For the first time since I started making a Top 10 list, I’ve decided to cheat and make two. I already posted one for books targeted at tweens and teens, so this is the one for books that assume an adult is reading. Let me clarify that no one should assume there is “adult content”, but rather the protagonists are adults and the themes and situations may be more mature. All of these authors are part of Clean Indie Reads, an exceptional group for finding quality fiction, if I don’t mind saying so myself, which I don’t.
I’ll clarify, as always, that these books were not necessarily written in 2015. That’s just when I read them.
#1 & 2
IRISH MYSTERY SERIES by Joel Canfield
COZY MYSTERY / SUSPENSE: The first thing that I must say is that I just really, really, really enjoy Canfield’s writing style. I can’t read a page without snickering aloud at the marvelous way he puts words together. The voice of his narrator can show great wit even while walking “through the fog” of unexplained amnesia. If Canfield wrote for television, I’d actually watch it. His narrative, filled with its characteristic snark and impeccable timing, builds steam throughout the story until it’s a roaring train careening to the climax. I loved how the characters grew in time with the mystery and suspense. The plot–as fantastic and bizarre as it was–felt plausible in the hands of such a good writer.
But the best of the books for me was the number of lines throughout that pounded a spike of wisdom through my heart. Canfield isn’t just smart; he challenges his readers to be smart. He got me thinking–not just about the mystery and the characters–but about my values and perceptions of things in life we sometimes prefer to avoid pondering.
Only a Kiss by Ines Bautista-Yao
CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE: Bautista-Yao got me to like a genre I don’t, mostly by letting me taste another culture. Only a Kiss starts off with that sweet, precocious whimsy of a Ramona book and moves into those first love blunders and aches we’ve all experienced at some level. It’s the Filipino version of the whole “falling for the girl next door” story. It felt so genuine that I wanted to jump right into the story and talk to Chris and Katie. I saw echoes of myself in both of them, and that made me both love them and want to shake some sense into them. Bautista-Yao’s writing is solid and expressive. The progression of the relationship from childhood playmates through the roller coaster of young infatuations and on to a mature and abiding love is touching. They overcome obstacles without and within, and that I can get into. This story was a real treat.
Oh, and the cover art is gorgeous!
Ella Wood by Michelle Isenhoff
HISTORICAL: This book is the grown-up sequel to The Candle Star, a story about the Underground Railroad written for middle graders (and which was featured in a past Top 10 list). Ella Wood takes us to another, more mature level. Although the protagonist, Emily, is a late teen, in the context of the Civil War era, she was an adult. Isenhoff clearly did a lot of research, discovering the hushed-up horrors of slave life. Her characters are multi-dimensional and not always predictable in their actions. Motives are rarely superficial, and that makes for some suspense and some sparks. There are various defining moments that instruct and impact the heart and mind so much with a single image–a fitting thing, given that Emily is an artist who captures life in her sketches.
#5 & 6
COZY SUBURBS MYSTERIES by Lisa Thomas
COZY MYSTERY: I grew up on the Miss Marple mysteries of Agatha Christie, and this series just brings that spirit forward to the 21st century. Deena Sharpe just wanted a job writing for the newspaper, but finds herself tangled up in local murder mysteries. This new sleuth series shows great promise. It’s exactly like I like my cozy mysteries. No gore or graphic violence, but plenty of intrigue and suspense. Ms. Thomas drops just enough clues to keep you puzzling the pieces together, but saves the vital crime-solving ones for the exciting finale.
Carry Me Home by Valerie Howard
CHRISTIAN FICTION: This is probably the best Christian fiction I’ve ever read. I usually find the genre too sugary sweet (and often poorly written) to stomach, although I am a woman of strong faith. Valerie Howard made it real, poignant, even unsettling, without ever resorting to ugly, foul, or graphic. She managed to deal with all kinds of sticky issues, from abortion and alcoholism to the care of elderly and corrupt religionists. I didn’t expect to like this book, and yet I felt drawn back to it whenever I had time to read. In the end, my tears came because these people were so real and so relevant. Excellent work!
Lindsey by Linda Crowder
SHORT STORY: The plot is simple: a young woman mourns the loss of family. The story, however, is much more. This is a beautiful, poignant glimpse at grief and healing, told with a power that moved me in just a few pages. Ms. Crowder creates a memorable moment well worth savoring. It’s as good as any of the short story classics included in literature anthologies that I taught and/or studied in high school and college.
Tell a Thousand Lies by Rasana Atreya
DRAMA: This novel is India’s answer to Les Miserables. I had to keep reminding myself that it was fiction because the narrator’s voice was so authentic. The whole story was fascinating in its foreignness. I wept often at the heart-wrenching circumstances caused by poverty, ignorance and political corruption. But I also rejoiced in the human spirit and determination of the protagonist. One sees the best and the worst of the intriguing culture. The message is clear: nothing is more precious and life-sustaining than the love of family.
Avalon by Valerie Howard
CHRISTIAN ALLEGORY: Mara has been trapped in the slave yard for years, plotting her escape, or at least the day when she can lash out at the King and Prince whose laws banished her here. Her life gets flipped upside down when she makes a deal with the enemy and discovers he wasn’t what she expected at all.
Although this is not the most polished of the books on the list, it was such a rich and satisfying allegory for the Christian journey from rebellion to redemption. Knowing in advance how the story would end did not take away from the beauty of Ms. Howard’s imagery and the analogies she drew. I found myself nodding, smiling, and feeling more grateful for my testimony of God’s love.
This year’s Top 10 list was the hardest to compile ever, in part because I simply read more books, and in part because the books were just so dang good. I had to cut books that made me laugh out loud, gasp, cry and/or cheer. In the end, I’m going to go with the ones that left the strongest images in my brain, and that I think the highest number per capita of my teen friends would enjoy reading. Which brings me to a key point: I finally decided to break down and create two lists (so I could mention more books)–one for books targeted to teens and middle grade readers, and one for books targeted to adults. The next few books on my reading list are all geared towards adults, so this seemed like the logical time to post the 2015 winners! Let me clarify that these books were not necessarily released in 2015–that’s just when I finally got around to reading them.
My genre preference biases do show in this list, but for those who share similar taste with me, I can tell you that these are top-quality books. Go get ’em!
Beggar Magic by H. L. Burke
FANTASY: Everything about this story is fresh, imaginative, unique and exquisitely done. The heroes were different, flawed in new ways, and they worked so well together. The entire premise of the story, with Strains of music acting like a voice of spirit or something both religious and mystical, was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The world-building was complete and complex, and I wanted to go there. And… more! With every new chapter I read, I kept thinking, “This is the best book I’ve read all year.” And so here it is!
Dog Goner by Cynthia Port
HUMOR: Book 1 of this series (Kibble Talk) made the list last year, and Cynthia Port has knocked it out of the park again. This middle grade book cracked me up. The story line is amusing by itself–the sort of thing kids aged 3 to 103 could all enjoy. Kids and dogs are working together to solve each other’s problems, but the problems keep growing bigger and sillier. But more than the fun and exciting story is the way Port words things. Oh my goodness, I snorted and cackled all the way through it, which made my own dog bark! I don’t know why this isn’t a national best seller. It is so stinkin’ funny. (Stinkin’ is relevant to the plot, by the way.)
Thaddeus Whiskers and the Dragon by H. L. Burke
HUMOR: Yes, same author as above, but a very different genre and overall feel. This is a fairy tale of a completely original sort. Yes, there’s a princess and a wizard and an evil woman trying to become queen, but it’s nothing like all the rest. The hero, after all, is a kitten. I loved the original twists and candid humor. Burke’s timing is spot on, and I found myself laughing a lot. Even some of the secondary characters shine. I can imagine it being a very successful family bedtime reading venture because parents won’t complain if they have to read it more than once. It should become an instant children’s classic.
Blood of Pioneers by Michelle Isenhoff
HISTORICAL: This is part of the same series as The Candle Star that I loved last year. Once again, Isenhoff packs big ideas and images into words that any reader from tween on up can easily enjoy. The narrative reminds me of the best of the Little House on the Prairie series without all the long, draggy, boring bits. Isenhoff doesn’t waste words, so you want to read every one. Beautiful story. And…funny anecdote… I was finishing it up in the waiting room for an eye doctor appointment. Touched deeply by the conclusion, I had a hard time seeing the charts through my tears!
Candid by Michelle Pennington
ROMANCE: I was surprised by how much I liked this book and wanted to get back to it when I had to do something else. YA romance is *not* my favorite genre at all, but I knew this book had been featured on Clean Indie Reads, so I trusted it not to be embarrassingly steamy. I’m so glad I got the book. This is the perfect book for teens who want a little romance, but don’t want to lower their moral standards. Pennington places her characters in realistic situations, with all the drama and twitterpation of the age, without things getting crude or R-rated. The main characters were very well-developed and relatable, and I found myself rethinking how I look at people.
REJECT HIGH SERIES by Brian Thompson
Reject High & Sophomore Freak (books 1 & 2)
URBAN FANTASY: Reject High is a solid example of what’s so awesome about the urban fantasy genre. This was non-stop action and a great cast of characters that left me constantly wondering who to trust. The story is tight and the heroes are so worth cheering for. What amazes me is how real these teen characters feel. Despite the wholly bizarre circumstances in which they find themselves, they still act and think like teens, stressing over relationships and coping with the baggage of their short but hard lives. That makes it sound like it’s all angsty, but it isn’t. Thompson has excellent pacing. With concise attention to detail, he can convey a lot of depth in a short sentence or two. I do recommend this for more mature teens because of some of the thematic content (teen sex and suicide are talked about), but I give special props to Thompson for never using swear words and never depicting anything explicit. He keeps it tasteful while keeping it real–which is a very difficult thing to do. It’s also gratifying to see a multiracial cast from a wide spectrum of socio-economic backgrounds. This is going to be a great series that will appeal to teens from a lot of backgrounds.
Mercy’s Prince by Katy Huth Jones
CHRISTIAN FANTASY: Katy Huth Jones grabbed me instantly with very empathetic characters. Their inner struggles felt genuine and relatable, and I think readers of all ages could find a little bit of themselves in these lovely protagonists. The gentle Christian tone and themes of mercy blended naturally with the mildly Anglo-Saxon/Celtic-Gaelic medieval feel of this fantasy world. Jones’ world-building was very thorough, and I appreciated her attention to detail in cultural matters. It made it all feel very real and rich. Truly, it was some of the best world-building I’ve read all year.
Faery Swap by Susan Kaye Quinn
FANTASY: I loved the imaginative depiction of a parallel faery world that wove new elemental species in with more familiar sprites and faery folk. Also, I could relate to the main character, Finn, on so many levels because his biography (prior to the faery bit, of course) paralleled mine in several ways. The language style was very easy to read without being simplistic or stilted, so even younger readers can jump into the story and follow along. Excellent and engaging piece of children’s literature.
Treespeaker by Katie W. Stewart
FANTASY: After a slow start, this story really gripped me. It has a spiritual tone that could be applied to a variety of theologies, and I found myself evaluating my own convictions. The world the author has created is unlike anything I remember ever reading, and the rich details and depth of the characters made it as compelling as it was foreign. Except for the final climactic scene, this isn’t a page-turner, so I originally did not place it on this list. But months later, I found my mind returning to the world Stewart had created and thinking about the story. I realized it had sunk deeper than expected. This will not be a story I quickly forget.