I know, I know, what can I say…not a regency romance among them, but here are the books I’ve enjoyed this year in no particular order. I patronize the local library where I haunt the new release shelf and read mostly on my commute (40 minutes on the Washington, DC metro).
Adam Hochschild’s wonderful book about the English abolitionist movement gave me an entirely different take on Georgian/Regency England. One of the points Hochschild makes is that the abolitionist movement could have only happened in England because of the country’s excellent infrastructure (roads and mailcoaches), and the population’s high level of literacy and passion for politics–even though few could vote, petitions and boycotts had great power. Can you imagine the sweet-toothed English boycotting sugar? They did, in the 1790s, just one example of how the movement crossed boundaries of class and gender. One of the few history books I’ve read as avidly, and found as moving, as a good novel. A funny book about suicide? Yep. A group of odd, sad, hopeless people meet on a rooftop from which they all intend to jump, and instead become friends–sort of–Nick Hornby isn’t a writer who gives in much to sentiment. Alternately touching, laugh-aloud funny, and savagely satirical.
This is the book I got for xmas and my latest commuter read which I finished last night, although it was a book I wanted to go on for a lot longer. Zadie Smith can make you laugh at and care about her characters, while making you think about Big Things like families, love, education, culture, identity. Rich, satisfying, thoughtful, bighearted fiction.

I was really surprised at how much I liked Ain’t She Sweet. Normally I run screaming from any book set in a small (particularly) southern town and/or dealing with characters suffering decades-old high school angst. But Phillips’ characters, particularly her complex, appealing hero and heroine, are grown-ups who can come to terms with their pasts, while still making some pretty dreadful mistakes in the present.

OK, I’m cheating a bit. I think this book came out a couple of years ago, but I read it this year and loved it. Imagine the Sopranos at the Tudor Court–the power-hungry, manipulative Howard family using the women of their family as pawns (“Yes, it’s Tuesday, Mary, so today it’s your turn to become the king’s mistress”). The book is about Mary, the sister of Ann Boleyn, briefly Henry VIII’s mistress, her troubled relationship with her sister and family, and how she breaks free of them. I love Gregory’s brilliant use of language, particularly dialogue, which evokes early sixteenth-century English without sounding archaic or anachronistic.

Another cheating entry–published a few years back, but new to me this year. Yes, it’s about SM. I loved the voice of this book–Carrie’s ironic, bookish take on her adventures as a sex slave. It’s suprisingly funny and sweet. And, oh yes, very sexy indeed, even if you think you’re not into that sort of thing. Its author Molly Weatherfield wears another hat as a writer of equally wonderful regency-set historicals.

Anna Maxted is a British chicklit writer–roughly speaking–who isn’t afraid to take on big issues and real angst (date rape, bereavement, eating disorders) and in her latest, adultery. At the same time she’s genuinely, hysterically funny and her heroines don’t lapse into the self-pitying whines I tend to associate with chicklit. And how’s this for an opening line (maybe she’s a contender for the successor to Jane Austen title we discussed a week or so ago?): Every woman likes to be proposed to, even if she knows she’s going to refuse.

Here’s the best re-read of my year, Flora Thompson’s memoirs of growing up in the English countryside in the late nineteenth century. A great source for small details of country life and a sense of an era about to come to an end. My great-aunt told us it was exactly as she remembered her early childhood. The book may be out of print here, but it’s rediscovered and cherished by every generation in England.

Looking ahead to 2006…In 1988 Catherine MacCoun published a book called The Age of Miracles, about a thirteenth-century novice who is possibly–or not–a saint, and what happens to her when she leaves the nunnery. I love this wry, thoughtful, beautifully written book–she’s another writer, like Gregory, who can evoke the past and not sound overly historical. I’ve re-read it many times and I guess it’s a romance, though nothing like any other medieval I’ve tried and flung against the wall. At the time I wouldn’t have been caught dead reading a romance (now I’m only mildly embarrassed but it’s so difficult to read with a paper sack over your head on the commute). After (oh, gasp, this makes me feel ill) eighteen years in the strange twilight world before the second sale, Ms. MacCoun’s next book comes out in May. And I can’t wait to read it.