Best reads of the year

Books are my favorite gifts to give and receive. Here are my picks from the year in books.

Nonfiction

1776 – David McCullough

A stirring account of the most famous year in America. It’s an account you’ve never seen before, with intensely human close ups of General George Washington and those who marched with him-and against him. If you thought you didn’t like history, McCullough will change your mind.

Cleopatra: A Life – Stacy Schiff

Get past the mythology and be astonished that Cleopatra is not known for being a shrewd monarch and a much more interesting woman than the stereotyped seductress as (mostly) men have portrayed her. A luminous, fascinating work.

Story Engineering – Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks takes on story architecture and in doing so breaks open storytelling for beginners and mid-career writers alike. Look at your novel problems in dazzling clarity, learning what’s missing and why people notice.

Here is not a rigid template, but a classic blueprint. He lays out why the elements have to be there and how they create drama. You’ll still need to work your artistic magic to breathe life into your story–but you’ll be working smart and not floundering with a shapeless narrative that has lost its rhythm–and reader interest.

Fiction

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantell

King Henry VIII’s court told from the viewpoint of the fascinating and complex Thomas Cromwell. This highly literary book is no seen-it-before costume drama, but a close up of the psyche of one man trying to navigate the court where a single mistake can mean death. A dense portrait of a man often glossed over in the usual film treatments.  Winner of the Man Booker prize.

Tongues of Serpents – Naomi Novik

Temeraire and Lawrence banished to Australia. If you haven’t tried this wonderful series, then you aren’t in love with the dragon Temeraire – yet. Start with the first book, His Majesty’s Dragon, and luxuriate in the inner and outer worlds of these fascinating characters trying to navigate war and class and a mutual devotion seldom seen in fiction.

The Brahms Deception  – Louise Marley

This intense read is a tightly-plotted time-travel story that plays with the idea of a love affair between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann. Historians from the future travel back in time on an ostensible musicology mission which soon turns dark and harrowing. Reminiscent of Willis’s Doomsday Book, this story offers a dramatic plot and fabulous historical detail.

Troubled Waters – Sharon Shinn

Shinn’s latest fantasy world ruled by five elemental signs and shot though with back-stabbing court intrigues. This is a delightful coming-of-age story that brings a young woman from pawn to power while delivering a fine romance. Zoe Ardelay’s primal power comes from water, and most readers try to figure out their own essence. See Shinn’s website for help in determining yours.

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