My Favorite Reads of 2020

Well, this has been an… interesting year. If you can name it, chances are it’s happened. I’ve learned a lot about the strength many of my acquaintances possess. I truly wish they hadn’t needed to use so much strength and determination to make it through the year, but if wishes were horses, we’d all be eating steak. Anyway, I digress.

While the year has been all kinds of horrible for most, the books I’ve been fortunate to read were amazing. I rounded up my favorites but there is absolutely no way I can rank them in order from one to ten. Instead, they’re here with zero rhyme or reason, just a huge amount of appreciation. Without further rambling, here are my top ten 2020 reads:

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

This book was absolutely brilliant. I went into it with ridiculously high hopes, and they were more than fulfilled. There was a tension throughout that had me riveted, and Turton’s fantastic writing style kept me hooked from start to finish. Review

The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst

Holy guacamole, this book is awesome! My last book of the year (I might finish the sequel in time, but that’s a big might); I totally went out with a bang. The Queen of Blood had me riveted from start to finish. I should apologize probably to the family for all the things I didn’t get done while I was ignoring the real world to read this. Review

The Ventifact Colossus by Dorian Hart

This was a skillful and unique twist on questing fantasy. I loved all of the characters, each of which brought their own struggles and strengths to the group. This felt like a wonderful throwback to the type of book that spawned my love of the fantasy genre. The sequel was equally fantastic, and you can find my reviews for both books here: The Ventifact Colossus and The Crosser’s Maze.

Knight’s Ransom by Jeff Wheeler

I truly loved Knight’s Ransom. It had an Arthurian feel to it that I found engrossing. While larger things are going on in the world, the book followed mainly one man and focused on his character growth. There was no Big Bad poised to destroy life as everyone knows it, but the world still felt big, and the personal stakes felt just as important. Review

The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn

This book was just flat-out fun. Ardor Benn, ruse artist extraordinaire, was an entertaining character, and his partners in crime were just as great. I particularly loved the heists they planned since they never ever worked out as expected. Review

Hollow Road Dan Fitzgerald

Hollow Road was extremely good. Its sequel, The Archive, made me tear up. That doesn’t happen often at all. This is an incredible series and I am dying to continue it. My review for Hollow Road can be found here. My review for The Archive can be found here.

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

Both this book and its sequel, Dead Man in a Ditch, were phenomenal. Gritty detective novel meets fantasy in this series and works extremely well. I loved the main character, Fetch Phillips, who is drowning in both regret and alcohol. His narrative voice was wonderful and I can’t wait for the next installment in the series. Review

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

If not for The Write Read Blog Tour that I took part in, this book wouldn’t have been on my radar. That would have been a shame, because it was so enjoyable. It was a bit like the movie Knives Out sans cable knit sweaters. I really liked going along with the main character as she tried to solve the mysteries presented to her. Review

Feathertide by Beth Cartwright

Feathertide was gorgeous. I really could stop there. The prose sucked me in and wouldn’t let go. It’s a masterpiece and I can’t think of a single thing I didn’t love about it. Review

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K.J. Parker

This book was flat-out fantastic! It was the perfect combination of witty and thought-provoking. I highly recommend this one. I loved it so much! Review

So, there you have it. This was an extremely difficult list to narrow down. Have you read any of these books? Thoughts? Here’s to many more wonderful books in 2021!

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With it by K.J. Parker-ARC Review

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Amazon.com: How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It eBook ...

This is the history of how the City was saved, by Notker the professional liar, written down because eventually the truth always seeps through.

The City may be under siege, but everyone still has to make a living. Take Notker, the acclaimed playwright, actor, and impresario. Nobody works harder, even when he’s not working. Thankfully, it turns out that people enjoy the theater just as much when there are big rocks falling out of the sky.

But Notker is a man of many talents, and all the world is, apparently, a stage. It seems that the empire needs him — or someone who looks a lot like him — for a role that will call for the performance of a lifetime. At least it will guarantee fame, fortune, and immortality. If it doesn’t kill him first. (taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with this book in…

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Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston

Artemis Fowl meets Men in Black in this exhilarating debut middle grade fantasy, the first in a trilogy filled with #blackgirlmagic. Perfect for fans of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, the Percy Jackson series, and Nevermoor.

Amari Peters has never stopped believing her missing brother, Quinton, is alive. Not even when the police told her otherwise, or when she got in trouble for standing up to bullies who said he was gone for good.

So when she finds a ticking briefcase in his closet, containing a nomination for a summer tryout at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, she’s certain the secretive organization holds the key to locating Quinton—if only she can wrap her head around the idea of magicians, fairies, aliens, and other supernatural creatures all being real.

Now she must compete for a spot against kids who’ve known about magic their whole lives. No matter how hard she tries, Amari can’t seem to escape their intense doubt and scrutiny—especially once her supernaturally enhanced talent is deemed “illegal.” With an evil magician threatening the supernatural world, and her own classmates thinking she’s an enemy, Amari has never felt more alone. But if she doesn’t stick it out and pass the tryouts, she may never find out what happened to Quinton. (Taken from Amazon)

Thank you to The Write Reads for the opportunity to join this book tour. Amari and the Night Brothers will be available on January 19th.

Oh, how I loved Amari and the Night Brothers! This rollicking supernatural adventure book rivals Harry Potter for excellent world-building, and it has an infinitely more likeable main character. Amari is spunky, intelligent, and wholly original.

When the book opens, Amari is trying to succeed in a school where she’s not wanted while learning to cope with the fact that everyone thinks her missing brother is dead. She refuses to believe it, and when she gets invited to try out for a spot at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, she finds herself entering a world she didn’t even know existed in an effort to find him.

And what a world! Were-dragons, illusionists, and even escalators with personalities make appearances. There is never a dull moment, and I loved seeing what new surprise would pop up next. This is a world that I’d love to see more of (luckily, this is a series, so I’ll get to).

The characters were phenomenal. Among the many awesome people, my favorites were Magnus, whose prickly demeanor hides a heart of gold, and Amari herself. She’s the kind of main character that I love to see my children reading about. She is moral, smart, and resourceful. And she persists, no matter what.

The plot is fantastic, with the mystery of Amari’s brother framing a coming-of-age story. There’s adventure galore, but the book also deals with themes that are a little more real-world, like feelings of not fitting in, and the ugly things people see (such as racism). It’s done in a way that is not too much for the intended age group, while also not dumbing things down.

Amari and the Night Brothers is a fantastic fantasy, one that older elementary kids and middle-graders will love. I loved it too. It’s an adventure of the best kind, one that will capture the imagination of anyone who reads it. I was immediately sucked in and I can’t wait to see where the story goes next.

The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst

Everything has a spirit: the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow…

But the spirits that reside within this land want to rid it of all humans. One woman stands between these malevolent spirits and the end of humankind: the queen. She alone has the magical power to prevent the spirits from destroying every man, woman, and child. But queens are still only human, and no matter how strong or good they are, the threat of danger always looms.

Because the queen’s position is so precarious, young women are specially chosen to train as her heirs. Daleina, a seemingly quiet academy student, simply wants to right the wrongs that have befallen the land. Meanwhile, the disgraced champion Ven has spent his exile secretly fighting against the growing number of spirit attacks. When Daleina and Ven join forces, they embark on a treacherous quest to find the source of the spirits’ restlessness—a journey that will force them to stand against both enemies and friends to save their land…before it’s bathed in blood. (taken from Amazon)

I have a problem with The Queen of Blood: it was so good that I couldn’t put it down (okay, technically I could, but I really didn’t want to). I was immediately drawn into this world where every living thing has a spirit, and every spirit hates humans. The spirits have two goals: Create. Kill. The only thing that stands between humans and bloodshed in Renthia is the Queen. She has the power to command the spirits, and they have to obey. Except, suddenly they aren’t obeying. And it falls to Daleina, a woman learning to use her own power, to find out why. Accompanying her is a healer named Hamon, and Ven, a disgraced champion of the queen.

I knew from the very first page that I was going to love Dalein. Any character who is introduced as wanting to kick fate in the face is going to be one I enjoy. I loved that she was intelligent, hardworking, and made difficult choices, even when they went against what she wanted or hoped for. She didn’t have the whole “chosen one” thing going for her, which was an enormous breath of fresh air. She really wasn’t all that great at controlling her abilities the way she was expected to, but watching her play to her own strengths was so much better. I love characters who learn from their shortcomings or overcome them, as opposed to having those shortcomings either not exist or not be an issue.

I also really liked Ven, a former champion of the queen. He had experiences and knowledge that made him act very differently than any of the other characters, which I liked. Ven’s perspectives were often at odds with others around him, and the stakes were much more personal for him.

The first bit of the book takes place at an academy where women with inherent talent to control spirits are taught to develop and use that power, in the hope of becoming heirs to the current queen. When the queen dies, one of them will be given her power and will be responsible for the safekeeping of Renthia. Basically, an entire education is based around the fact that the queen is going to kick it one day. She (understandably) doesn’t love the constant reminders that she’s not getting any younger. At the same time, she knows much more about why the spirits are suddenly disobeying and wantonly killing than she lets on. Her part of the storyline is absolutely engrossing.

I loved the world the author created so very much! The spirits which inhabit everything from rock to tree to air are more like the fae of Scottish lore, changeable and dangerous. Their motives weren’t those of humans and they couldn’t be appealed to or reasoned with. I loved how wild they were and how “compromise” was not something they understood at all. It presented an interesting and unique set of challenges. The author used them so creatively, and I can’t wait to see what she does with them in the next book in the series.

The story did not go where I expected it to at all, which was awesome. The body count is much higher than I expected as well. This isn’t an overly gruesome book, but it’s not all flowers and skipping either. There’s danger in the book, and not everyone comes out in one piece.

I enjoyed The Queen of Blood so much that I bought the next two books in the series before I’d even finished it. This was a fantasy world that I loved visiting and I’m dying to see what happens next! I recommend this to fantasy readers who love kick butt characters, and creative world building.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

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A murder on the high seas. A remarkable detective duo. A demon who may or may not exist.

It’s 1634 and Samuel Pipps, the world’s greatest detective, is being transported to Amsterdam to be executed for a crime he may, or may not, have committed. Travelling with him is his loyal bodyguard, Arent Hayes, who is determined to prove his friend innocent.

But no sooner are they out to sea than devilry begins to blight the voyage. A twice-dead leper stalks the decks. Strange symbols appear on the sails. Livestock is slaughtered. Anyone could be to blame. Even a demon.

And then three passengers are marked for death, including Samuel.

With Pipps imprisoned, only Arent can solve a mystery that connects every passenger. A mystery that stretches back into their past and now threatens to sink the ship, killing everybody on board. (taken from Amazon)

I loved Stuart Turton’s first…

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The End of the Year Roundup Tag

Spells and Spaceships has the coolest content! I loved this roundup tag, especially since I’ve read so many amazing books this year. Here’s my take: let me know what you think!

1. The most kick butt character: Look at me, starting out by cheating. I’m naming not one, but three characters. I’m a rebel like that. Juniper, Beatrice, and Agnes from The Once and Future Witches kick all kinds of butt. They’re smart and strong, not just physically, but emotionally as well. I would not want to get on their bad sides.

2. The weirdest or most unique story: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is one of those books that I love but can’t describe. I’m not even sure I fully understand it, to be honest. It’s beautifully written, though. Susanna Clarke is now on my list of most creative authors.

3. The coolest world building: Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold is at the top of the list. This is the second book in the Fetch Phillips Archives and I am loving the everyday slum-meets-fantasy thing that he’s got going on. It’s gritty and so well described that I could see, hear, and even smell the setting (it doesn’t smell good).

4. The Best Fictional Animal: I really loved Mephi from The Bone Shard Daughter. He was such a nuanced little critter and, thanks to his presence, Jovis was able to grow and develop incredibly well, despite not having a human to interact with for large chunks of the book. There is also more to Mephi than I first assumed there was, which is pretty cool.

5. The Book You Just Couldn’t Put Down: The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton caused me to ignore pretty much everything else. It was excellent! Stuart Turton has rapidly become one of my favorite authors and I’m waiting with bated breath to see what he writes next. Both this book and his first novel, The Seven and a Half Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, are definitely worth reading.

6. A character you loved to spend time with: I loved the cockiness and odd sense of morality of Ardor in The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn by Tyler Whitesides. Oddly enough, he wasn’t my favorite character in the book when I read it, but he’s stuck with me. He was deceptively intelligent and able to roll with the punches, which I liked. I also think his character will do a lot of maturing in the rest of the series.

7. The one that hit you in the feels: The Archive by Dan Fitzgerald had me incredibly emotionally invested. I teared up a couple of times, which is not all that common for me. I loved it.

8. The villain you loved to hate: I was riveted by Crasedes from Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett. What a nuanced character! He more than earned the “big bad” moniker. His reasoning almost made sense, which made me appreciate him even more.

9. The 5 star read that you weren’t expecting: I was pretty excited for Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston, but I didn’t think I’d enjoy a middle-grade novel as much as I did. Amari is such a great character, and the storyline and world are just a blast. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I am not going to tag anyone, simply because it’s a busy time of year. If you do decide to do it, please link back to me so I can see your answers. Also, please give credit to the fantastic Spells and Spaceships.

The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers

Paris, 1925: To enter the Secret Circus is to enter a world of wonder—a world where women weave illusions of magnificent beasts, carousels take you back in time, and trapeze artists float across the sky. Bound to her family’s circus, it’s the only world Cecile Cabot knows until she meets a charismatic young painter and embarks on a passionate affair that could cost her everything.

Virginia, 2004: Lara Barnes is on top of the world until her fiancé disappears on their wedding day. When her desperate search for answers unexpectedly leads to her great-grandmother’s journals, Lara is swept into a story of a dark circus and ill-fated love.

Soon secrets about Lara’s family history begin to come to light, revealing a curse that has been claiming payment from the women in her family for generations. A curse that might be tied to her fiancé’s mysterious disappearance. (taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. This will be available on March twenty third.

The Ladies of the Secret Circus is told from a few points of view: there’s Lara, a woman whose fiancé has gone missing; and Ben, the officer who is leading the search for him. There is another character whose story is told through journal entries, but I’m not going to say much about that for fear of spoiling things. The book starts with a simple premise and the beginning of many a mystery novel- until you realize that Lara and her family have magical abilities, and that there may or may not be a curse involved. Thus begins a story that is both delightful and a wee bit creepy. The Ladies of the Secret Circus is part mystery, part supernatural showdown, and wholly entertaining.

Author Constance Sayers did some things very, very well. Both Lara and Ben are likeable characters, who are easy to root for. I didn’t give a lick about Lara’s fiancé since he goes missing before being developed at all, but she was such a nice person that I was truly hoping for a happy ending. Ben is a no-nonsense detective who is in way over his head, but keeps plugging along anyway. I liked that stick-to-itness. I did find some of their reactions a little odd: for example, they accepted some revelations a lot more easily than I would have expected. Ben accepted the supernatural aspect relatively quickly and Lara seemed a lot more chill about having a killer after her than most people would be (I’m assuming; I’m happy to say that I have no experience in that situation).

The switch-off from mystery to a more supernatural book was a teensy bit abrupt, but the sheer creativity of the supernatural aspect was gripping. The Secret Circus turned out to be rather macabre, with an eerie bent to it that I loved. The history of the circus was enthralling and unlike anything I’ve read before. As much as I enjoyed Lara and Ben, the story of the circus itself was by far my favorite part of the entire book.

I did have a minor gripe: the order of the story seemed a little off from time to time, and some things were sort of left dangling. For example, Lara found out that someone was after her, but not much attention was paid to that until much later in the book, with her being more interested in the provenance of a family painting. There were other occurrences that were a big deal for about half a chapter, but then were left largely alone. It could be a little confusing at times. That’s a small complaint, though, and it’s really the only one I have.

The Ladies of the Secret Circus is fast-paced and a ton of fun. I recommend it to anyone who likes a little bit of a mysterious flair to their urban fantasy.

They Just Seem a Little Weird: How KISS, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, and Starz Remade Rock and Roll by Dough Brod

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Amazon.com: They Just Seem a Little Weird: How KISS, Cheap Trick,  Aerosmith, and Starz Remade Rock and Roll (9780306845192): Brod, Doug: Books

A veteran music journalist explores how four legendary rock bands-KISS, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, and Starz-laid the foundation for two diametrically opposed subgenres: hair metal in the ’80s and grunge in the ’90s.

They Just Seem a Little Weirdoffers an original, eye- and ear-opening look at a crucial moment in hard-rock history, when the music becamefunagain and a concert became ashow. It’s the story of four bands that started in the ’70s and drew from the same seminal sources but devised vastly different sounds. It’s the story of friends and frenemies who rose, fell, and soared again, often sharing stages, producers, engineers, managers, and fans-and who are still collaborating more than 40 years later.

In the tradition of books like David Browne’s bestsellingFire and Rain,They Just Seem a Little Weirdseamlessly weaves the narratives of the mega-selling KISS, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith with . . . Starz, a criminally neglected band whose…

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It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas: 2020 Picture Book Edition

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Despite 2020 being the year that just won’t end, we’re coming up on “that time of year.” I like to give my kids at least one book for Christmas each year, so last year I posted a little list of suggestions (you can find that post here ). Here are some of my family’s picture book winners for this year, ones that are sure to make little readers happy.

The 1,2,3’s of D&D and The A,B,C’s of D&D by Ivan Van Norman and Caleb Cleveland

So, if you didn’t already know that I’m a major nerd, this will definitely give it away. These books are so much fun and I – ahem, my kid-loves them. If you look closely, you’ll find an homage to a certain red wizard hidden in one of the pages of The 1,2,3s of D&D. These books are great for little learners with big imaginations.

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The Archive (Maer Cycle Book 2) by Dan Fitzgerald

In Hollow Road three companions discovered the monsters of legend were all too real…Rumors among the Maer tell of an underground library called the Archive, which houses a wealth of knowledge and terrible magics that could be used to start the biggest war seen since the Great Betrayal. A mixed group of humans and Maer set off on an historic quest to find the Archive and protect it from those who would use it to destroy everything they hold dear. As the cold of winter bears down upon them, they trek through forbidding mountains beset by dangers they could have never imagined. They follow a set of ancient clues deep into the Silver Hills, forging surprising alliances and making new enemies.The humans and Maer are linked by more than their quest to find the Archive and stop an insidious war. A mystical surrogacy may bridge the gap between two peoples, and many hearts entwine as their adventure hurtles toward its bloody conclusion. (taken from Amazon)

The Archive is a book like no other. Full of incredibly nuanced characters, it is both fascinating and thought provoking. After reading and loving Hollow Road (review here), I was excited to continue on in the Maer Cycle. The Archive takes the series to a whole new level, one that had me utterly engrossed.

After the events of Hollow Road, we find an uneasy peace between the Maer and the humans, uneasy being the operative word. Is either “side” completely trustworthy? Is this peace sincere, or just a ploy? Adding to this dynamic is a faction of the Maer that do not trust the humans as far as they can throw them, instead wanting to launch an attack. This situation adds to the tense atmosphere found throughout the story.

An odd team made of both humans and Maer go in search of the Archive, a “maybe it exists” trove that is rumored to contain something of great importance, although no one is certain of what that is. Whether it helps the Maer or leads to their destruction rests on the shoulders of whomever gets to it first. I love a good quest!

Hollow Road focused a lot on the character development of a few characters, both within themselves and with relation to others. That continues on here, with the characters becoming astonishingly well-developed. Seeing more of the world, and learning more about the customs of its inhabitants was truly fascinating. The characters did not exist in a small vacuum: rather, the reader got to see how they grew and evolved based on their experiences, personalities, backgrounds, and relationships.

What got me, though, was author Dan Fitzgerald’s ability to take a fantasy book and use it as a mirror to show truths about humanity as a whole. It was beautiful, sad, sometimes uncomfortable, and incredibly, incredibly well written. There were even a few parts that had me tearing up. It is rare for me to have such a visceral reaction to a fantasy book.

Hollow Road was a fantastic book. The Archive is incredible. I cannot recommend this series enough.