2020 Reading Review

Another year, more great books read! I’ve been pretty remiss with my book reviews in the latter half of the year, so hopefully you’ll see some of those coming up soon as I catch up. But in the meantime, let’s take a look back at what I read in 2020.

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This year I read 171 books, which I think might be a record for me. Most of them (~125) were Regency romances, which I consider the literary equivalent of candy and are very quick reads. That leaves nearly 50 books of other various genres, including fantasy, sci-fi, YA, nonfiction, and contemporary romance. I reviewed about a dozen books on my blog this year; you can check out these reviews under the Book Reviews category. Here are some of the standouts that helped relieve my stress this year.

Classic YA fantasy: Song of the Lioness quartet and The Trouble With Kings

I haven’t been reading all that much current YA fantasy, but I did find some time to delve into some classics. Sherwood Smith is one of my favorite lesser-known YA fantasy authors, and after falling in love with Crown Duel a few years back, I’ve been reading through her oeuvre. The Trouble With Kings comes close to rivaling Crown Duel for my favorite! I read it twice back-to-back haha. And I can’t believe I never got around to reading any Tamora Pierce growing up, so I decided to remedy that by checking out her famous Song of the Lioness series featuring young female knight Alanna of Trebond. I was blown away by Alanna’s growth over the series, plus the adventure and magic were fun, too.

Fantasy Series: Peace Talks & Battle Ground (Dresden Files)

After a six year hiatus, we got not one but two entries in the Dresden Files series from Jim Butcher this year. (This is because they are basically two parts of the same story.) Skin Game was a tough act to follow, but this duology is appropriately epic and also may possibly break your heart. I was less crazy about Peace Talks, which probably won’t be one I will ever re-read. It was too much set up, and Harry was not acting like a detective at all. The pacing then really picks up in Battle Ground, which is great but gives an uneven feeling to the whole thing. My biggest complaint over all was the prominence of Lara Raith, whom I don’t care for as a character (to be fair, I never liked Susan either). I can’t wait to see where the series goes next and how it will all eventually wrap up.

Author discovery: Intisar Khanani

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Who doesn’t love an indie author success story? Intisar Khanani had kinda been on the edges of my radar for years thanks to her Sunbolt series, but this year her Goose Girl retelling Thorn got picked up by a publisher and rereleased. I’ve now read all three of her novel-length works, and I can’t wait for more! I love her prose, characters, and magic/fantasy concepts. If you like YA fantasy, definitely check out her stuff!

Contemporary romance: Chemistry Lessons

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So I’ve been reading historical romances for a few years when I need something light, and this year I branched out into contemporary romance a bit (I am open for suggestions for my next read…). One series I particularly enjoyed was Chemistry Lessons by Susannah Nix, which features a bunch of nerdy girls with STEM jobs. Each book can be read as a standalone, but characters cross over between books, too. These are not the pinnacle of literature or anything, but I had a lot of fun with all the geek pop culture references. My favorite is Advanced Physical Chemistry (#3), featuring a redheaded engineer; it won a 2019 RITA award.

Nonfiction: Cribsheet and In Order to Live

I had a great year for nonfiction reading, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’s amazing Between the World and Me. In terms of memoirs, I was really struck by In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park, the story of her exodus from North Korea. It was pretty harrowing but her tone is extremely inspirational and I learned a lot; I’m looking forward to reading and learning more about North Korea.

With the arrival of my second child, I really recommend Cribsheet by Emily Oster for all new parents. It is an excellent data-driven guide to parenting decisions, very scientific yet very approachable. It is a fun read, not at all dry, and will help you to stress less about parenting in the early years.

Pandemic Reading: World Without End

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Having enjoyed Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett so much last year, I began the follow-up World Without End, which takes place in the same town a few centuries later during the time of the Black Death. Then, a global pandemic hit and I had to take a break from reading it because it just became way too real. I did eventually get through it and enjoyed it; it was fascinating to see the parallels (and differences) between that plague and the current COVID pandemic. Mostly, I wanted to smack all the monks who thought they were so smart but had no concept of germs and sanitation and condescended to the nuns who wanted to wear masks and wash their hands.

As far as reading goals, last year I said:

For 2020, I want to focus on getting back to reading physical books instead of being on my phone and Kindle all the time, as well as reading all the books that are already on my shelves.

Well, I don’t know how successful I was in that, so let’s just say we throw everything out the window for 2020. Maybe we’ll call it an ongoing goal haha.

In that vein, I’m not making any reading goals for 2021. I’m going to read whatever I want to! I mean, in general I want to keep reading a lot of books that are diverse in terms of genre, author, and content, but I trust my taste in reading to take care of that without any formal goals.

What were your favorite books from 2020? Are you making any reading goals for 2021?

Black Authors I’m Reading Right Now

I’ve seen a lot of media posts about great non-fiction books (mostly from POC authors) regarding racism; you can even just take a look at the recent New York Times bestsellers list:

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This is unquestionably important, and I myself have been trying to learn to be a better ally. However, I typically focus on fiction here, so I’d like to highlight some ways I’m diversifying my reading list with novels featuring black authors and/or main characters, which use fiction to address racial topics either directly or in more indirect ways.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Water Dancer

43982054I was introduced to Coates through his nonfiction (essays for The Atlantic and memoirs), and his beautiful writing quickly made him a must-read author for me.  I was so excited to pick up his first fiction novel, The Water Dancer, a historical fantasy story about a young Virginian slave who seeks to use his curious power to free himself and others.  I have only just started it, but the beginning is very interesting, starting in medias res and then giving some more of Hiram’s backstory.  I think Coates’ lyrical prose works well with the magical realism content.

Though it is in a historical context, this book addresses racial issues pretty directly.  Hiram is in an interesting position in that his mother is enslaved but his father is the white plantation owner; he himself becomes a house slave and so has some insight into both worlds and therefore possibly feels the injustice of his position between them even more keenly.  I am interested to see where this one goes.

Jason Reynolds

Ghost

28954126I was introduced to Jason Reynolds when his middle grade novel Ghost made the Great American Read’s top 100 list of best-loved books.  I’ve since heard him speak on TV several times and have really been impressed by him.  Ghost is a really charming book that should be standard curriculum for middle schools.

It follows Castle Cranshaw, aka Ghost, a naturally talented runner whose main goals in life are to be a basketball player and avoid trouble.  Well, Ghost doesn’t really manage either of those, but he does manage to join a competitive track team, which starts to bring some changes to his life.  I loved reading Ghost’s perspective; the strength of his personality really pulled me in and kept me rooting for him.  I’m looking forward to reading the stories of the other diverse members of the track team in this series, as well as Reynolds’ other books, including a young reader remix of Stamped in collaboration with Ibram X. Kendi.

Ibi Zoboi

Pride

35068632. sy475 I seldom turn down a Pride and Prejudice retelling, considering that Austen’s original is one of my favorite books of all time.  I was pleasantly surprised with this one, which works well both as modern slice-of-life story in NYC and as a P&P remix. Pride follows Zuri Benitez, a Bushwick native who has a lot on her mind: her neighborhood is changing, her sisters are a little crazy, and she really, really wants to get into Howard.  She does not have time for the cute rich boy that just moved in across the street.

I loved how I could really feel Zuri’s Haitian-Dominican culture coming through the pages.   This story echoes P&P by focusing on class differences between the main characters.  It kind of highlights the concept that there isn’t really just one black experience; different black people can experience their race and culture differently.  And although P&P was the hook that got me interested in the story, I actually think it was stronger when it moved away from the P&P plot points.

Are you guys making any efforts to consciously diversify your reading lists?  I’ve only mentioned black authors here, but I’m generally trying to read more POC authors and characters across all genres.  It’s helping to broaden my horizons and I’m finding some really great stories, too.

 

Review: Rebel by Marie Lu

I very much enjoyed Marie Lu’s Legend trilogy when I read it six years ago, mainly on the strength of the two excellent main characters, June and Day.  I am not a huge fan of dystopian novels, but this series stood out to me in the sea of YA dystopias.

42121526So I was very pleasantly surprised to see a new installment in the series, Rebel, which takes places 10 years later following Day (now going by Daniel) and his brother Eden’s adventures in their new home of Antarctica.  But this one turned out to be a mixed bag for me, and I’m not sure I would recommend it unless you are already a fan of Legend.

Eden and his friend Pressa are at the heart of the story; they are the new generation of the post-war era, and in many ways like a new version of June and Day.  Eden is part of the “establishment” (the upper levels of Antarctica) as June was, and Pressa comes from the Undercity similar to how Day came from the streets.  However, I never found them as compelling as June and Day.  If Pressa had some chapters from her perspective, I think she would have felt like a more fully-realized character.

I also missed June’s perspective, though I enjoyed the chapters from Daniel.  It is a very satisfying story for June/Day shippers like myself.  The development of the relationship between the brothers Daniel and Eden was also really nicely done, and that bond was something that I never realized was missing from a lot of the books I read.  Plus, I also liked the villain, Dominic Hann, who really ends up being more of a grey character.

Antarctica is a very interesting place, governed by a system that works like a video game.  Doing “good” things gets you points that allow you to level up, getting more privileges in society, while doing “bad” things decreases your level.  However, I wish the story would have shown more of the flaws in the system rather than telling.  The scene with Eden’s classmates works towards this a bit, but we don’t really get to see from the undercity perspective at all.  What is it that is really keeping the undercity people from moving up in this supposedly merit-based system?  For example, we don’t find out until ¾ of the way through the book that it’s illegal for groups of citizens to protest in public, after the people are already doing this.

I was pretty harsh on Champion for its biological mumbo jumbo regarding plague cures, and I’m sorry to say Rebel has a bit of a similar problem: for a sci-fi book, it’s not very interested in accurately describing the engineering behind Antarctica’s level system.  When discussing how to reset the Ross City’s level system using Hann’s machine, Eden says:

“It’s the machine that’s complicated to put together. Not the signal. Once you understand how it works, you can run another signal through easily.  I watched them test one, and it took a matter of minutes.”

Huh? I supposed I should ask my husband for accuracy, but this does not sound like something a computer programmer would say, even to a non-programmer.  Is he saying that it is the hardware that is complicated, not the software?  That seems…unlikely.  Sure, it may not take long to upload the code to the computer, but how long did it take to write the code??  The Antarctic level system is a complex system with a lot of rules, all of which would have to be programmed in, including the changes that Eden wants to make.  Eden does it in no time at all, which I can tell you is not realistic, even for someone as talented as Eden. 

Overall, I enjoyed reading Rebel, but I did struggle a bit to finish it because it dragged in places.  I think it would have been better served as a novella.

Review: Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani

I’ve been taking advantage of all this time home to pick up some new books, and my latest find is a YA fantasy series by an indie author living in Ohio.

Intisar Khanani heads her website with the tagline “Writing mighty girls and diverse worlds,” and that’s exactly what she delivers.  I have not read a lot of YA fantasy recently because I’ve been disappointed by the quality of recent releases, but I can tell that’s going to change with the discovery of her Sunbolt series.

I cannot say enough about the amazing worldbuilding in this series.  The world features many diverse fantasy cultures with roots in real-world cultures, which you may recognize by names, foods, clothing, and phrases. (Even if you don’t recognize them, the cultures are rich.) The main character Hitomi is mixed race; based on context clues her parents would be Arabic and Japanese, though she begins the story living on a warm island populated by darker-skinned people. There are also several races of beings similar to things like fairies and vampires.

The series begins with Sunbolt, a novella that is the kind of book you can read in one gulp.  The pacing is great, the characters are memorable, and the events are exciting.  It does read like it’s only the first part of a story, so you will want to be ready to go straight on to Memories of Ash, the full novel that follows.  This installment is even stronger, continuing to develop an interesting system of magic and new regions of the world.  Old friends reappeared in just the right spots, while introducing great new characters that I can’t wait to see more of.  Some details of the escape plan were a bit meandering, but overall I was on the edge of my seat following Hitomi through one adventure after another.

I really have very few criticisms of these books; they are better than many traditionally published YA fantasies I have read, and I will definitely go back to revisit them again.  (This is basically more what I was hoping We Hunt the Flame would be.)  The only tedious parts are that most of the plot revolves around people that keep getting captured and planning how to escape.  

These books also avoid most YA tropes.  There is no instalove. There are no love triangles.  In fact, here is no romance of any kind! It focuses exclusively on the deep relationships Hitomi has developed with those around her, basically her surrogate family members.

This doesn’t mean I’m not shipping characters.  Because I’m totally shipping some characters. But it’s still great to read quality YA without romance!

I guess I do have one criticism of the series: it’s not complete!  The author has said it was meant to be four books in total, but there seems to be no news on when the last two might be out.  I need book three! Pleeeeease.

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In the meantime, I’m going to check out Khanani’s other novel, Thorn, which is a Goose Girl retelling (have I mentioned I love fairy tale retellings?).  Thorn was originally self-published in 2012, but was picked up by HarperTeen and re-released by them this March.  This kind of thing rarely happens to indie authors, so I think that really speaks to the quality of her writing.  I have the digital version on hold at the library, but the wait list is 16 weeks long! I guess that also speaks to the quality of the writing.

I was able to get both Sunbolt and Memories of Ash on Kindle from my library through Overdrive, but they are of course also available from Amazon for only $2.99 and $4.99 respectively.

I really hope you guys will check her stuff out; if you are a fan of YA fantasy, you will not be disappointed.

Review: Sorcerer to the Crown series by Zen Cho

Don’t you just love it when you find a book that combines your favorite genres?  Fantasy is what I read the most, and Regency romances are my go-to when I want to relax; I get so excited when the two come together!  Historical fantasies set in the Regency period of England are such a treat, and Zen Cho has written an engaging pair of them as her first foray into novel writing.

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Sorcerer to the Crown introduces the troubling state of magic in England during the Napoleonic Wars: the land of Fairy has closed its borders, drying up England’s source of magic, and it is up to the Sorcerer Royal Zacharias Wythe to keep magic from dying.  But that’s not easy for the country’s first black sorcerer, especially one being accused of murder and dealing with mysterious health problems, not to mention the appearance of a troublesome mixed-race orphan named Prunella Gentleman who may just change the course of magic forever.

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The True Queen follows up as a companion novel, following a young amnesiac woman from Malaysia whose sister has been lost in the Fairy realm.  Muna turns to the magicians (well, particularly the magiciennes) of England for help and finds herself entangled in Fairy legends with the fate of both worlds at stake.

Overall, this is a solid duology and I’d be happy to read any further books that Cho writes in this series.

Pros:

  • POC and queer main characters that feel natural to the time period
  • Slow burn romance that is kept as a side plot
  • Themes dealing with the colonialism and sexism of the time
  • Dragons!
  • The prose does not feel modern, but rather more fitting to the period
  • A bit of mystery/suspense, but doesn’t try too hard
  • Sorcerer has Cinderella motifs (with Malaysian witch Mak Genggang as a crazy fairy godmother…)
  • Either novel could stand alone, but they also fit well together

Cons: 

  • Both books can be slow, even in the action-y parts.  It took me a while to get through them.
  • The magic system is interesting but not laid out as clearly as I would like, and so one of Sorcerer’s magic-related plot twists came out of nowhere to me 
  • Sorcerer has a terrible cover that is neither appealing nor informative.  True Queen greatly improved in that regard, but I would love a reprint with better, coordinating covers.

Hope you guys can check these out; happy reading!