For the second year in a row, the Orange County chapter of Romance Writers of America asked me to be their "Top Pick" judge for the annual Book Buyers Best contest. This is a published authors contest with nine categories. Entered books go through a first round of judging and score sheets are filled out. My job as "Top Pick" judge is to read the 1st Place winners in each of the nine categories and pick the best one. It's a ton of reading, but as far as contest judging goes it's fairly easy. I mean, I don't have to fill out any score sheets. Just pick the best book, in my ever so humble opinion.
Like all contest reading it was a mixed bag. There were books I really didn't think were all that great. Then there were the nothing memorable either way, merely OK books. And then there were the books that featured something that "stuck" with me. For the sake of this round-up I'm going to talk about those books; the Wendy Graded B and C books (alas, no A reads this year in contest judging!). And, of course, I'm including the book I selected as Top Pick!
Gentle on My Mind by Susan Fox is a book I had never even heard of, and the author does some really interesting things with this story. On the surface it looks and smells like your typical small town contemporary, but it's got some grit underneath the surface. The heroine is in her 40s, single, and trying to put her life back together after climbing out of a bottle. She turned to alcohol to self-medicate, and she's finally been properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She's managed to patch together a relationship with her formerly estranged, now married (she was a teen mom) son and is living a quiet life. Until the (younger) hero, an undercover cop, crashes his motorcycle into her white picket fence.
So the issues I had with the story were mostly the hero (he's an undercover cop and yet the heroine suggests to him he might want to alter his appearance to "fit in" in town. Really dude?) and some back-story, info-dump in the first chapters. It's the heroine here who is interesting. The self-medicating issue with her alcoholism is not one you see every day in romance. Also she's very aware of her bipolar disorder, monitors her medication, sees her doctor regularly etc. These "interesting issues" you don't see in romance novels every day continue toward the end. [SPOILER] Heroine gets pregnant. She's older, has a mental illness, and is just repairing the damage she's done to herself and her relationships. Abortion is actually thought about and discussed. The heroine isn't necessarily "overjoyed" with this news. She's, naturally, worried. Was kind of refreshing to read a book where the heroine didn't spout off any "I'll always have a piece of him" BS. [END SPOILER].
The Plus One Chronicles by Jennifer Lyon is a self-published, erotic romance novella trilogy - now available in a box-set. The heroine is a former scientist pigeon-holed into that career thanks to the family business. She's always felt like a fraud compared to her genius parents and older brother. Then she survives a brutal attack. She now runs her own bakery and is trying (and mostly failing) to get back to normal. To not be so scared all the time. And then she meets the hero, a former MMA fighter turned gazillionaire, who is very interested in making her his "plus one." Because, you know, he doesn't do relationships.
So the hero is, frankly, pretty standard here for stories of this ilk. There's nothing particularly memorable about him, in my opinion. But again, it's the heroine who makes this trilogy. She's got an ex-fiance she's broken things off with, a strained relationship with her parents, and she's tired of feeling helpless. Sure, she'll be the hero's "plus one" for however long it lasts - but in exchange she wants self-defense lessons. Yes, the hero does "save her" to some extent, but she's actively working to save herself - and that's what I liked about this series.
Prodigal Son by Debra Mullins as much as I did. It's highly readable (even for those of us with burn-out!) and I thought it was an extremely strong showing for an author whose entire backlist, up until this point, was in historicals.
The hero is a bounty hunter and a "seer" - descended from a survivor of Atlantis (yes, that Atlantis). His ability to "see" people across time and space makes him darn good at his job - until he's hired to find a car thief who jumped bail and he can't "see" him. What the heck? The heroine is that car thief's stepsister and since she put her condo up for bail she has a vested interest in finding him. She eventually runs into the hero and they join forces. What neither of them know? Wayward stepbrother stole something other than a car and there are some Very Bad Men gunning for him.
The world-building here is in line with urban fantasy. It's a world we recognize as an everyday world, it's just inhabited by people with "powers." The Atlantis angle was interesting, there's a nice chemistry between the main couple, and the series-itis (this is the first book in a trilogy folks) is there, but not too annoying (the hero's siblings are on tap for other books). If you're looking for a new paranormal, Burn-Out Girl thought this was very solid. It's pricier as a trade paperback, but it got very good reviews in the trade journals (including a starred review in Publisher's Weekly), so your local library may be an option.
Sweet Madness by Heather Snow and the third book in a trilogy. The heroine's husband committed suicide. This tragedy, coupled with survivor's guilt, lead to her work helping to treat veterans returning from the Napoleonic War. The hero is a veteran from that war, and is suffering from what we now know as PTSD. He's in such a bad way that he as been committed, although given his title and family he's hardly in a "snake pit." He's also her cousin by her first marriage and when his mother asks her to help, she agrees to go visit him. She sees him for the first time since her wedding at the hospital, stark raving mad, naked, and being subdued by orderlies. Ahhhhh, romance!
This is likely a book that would drive historical purists up one wall and down the other. However I appreciated it for how the author plays with her history without completely running off the rails. Yes, a heroine in the early 19th century running around as amateur shrink would be unlikely - but the survivor's guilt angle worked for me. Also her idea for helping soldiers is "talk therapy," which hardly strains at the seams. I also liked the window into mental illness treatment during this time period. Let's face it - the hero has money and power, even if he is believed to be totally mad. That affords him a certain lifestyle, even if he is institutionalized. My only real quibble is a bit of a throwaway line, where I felt that the heroine's husband (obviously "not well") is demonized a bit for the way he treated her. I could see that rankling some readers, and while it rankled me a bit - it didn't detract overall from the story which I felt was very interesting and a different take on what we typically see in a Regency.
And that's it! The four books that stuck with me in various, positive ways, during the course of my contest reading. While I didn't find an "A" read this year, I did run up against some interesting books that I may not have read otherwise. Which really, is why I keep signing up to judge contests every year even with my TBR Pile of Doom. There's nothing quite like stumbling across a good book that you otherwise may have never found.