It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas: 2021 Adult Fiction Edition

2021 has been an amazing year for fiction. I have read so many excellent books, any of which would make a wonderful gift. For this year’s list, I picked books that are either the first in their series (as opposed to a continuation of a series) or standalones. You can find last year’s adult recommendations here: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas: 2020 Adult Fiction Edition.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place―and realizing that family is yours. (taken from Amazon)

This is the most surprising, delightful, and heartwarming book! It is a hug in print and I loved every single moment of it. You can read more of my gushing about it here.

Paladin Unbound by Jeffrey Speight

The last of a dying breed, a holy warrior must rise up against a growing darkness in Evelium.


The most unlikely of heroes, a lowly itinerant mercenary, Umhra the Peacebreaker is shunned by society for his mongrel half-Orc blood. Desperate to find work for himself and his band of fighters, Umhra agrees to help solve a rash of mysterious disappearances, but uncovers a larger, more insidious plot to overthrow the natural order of Evelium in the process.


As Umhra journeys into the depths of Telsidor’s Keep to search for the missing people, he confronts an ancient evil and, after suffering a great loss, turns to the god he disavowed for help.


Compelled to save the kingdom he loves, can he defeat the enemy while protecting his true identity, or must he risk everything? (taken from Amazon)

Paladin Unbound would be an excellent gift for fans of the fantasy genre, readers who are new to fantasy, or people who play tabletop roleplaying games. Basically, it would make a great gift for 99% of the people I know (I’m still trying to convince a few friends to give fantasy a go). You can read my review here.

The Spirit Engineer by A.J. West

Belfast, 1914. Two years after the sinking of the Titanic, high society has become obsessed with spiritualism, attending séances in the hope they might reach their departed loved ones.
William Jackson Crawford is a man of science and a sceptic, but one night with everyone sitting around the circle, voices come to him – seemingly from beyond the veil – placing doubt in his heart and a seed of obsession in his mind. Could the spirits truly be communicating with him or is this one of Kathleen’s parlour tricks gone too far?
Based on the true story of Professor William Jackson Crawford and famed medium Kathleen Goligher, and with a cast of characters including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, The Spirit Engineer conjures a haunted, twisted tale of power, paranoia, and one ultimate, inescapable truth…. (taken from Amazon)

Loosely based on a real person and real events, this book sucked me in and kept me feverishly turning pages. It is so well written, and would be a great gift for readers who like mind-twisting, psychological reads. You can find my review here.

The Resurrectionist of Caligo by Wendy Trimboli and Alicia Zaloga

With a murderer on the loose, it’s up to an enlightened bodysnatcher and a rebellious princess to save the city, in this wonderfully inventive Victorian-tinged fantasy noir.

“Man of Science” Roger Weathersby scrapes out a risky living digging up corpses for medical schools. When he’s framed for the murder of one of his cadavers, he’s forced to trust in the superstitions he’s always rejected: his former friend, princess Sibylla, offers to commute Roger’s execution in a blood magic ritual which will bind him to her forever. With little choice, he finds himself indentured to Sibylla and propelled into an investigation. There’s a murderer loose in the city of Caligo, and the duo must navigate science and sorcery, palace intrigue and dank boneyards to catch the butcher before the killings tear their whole country apart. (taken from Amazon)

This book was so much fun! The Resurrectionist of Caligo would be perfect for readers who like a healthy dose of mystery in their fantasy. You can find my review here.

The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

Exiled by her despotic brother, princess Malini spends her days dreaming of vengeance while imprisoned in the Hirana: an ancient cliffside temple that was once the revered source of the magical deathless waters but is now little more than a decaying ruin.
 
The secrets of the Hirana call to Priya. But in order to keep the truth of her past safely hidden, she works as a servant in the loathed regent’s household, biting her tongue and cleaning Malini’s chambers.
 
But when Malini witnesses Priya’s true nature, their destinies become irrevocably tangled. One is a ruthless princess seeking to steal a throne. The other a powerful priestess desperate to save her family. Together, they will set an empire ablaze. (taken from Amazon)

Complex and beautifully written, The Jasmine Throne will keep readers engrossed. This would be a great gift for fans of books that have great worldbuilding, political machinations, and twists aplenty. You can read my review here.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas: 2021 Middle Grade Edition

Today I’ve got some middle-grade books that would make great books! Some of them are books I’ve enjoyed this year, but the majority of them are books that my middle-grade reader loved, which means they’ve passed the “target audience” test. You can find list of middle-grade gift ideas from last year here: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas: 2020 Middle-Grade Edition.

The Ascension Machine by Rob Edwards

Welcome to the Justice Academy – the galaxy’s best superhero college! Teen grifter Grey arrives at the school carrying a lie: he isn’t really tech heir Mirabor Gravane. At the first opportunity Grey plans to leave the Academy. That is until he makes the mistake of starting to like his fellow students. The Justice Academy promises to “equip you with the skills to be the hero the galaxy needs” and Grey is beginning to believe the hype. But as he takes more risks to protect his secret, events spiral out of his control. When the real Gravane is kidnapped, Grey and his new friends must come together to mount a rescue and defend a city from an attack by hostile super-powered aliens. If he is to succeed, or even survive, Grey must decide who he is, and does he want to be a superhero? (taken from Amazon)

This book was so much fun! There was action, adventure, a little bit of a mystery, and a great cast of characters. Plus, there’s the whole superhero college thing. You can read my review here. I think this would be a winner for most kids.

The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan

My oldest really enjoys Riordan’s writing. Although Riordan’s Egyptian-inspired series is his favorite, my oldest has loved reading the Heroes of Olympus books this year.

Little White Hands by Mark Cushen

Almost five hundred years have passed since the Seasons were at war. Half a millennium since Winter defied Spring, and lost. Generations have come and gone, not knowing the bitter freeze and howling snows of Winter ever existed.But now, after centuries of silence, the participants in this ancient struggle have resurfaced and reignited their feud on the doorstep of an unassuming little kitchen boy.Garlan’s dreams of being just like the knights he idolizes may not be as impossible as he has always been led to believe, when he is chased from his home and thrust headlong into the kind of adventure he had only ever read about in books.Setting out on a journey that spans the entire kingdom of Faeland, Garlan will traverse impossible mountains and stormy seas and battle terrible monsters, all to keep the world he knows safe from an enemy who will stop at nothing to bring about a never-ending winter.With a cast of fantastical characters to aid him in his quest, can Garlan overcome his self-doubt and find the courage he needs to rise above his humble station and become the hero he always dreamed of being?The fate of the world rests in his hands. (taken from Amazon)

This is the sort of book I loved when I was young. It has the magical feeling that readers get seeing Narnia for the first time, the sense of bravery and adventure found in Arthurian tales, and such wonderful characters. You can read my review here.

Wings of Fire series by Tui T. Sutherland

The beginning of a thrilling new dragon saga– now in paperback!
Clay and his friends have grown up under a mountain, secretly raised by the Talons of Peace to fulfill a mysterious prophecy. The five young dragons are destined to end the war that’s been raging between the tribes of Pyrrhia — but how they’ll do this, none of them knows.But not every dragonet wants a destiny. When one of their own is threatened, Clay and his friends decide to escape. Maybe they can break free and end the war at the same time — or maybe they’ll risk everything … (taken from Amazon)

My oldest fell in love with this series. It became a much-discussed topic in our house, and he even had a dragon-themed birthday cake based solely on his love of these books. Based on that, I feel pretty confident in recommending them despite not having read them myself.

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston

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)

My oldest and I both really enjoyed this one. It is so creative! The world building is great and the main character is a delight. The sequel comes out in April and my oldest and I will be racing to see who gets to read it first. You can find my review here.

What are some middle grade books you’d recommend? Have you read any of these?

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas: 2021 Picture Book Edition

This year has been an odd one, full of unexpected plot twists. Some months dragged on forever, while others raced ahead. I’m pretty sure we skipped August completely. At any rate, we are tiptoeing closer to Christmas, and with shipping issues being what they are, now is probably a good time to start on any planned gift shopping. Here are a few picture books that are loved in my house. Any of them would be a winner under the tree. If you’d like more suggestions, you can read my list from last year here: It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas 2020 Picture Book Edition.

Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke

Goblin, a cheerful little homebody, lives in a cosy, rat-infested dungeon, with his only friend, Skeleton. Every day, Goblin and Skeleton play with the treasure in their dungeon. But one day, a gang of “heroic” adventurers bursts in. These marauders trash the place, steal all the treasure, and make off with Skeleton―leaving Goblin all alone!

It’s up to Goblin to save the day. But first he’s going to have to leave the dungeon and find out how the rest of the world feels about goblins. (taken from Amazon)

We read this one with my youngest for the first time this year. It is so cute! It is the perfect length for an emerging reader, although it’s also perfect for before bed story time as well. The illustrations are adorable and the storyline is creative and fun. It follows Goblin as he sets off to rescue his best friend, Skeleton, from the evil clutches of a group of heroes.

Bach to the Rescue!: How a Rich Dude Who Couldn’t Sleep Inspired the Greatest Music Ever by Tom Angleberger, illustrated by Chris Eliopolous

Every famous piece of art has an origin story—even Bach’s Goldberg Variations! When the richest dude in town can’t sleep, he hires a much-less-rich dude named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to play him lullabies on the harpsichord. Goldberg does an OK job, but as the Rich Dude hollers for Goldberg each night, he wakes up the whole town in the process. As the town gets sleepier and sleepier and grumpier and grumpier, Goldberg worries he may be out of a job soon. But then, the one and only Bach enters the scene with a series of lullabies composed specifically for the Rich Dude. And, thus, the Goldberg Variations are born! (taken from Amazon)

My kindergartener loves historical figures. From U.S. presidents to famous writers, from authors to artists, if a person has made a mark on history, he is excited about it. This is a fun (and true!) story about Bach, written by the author of the Origami Yoda series. The pictures are zany and entertaining, and the book gets bonus points from me for adding an afterword with the historical facts.

Good Knight, Mustache Baby by Bridget Heos, illustrated by Joy Ang

Knights in shining armor go full baby (and full mustache) in this silly and soothing bedtime adventure. Young knaves will fall blissfully asleep after hearing the tale of two brave knights: Baby Billy, House of Mustache, and Baby Javier, House of Beard, and how they fought to conquer their biggest foe: bedtime! The babies fight their enemy valiantly, but eventually even gallant Baby Billy falls victim to sleep, foiled by, of all things, an enchanted book. Though Billy succumbs to the magic of the story, in his dreams, he rejoins his bearded co-knigh . . . and they became the stuff of legend. (taken from Amazon)

The Mustache Baby books are so stinking adorable! This is the latest in the set, releasing on December seventh. I’ve already ordered a copy to give to the youngest.

Today I Feel Silly: And Other Moods that Make My Day by Jamie Lee Curtis, illustrated by Laura Cornell

Jamie Lee Curtis’s zany and touching verse, paired with Laura Cornell’s whimsical and original illustrations, helps kids explore, identify, and, even have fun with their ever-changing moods.
Silly, cranky, excited, or sad—everyone has moods that can change each day. And that’s okay! Follow the boisterous, bouncing protagonist as she explores her moods and how they change from day to day. (taken from Amazon)

My youngest has experienced a lot of changes this year, and sometimes he struggles to know the appropriate way to express himself. I wanted him to know that whatever he feels is okay, that he isn’t “bad” if he is sad or angry. Today I feel Silly! to the rescue! The pictures are so bright and energetic and there’s a little “mood wheel” at the back, which is a lot of fun.

Sir Lilypad by Anna Kemp,illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

Once upon a time, in a deep dark bog, lived a teeny, tiny speckled frog. Now, he might be tiny (the other frogs call him stuff, like ‘weedy pants’ and ‘sugar puff’) but his ambition is great. For he wants to be known henceforth as Sir Lilypad! Sir Lilypad the brave and wise! Slayer of the – er – dragonflies. And all he needs to effect this transformation? A kiss from a willing princess, of course…(taken from Amazon)

My husband gave me a copy of this book because he knows that I love dragons in any form I can get them (I also love children’s books). I loved it! I read it to my youngest, who was equally delighted. It would be a perfect Christmas gift for any little one!

Lives of the Writers: Comedies, Tragedies (and What the Neighbors Thought) by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt

Shakespeare wrote with a feather quill and ink; Emily Dickinson wrote with a fountain pen; Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote on a Yiddish typewriter. But what did such writers do when they weren’t writing? What did Jane Austen eat for breakfast? What could make Mark Twain throw his shirts out the window? Why would Zora Neale Hurston punch a fellow elevator passenger? Lives of the Writers tells all that and more. (taken from Amazon)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this book. It’s part of an entire series and they’ve been my youngest’s favorite books this year. They give information in an accessible and engaging way. They’d be a good gift for any nonfiction-loving little readers.

Fantasy Subgenres: A Plethora of Choices UPDATED

Every now and again, I’ll hear someone say “I don’t like fantasy,” even though they’ve never read any. Of course, everyone has their own preferences in literature, which is totally fine, but I sometimes think that what people mean is that they don’t like a certain type of fantasy. There’s much more than just swords and magic when it comes to fantasy (although I happen to love books that have swords and magic).

Here are a few sub-genres, with explanations, as well as examples of books that fit into each category. Of course, I’m in no way an expert, and some of these books can fit quite comfortably in multiple sub-genres. Talk to me! Tell me what I got right, what I messed up, and what I missed completely. Here goes nothing!

Since my original post, I have learned about and read a few new subgenres, which I am now adding to the list. Let me know what you think!

High Fantasy: High fantasy is probably what comes to mind first when people hear “fantasy.” There are some characteristics that separate high fantasy from other kinds of fantasy. First of all, it’s very character-focused. The choices made by a single character, or a few, are most important. High fantasy is set in its own world with its own defined rules of magic. A common theme is good vs. evil.

Examples: The Swans’ War trilogy by Sean Russell; The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman; The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Epic Fantasy: Epic fantasy is, well…epic. It usually consists of a threat to the entire world and has a large cast of characters, as opposed to the few that characterize high fantasy. While The Hobbit, for example, is high fantasy, The Lord of the Rings is what I would classify as epic fantasy. There’s a larger cast of characters, and a danger to the entire world.
Examples: Game of Thrones; Wheel of Time; Lord of the Rings

Low Fantasy: Low fantasy is characterized by magical events that intrude on daily life in a normal world.

Examples: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett; American Gods by Neil Gaiman; Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Sword and Sorcery: Well, aside from the obvious (swords and magic), think romance, and adventure. Sword and Sorcery is a bit on the pulpy side (nothing wrong with that). I always picture 80’s era Sylvester Stallone as the movie equivalent of a Sword and Sorcery hero.
Examples: Conan the Barbarian; Legend by David Gemmell. Honestly, I’m on the fence about including Legend here, as it doesn’t seem as pulpy as other Sword and Sorcery books, but I’m drawing a blank on other examples. What would you add to this category?

Military Fantasy: This is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s basically military life in a fantasy setting, often following one solider, or a small company.
Examples: The Codex Alera by Jim Butcher; The Black Company by Glen Cook

Grimdark Fantasy: Don’t expect happily ever after’s or the archetypal heroes. Grimdark is marked with violence, morally gray as well as completely amoral characters. It also doesn’t shy away from violence.
Examples: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff; The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Dark Fantasy/ Gothic Fantasy: This sub-genre incorporates themes of death, fear, and romance. It has a darker tone, and elements of horror. Think Edgar Allen Poe- goes fantasy, and you’ve got the general idea.
Examples: Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman; Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan

Urban Fantasy: This is interesting in that there are a few different routes urban fantasy is known to take: either a separate fantasy world with rules that are similar to ours or, conversely, our world with fantasy elements mixed in. Go figure.
Examples: Jackaby by William Ritter; City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

Arthurian Fantasy: This is fantasy based directly on the myths and legends of King Arthur.
Examples: The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart; The Once and Future King by T.H. White

Superhero Fantasy: This is fantasy based on the character of a superhero. Easily defined.
Examples: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson; Vicious by V.E. Schwab

RPG Lit: Combining fantasy with role playing games, the main character is generally aware that they are in a game-type world. Stats. are very much a part of the book, and the characters interact and progress through the book as they would an rpg.
Examples: The Other Normals by Ned Vizzini; Path to Villainy: An NPC Kobold’s Tale by S.L. Rowland

Fairy Tales: Starting as children’s stories, lately there have been many re-imaginings of these books that are marked by fantastical elements and magic.
Examples of fairy tale retellings: Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer; Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik; House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig; A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow

Portal Fantasy: I argue that this is a sub-genre in its own right! This would be books in which the characters leave their own world through a portal/door/etc, and travel to a world with different rules than their own. Often, fantasy elements such as magic are present.
Examples: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

Fantasy of Manners: I’m a little newer to this subgenre ( Thank you to Way Too Fantasy for telling me about this one). You won’t see many dragons or violent battles. This subgenre is defined by its wit and its use of words as weapons. There is often a sort of hierarchy and the battles tend to be more involved with social maneuvering. I tend to picture Jane Austen-meets-fantasy.
Examples: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke; Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

Sword-free Fantasy: Sans fantasy violence, sword-free fantasy uses wondrous, reality-free worlds to explore very real emotions and relationships. Look for themes of family, love, self-acceptance, or self-discovery.
Examples: The Living Waters by Dan Fitzgerald; The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune; Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide to the Care and Feeding of British Dragons by Quenby Olson

Viking-Inspired Fantasy: This subgenre could go a few different directions. It could borrow from heavily from Norse mythology or it can be set in a world that borrows elements from the Norse mythology or Viking way of life while still having its own mythologies or pantheons.
Examples: The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwyne; The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson

Fantasy Comedy: Irreverent and witty, fantasy comedy often takes a humorous look at the fantasy genre, either creating new and entertaining fantasy worlds that focus on humor, parodying common fantasy tropes, or even poking lighthearted fun at specific works of fantasy.
Examples: The Part About the Dragon Was (Mostly) True by Sean Gibson; Harpyness is Only Skin Deep by D.H. Willison; Iliad: The Reboot by Keith Tokash

Time for you to weigh in! What did I get right? What did I mess up? What am I still missing? Let’s talk!

Witchy Witches of all Kinds

Witches in literature have changed quite a bit over the years. From the sinister and mysterious, to the flat-out evil; from the magic-for-good to the naturalist who is one with nature, you can find a book for every type. I am far from an expert in the inclusion of witches in books, but I’m a reader so I have my own experience with witches. Here are a few books with witches of different sorts.

Evil Witches:

These are the ones that often look like hags, live in huts in the middle of nowhere, have a penchant for eating naughty kids, or just like to cause trouble.

Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm- I just had to include at least one Grimm story and this one fits the bill.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare (I would argue that they are bit more like the Three Fates, but…)

The Witches by Roald Dahl- Well, this book is terrifying.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum – Here for obvious reasons.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis- This book contains one of, if not the most evil witch I’ve read in a book to date.

Good witches: The term “good” is subjective, especially when it comes to magic users in books. Still, I think the witches in these books can at least fall vaguely in this category.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling- Without getting into the author at all, Hermione definitely qualifies as a good witch.

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow- No spoilers given.

Small Place by Matthew Samuels – She’s technically good. Okay, she has some questionable anecdotes but for the adventure in Small Places, she is considered good.

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede- I loved these books when I was younger! Morwen the witch is the least witchy witch ever and it’s fabulous.

Witches as naturalists: I’m seeing books that are going this route more and more often lately. While I don’t have quite as many titles for this section, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include at least one example.

Wildwood Whispers by Willa Reece- This book was wonderfully written. The prose was gorgeous and flowed beautifully.

It’s complicated: These books have witches that aren’t witches, witches as representative of other things (such as women’s rights), and other complex females characters with more than a hint of magic about them.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow- This book is brilliant! It follows three witches who are, more importantly, three women in search of respect and freedom. This book is chock full of fierce, justifiable anger and I loved it.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller- I’m pretty sure that, by now, the hysteria that gipped communities during the Witch Trials is well known. I remember seeing this play and being fascinated.

The Manningtree Witches by A.K. Blakemore- This one was a bit harder for me to get into, but I enjoyed it once it got going.

The Witching Hour by Anne Rice- What can I say? It’s Anne Rice. That means the trilogy is incredibly complex, incredibly messed up in parts, and incredibly engrossing.

Time to add to my already-teetering tbr list! What else should be on this list?

Three Years and 695 Posts Later…

Image Credit: Fantasy Book Nerd

Once upon a time, there was a socially awkward, book-obsessed nerd. This nerd (let’s call her Jodie, shall we?) loved to read. I mean, loved it! Her house was filled with books, her mind was filled with books, and she loved talking about books with everyone she knew. Now, every main character has a flaw (or two, or three) and one of Jodie’s flaws was that she had a hard time not talking about books. This could easily make her an incredibly annoying person to be around. Fortunately, she happened to know a wise wizard. This wizard (also known as her husband) suggested a magical cure to Jodie’s fatal flaw: start a book blog!

Now that we’ve all learned why I am not an author, let me sum up the rest of the story: today is my third blogging birthday. After nearly seven hundred posts, let me share a bit of knowledge with you: I am not an expert. At all. What I am, though, is grateful. I was completely surprised to realize that blogs don’t have to exist in a vacuum. I’ve met some amazing people and read some incredible books thanks to book blogging. I’ve been fortunate to have authors and publishers trust me to review their books, and I’ve tried genres that I didn’t even know existed a few years ago.

I have noticed a fair bit of discouragement lately from bloggers (I’ve been discouraged myself). Imposter Syndrome seems to be rearing its ugly head a lot. So, here is a short sampling of some of the amazing reviews that have caused me to spend way too much money on books. This is nowhere near a complete list, but you all rock. If you happen to find yourself on this list, please consider adding your own list of book bloggers who have added to your reading enjoyment.

Beforewegoblog’s: A Deadly Education

The Book Pyramid: The Bard’s Blade

Off the TBR: The Half Killed

Plot_Head on Fanfiaddict: Of Honey and Wildfires

The Irresponsible Reader: Highfire

Ben Wablett :We Men of Ash and Shadow

Kerri McBookNerd: Little Thieves

Paul’s Picks: Two Like Me and You

Fantasy Book Nerd: The Swordsman’s Lament

Al Wrote a Book: Ashes of the Sun

Sword and Spectres: Orconomics

Sue’s Musings: The Goddess of Nothing at All

Beneath a Thousand Skies: The Thirteenth Hour

I Can Has Books: How I Live Now

Banned Books Week 2021: Read Dangerously

Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. – Laurie Halse Anderson

Ah, it’s that lovely time of year. The time of year where I pull out my soapbox, climb on it, and start yelling about how much I disagree with the banning and censoring of books. That’s right- it’s Banned Books Week!

According to the American Library Association, “a challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials.” I think most people can understand why this is a dangerous concept. Banning a book allows us to silence people we disagree with. It allows history to be ignored. It takes away the chance to learn from or connect with a different point of view.

Let me start with a little backstory here. The banning of books is nothing new. In fact, it’s believed that the first widely banned book in the U.S. was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, banned for having a “pro-abolitionist agenda”. (via lithub) Howl was actually put on trial. The defendants were told to prove that the book had “literary merit”. Ender’s Game was challenged in 2012 for pornographic content despite that fact that there is no sexual content in the book at all, much less content of a pornographic nature. Even the children’s book Where the Wild Things are has been banned in the past.

Books are banned and challenged for a myriad of reasons. These include sexual issues, the idea that a book has content that is unsuitable for its intended age group, language that is considered offensive, LBTQIA+ content, or any topic that might be considered divisive, really.

Courtesy of The American Library Association

The banning and challenging of books still happens. In fact, you can read about a recent incident involving a full list of books being banned in a York, PA school district. Incidentally, every single book was either by or about a person of color. ( via Penn Live Patriot News) Thankfully, the huge public outcry pressured the schoolboard into reversing the ban. While authors including Brian Meltzer were closely involved in the protest, it was originally led by students. How cool is that? I tell you, the younger generation will shake this world.

When you ban a book, you reveal yourself.– Brad Meltzer

The list of banned and challenged books is huge. It includes ‘classics’ such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Catch 22. Children’s books as ubiquitous as Where’s Waldo and A Light in the Attic have also made the list. Some of the most commonly challenged books in recent years include And Tango Makes Three, the Harry Potter series, The Hate You Give, Thirteen Reasons Why, The Handmaid’s Tale, and the Captain Underpants series. To Kill a Mockingbird seems to be constantly challenged or banned. The reasons are varied, but I think they all have something in common: those who are challenging are doing so because they are scared. They are scared of reading things they don’t understand, don’t agree with, or don’t want to think about.

Choosing not to read a book is always an option, of course, which leads into a conversation on canceling, as the words canceling and banning tend to get a little confused. I think we’re all familiar with the term “cancel culture” by now. According to Miriam-Webster, cancel culture is “the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.” Canceling and banning a book are two very different things. Canceling is basically a boycott and it is a personal choice. Book banning involves having your choice to read or not read a book taken from you by others. I am unequivocally against the banning of books. No group of people should be able to deny others the opportunity to read books.

So, what can we do? Read banned books. Buy banned books. Speak out against the banning of books. You can find an excellent list of commonly banned books to get you started here. I also went to social media to see what people’s favorite banned books are. You can find the results of that at the end of this post. It’s a great list, and there are a few on there that I haven’t read yet (I plan to change that).

There are many experiences that I haven’t had, shoes that I haven’t walked in, or situations that I haven’t dealt with…but books can help me understand and empathize with those who have. They teach us compassion and broaden our horizons. So, are they dangerous? I should hope so. After all, growth and change generally are.

Live dangerously. Read.

Social media’s favorite banned and/or challenged books:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The Bible

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Peig: The Autobiography of Peig Sayers of the Great Blasket Island by Peig Sayers

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’engle

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair by Mariko Tamaki

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Howl and other Poems by Allen Ginsberg

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- What You May Have Missed

I was joined by several excellent authors, to talk about any possible connections between great fantasy writing and table top roleplaying games. I’ve gathered the posts here, so you can easily find any that you may have missed.

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs-Zack Argyle

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs-Geoff Habiger

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Dorian Hart

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Rowena Andrews and Jonathan Nevair

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Dan Fitzgerald

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Thomas Howard Riley

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Jeffrey Speight

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Ricardo Victoria

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Rob Edwards

TTRPGs that are Based on Books

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Rob Edwards

I’m so excited to be able to talk about D&D with author Rob Edwards today! Thank you for taking the time to chat with me!

Will you tell me a little bit about your book, The Ascension Machine?

It’s a science fiction superhero novel, in which a young grifter impersonates a guy and in the process winds up enrolled at a college for alien superheroes. Grey, as he starts calling himself, stays for the novelty, but despite himself finds friends, and a place he belongs. It’s all based on his lie, so to stay at the Justice Academy Grey has to keep lying, even to his new friends. Things escalate, the team end up fighting gangsters and aliens, and investigate strange goings on. It’s an adventure romp with a large cast of characters all dealing with the difficult adjustment of starting college… with super powers.

How about your history with ttrpgs? When did you first start playing, and what drew you to it?

In 1983 I was about 12 or 13, and I came across an advert in some comic books which I became kind of obsessed with. A party of adventurers explore a dungeon, battle a monster then encounter some green slime. I cannot tell you for why, but when the elf rogue shouts “Look out, it’s dripping!” I knew I had to play this game.

I got the “Red Box” Basic set for my next birthday, and never looked back. I’ve played or run every edition of D&D since, as well as many many other systems. 

Here’s the list of some of the games I’ve played in the order of them occurring to me: GURPS, DC Heroes, TORG, Amber Diceless, Golden Heroes, Marvel, Mutants and Masterminds, Hero, Star Wars d6, Star Wars d20, Star Wars Edge of Empire, Ghostbusters, Pathfinder, Starfinder, Spycraft, Fantasycraft, Tunnels and Trolls, MERP, Doctor Who, Song of Ice and Fire, Babylon Project, Wheel of Time, Call of Cthulhu, Arcanis, Seventh Sea, Shadowrun, Twilight 2000, Top Secret SI, Judge Dredd, TMNT… plus a few more for one shots that I’m probably forgetting).

Oh, my greatest Geek pride (as it says in my bio): back when Wizards of the Coast had the Star Wars license and were running the Living Force campaign for convention play, I got to write seven modules for the campaign, meaning someone somewhere at Lucasfilm (probably an intern) read something I wrote in the Star Wars universe and said “OK”. Meaning that, until Disney bought Star Wars, I was briefly, obscurely, canon. 

Anyway, this answer is far too long. Suffice to say I’m almost always the DM these days, which I love, but my rare chances to play are solid gold for me.

That sounds like my husband. He always ends up being a DM. After a less-than -successful attempt on my part several years ago ( I failed to communicate to my players exactly what kind of campaign I was trying to run, which did not go well), I’m still working up my courage to try again. I might give it another go in a decade or so. 

As DM, do you feel like your writing affects how you tell the story? Did your experience with gaming play into your writing at all?

Interesting question. Firstly, I think over time I’ve come to realise that my writing and my DMing, at least for home brew things, come from a very similar place, creatively. I’ve found the more I’m writing, the less I have in the tank for coming up with my own worlds and plotlines for games. And vice versa. As a result, since taking my writing more seriously, I’ve tended to stick to prewritten adventures. Perhaps not as engaging as creating my own world, but still a lot of fun.

I’d say my experience gaming has absolutely everything to do with my writing. I’ve always been a writer, always been a storyteller, for as long as I can remember, but for the best part of four decades, I honed my skills as a storyteller on all my many players. Sometimes triumphantly, sometimes not. When I started writing professionally, I had all of that foundation to build on. A sense of how much foreshadowing is too much. A sense of when the story needs a kick from an action beat. Why world building is important and how too much can be a distraction and suck the pace out of a scene. All of my instinct for that comes from my gaming. (Also reading so very very much in my youth).

That said, I have a D&D campaign world that I’ve run different groups in for…. Wow, is it twenty years now? … There’s a story to be told there, there’s a novel, possibly a trilogy in it. But actually writing the book of the campaign(s)… I’ve tried starting a few times but so far it has totally stumped me.

Wow, twenty years is a huge accomplishment! I bet the world development for that campaign is incredible. Do the characters being played change as the players do, or does each player bring a new facet to the same characters?

Most of the active world building happened for the first campaign — that was a lot — and the original sequel campaign. Those campaigns had the same players, playing different characters two decades apart in the campaign timeline. Since then, I’ve run three variations on the original campaign, always with different characters, always bringing new wrinkles to the way the world works. New characters bring new focus, it’s interesting to see NPCs (non-player characters) who were hugely significant in the original run fading into the background or  taking very different actions and suffering very different fates in later playthroughs. By the same token, NPCs who barely got a name in the original version get the spotlight in later runs.

The most recent version of the campaign fell apart at about the time the pandemic hit. I’ve since decided it’s time to retire that campaign world and start something fresh. Though in this campaign, I’m trying to be a little more improvisational about it all, because I don’t want it to suck the energy out of my writing.

If anyone is super interested, you can get a hint of what some of the setting was like in my short story Virtue’s Blade in the Inklings Press anthology Tales of Magic and Destiny. It’s a new story not taken directly from any specific adventure in that world, but does give a flavour of some of the world building for that campaign. (Or listen to me read it on my podcast here: Episode 39: Virtue’s Pirate · StorycastRob (spotify.com))

You mentioned using your time as DM (Dungeon Master, for those who aren’t familiar with the lingo) to hone your storytelling skills, and how that helped with pacing and foreshadowing. One thing I really enjoyed about The Ascension Machine was that the pacing was never too rushed, nor was it too slow. Your practice definitely made perfect!

I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler, but Grey was an interesting character in that, while he was conning everyone, at his heart he had a strong moral compass. Is that sort of “alignment” your go-to when gaming? And dovetailing off of that, do you have a favorite character class? Or do you prefer to shake things up when creating your own character (obviously, prewritten adventures are a little different)?

Oh yeah. I know people can get very excited by evil campaigns or characters, but they don’t really interest me. I’m always the good guy in games as a player, if I ever feel the urge to be evil, I have my DMing for that!

As for character classes, I like my characters to be skilled and versatile. They don’t need to be The Best, but I do prefer competence. In pursuit of it, I’ve dabbled in just about every class over the years, but my big go-tos are Sorcerer, Fighter, Bard. My least travelled are probably Druid and Cleric. My current obsession is Artificer, and I think I might actually get to play one soon.

Grey in The Ascension Machine could absolutely be one of my characters in a game. I’ve played plenty of rogues, swindlers and con artists in all sorts of settings, from Jack “Ace” King, a gambler in a Wild West game, to Agent Duchess, my Spycraft “Face” character. In The Ascension Machine, Grey’s plan on Bantus (no details, read the book!) was basically something I pulled in-character for a D&D game one time. 

 I am almost obsessively honest in the real world, so these characters are pure escapism!

Ah, you claim you’re obsessively honest. Perhaps that is what a dishonest person would say? 😉 I must say, I’ve never played an artificer. I bet it would be a blast, though. What would you say to someone who is curious about playing ttrpgs, but has never played before?

Give it a go! The hobby isn’t for everyone, but the only way to find out if it’s for you is to try it for yourself. Oh there are plenty of YouTube shows and let’s plays out there that you can watch to get a sense of how things work (Including our own DragonLance play, right Jodie?) but really you have to play it to be sure. Just, try and find a good DM, they really do make all the difference. If someone is asking me, I might well offer to run a session, if we can find some more players.

But if you’re asking how would I describe ttrpgs to somebody…? The grand description is that it’s cooperative improvised storytelling (with dice). It’s “Let’s Pretend” for grown-ups and kids  (with dice).

Any other description can be contradicted (and even the dice thing, one of my favourite games is Amber, a diceless system based on Roger Zelazny’s books). 

Because, yes, it can be an epic tale of heroes battling monsters, saving the world and getting loot (with dice), if that’s the story your group wants to tell. But it could equally be a disturbing tale of standing against unspeakable horrors where only madness and death awaits (with dice), or a political intrigue with backstabbing (and dice), or… whatever else you need it to be.

It is such a versatile hobby. As long as you can find a group of people who want to tell the same kind of story you do, it can be whatever you want it to be. Usually with dice.

About the author:

Rob Edwards is a British born writer and content creator, living in Finland. His podcast, StorycastRob, features readings from his short stories and extracts from longer work. He writes about coffee, despite not drinking it, spaceships, despite being down-to-earth, and superheroes, despite everything

His debut novel, The Ascension Machine was published in 2020. His short stories can be found in anthologies from Inklings Press and Rivenstone Press.

A life-long gamer and self-professed geek, he is proud of his entry on wookieepedia, the result of writing several Star Wars RPG scenarios in his youth.

Links

Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/StorycastRob

Check out his Podcast: http://storycastrob.co.uk/

Or YouTube: Rob Edwards

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Ricardo Victoria

I’ve been talking about table-top roleplaying games with authors over the last few days. Today I’m joined by Ricardo Victoria, author of the Tempest Blades series.

Thank you for being willing to talk about D&D with me!

First, will you tell me a bit about The Tempest Blades series?

The Tempest Blades series is a story in progress (2 books published, 2-3 more to go, plus a few short stories) about this legendary hero Fionn, who after his final battle during the Great War found himself awakening 100 years later and  after a few years of adjustment is asked to return to the role of hero to stop an evil from his past. In the way, he is joined by a new band of heroes: Gaby, Alex, Sam (who is Fionn’s great granddaughter and adoptive daughter), Fionn’s best friend Harland and Sid the Samoharo (later joined by Kasumi the demonhunter, Joshua, a mysterious man and Yokoyawa, Sid’s cousin). And Fionn finds himself in the role of mentor to this new band, preparing them for the challenges that they will face from now on. Every action has a consequence both in the large scale of the world they live in, and in a personal level, which is reflected in the second book with the fallout of the first adventure and the toll in the mental health of Alex. All towards saving the world from looming menaces from beyond the physical realm.

Bottom line, Tempest Blades is a story about getting a second opportunity, finding redemption and your place in the world amidst action packed adventures that actually read like a ttrpg campaing! I have to note that I’m writing each book as self-contained, even if they are in the same continuity, so readers get a whole story in each book along a larger arc. Again, kinda like a ttrpg campaign, composed of smaller adventures all linked together.

Now that I think of… basically I’m writing my ideal ttrpg with me playing all the roles and the DM.

How about your history with ttrps? When did you first start playing and what drew you to it?

I always wanted to play since I saw the D&D cartoon as a kid, but never had the access to the books or with whom to play until I got to college. There I got my copies of the three core books of D&D 3e. and a few of a system called BESM (Big Eyes, Small Mouths, which is basically a system to play anime style adventures). Then my best friend, who already had his D&D group at the time, started to run a game at college with his classmates and I sorta, kinda ‘forced’ my way to join the group at their second adventure. And we kept playing for the next three years. Sometimes to give him a rest as DM I ran games in Stars Wars D20, or BESM, or another player ran his homebrew Saint Seiya game. We also played D20 modern, where our DM adapted the first Resident Evil game. It was awesome.

Then when I moved to UK for my Ph.D. I joined the Roleplay and Wargames Society, as a way to practice my English in an informal setting and to meet friends (and this incidentally got me to know the guys with whom we created Inklings Press, but that’s another story). There I played D&D, Exhalted and Bureau 13, and ran a few sessions of an improvised BESM game.

I haven’t played since I came back to Mexico since a) my best friend passed away, so his group simply disbanded and b) the downside of being an adult with responsibilities is that finding the time and someone play with. But I’m trying to create a new group with a  friend and his nephew and in the meantime I get my fix for ttrpg listening to a couple of live roleplay podcasts: The Dark Dice and Dumbgeons & Dragons, while I plan how to develop a ttrpg (or at least the setting for an established system) based on Tempest Blades.

Does your gaming experience have an effect on your writing?

I have come to realize that both follow the same kind of structured improvisation. I might have an overall plot I want to follow with a given story I’m working on, but how I go from the start to the end (and to the key scenes I have I mind) tends to be somewhat improvisational, just like in a game. The advantage of having a good grasp of who my characters are and how they tend to act allows me to improvise on the way to a key scene. Like the relationship between players and DM. Of course in this case my players are still me so there is nothing 100% unexpected about how things happen. Also I tend to world build my stories the same way I do for my games, creating the world as I’m needing it. And of course there is the fact that Fionn evolved from my first D&D character. On a more personal note, after my best friend suddenly passed away a few years ago, and with permission of the other players from the college group, I incorporated a few of his locations and characters into the world of Tempest Blades as a way to remember him and a homage. Fionn’s character arc was in part inspired by the plans we both had at the time of his passing to restart the campaign as I was ‘promoted’ to co-DM and was helping him with the world building and the plot of the campaign. Also Alex’s constant mentions in The Cursed Titans to a deceased friend are references to that personal event, because that’s the kind of things that remain with you, years after.

That absolutely stays with a person and I think it is a wonderful, very personal way to pay homage to your friend.

What would you say is your favorite thing about ttrpgs?

I love that for a couple of hours, you can be another person, with a different history and in a different world, able to have the adventures you won’t ever have in real life, just with the help of a set of dice, some pencils and paper and through the sheer power of imagination. For a moment you can be the hero (or the villain if you want), leave behind all the worries and weights on our shoulders and be as free as you imagined you would be when a kid. For me, that and the friendships you make through the game are what makes them truly special.

Yes, I agree that the camaraderie really is something special. And, as a reader, it’s already pretty obvious that I’m a big fan of escapism! 

What would you say to someone who has never played a ttrpg , but is curious about it?

The best way to learn about them is playing them. That said, nowadays ttrpg is not the niche hobby it was 20 years ago when I was in college, it has even been showcased in some tv shows like in Community (which I believe is the most “accurate” depiction so far). It has become more accessible and there are more resources to learn about them: facebook groups, your local hobby store, youtube videos, podcasts. Personally, if you are still curious about them but don’t want to commit to play just yet, you can listen to actual play podcasts of which I confess I’m a big fan and there are several good ones. My personal favorites by far are The Dark Dice (which is a D&D horror themed game that includes in its second season Jeff Goldblum. Yes, that Jeff), and Dumbgeons & Dragons, (a more traditional story of adventure but the chemistry between players is off the chart and their comments are hilarious. It’s my go to show to listen when I’m feeling down and it always manages me to cheer me up). Or if you are more visually inclined, check some of the gaming sessions by Critical Role or Acquisitions Incorporated (from the guys of Penny Arcade, which also from time to time featured Wil Wheaton) in YouTube. Many games as well offer free or really cheap starter kits on their website or Amazon, like the D&D starter set, so you can get a sense of how it works. 

Word of advice though: don’t believe that D&D is the beginning and the end of the hobby. There are tons of companies, games, settings to choose from: L5R for samurais/ninja, BESM/Anime 5e for anime inspired games, the White Wolf books for your supernatural or mythological inclined. Bureau 13 for those more into the X-Files/Supernatural kind of Stories. Basic Fantasy for a really simple game to play. Call of Cthulhu for classic cosmic horror or Cthulhutech for SF cosmic horror. There are as many settings as fiction subgenres there are, and within them, different settings to play with and within different price ranges for your needs.

But really, the only things you need to play are pencil, paper, a set of dice, friends and above all, a lot of imagination. No need for expensive hardware or software, just what your mind can create.

About the Author:

Ricardo Victoria is the author of The Tempest Blades fantasy series. You can find both The Withered King and The Cursed Titans (books one and two) now.

To purchase The Withered King:

Amazon

To purchase The Cursed Titans:

Amazon