While I don’t post many book reviews up on this site, I am a voracious reader (kinda shouldn’t come as a big surprise, with the doctorate in English). I do put up reviews on my Amazon account, which has some links here. Still, tis the time for end of the year lists, and the book one is a favorite of mine.
In the past I focused more broadly on books that I’d read, period, regardless of release date. For this year’s list, I will be going by the same criteria as with games: only those released in this calander year, or those who had their first big sale in this calander year, are going to be included (this counts for one entry on here, and about as many on the games list).
This is based primarily upon my opinion, and these reflect more which media I look most fondly upon, so it’s almost entirely the “tilt factor” (though I like to think I like good stuff). Without further adieu: the list.
10 Love and Other Disasters by Anita Kelly
This is one of those fun, LGBT+ romances that often show up on Kindle and other places. As last year’s list indicated, I dig reading these. Not only are they often the same fun, light stories that romance novels so particularly are, but they also include various bits that come with having a queer romance in today’s age.
Love and Other Disasters does precisely that. It tells the story of two contestants on one of those baking reality shows that we all love, though it’s much rougher than The Great British Bake-Off. As someone who loves those sorts of shows (see my ranking on Top Chef), that alone would have gotten my interest. But this tale focuses on recent young divorcee Dahlia, and stiff non-binary competetor London, both of whom are in the show for their own reasons. We see them dealing not only with the drama of the reality show, but also queer prejudice and their burgeoning attraction to one another.
The reason this ranks a bit low and didn’t quite earn a perfect score from me was the lack of development of a lot of side characters. There’s these fun and interesting characters, but they just don’t really show enough, particularly the main “nemesis” for them. Still a great read!
9 Crazy Faith by Michael Todd
This definitely feels like a sharp turn, doesn’t it? Going from a LGBT+ novel to one of thoe religious borderline self-help books. I admit that the cover to the work and the promise of delving into the almost insanity that comes with devout Christianity is what drew it to me, that and Todd looks like a fun guy.
The writing itself talks about how we need to really think and rely on our prayers and our connection to God. Todd comes across as very “real,” not holding himself on a pedastal and admitting to his own faults as a pastor, husband, and Christian. It’s got some really great ideas, some good analoogies, and snappy writing.
(It’s also the holdover from last year; got it during a Christmas sale)
8 Aru Shah and the Nectar of Immortality by Roshani Chokshi
Yet another hard swivel, as we go not for fun romances that introduce reality or well written thoughts on religion, but to a conclusion of a longer running YA/Middle Grade series. I keep up with pretty much all the Rick Riordan presents books (the imprint established writer Riordan developed to promote books based on myths and heritages from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds), and Chokshi’s Aru Shah series was among the first and best of the bunch.
This sees the end of the current storyline (I’m hoping for more), with Aru and her “sisters” (it’s a group of girls and a single guy) attempting to regain their footing after what happened in previous events. It’s filled with climatic action, fun myth-based adventures, and engaging, funny characters who are finally growing up into their roles (kinda the whole overarching theme of these books).
I’d really recommend exploring this imprint in general, as I have read only one book in the entire line that wasn’t very good (ironically starring a non-binary protagonist; that was literally the only thing interesting about that character). Chokshi started reading very similar to Riordan’s stuff, and I’d say her series is the one that cleaves closest to that original spirit. She’s made her own work though, and the ending here really proves it: great book.
7 Dragons of Deceit by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
This book was something of a big deal in the DnD world. There were some legal issues between Weis & Hickman and Wizards of the Coast for a while, mostly involving Dragonlance and its series. Many thought the series and the world of Krynn would be abandoned like so many before. So it was a pleasant surprise to read that a new novel by the classic creators was coming (and a new adventure, which is on my Christmas list and something my group will be doing in the new year).
In a lot of ways, this book reads better than previous ones. It feels like Weis & Hickman have learned from their earlier work, and according to a final references page, they went back and reviewed all their old material for it. That means that it feels very situated within the world and the plot, honoring what came before but giving us something new.
The story follows Destina Rosethorn, the daughter of a knight who was a secondary character in the original series. Destina’s father died a hero during the War of the Lance (the major conflict of the series), which left Destina disheartened, turning from the gods who would leave him to die. Fortunately she was taught well to tend to her land and behave as a noble truly should, living up to the word. She does read in her father’s library of the Time Turner, a magical artifact that does precisely what it sounds like, and dreams of saving her father. She puts it aside as a fancy.
Due to archaiac laws and legal issues, she is cheated out of her family estate by a slimy cousin. So the story becomes Destina seeking out the Time Turner and a way to save her father and estate. It’s a well written tale, and it’s wonderful to return to the world of Krynn. I also appreciate that Destina is what we’d call a mixed race human, and secondary characters hit several main races. What holds it back for me is a lack of continuing companions for Destina, as she cycles through a few temporary party members. I’m cautiously hopeful that more will show in the sequel
(Note: as of the time of writing this, I am in the process of reading this book; if my opinion changes, I’ll revise)
6 Bloodmarked by Tracy Deonn
Bloodmarked is not a book I was anticipating or particularly looking for. Its prequel had a fun cover, and the premise of a black girl infiltrating a secret organization that utilizes magic from Arthurian legend to discover the truth about her family sounded fun. I needed something to fill up a 2 for 3 sale during Black Friday, and I figured why not.
About a hundred pages into the first book, I knew I had to get the second.
Like several of the series books here, this one picks up where the previous one left off. In this case, Bloodmarked sees main character Brianna “Bree” Matthews now embedded in the Order. She’s dealing with racism and the origins of her power, along with long-running conspiracies and the like. The situation is incredibly taut, wraught with a great deal of tnesion. Deonn does a great job weaving in the more serious, real life issues with ideas of magic that draw upon several heritages. It’s expertly done here.
This does have a bit of a “dark middle” feel to it, with a lot of bad stuff going on to Bree, almost too much. Deonn does a great job giving Bree and the others the chance to settle and talk to one another. But the relentless darkness mixed with this odd sort of kind of love triangle, kind of poly relationship thing made me rank this a bit lower on the list. Still an absolute marvel of a book, in a series that keeps getting better.
5 House of Breath and Sky by Sarah J. Maas
Moving from a near impulse buy to one of my most anticipated books of the year. As you can tell from the number 5 ranking, the sequel to my number 1 book of last year didn’t quite live up to the original.
Maas’s characters and world continue to be incredibly engaging. You don’t see many modern/futuristic fantasies that aren’t based in the real world, but Maas has done this great job fleshing things out here. Bryce and Hunt continue to be a lot of fun, not to mention a sexy couple on top of everything else.
This entry sees Bryce dealing with her burgeoning powers, as well as looking more into the world (seems to be a pattern for sequels here). The tale remains mostly focused on Bryce and Hunt, but there’s a handful of secondary characters present who get some further fleshing out.
That’s part of my concern and why this isn’t ranked higher. Maas has this bad habit of starting with this tight, focused narrative with incredibly well written and engaging characters, then broadening out to fall into standard fantasy war tropes. Her main characters always seem to find themselves thrust into positions not only of power, but authority, and that’s what’s happening here. I’m seriously worried this is going to go the same direction as the Throne of Glass series, and get continually worse as the series progresses (as she starts getting too into fantasy wars and these broad pictures that are way off from the start).
4 Ballad and Dagger by Daniel José Older
This is supposedly selling itself as the first YA book in the Riordan presents line. It does read as having a bit more mature focus than the other books in the series. A lot of reviewers were wondering if that didn’t mean it was just going to take forever to get interesting.
I admit that this book has one of the slowest starts I’ve ever seen. Older spends a bit too much time giving us the background of the situation and the characters. It becomes more apparent as things go along that the idea is to build the overall environment and the characters. Older really wants us to understand the idea of San Madrigal and the fun mixed group of people around it. That slow start gives us more of a grounding for where things are going to go.
Eventually we see one of the best romances I’ve ever seen from this imprint, not to mention a highly engaging world that deals with some of my favorite concepts in magical fiction, including whether or not magic should be introduced to a wider world. It’s just brilliantly done, a highly engaging piece, and probably one of my most recommended from the imprint. Yes, even more than Chokshi’s work (though I’d argue they’re aiming for two different audiences).
3 Dawn of Yangchen by F.C. Lee
We’re now in my top three. All of these books got a perfect score from me (though so did Ballad and Dagger), and I could almost argue for just about any order from here on out: these are really different books.
This book in particular continues Yee’s run detailing the backstories for previous Avatars from the world of Avatar as introduced in the popular Nickoledeon series. Previously he’d written on Kyoshi, the Earth Avatar that’s two before Aang. This one covers Yangchen, the air Avatar that’s two before Kyoshi.
What makes this interesting is how differianted Yee is making each of these Avatars. Yangchen is the most cerebral Avatar we’ve seen. She works as much in the political realm as she does in the spiritual or physical. She’s got this understanding that the Avatar may need to get their hands dirty in order to achieve real change, particularly in a world with political deadlocks. On top of that, she can freely access all her previous incarnations.
Yet those same incarnations can sometimes take over Yangchen. they manifest like psychological trauma, with various triggers that can send Yangchen spiraling. It’s an interesting take, and it reads almost like a parallel to various psychological issues. It helps humanize Yangchen, adding a new dimension to her as a character.
The story is a bit more of a political thriller than previous works, including both television series and the Kyoshi books. It’s still the world, but it’s a new, different take that’s still pretty mature. I also appreciate that Yee only teased a potential romance/friendship, but didn’t feel it necessary to lock into it. It’s just really well done on the whole (hardly a surprise: the previous series was).
2 Love on the Brain by Ali Hazelwood
Hazelwood is really establishing herself as this new voice in romance. She’s carved a niche with characters and settings that utilize her background in academia and STEM. That in itself is interesting, and I love how Hazelwood incorporates the realities of that world into her fun, flirty romance books.
In this case, she’s done so brilliantly here. The story follows neuroscientist Bee, who’s been struggling to get her place in the field due to personal reasons and the fact that STEM is relentlessly male. She gets something of an outlet from a fun Twitter account called What Would Marie Curie Do? Fortunately, she’s offered the job of her dream: being the on call expert for a NASA program. Unfortunately? She has to work with Levi, a guy who’s been an ass to her and who she’s convinced hates her.
The story expertly mixes the light and fluffy romance with the serious business of dealing with STEM and the world around that. There’s a few moments where Bee has to deal with prejudice in the workplace, fighting to be taken seriously, not to mention a big scandal that hits her hard, and one that needs help. The story does get almost ludicrious for a climax (it feels almost sensationalist), but it’s still great.
In fact, this is my favorite romance book I’ve ever read. The perfect mix of a great story, great characters, great romance (along with one of the best romances between side characters I’ve seen). It’s just so incredibly well done, absolutely amazing and a great, fun read.
1 Fairy Tale by Stephen King
This is one of the best books I’ve ever read (admittedly, so was the last), easily a top 5 in my overall list.
I am not a Stephen King fan. I’ve read the entire Dark Tower series and think it’s a really good, but not stupendous, series of dark fantasy novels. I also read The Stand this year, and thought it was solid. I’ve tried some of his horror novels (what King’s known for), and usually couldn’t get into them. I have read On Writing, but feel that King comes off as pretensious and full of himself, even if he’s got the bibliography and skills to prove it.
This is another splurge buy for Black Friday sales, bought because something in it called to me. I know King can write well, and the story promises to be amazing.
It almost feels like three really good novellas here, that all work together to tell a great overarching story. It starts with a great story where we see Charlie, a seventeen year old young man, taking care of an older man and dog. We get the background on Charlie’s troubled history and his more troubled homelife (dealing with an alcoholic father who’s surprisingly recovered and doing well). The characters are just wonderfully written: Charlie comes across as one of those genuinely good people that we don’t see enough in this world. The dog, Radar, feels so real, and is likely to make everyone think of pets that have gotten to that venerable age.
The second section details Charlie’s journey into a fantastical world (this isn’t a spoiler; it’s in the description). The young man has a goal, and King does a great job presenting Charlie’s journey as a fairy tale experience, with a fascinating world that feels real, intriguing characters, and Radar by his side through it all.
The last section details Charlie dealing with his own personal darkness and darkness in others, while meeting a few more new characters, and deciding to fight for this fantasy world.
the writing here is just amazing. King establishes this easy tone through a first person persepctive that keeps the reader engaged and interested in Charlie and what he’s going through. In addition to this amazing tale of magic, growing up, and love for others, we get this great meta-commentary on the idea of journeying and the need for stories. Fairy Tale presents a sort of complex story that lives up to the name, along with insight into the situation and worlds, both ours and others.
Last Bit of Commentary
It was my pleasure to read a lot of books this year (I sub at a school and can read during quiet work times), with 81 full works (mostly novels and memoirs) and 258 graphic novels read throughout this year. Many of those were my going back and rereading older series that I remember fondly and/or wanted to finally finish (I read all of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series; the first arc of the Warriors books by Erin Hunter; the first few arcs of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern; and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, with the final of that, Youngbloods, just missing this list). I encourage everyone to take some time to read something, as it opens up so much to us and the world around us.