleen Eagle
28. Winter Garden (WF) Kristin Hannah
29. The Queen’s Governess (HF) Karen Harper
30. The Next Best Thing (C) Kristan Higgins
31. Provocative in Pearls (H)Madeline Hunter
32. Bound by Temptation (H) Lavinia Kent
33. The Brightest Star in the Sky (CL) Marian Keyes
34. Butterfly Tattoo (C) Deidre Knight
35. Promise Me Tonight (H) Sara Lindsey
36. Improper Relations (H—UK only Janet Mullany
37. Secrets of a Scandalous Bride (H) Sophia Nash
38. Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart (C) Beth Pattillo
39. Drive Time (Mys) Hank Phillippi Ryan
40. Blonde with a Wand (Para)Vicki Lewis Thompson
41. Brava, Valentine (WF--HC) Adriana Trigiani
42. The Summer Hideaway (C) Susan Wiggs

March (24)
43. The Girl Who Chased the Moon (GF—HC) Sarah Addison Allen
44. The Intrigue at Highbury (Or, Emma's Match) (HMys-HC) Carrie Bebris
45. She Shoots to Conquer (Mys) Dorothy Cannell
46. Moonlight Road (C) Robyn Carr
47. In Bed with the Duke (H) Christina Dodd
48. On the Steamy Side (C) Louisa Edwards
49. Something About You (C) Julie James
50. Our Lady of Immaculate Deception (HC--Mys) Nancy Martin
51. Wild Ride (F) Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer
52. The Family Man (HAR) Trish Milburn
53. On Shadow Beach (RS) Barbara Freethy
54. Lois Lane Tells All (C) Karen Hawkins
55. Match Made in Court (HSR) Janice Kay Johnson
56. Heart of Stone (AH) Jill Marie Landis
57. Mad, Bad, and Blonde (C) Cathy Linz
58. The Wild Marquis (H) Miranda Neville
59. House Rules (GF—HC) Jodi Picoult
60. The Dead Travel Fast (Mys) Deanna Raybourn
61. Miss Julia Delivers the Goods (Mys--pbR) Ann B. Ross
62. Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-eyed Stranger (short stories—HC) Lee Smith
63. Hold Up the Sky (Mys) Patricia Sprinkle
64. She’s the One (HSR) Kay Stockham
65. Chick with a Charm (Para)Vicki Lewis Thompson
66. Magnolia Wednesdays (WF) Wendy Wax

April (22)
67. The Last Time I Saw You (WF—HC) Elizabeth Berg
68. The Secret Duke (H) Jo Beverley
69. Wicked Becomes You (H) Meredith Duran
70. One Was a Soldier (Mys) Julia Spencer-Fleming
71. In Shelter Cove (RS) Barbara Freethy
72. Laughed Till He Died (Mys) Carolyn Hart
73. A Touch of Scandal (H) Jennifer Haymore
74. Imperfect Birds (GF—HC) Anne Lamott
75. And Both Were Young (YA—HC—R) Madeleine L’Engle
76. Hannah’s List (WF) Debbie Macomber
77. Her Best Friend (HSR) Sarah Mayberry
78. Suddenly a Bride (H) Kasey Michaels
79. The Lake Shore Limited (GF) Sue Miller
80. The Social Climber of Davenport Heights (WF) Pamela Morsi
81. The Scent of Rain and Lightning (GF—HC) Nancy Pickard
82. Burning Lamp (H) Amanda Quick
83. Every Last One (WF) Anna Quindlen
84. Small Change (WF) Sheila Roberts
85. Miss Julia Renews Her Vows (Mys—HC) Ann B. Ross
86. The True Love Quilting Club (C) Lori Wilde
87. The Mapping of Love and Death (Mys) Jacqueline Winspear
88. Home in Carolina (C) Sherryl Woods

May (17)
89. Do You Take This Cop? (HSR)Beth Andrews
90. Death Threads (Mys) Elizabeth Lynn Casey
91. One Dance with a Duke (H) Tessa Dare
92. A Lady’s Guide to Improper Behavior (H) Suzanne Enoch
93. Nothing but Trouble (C) Rachel Gibson
94. Sex and the Single Earl (H) Vanessa Kelly
95. Uncertain Magic (H—R) Laura Kinsale
96. Married by Morning (H) Lisa Kleypas
97. Hannah’s List (HC--WF) Debbie Macomber
98. Chasing Perfect (C) Susan Mallery
99. Never Less Than a Lady (H) Mary Jo Putney
100. Savor the Moment (C) Nora Roberts
101. Mistress by Mistake (H) Maggie Robinson
102. His at Night (H) Sherry Thomas
103. Sweetest Little Sin (H) Christine Wells
104. On Folly Beach Karen White
105. Sweet Tea at Sunrise (C) Sherryl Woods

June (21)
106. A Secret Affair (H) Mary Balogh
107. The Stolen Bride (H--R) Jo Beverley
108. Sugar Creek (C) Toni Blake
109. The Forbidden Rose (H) Joanna Bourne
110. My Name is Memory (GF--HC) Ann Brashares
111. Along Came a Husband (HSR) Helen Brenna
112. My Reckless Surrender (H) Anna Campbell
113. Twice Tempted by a Rogue (H) Tessa Dare
114. The Carpenter’s Lady (SSE Classic R) Billie Douglass
115. A Colorful Death (HC--Mys) Carola Dunn
116. The Love Verb (CL—HC) Jane Green
117. The Irish Warrior (H) Kris Kennedy
118. Love in tha Afternoon (H) Lisa Kleypas
119. Tempting the Marquess (H) Sara Lindsey
120. One Season of Sunshine (C) Julia London
121. The Devil Amongst the Lawyers (HC--Mys) Sharyn McCrumb
122. Tempting a Proper Lady (H) Debra Mullins
123. Ten Things I Love About You (H) Julia Quinn
124. Crush on You (C) Christie Ridgway
125. Tempting Eden (H) Margaret Rowe
126. Honeysuckle Summer (C) Sherryl Woods

July (18)
127. Stork Raving Mad (Mys) Donna Andrews
128. Lady Isabella’s Scandalous Marriage (H) Jennifer Ashley
129. The Duke’s Captive (H) Adele Ashworth
130. Death by Diamonds (Para-Mys) Annette Blair
131. Last Night’s Scandal (H) Loretta Chase
132. Daring a Duke (H) Claudia Dain
133. Three Nights with a Scoundrel (H) Tessa Dare
134. Chains of Ice--Book 3: The Chosen Ones (Para) Christina Dodd
135. Katie Fforde (CL) The Perfect Proposal
136. My Dangerous Duke (H) Gaelen Foley
137. The Smuggler and the Society Bride (H) Julia Justiss
138. I Kissed an Earl (H) Julie Ann Long
139. Almost Perfect (C) Susan Mallery
140. The Wild Irish Sea (RS) Loucinda McGary
141. The Wicked Wyckerly (H) Patricia Rice
142. The Search (HC—RS) Nora Roberts
143. Money, Honey (C) Susan Sey
144. Home is where the Bark Is (C) Kandy Shepherd

August (7)
145. Bedeviled Angel (Para) Annette Blair
146. The Duke’s Night of Sin (H) Kathryn Caskie
147. Chains of Fire, The Chosen Ones: Book 4 (Para) Christina Dodd
148. Wicked Intentions (H) Elizabeth Hoyt
149. A Kiss at Midnight (H) Eloisa James
150. Summer Brides (C--anthology)- "The Borrowed Bride," Susan Wiggs; "Bridge to Dreams," Sheryl Woods; "Sister of the Bride," Susan Mallery
151. The Devil Wears Plaid (H) Teresa Medeiros

September (2)
152. 1022 Evergreen Place (WF) Debbie Macomber
153. Finding Perfect (C) Susan Mallery

October (7)
154. The Duke’s Captive (H) Adele Ashworth
155. Bespelling Jane (anthology) Mary Balogh et al.
156. Emily and the Dark Angel (H--R) Jo Beverley
157. You Again (C-Mys) Jennifer Crusie
158. Where Shadows Dance (H Mys) C.S. Harris
159. Call Me Mrs. Miracle (HC--C) Debbie Macomber
160. The Best of Friends (C) Susan Mallery

November (1)
161. A Christmas Promise (H--R) Mary Balogh

December (0)

Release Dates Added after Original Post(3)
162. The Goddess of Fried Okra (WF) Jean Brashear—April
163. The Surrender of a Lady (H) Tiffany Clare—October
164. Trial by Desire (H) Courtney Milan--September

Release Dates Unknown (5)
165. All I Ever Wanted (C) Kristan Higgins--Summer 2010
166. ? new Blaze Historical Betina Krahn--Summer 2010
167. The List (?) Connie Brockway, Eloisa James, Julia Quinn
168. The Guardian Angelinos (spinoff of Bullet Catchers)
Roxanne St. Claire—2010
169. Happily Ever After Nora Roberts –December ?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

My Christmas Wishes for You

I wish you peace when storms roll in.
I wish you light when darkness falls.
On lonely days, I wish you friends.
I wish you grace when trouble calls.
But every day, and most of all,
I wish you love.

I wish you warmth when the world is cold.
I wish you hope when yours is gone.
I wish you happiness untold.
I wish you joy with each day’s dawn.
But every day, and most of all,
I wish you love.

I wish you strength to make your climb.
I wish you dreams when old ones die.
I wish you songs and tales and rhymes.
I wish you wings—oh, may you fly!
But every day, and most of all,
I wish you love.

May your holiday season be a blessed one.

I’m taking a break from blogging until 2010. Drop by on January 4 for my take on the books of 2010 and a chance to win books.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas Books 2009: A Mixed Bag

Santa’s book bag this year was a mix of many pleasant stories, almost a handful of true delights, and a few duds. I do miss the old Signet Christmas anthologies. I’ve read twenty-five newly published Christmas books this year (some were recycled in new configurations and at least one was a paperback edition of an earlier hardback), and not one had the appeal of those annual collections which I could count on giving me at least three stories I loved—and in a good year, five. I read ten 2009 anthologies, and the best ones gave me only a single story that I know I’ll be rereading for Christmases yet to come. But I’m not complaining. I love Christmas books, and any year that leaves me with additions to my Christmas keepers makes me happy.


1. The Heart of Christmas: “A Handful of Gold,” Mary Balogh; “The Season for Suitors,” Nicola Cornick; “This Wicked Gift.” Courtney Milan

“This Wicked Gift” is the only new story in this anthology, but it alone is worth the price of the book. It is one of those rare historical stories that feature protagonists from the ranks of ordinary people rather than aristocrats. Lavinia Spencer works in her family’s bookshop, struggling to save pennies to give her father and younger brother a Christmas worth celebrating. William Q. White is a poor clerk with the daring and the imagination to make an extravagant move. I loved these characters, and I loved the wit, the intelligence, and the passion of this novella—and I mean that last quality not just in the sense of sexual desire, although the story has plenty of sizzle, but in the larger sense of deep, strong emotion.

2. A Regency Christmas (Harlequin Historical): “Scarlet Ribbons,” Lyn Stone; “Christmas Promise,” Carla Kelly; “A Little Christmas,” Gail Ranstrom

Like “This Wicked Gift,” “Christmas Promise” gives readers a hero and heroine who are not part of aristocratic circles. Captain Jeremiah Faulk is at loose ends with the Napoleonic Wars finished. Ianthe Mears is a struggling widow with two children old enough for her to have real concerns about their futures. This is a friends-to-lovers story, one of my favorite themes, and it has a touch of Cyrano de Bergerac as well. Like all of Carla Kelly’s fiction, “Christmas Promise” is both intelligent and heartwarming.

3. Home for the Holidays, Sarah Mayberry (Harlequin SuperRomance)

I bought this one because I kept hearing buzz about Mayberry’s books, and I’m so glad I did. I like my stories with rich contexts, one reason I’m really picky about the categories I read. Many of them focus so exclusively on the H/H relationship that the characters never seem quite believable to me. This was definitely not the case with Mayberry. She gives Joe and Hannah both families who are relevant to the action. She shows them in a relationship that develops, encounters credible obstacles, and involves ordinary moments of conversation and family interactions as well as romantic moments. She left me smiling and teary-eyed in the process. Not only was Home for the Holidays a keeper for me, but Mayberry is set to become my first glom of 2010.

4. Merry, Merry Ghost, Carolyn Hart

OK, this one is a cozy mystery rather than a romance, but it does have a sweet romance thread with the promise of an HEA. More important in its becoming a keeper is Hart’s protagonist in her latest series, Bailey Ruth Raeburn, an angel who has a fondness for earthly comforts like fashionable clothes and good food and a heart for helping. This second book in the series finds her aboard the Rescue Express, bound for her hometown Adelaide, Oklahoma, with another assignment from the Department of Good Intentions. The story has not only a murder, but also a resurrection of sorts, an orphaned child, a reconciled family, and Bailey Ruth wreaking havoc to the dismay of her supervisor, Wiggins. Merry, Merry Ghost left me very merry indeed.

The Others:


A Christmas Ball: “The Longest Night,” Jennifer Ashley;”My Lady Below Stairs,” Emily Bryan; “Traditions,” Alissa Johnson
A Highlander Christmas: “Winter Heat,” Dawn Halliday; “Yuletide Enchantment,” Sophie Renwick; “A Christmas Spirit,” Cindy Miles
I’ll Be Home for Christmas: “Christmas of the Red Chiefs,” Linda Lael Miller; “Once Upon a Christmas.” Catherine Mulvany; “Meltdown,” Julie Leto; “You Can Count On Me,” Roxanne St. Claire
Snow Angels: “Snow Angels,” Fern Michaels; “The Presents of Angels,” Marie Bostwick; “Decorations,” Janna McMahan; “Miracle on Main Street,” Rosalind Noonan
The Night Before Christmas: “On a Snowy Christmas,” Brenda Novak; “The Christmas Baby,” Day Leclaire; “The Christmas Eve Promise,” Molly O’Keefe
That Holiday Feeling: “Silver Bells,” Debbie Macomber; “The Perfect Holiday,” Sherryl Woods; “Under the Christmas Tree,” Robyn Carr
This Christmas: “Vacation,” Jane Green; “The Second Wife of Reilly,” Jennifer Coburn; “Mistletoe and Holly,” Liz Ireland
Together for Christmas: “The Unmasking of Lady Loveless,” Nicola Cornick; “Christmas Reunion,” Catherine George; “A Mistletoe Masquerade,” Louise Allen

Single Titles

The Christmas Clock, Kat Martin
A Christmas Scandal, Jane Goodger
Lakeshore Christmas, Susan Wiggs
The Perfect Christmas, Debbie Macomber

Category Romances

Her Patchwork Family, Lyn Cote (Love Inspired Historicals)
One Cowboy, One Christmas, Kathleen Eagle (Silhouette Special Edition)
Unexpected Gifts, Holly Jacobs (Harlequin SuperRomance)
A Mother’s Secret, Janice Kay Johnson (Harlequin SuperRomance)
A Weaver Holiday Homecoming, Allison Leigh (Silhouette Special Edition)
Baby Under the Mistletoe, Jamie Sobrato (Harlequin SuperRomance)
Twelve Nights, Hope Tarr (Blaze)
The Christmas Present, Tracy Woolf (Harlequin SuperRomance)
I’ll Be Home for Christmas/One Golden Christmas, Lenora Worth (Love Inspired Classics)

Have you read any 2009 holiday books? What are your favorites from Christmas present--and past?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chiming In: Janga's Top Ten of 2009

Booklist started the song in September, singing their praise of the romances they considered the best of 2009. In the months since then, Amazon and Library Journal have added their verses. Bloggers are joining the chorus now. I’ve read numerous tweets this week about top ten lists. Romantic Times announced nominees for their annual awards this week, an astounding list. AAR will sound a late note with their Annual Reader Poll January 18-31, and Rita nominations will supply the grand finale in March.

I love these lists. Even when I wonder about a particular choice, I am fascinated by what has been chosen. There are surprisingly few duplications. Both Booklist and Library Journal included Connie Brockway’s So Enchanting, and Eloisa James appears on the lists from Booklist and Amazon, although for different books. The RT nominees include several books that appear on other lists. Michelle Buonfiglio's list at Barnes & Noble’s Heart to Heart is a special delight because it is so clearly hers. She chose her own categories, and she names runners-up. I have to love the latter since I always agonize over limiting my choices to one. I’m already stressing over my AAR votes, and the ballot is not even online yet.

Since my affinity for lists is great, I could not resist adding my top ten romance reads to the babel of lists. But then I had to face the problem of choosing only ten. This year was a good reading year for me. I read more than I have in five years—almost six hundred books. Among them were 476 romance and women’s fiction titles, 306 of them published in 2009. Forty-six of those were A reads (about 15%); the remaining 261 are fairly evenly divided between Bs and Cs, with a handful of Ds. I don’t have any Fs because if the book has no appeal for me, I don’t finish it and I don’t count it in my stats. All these numbers translate to a single truth: I read a lot of good books this year.

Some of those good books were by authors I’ve been reading for decades. Mary Balogh’s Huxtables are a delight (even if I do wish they had a different name), and Loretta Chase, Carla Kelly, Teresa Medeiros, Julia Quinn, and Barbara Samuel/Barbara O’Neal never fail me. Some recent additions to my autobuy authors proved the astuteness of my judgment—Meredith Duran, Kristan Higgins, Elizabeth Hoyt, Deanna Raybourn. Christina Dodd reminded me that as long as she’s writing them, I can’t claim not to be a fan of paranormals. Some of my favorite reads were by debut authors; I loved the first books of Vanessa Kelly and Kris Kennedy. I read more category romances than I have in ten years or more because I discovered so many gifted writers in this group—Beth Andrews, Helen Brenna, Sarah Mayberry. So as you read my top ten, I ask that you remember that there are another three dozen books that also made 2009 a very good year for this reader.

The Top Ten (in alphabetical order by author)

The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie by Jennifer Ashley
This is an unusual story with fascinating family dynamics, a hero who suffers from Asperger’s, a heroine with a sense of humor and a work history, and a non-Regency setting. For once, a book lived up to its hype.

Tempt the Devil by Anna Campbell
I loved that the heroine in this one has the stubbornness, pride, and honor typically found in heroes, and I loved that both the heroine and hero were flawed adults with a history. This is my favorite of AC’s novels.

A Lady of Persuasion by Tessa Dare
Tessa Dare’s first trilogy is a marvel of youthful folly, humor, passion, tenderness, and growth. Goddess of the Hunt and Surrender of a Siren were A reads for me, but A Lady of Persuasion is the best of the best. It has one of the best beta heroes ever written. I adore Toby!

Never Love a Lawman by Jo Goodman
I pretty much stopped reading Western/Frontier stories when Maggie Osborne retired. Jo Goodman made me change my mind by creating characters I cared about and placing them in a story that fully engaged me. And her prose is so good that I had to read the book a second time just to study it.

A Duke of Her Own by Eloisa James
I am an unabashed Eloisa James fangirl. All of her novels and novellas are on my keeper shelves. I have two copies of most of them and three of my favorite, Pleasure for Pleasure (one in French). A Duke of Her Own is her best book. Every character from Villiers, who became more intriguing with each book in the series, to the heroine’s puppy is vivid and vital. The book has wit, intelligence, warmth, and passion—a splendid conclusion to a wonderful series.

Smooth Talking Stranger by Lisa Kleypas
Nobody is better than Lisa Kleypas at taking the conventions of romance and reminding readers of why they became conventions. This one even has a secret baby--sort of; it also has a mother from hell, a heroine with a dysfunctional family, a hero with great wealth and a reputation with women. Yet somehow Kleypas makes these overworked elements fresh and irresistible. She even makes me understand the popularity of the alpha hero.

Make Me Yours by Betina Krahn
A rare Edwardian setting, a working class heroine who is smart and strong and self-knowing, a first marriage that was sexually fulfilling, a romance that manages to be both light and substantive—this is an extraordinary book. I liked it so much that it made me take another look at an imprint (Blaze) I thought would never work for me.

Red’s Hot Honky-Tonk Bar by Pamela Morsi
For years Pamela Morsi has been writing some of the best work being published in popular fiction. This one is another in a long line of exceptional stories with rich, unforgettable characters. Red is a fortysomething bar owner; she’s also a grandmother with an imperfect relationship with her daughter, two grandchildren she does not want to assume temporary responsibility for, and a hot, young lover who keeps breaking through the boundaries she has set up. If you haven’t read this one, find a copy today. Give a copy to a friend. More people need to be reading Morsi.

Vision in White by Nora Roberts
I still want to cheer when I remember Nora Roberts has written/is writing a straight contemporary quartet. Both Vision in White and Bed of Roses are terrific books. The look at the wedding industry is interesting, the friendship among the four women is real and heartwarming, and the love stories are vintage Roberts. Vision in White edged out Bed of Roses on my list because I love Carter Maguire, the awkward, blushing, English teacher hero, a gloriously distinctive star in a galaxy of alphas.

Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas
Sherry Thomas has had three books published so far, and after I finished each one of them, I have found myself thinking about the characters long after I’ve closed their book and placed it on a keeper shelf. Her characters are always individuals; they are interesting not merely as hero and heroine but also as human beings with histories and flaws and scars. Leo Marsden is a brilliant mathematician and a golden boy beloved by all. Bryony Asquith is a doctor and a reserved, complicated woman. The Swat Valley Uprising of 1897 serves as the setting for much of the story. All of these things set Not Quite a Husband apart from the general run of historical romances. Then there’s Thomas’s prose. I read passages like the one below and weep with envy.

Then he had come into her life. And it was as if she’d been struck by lightning. Or a team of archeologists had dug up the familiar scenes of her mind to reveal a large, ancient warren of unmet hunger and frustrated hope.

Have you made your top ten list? What books are among your best of 2009 that I may have missed?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

’Tis the Time Before Christmas and All Through My House, We’re Reading

I love the rituals of Christmas; one that is particularly beloved is reading aloud favorite Christmas stories for children. I don’t know how far back the tradition goes, but I have vivid memories of my parents, my favorite uncle, and various aunts and cousins reading to me. By the time I was eight, I was reading a child’s version of the Nativity story and ’Twas the Night Before Christmas to my younger siblings while my mother baked her Christmas cakes, and when my brother and sister grew too old, there were always younger cousins eager to listen. Later, four little boys in new Christmas pajamas, wriggling with the excitement the holiday awakens in kids of all ages, gathered close to hear those same stories plus some new ones. Now the grands are the listeners. The collection of Christmas stories has grown considerably, and we try to add at least one new book to the collection each year.

Saturday the eight-year-old and the five-year old are spending the day, and I’ve been choosing the first books. They asked Thanksgiving when we could start the Christmas reading, so I know they will be as happy as I will be to begin our holiday reading season. We will read the familiar stories—’Twas the Night Before Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and a child’s edition of A Christmas Carol, but we will be reading some less famous stories too as we begin our celebration of the season. Perhaps we’ll begin with one of these favorites:

1. On Christmas Eve (originally published 1938; 2000 ed. shown)—
Margaret Wise Brown, author; Nancy Edwards Calder, illustrator
Many of you will know Brown as the author of Goodnight Moon, and although On Christmas Eve is for older children (4-8) than the more famous book, it has something of the same feel. Like the child I was and the children I’ve known, the three children in this book can’t sleep on Christmas Eve, certain they hear reindeer. So they creep downstairs just to “touch the tree and make a wish.” They find not only a marvelous tree but also stockings and presents and carolers. Illustrations are important in experiencing children’s books, and Calder’s add to the magic of this book.

2. This Is the Stable (2006)—
Cynthia Cotton, author; Delana Bettoli, illustrator
There are untold numbers of the Nativity story written for children. I love this one because the rhyming couplets appeal to children who love to repeat them and the simplicity of the narrative is perfect for this story of the first Christmas in a “stable, dusty and brown.” Bettoli’s illustrations are so richly colored that our little ones love to stroke them. The characters look as if they belong in this story, and the wise man riding an elephant makes a big impression.

3. Bear Noel (2000)--Olivier Dunrea, author and illustrator
"He is singing. . . . He is laughing. . . . He is jingling his bells. . . . He is coming."
He is Bear Noel, and all the animals in the forest are gathered on Christmas Eve, the one night of the year that they come together in peace and harmony, waiting for the arrival of Bear Noel with his bag full of gifts. The repetition in the story invites participation, and the illustrations create a snow-filled world real enough to evoke a shiver with animals who seem closer to reality than to cutesy cartoons.

4. Santa's Stuck (2004)--Rhonda Gowler Greene, author; Henry Cole, illustrator
Some of these books are sweet, many of them have important things to say, but this one is just for fun. Santa indulges in one too many of those snacks left for him by children, and he gets stuck in the chimney when he tries to leave. The reindeer try to pull him up, the house pets try to push him up, but it takes a clever mouse and a toy bulldozer to get Santa unstuck. Our crew dissolves in giggles, no matter how many times they hear this one, and one of them always begs, “Read it again, please.”

5. The Little Shepherd Girl (2007)-- Juliann Henry, author; Jim Madsen, illustrator
Until the first grand, a beautiful little girl, was born, I never realized that among all the Christmas stories about shepherd boys and drummer boys and littlest angel (boy), it was hard to find a story about a girl. I was jubilant when I discovered this one, written by a pastor and a mother for her daughter. Sarah longs to be a shepherd, but shepherding is a job for boys. Young Sarah is encouraged to weave and bake. It’s “just the way of things,” she’s told. But Sarah is persistent, and she practices the necessary skills. One night she’s allowed to go into the field, and her first night as a shepherd is the very night that angels appear in the night sky announcing the birth of the Christ Child. This story that tells of a shepherd girl loved by both her earthly father and her heavenly one is a terrific story for girls and boys.

6. The True Gift: A Christmas Story (2009)—
Patricia MacLachlan, author; Brian Floca, illustrator
The grands start their lists for Santa in the summer, and despite their tender years (1-10), they have Decembers packed with holiday parties and dinners with family and friends, most of which involve gifts for them. It isn’t easy to teach them that the season is about what we give rather than what we get. Stories do the job better than sermons, and The True Gift makes the point wonderfully. This is a chapter book, so we read it in several sessions, giving us time to talk about Liam, who worries about the loneliness of the White Cow on his grandparents’ farm, and his sister Lily, who worries about the size of the cow that frightens her. Liam’s sacrifice of his cherished books to end the loneliness of a creature and Lily’s gradual involvement in his gift show what a true gift is. The story is lovely, sentimental without becoming cloying, and the illustrations add a wondrous visual dimension to the tale.

This is a new book, and the recommended ages are 9-12. But I’m betting that read aloud in segments, intermingled with conversation, it will appeal to our younger ones as well.

7. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1972)--Barbara Robinson
This gem of a book begins with these sentences: "The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse." It, too, is recommended for ages 9-12, but I’ve read it to much younger children, to teenagers, and even to a Sunday School class of women 70-85—and they have all been captivated by Robinson’s tale of the Herdmans and their response to the Christmas pageant. It’s one I’d read if I were the only audience. The Herdmans may make us laugh in horror, but they end up teaching readers as much as their neighbors what the meaning of Christmas is.

8. Letters from Father Christmas (1995)--J.R.R. Tolkien
I confess I may be cheating by including this one. None of our kids would sit still long enough to listen to all of this collection of letters the famed Tolkien wrote for his own four children over more than twenty years. But they do love listening to a single letter that recounts an engaging account of life at the North Pole where the clumsy Polar Bear climbs the North Pole and falls through the roof of Father Christmas’s house or the one in which the same bear breaks the moon into four pieces, causing the Man in the Moon to fall into the garden. And if you are a Tolkien fan—or even if you think you aren’t—you may find yourself reading the rest after the children are fast asleep.

9. The Animal’s Christmas Carol (2001)--Helen Ward
“The Friendly Beasts” is a favorite carol in our family. This book is based on the carol, and our animal-loving crew adores it. In gorgeous, detailed illustrations, not just the cow, the donkey, the dove of the original carol but also the lion, the peacock, the camels, even the lowly woodworm offer their humble gifts to the baby in the manger. We love it!

10. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey (1995)—
Susan Wojciechowski, author; P.J. Lynch, illustrator

"The village children called him Mr. Gloomy. But, in fact, his name was Toomey, Mr. Jonathan Toomey. And though it's not kind to call people names, this one fit quite well. For Jonathan Toomey seldom smiled and never laughed. He went about mumbling and grumbling, muttering and sputtering, grumping and griping. He complained that the church bells rang too often, that the birds sang too shrilly, that the children played too loudly...."

Thus begins the story of tormented woodworker whose pain has isolated him and the widow and her son who request that Toomey carve for them the figures of the Nativity to replace cherished ones they have lost. This is a poignant, powerful story about the transformation of three lives. It is, on many levels, a love story. And isn’t love, on many levels, what Christmas is all about?

What are your favorite Christmas stories—or Hanukah stories or Kwanzaa stories—for children?