Banned Books Week: Books Unite Us

It’s Banned Books Week, that wonderful time of year that we celebrate all the wonderful books that have been challenged, banned, or censored.

The ALA tracked 156 challenges last year; here are the top 10 most challenged books of 2020.

Congrats to author Jason Reynolds, who managed to have two books on the list this year (#2 and #3). I discovered his writing when his middle grade book Ghost made the Great American Read’s top 100 list. I absolutely loved that series and I can’t wait to read more from him. He’s also just a really cool person and I love hearing him talk about writing.

We’ve actually had a recent local kerfuffle that you may have seen making the national news…a college writing course at a local high school was using a book (for five years) that had some more mature writing prompts involving sex and drug use. Though these specific prompts had never been assigned, and parents had to sign a waiver acknowledging adult themes in the class, the book was pulled after some parents complained. The town’s mayor then publicly accused the school board of child pornography and demanded they resign. The county prosecutor had to state that there was no basis for the child pornography claims; no one from the school board has resigned. I have no idea if the book was actually a useful tool for the students, but all the pearl-clutching is pretty embarrassing.

Feeding Reading 2021

It’s once again summer and that means free books from Kellogg’s Feeding Reading program. Buy any of the participating Kelloggs products and submit a photo of your entire receipt, and you will receive a credit for a book from their selection, which this year includes some classics and some recent releases.

Some of this year’s free books

You can get up to six free books either to ship to your house or donate to a library of your choice. In our house we live on Pop-Tarts and Eggo waffles, so I have already gotten all six of our books, some for my kids, some for my nieces…and one for me.

The program goes until the end of September, but make sure you submit your receipts within two weeks of purchase to get your credits. Happy reading!

Review: Other People’s Butterflies by Cora Ruskin

One of my favorite things about blogging has been meeting other writers and discovering some really great indie authors. I’ve been a reader of Cora Ruskin’s blog Cora Still Writes for a while, so I was happy to receive an ARC of her debut novel, Other People’s Butterflies. It’s contemporary YA with a fabulous protagonist and healthy dose of drama. Plus look at this gorgeous cover!!

Gwen Foster is a typical high school girl, dealing with school and friend drama…except for the part where she’s secretly collecting personal information on all her classmates, not to mention trying to figure out why, unlike her classmates, she has no real interest in kissing anyone. As Gwen is coming to terms with her asexual/aromantic nature, an unknown person starts dishing out all the dirt Gwen’s collected on social media. Can Gwen’s favorite character, a 1940s femme fatale super spy, show her the way to fix everything?

Although I read a lot of YA, contemporary YA is not my usual genre. However, from the first pages I was hooked on Gwen as a character. I loved her narrative voice (and her very British sense of humor), and her growth over the story felt very real. The suspense and mystery parts of the story were really intriguing, and I liked how the scenes with Gwen’s fictional idol are interspersed to create tension and further the themes of the story. Parts of the ending felt a little abrupt, but I think that was because I wanted to read more of Gwen!

I especially appreciated reading the perspective of an asexual character, which is not something very common in any genre of fiction. I liked the organic way in which Gwen came to identify herself by that label, and the difference it made to her to know that she wasn’t the only person who felt that way. I hope anyone reading this story and seeing themselves in Gwen will feel the same!

So if you like high school drama, spy stuff, childhood friends, Briticisms, and diverse characters, I highly recommend checking this one out! It’s especially great that it is releasing during Pride month. I look forward to reading more by Cora in the future!

Get Other People’s Butterflies on Amazon

Check it out on Goodreads

Black Girl Magic: The Gilded Ones and Legendborn

I recently picked up two YA fantasies featuring young Black female protagonists, which you can clearly see on these two stunning covers.  Yay for representation!

The Gilded Ones

by Namina Forna

At 16, Deka discovers she is an alaki, a female descendant of demons and an outcast among her people. Her golden blood gives her special longevity, but also condemns her to death under the law. She is saved when she is recruited to join a new special alaki force to fight the monsters that threaten the land. But as she grows stronger, she must grapple with her loyalty to a country that hates and fears her as well as the world-changing significance of her unique powers. Who are the real monsters here? 

This recent release is an above average YA fantasy. I wasn’t too impressed with it at first, given its typical YA first person, present tense narration from a girl with special powers and a special destiny.  But after Deka reaches the alaki training grounds the story really picks up, and turns out pretty fast paced with some good twists. 

It also has an interesting setting and good characters, even a few memorable ones.  There is a bit of romance but it is not really a focus and even seems a bit tacked on.  If I had to sum up this book in a phrase, I’d go with “fighting the patriarchy,” which is a pretty awesome premise for a novel.

This book could read as a standalone, but there seems to be at least one more coming out, which I would definitely be willing to check out.

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Legendborn

by Tracy Deonn

Brianna Matthews is a 16 yr old Early College student at UNC-Chapel Hill, still reeling from the death of her mother, when she gets mixed up with a secret society: they are the heirs of King Arthur and his knights, dedicated to protecting humans from demon incursions.  So demons are real, and so is magic, and what does this society have to do with the death of her mother?  Bree will go to any length to find out, but her own abilities are bringing up more questions than answers while putting her, and the people she cares about, in danger. 

This is the kind of book that makes me despair as a writer because I will never write a book as good as this one. 

So, Legendborn could also be described in the same way as The Gilded Ones above: first person, present tense narration from a girl with special powers and a special destiny.  And it is solidly YA, with many familiar tropes.  However, it manages to have way more depth, intertwining stories about Arthur and Round Table, the history and legacy of slavery in North Carolina, Black spiritualism, modern college life, and loss and grief.  Not to mention the twist at the end is even more spectacular and feels very earned.

The world building is amazing, with multiple magic systems.  The characters are wonderful, plus there is great representation in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation.  And if you have a thing for emo boys, as I certainly did in my teenage years, there is a character you will absolutely love.

In short, this is one of the best YA fantasy books I’ve read in a while and I neeeeed the next one ASAP. I highly recommend it!

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.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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?