A couple of weeks ago I attended OCCRWA's (Orange County, California) annual Birthday Bash celebration to announce the Top Pick winner for their annual Book Buyer's Best contest. This is a published authors contest (self-published entries were included this year). My job was to read the highest scoring books in each category (nine all together) and pick "the best one." While a lot of reading? I didn't have to write out a bunch of score cards. It was see books, read books, pick a book.
I thought about talking about all the books I read, but in the end I've decided to focus on "the best ones." These were the Top 3, and let's talk about them from third place on down to the final winner:
A Taste For Scandal by Erin Knightley won the historical category. The second book in a series, it stands alone very well (obviously, since I'd never read her before). This is one of those Duke's Son Falls In Love With A Nobody books - which is to say you read it for the fairy tale. There is some angst, but this is a romance - so naturally everything turns out rosy in the end, when in "real life, back in those days" the couple would undoubtedly have faced continual blow-back for their unconventional marriage.
What I really liked, besides the fairy tale? The heroine is a baker. Certainly baking heroines have been running amok in contemporary small town romances, but not so in historicals. So the historical tidbits of what it was like to bake during Regency times? Really interesting. Also, the hero behaves like one would expect him to behave as the eldest son of a still-living Duke. He parties. He's got a reputation. He's a nice guy underneath, but he's not exactly a paragon of responsibility when this story starts. If I was grading this book? Probably a B-. I'd read more Knightley.
Such a Rush by Jennifer Echols won the YA category and made me want to punch every teenager I see at work in the throat. These whipper-snappers? They have NO clue how good they have it. Where were books like this when I was a teen?!
Heroine is pure white trash, moving from trailer park to trailer park with her largely absent (naturally, this is a YA novel) mother. Their latest home is next to a small airstrip, and the heroine, with ambition to not be her mother - hops the fence and gets a job as office girl/gopher. She's 14 when she forges her mother's signature on a permission form and starts taking flying lessons with a man who owns a business pulling advertising banners. Fast forward four years, her mentor is dead, and his twin 18-year-old sons inherit the business. The heroine has plans, which do not involve hitching her wagon to silver-spoon twin brothers who will probably run the business into the ground. One of them has other ideas though, and essential blackmails her into sticking around.
Reading the back cover copy, it sounds like a love triangle story - but, trust me, it's not. I loved this heroine. I know this heroine. I'm pretty damn sure I went to high school with her. I also found it incredibly telling that this was the contest read that handled "the sex stuff" the best. It was responsible, sexy and believably. This book came very, very close to being my "top pick." So much so that I had to take Labor Day weekend to really mull it over. If I were grading this, it would be a B+. In the end though? It lost out to....
Sea Change by Karen White which won the Romantic Elements category and ended up being my Top Pick.
This is a book that has something for everybody, literally. Which sounds like a hot mess, but it's not. I'd classify it as Southern Gothic. It's a dual narrative story, alternating from present day to the early 1800s. The present day story involves the heroine, a midwife, who after a whirlwind courtship marries the man of her dreams. Except it turns out the man of her dreams was married before and Wife #1 died in an "accident." The historical story also tells the story of a midwife, her life with her husband, unmarried sister, and the effect the War of 1812 has on them. With this dual narrative, both involving midwives, naturally some light paranormal elements come into play to connect to the two stories.
It's beautifully written, with an evocative sense of place. White does everything with this book (historical, contemporary, paranormal, Gothic, romance, mystery) and does it all well. None of the elements in this story annoyed me, which is especially telling with the paranormal aspect as it's typically something that would annoy me no end. But it didn't here, because this author swept me up and took me away to this world she created. Also, as a librarian, it's the sort of book I can damn near recommend to anybody. What ultimately tipped me over the edge? Besides how wonderful the writing was? That she was able to pull off all those elements in the same story and not screw any of them up. I don't have a burning desire to reread it, but it's better than a B+. My final grade would probably be an A-.
So there you have it - the best of the contest reads for 2013. If you'd like to see all the finalists, you can check out OCCRWA's BBB contest page. It was a lot of work, getting through nine books, but it ended up being a nice experience. I told them to consider me again for next year - even if I'm not the Top Pick judge. I'd happily serve as a first-round judge again (which I've done in the past).