Top Five Friday: Best Books of 2014

I only get to sneak my “Top Five Friday” posts in occasionally these days, since the Pink for All Seasons recaps generally happen on Fridays. But I finished my GoodReads 2014 Challenge on Wednesday (with only hours to spare), so I’ve been thinking about all the books I read in 2014.

Do you use GoodReads? If you do, it’s fun to look at your stats about what you read. I know that I read 85 books in 2014, but GoodReads tells me that I read a total of 26,865 pages. Of all the books I read, I rated seven books as 5 stars and also seven as 2 stars. No books in 2014 got a 1 star rating – how excellent. The vast majority of the books I read were mysteries, and then several of my other categories (like books about India, fairy-tale inspired books, and nonfiction) were tied for second place. The majority of the books I read were published after 2000, and the oldest book I read was Around the World in Eighty Days (published in 1873). Maybe it’s nerdy of me to think that’s interesting, but I definitely do!

Looking back over everything I’ve read this year, I’ve come up with my Top Five list for 2014 reads. I’m excluding everything written by Lauren Willig, since I cover that pretty extensively in Pink for All Seasons. Here they are!

thousand stars 1. Night of a Thousand Stars by Deanna Raybourn. Don’t get me wrong or come after me with your torch and pitchforks. I love Lady Julia, but Deanna’s standalone novels from 2013 and 2014 are what put her on my list of favorite authors. A Spear of Summer Grass made my 2013 list, and she’s absolutely at the top of this year with Night of a Thousand Stars. Deanna has a gift for hooking you with her first lines. This story is no exception. Have a look: “I say, if you’re running away from your wedding, you’re going about it quite wrong.” When we meet Poppy, our heroine, for the first time, she is literally paused with one leg over a window sill in the process of bolting from her wedding. I loved this book. Poppy was funny and spunky, the setting was exotic, the mystery had a great pace, and Deanna’s storytelling is absolutely on point. I gulped this book down in two sittings and loved every page of it. Yes, it has connections to the Lady Julia series and also to A Spear of Summer Grass and City of Jasmine, but you can read this one and still thoroughly enjoy it without having read the others.
 every secret 2. Every Secret Thing by Susanna Kearsley (writing as Emma Cole). This book is different from Susanna’s projects of the last few years. Kate Murray is a journalist who is covering a high-profile court case when she witnesses a terrible accident. A stranger is hit by a car and killed only moments after he tells her that he has a story she could research – a story that stretches back to World War II and a killer who has managed to hide his crimes for decades. As Kate begins to trace the stranger’s past, she finds an unexpected connection to her own family, and she realizes that she is placing both the people who are close to her and the people who can help her in serious danger. The story flickers between Kate’s research in the present day and flashbacks to the 1940s in Canada, the US, UK and Lisbon. I really enjoy stories about World War II, but somehow this one hit me on an extremely personal level. The mystery was excellent (I did NOT see the end coming), the period detail is flawless, and if you are a fan of Mary Stewart novels, you will really appreciate this one.
 cress 3. Cress by Marissa Meyer. This is the third book in Marissa’s Lunar Chronicles series that began in 2012 with Cinder. In the Lunar Chronicles, Marissa creates a futuristic world where the citizens of Earth have been brought to the brink of war by a devastating plague, the threat of invasion from the Lunars (who live on the moon), and a tangle of international and intergalactic politics. Cress is a Rapunzel story, but instead of a beautiful princess locked in a tower by a witch, we have a young girl trapped in a satellite orbiting earth by an evil queen. Cress has been watching the situation between Earth and Luna deteriorate for years, and with nothing but computers and television for company, she has grown sympathetic to Earth’s cause. When an opportunity comes to be rescued from her satellite, she jumps at it, although she learns quickly that Earth is not the welcoming sanctuary it has always appeared from several thousand miles away. In this book, Marissa does a great job of bringing together several different plot lines she created earlier in the series, and I cannot wait to see how she will move the story forward. Cress stood out to me as the best in the series so far, and I feel like Marissa is preparing us for an unbelievable ride in Winter (due to be released in November 2015).
 Princess 4. A Princess Remembers by Gayatri Devi. In this book, Gayatri tells the story of her life in India, and it is fascinating. She lived in a time of unbelievable change – the India from the days of her childhood is so incredibly different from the India she knew as an adult. She grew up as the daughter of a Maharaja and became the third wife of the Maharaja of Jaipur after a secret six-year courtship. She was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, and she was the last Maharani that Jaipur would ever see. After Partition, Gayatri Devi ran for Parliament in 1962. She won her seat by the largest landslide in the history of democratic elections, confirmed by the Guinness Book of Records. Her story is fascinating, and her descriptions of both day-to-day life and political events are wonderful. I don’t read many memoirs or biographies, but this one was wonderful.
 fortune2 5. The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin. This story is based on true events from the lives of Charlotte Baird, Bay Middleton, and Empress Elizabeth of Austria. It’s a great period piece, and it will satisfy that part of your soul that wants to watch Downton Abbey and drink tea in your pajamas all day. I wrote a full review for NetGalley back in May, if you want more details.

 

So there you have it – my favorite books from 2014. What were the best books you read last year?

Happy Release Day, Daisy Goodwin!

fortune2

Today’s book birthday is Daisy Goodwin’s The Fortune Hunter.  I’ve already read and reviewed this one, and I thought it was great!

Here is what St. Martin’s Press has to say about it:

Empress Elizabeth of Austria, known as Sisi, is the Princess Diana of nineteenth-century Europe. Famously beautiful, as captured in a portrait with diamond stars in her hair, she is unfulfilled in her marriage to the older Emperor Franz Joseph. Sisi has spent years evading the stifling formality of royal life on her private train or yacht or, whenever she can, on the back of a horse.

Captain Bay Middleton is dashing, young, and the finest horseman in England. He is also impoverished, with no hope of buying the horse needed to win the Grand National—until he meets Charlotte Baird. A clever, plainspoken heiress whose money gives her a choice among suitors, Charlotte falls in love with Bay, the first man to really notice her, for his vulnerability as well as his glamour. When Sisi joins the legendary hunt organized by Earl Spencer in England, Bay is asked to guide her on the treacherous course. Their shared passion for riding leads to an infatuation that jeopardizes the growing bond between Bay and Charlotte, and threatens all of their futures.

This brilliant new novel by Daisy Goodwin is a lush, irresistible story of the public lives and private longings of grand historical figures.

The Fortune Hunter

fortune2

Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press, I had a chance to read an advance copy of Daisy Goodwin’s July release The Fortune Hunter. Ms. Goodwin has another book, The American Heiress, that I haven’t read yet, but it’s on my list!

In 1875, Charlotte Baird is a young woman with a passion for photography and a penchant for saying the wrong thing in social situations. As the heiress of the Lennox fortune, she attracts her fair share of suitors, but Charlotte is self-aware enough to realize that the men who try to win her favor are mostly interested in her money. Her overbearing brother Fred and his bitter fiancé Augusta have been managing her money and her personal life, and she has never had a reason to challenge them. But things change for Charlotte when she meets Bay Middleton, a handsome cavalry officer who finds her unladylike hobby and strange habits charming. Charlotte is starting to think she may actually have found a suitor who would prefer her heart to her inheritance, but everything changes with the arrival of Empress Elizabeth of Austria.

Empress Elizabeth, known to her friends as Sisi, lives a life of luxurious monotony. She is heralded as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and the Emperor is indulgent of her need for travel and excitement, but she is still unsatisfied. Sisi visits England for the opportunity to participate in an English foxhunt, and she brings a household of servants, courtiers and strange pets with her. When the Earl of Spencer informs her that he has selected a pilot to guide her in the hunt, she is less than thrilled. When she finds that Bay Middleton can keep up with her though, both in speed and fearlessness, Sisi decides it is not such a nuisance to have a pilot after all. Soon, she finds that Bay’s presence is necessary to her wherever she might be, and society begins to whisper that Bay may be doing more for the Empress than guiding her through her hunts. When these rumors reach Charlotte, Charlotte questions whether Bay’s attentions toward her were honest, or if he is really the fortune-hunter that she’s been warned about.

The Fortune Hunter is, on the surface, a simple story about a love triangle. But Ms. Goodwin takes her story to another level, creating a character study of Charlotte, Bay, and Sisi. Charlotte is the quintessential romantic heroine – biddable, naive, and uncertain of her own worth. But she develops into a woman who will not be told what to do and who is not content with being anyone’s second choice.

Sisi was a great character, and you can tell Ms. Goodwin had fun exploring her motivations. In the author’s note at the beginning of the novel, Ms. Goodwin admits to having a fascination with Empress Elizabeth as a child and she says she sees “ghostly parallels” between Sisi and Diana Spencer – “Both women, who married men they hardly knew and who didn’t understand them, were famously glamorous and unhappy.” Sisi doesn’t mind the gossip about her learning circus tricks on her horse, keeping a monkey as a pet, or riding out on the hunt far in front of a pack of men, but she does very much mind the idea that people will judge her by their ideal of royalty and find her wanting. She has a fear of losing her beauty, and for someone who takes great pride in her features, she has a horror of being photographed. Sisi is accustomed to getting whatever she wants without being questioned, but she still finds that her life is missing a freedom she can’t seem to grasp.

The character I had the most trouble understanding was Bay. I wondered if he might be a little too tempestuous for Charlotte in the long run. Not only does he develop a strong fascination with Sisi when he’s supposed to have an understanding with Charlotte, but he was involved with a married woman at the beginning of the novel. The book spans less than a year of time, so I found it a little hard to believe that, in the course of that time, he could be so infatuated with three different women. I definitely thought that he cared about Charlotte, but I found myself wondering if he was really a good fit for her. Maybe that’s just me putting myself in Charlotte’s shoes and wishing she could have fallen for someone a bit more reliable!

I really enjoyed the use of photography in this novel. It was a relatively new medium for people to experiment with, and none of the characters are quite sure how to feel about it. Everyone has a set idea in their head of how they appear to other people, and if a photograph contradicts that idea, it can be an unpleasant surprise. Augusta is a great example of this attitude. She is quick to snub the idea of Charlotte’s photos as art, complains about the time involved in taking a photograph and, when she doesn’t like how she looks in a picture, she takes it out on Charlotte. She becomes much more open to the process when a photographer pets her ego by posing her like a goddess in front of a painted backdrop. Characters seem to have a fear of photographs and what a photo of themselves might reveal. As Charlotte points out to Sisi when they are formally introduced, “A royal portrait is bound by its very nature to flatter its subject, but a photograph cannot lie.” With one of her photographs, Charlotte learns a particularly hard lesson about what a camera can capture that the eye might have missed.

I thought this was a great story, and I was interested to learn that Bay Middleton and Charlotte Baird are not just Ms. Goodwin’s characters, but real people. Somehow that makes the story even better to me. I’ll have to hurry up and get started on The American Heiress soon.

Top Five Friday: To Be Read

Today has been crazy, and I cannot wait for the weekend. With that in mind, today’s list will be the top 5 books on my TBR pile.

 

berkeley The Berkeley Square Affair, by Tracy Grant: I’ve already shared my excitement about this new release, so I won’t go into it all again, but it’s at the very top of my TBR pile.  Must finish the book I’m currently reading so I can get at it already…
 extraordinary  The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman: “Coralie Sardie is the daughter of the sinister impresario behind The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island boardwalk freak show that thrills the masses. An exceptional swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid in her father’s museum, alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle.
One night Coralie stumbles upon a striking young man taking pictures of moonlit trees in the woods off the Hudson River. The dashing photographer is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father’s Lower East Side Orthodox community and his job as a tailor’s apprentice. When Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the suspicious mystery behind a young woman’s disappearance and ignites the heart of Coralie.
With its colorful crowds of bootleggers, heiresses, thugs, and idealists, New York itself becomes a riveting character as Hoffman weaves her trademark magic, romance, and masterful storytelling to unite Coralie and Eddie in a sizzling, tender, and moving story of young love in tumultuous times. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is Alice Hoffman at her most spellbinding.
 mortal art  3. Mortal Arts, by Anna Lee Huber: “Lady Kiera Darby is no stranger to intrigue—in fact, it seems to follow wherever she goes. After her foray into murder investigation, Kiera must journey to Edinburgh with her family so that her pregnant sister can be close to proper medical care. But the city is full of many things Kiera isn’t quite ready to face: the society ladies keen on judging her, her fellow investigator—and romantic entanglement—Sebastian Gage, and ultimately, another deadly mystery.Kiera’s old friend Michael Dalmay is about to be married, but the arrival of his older brother—and Kiera’s childhood art tutor—William, has thrown everything into chaos. For ten years Will has been missing, committed to an insane asylum by his own father. Kiera is sympathetic to her mentor’s plight, especially when rumors swirl about a local girl gone missing. Now Kiera must once again employ her knowledge of the macabre and join forces with Gage in order to prove the innocence of a beloved family friend—and save the marriage of another…”
 The Wild Girl  4. The Wild Girl, by Kate Forsyth: “Growing up in the small German kingdom of Hessen-Cassel in early Nineteenth century, Dortchen Wild is irresistibly drawn to the boy next door, the young and handsome fairy tale scholar Wilhelm Grimm.It is a time of War, tyranny and terror. Napoleon Bonaparte wants to conquer all of Europe, and Hessen-Cassel is one of the first kingdoms to fall. Forced to live under oppressive French rule, the Grimm brothers decide to save old tales that had once been told by the firesides of houses grand and small all over the land.Dortchen knows many beautiful old stories, such as ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘The Frog King’ and ‘Six Swans’. As she tells them to Wilhelm, their love blossoms. Yet the Grimm family is desperately poor, and Dortchen’s father has other plans for his daughter. Marriage is an impossible dream.Dortchen can only hope that happy endings are not just the stuff of fairy tales.”
 american heiress  5. The American Heiress, by Daisy Goodwin: “Traveling abroad with her mother at the turn of the twentieth century to seek a titled husband, beautiful, vivacious Cora Cash, whose family mansion in Newport dwarfs the Vanderbilts’, suddenly finds herself Duchess of Wareham, married to Ivo, the most eligible bachelor in England. Nothing is quite as it seems, however: Ivo is withdrawn and secretive, and the English social scene is full of traps and betrayals. Money, Cora soon learns, cannot buy everything, as she must decide what is truly worth the price in her life and her marriage.

 

Have a great weekend!