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
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
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
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
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
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.
I suppose October is when all the ghosts and ghoulies come out to play. I’ll be honest: I’ve never been big on Halloween. More power to people who are, but it’s just not my jam. I am a fan of a good spooky book, though, and my youngest went through a phase when he loved all things Halloween related (it was an odd choice for a three year old, but…okay?)
Here’s a roundup of some spooky and not-so-spooky books for fiends of all ages. Enjoy!
For little monsters:
Most parents are familiar with the Sandra Boynton books. There are about a million of them, all with cute little critters and fun storylines. The number of times I sang the Pajama Time song with the kids is truly astonishing! Spooky Pookie is another sweet little story, this time about a pig who can’t figure out what costume to wear. It’s great for three years old and under.
The Ghost-Eye Tree
This book scared the snot out of me when I was young! This is a perfect cuddle-up-and-read-aloud kind of book, and the illustrations are amazing.
The Monster at the End of this Book
This has all the trappings of a good horror book: monsters, tension, a twist at the end! All it’s missing is the spookiness. Instead, it has something better: a great sense of humor. This one is so much fun! It’s one I think all parents should read with their littles.
For older elementary ghoulies/ middle grade ghosts:
I love this book so, so much! The Bunnicula books are a blast! They are clever and creative, full of some of the most memorable pets in print. I have fond memories of this book and I loved reading it with my oldest for the first time a few years ago.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Ah, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark! I think every adult of a certain age read these when they were young. This is the sort of book that begs to be read while eating s’mores.
The Beast and the Bethany
This book is such fun! It reminds me of nothing so much as a lighthearted, kid-friendly take on The Picture of DorianGray. The characters are delightfully nasty, the Beast is brutally entertaining, and the illustrations are a perfect addition. Plus, there’s a sequel coming before too long! Review
For Young-adult vampires:
House of Hollow
If you’re looking for eerie, this dark fairy tale/ horror is for you. It actually creeped me out a little, which is not an easy feat. I didn’t love the wrap-up at the end, but the rest of the book was great. Review
Tales from the Hinterland
Tales from the Hinterland is a creepy and clever book of shorts stories that take place in the world of author Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood. While I didn’t like the final book in the Hazel Wood duology (at all), this collection of fairy tales that take place in that world are fantastic. You don’t need to read the original series to understand or enjoy this book at all, which makes it even better. Review
The Devouring Gray
Uncanny happenings, monsters, and townsfolk who are not who they seem make The Devouring Gray a fun-filled, creepy book. It’s a quick read too, which makes it a great palette-cleanser after a heavy book. Review
For adult zombies:
Meddling Kids is a love letter to the Scooby Gang, the Goonies, or the Hardy Boys. It’s a mystery-meets-supernatural book that answers the question: what happens when those meddling kids grow up and return home to solve one last case?
In the Garden of Spite
I think books about serial killers fall into the “spooktastic” category. I was enthralled by this book from page one. I knew nothing about the Widow of La Porte before reading this and I was shocked to learn that it was based on a real person. Yikes! Review
Nothing but Blackened Teeth
While this never managed to flat-out scare me, Nothing but Blackened Teeth was nonetheless an interesting read. It had a bit of a Shirley Jackson vibe (though with gore). Review
I read this for the first time not all that long ago and holy crap! I still find myself uneasily examining it. It is engrossing and thought-provoking. It’s also believable, which makes it even more unsettling.
Of course I had to have Frankenstein on this list! There’s nothing quite so scary as watching a human play God.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
I generally prefer thought-provoking gothic horrors to gore-fests, and The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the best examples of a smart gothic horror that I’ve read. If you haven’t picked this one up yet, I highly suggest you do.
There are many other great spooky reads that didn’t make this list, mainly because it would be way too long if I added everything. What are some of your favorite spooktastic reads?
The Hawthorne Legacy is a sequel to The Inheritance Games ( you can find my review of that book here) and there are some unavoidable spoilers to book one below. You have been warned!
Ah, where to start with this book? After finding The Inheritance Games to be a rollicking good treasure hunt complete with riddles and double-crossing, The Hawthorne Legacy was left with some pretty big shoes to fill. Unfortunately, it fell a little flat for me.
While the spirit of the series was alive and kicking, a good chunk of the book seemed a little disorganized. After solving the riddles and thwarting the plots in book one, Avery is left trying to navigate the newfound “responsibilities” that come with her fortune, while at the same time trying to find Tobias Hawthorne. He seems to have vanished into thin air, leaving very little in the way of how to find him. Meanwhile, there’s a new mystery involving Avery’s mom, and then Avery’s dad shows up…see what I mean about it being a little disorganized? Some of the threads end up tying together while others seem to fade into the background without there ever really being a resolution.
The mystery was not particularly compelling to me, simply because the reveals were often found in letters etc, as opposed to being cleverly puzzled out. The reader wasn’t given all the clues needed to solve the puzzles along with the characters, which was a bummer for me. I love getting the solution and having a “Why didn’t I see that?” moment. I didn’t really get the chance for that here.
That’s not to say The Hawthorne Legacy didn’t have its fun moments. It most definitely did. Avery’s best friend became a larger part of the storyline, which I loved. Her spunk and individuality were a breath of lighthearted fresh air and her interactions with Xander in particular were a lot of fun. She also gave us a window into the thoughts of the other characters, as she would demand details that wouldn’t otherwise have been given. She pushed the story along when it seemed to start to falter.
The relationship complications became more of an issue, which is most definitely not my jam. The love triangle might actually appeal to a lot of readers because it was done in a pretty classy way, considering. It’s just not my thing.
So, what did I think of the mystery? I felt that, while it was creative and led to lots of tense moments, the way it was done changed this book from a mysterious puzzler to a thriller. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although it was unexpected. The Inheritance Games had a bit of a Knives Out vibe in my opinion. The Hawthorne Legacy went in a much different direction.
While it ended up not quite being my thing, the book is still well written and the characters are still interesting enigmas. Avery’s best friend Max stole the show, but there were plenty of great moments with the other characters too. We are shown more of the relationship dynamic between the brothers, particularly between Jameson and Grayson, which I thought was fantastic. Even though they are extremely competitive and often work at cross purposes, it was clear they care about each other.
The Inheritance Games is a blast to read and I still recommend it. The Hawthorne Legacy was a bit of a letdown, but I might be in the minority in my final takeaway. I suggest you give it a go yourself and tell me why my opinion is wrong.
If We Were Villains is a story of a group of Shakespearean students at an art college who let the line between the real and the pretend blur, and the disastrous events that follow. While it could be seen as a mystery- or even a thriller- what stuck out to me were the relationships. In a case where life imitated art instead of the other way around, already out-of-touch personalities devolved into baser natures and the results were fascinating.
The story is told from the point of view of Oliver, one of a group of seven students. He is reminiscing and filling in the blanks after serving ten years for the murder of another in his group of seven. Did he really do it? Why? The memories have the fascinating quality of real, often-revisited recollections: they were gilded, sharpened to put unconscious emphasis on certain points, made fuzzier with time in others. There was always a small hint of suspicion that maybe Oliver was still playing a part, that he was in truth an unreliable narrator.
The lives of the students reminded me a little bit of the movie Dead Poets Society in that the group was incredibly close and they were fully immersed in their own way of thinking, up to the fact that it even affected their speech. Where in Dead Poets Society, you see the group often quoting poetry, If We Were Villains finds them using the Bard’s verse to speak truths that they otherwise hide. It is enthralling and made me appreciate Shakespeare, something that is new for me (I’ve never been a fan). The author uses the anger, fear, and desperation felt by the characters to bring the quotes into a different context. Or maybe she uses the quotes to bring a new dimension to the characters?
The characters themselves were engrossing. They were both more and less than the parts they played. There’s the fill-ins who find themselves chameleons onstage and in the group dynamic, the villain, the hero, the love interest, the ingénue, and the antihero. The students play their roles so well it left me wondering if they were, in fact, only acting. And that’s half of the brilliance of If WeWere Villains.
There’s a microworld that I was drawn into, one that is very much real to the characters despite being centered around a dead writer. The atmosphere is fascinating: like a play, everything is heightened and larger than life. The stakes are higher, the relationships more intense yet brittle. The break, when it happens, is on an epic scale. This small world suddenly feels huge.
It is difficult to pick one particular thing that made me love the book as much as I did. I can’t take the characters separately from the language, the atmosphere, the pacing. It all moved together so well that there wasn’t a single thing that I didn’t love. From the very first sentence to the final curtain, everything was perfect.
I enjoyed the book so much that I didn’t want it to end. The ending itself, however, was perfect. The story was ended satisfactorily, but with room left to wonder. I continue to find myself thinking about it, questioning my reactions, and moving pieces of the narrative around in my mind.
If We Were Villains is smart and compelling, one of the very best books I’ve read this year. If you’re looking for a book to suck you in and leave you floored, this one is for you.
Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. The Spirit Engineer will be available October 7th.
I will be honest: I didn’t know much about William Jackson Crawford going into The Spirit Engineer, so everything written was a surprise to me. That being said, if I had been an expert on his life, I still would have been engrossed. The Spirit Engineer is an engrossing book that delves deep into the subjects of loss, paranoia, belief, and what can happen when a person’s beliefs are questioned.
Professor William Jackson Crawford is a man of science who doesn’t subscribe to paranormal nonsense, thank you very much. He thinks himself too smart to fall for any trickery and is preoccupied with dreams of rising far in his field. However, William learns that his wife has been visiting mediums and takes it upon himself to disprove the idea of communicating with the deceased. Thus, the Spirit Engineer is born.
I don’t usually comment on the characteristics of those that are based on real people, but William is not likeable at all. Nor is he relatable. At most, I could say he’s pitiable, and even that is a stretch. William is condescending and feels he is superior to others. He is a man who desperately wants to be in control of himself, of his work, of others. The more he feels his orderly life slipping away, the more paranoid and desperate he becomes. Things go in unexpected directions when, instead of proving the medium is a fraud, William sees and hears the spirits himself. Is he deceived? Or has he stumbled upon something otherworldly? Of course, I don’t need a character to be likable or relatable to enjoy a book. Instead, he was fascinating, which is much more important to me.
The writing was fantastic. It was smart and engaging. I’m assuming that there was some embellishment, but the author obviously tried to stay close to the sprit (pun intended) of the facts. The story developed well and the pacing was perfect. It didn’t skip over details, but it also didn’t drag. I raced through this book because I just couldn’t put it down.
The Spirit Engineer is a riveting book. While it’s interesting from a historical standpoint, what really drew me in was the exploration of the human psyche because, when it comes right down to it, that’s much more fascinating and mysterious than anything supernatural.
Due to some unforeseen circumstances, I was unable to post nearly as often as I wanted to during Self-published Authors Appreciation Week. I have been planning on giving this tag a go for ages, however, so I can’t let the week end without taking this opportunity to finally get it done. I don’t know who came up with the original tag, so please let me know if you do. I’d love to credit them.
These are all self-published books, which goes to show (yet again) that any stigma against self-publishing is completely without merit. I encourage you to read off the beaten path!
Best Book You Read So Far This Year
Dragon Mage by M.L. Spencer
This is actually a three-way tie at the moment (I reserve the right to add to this number at any given time), but since I think everyone and their brother should read Dragon Mage, I’m going to go with this one. Aram is one of the most wonderful main characters I’ve ever had the pleasure to read about. I’ve gushed at length about the book here, but there really isn’t a single thing that I didn’t love about Dragon Mage. Definitely read this book, if you haven’t yet.
Best Sequel You Read So Far
The Infinite Tower (Heroes of Spira Book 4) by Dorian Hart
Both my oldest and I are loving this series. From the characters and their relationships, to the world-development and the fantastical creatures, this hits every checkmark on my list of favorite things in fantasy books. It’s quickly become one of my most given fantasy recommendations and for good reason. Not only am I looking forward to seeing what happens next, I am planning on rereading from the beginning of the series before too much longer. You can find my review here.
New Release You Haven’t Read Yet
Pawn’s Gambit by Rob J. Hayes
Why haven’t I read this yet? WHY???
Most Anticipated Release for the Second Half of the Year
Mirror in Time by D. Ellis Overttun
I’m not going to say too much because my review is still forthcoming. I’ll just point out that any reader of sci-fi needs to add this to their tbr right now.
Path to Villainy: An NPC Kobold’s Tale by S.L. Rowland
I honestly expected a fun, entertaining little story. I got that and more. It was more violent than I expected, but it was also much more thought-out than I expected. Path to Villainy: An NPC Kobold’s Tale was a blast to read and I’ll be on the lookout for more from this author.
Favorite New Author
I’ve decided that M.L. Spencer could write a book about sandpaper and I’d pre-order it.
Newest Favorite Character – Merovich
Small Places by Matthew Samuels
Merovich was a delight. They were so child-like and sweet, while at the same time they invented the most dangerous of things. I loved that juxtaposition. Honestly, all of the characters in Small Places are fantastic. You can find my review here.
Book that Made You Cry
The Archive by Dan Fitzgerald
I don’t often cry over books or movies. This one had me tearing up, though. Author Dan Fitzgerald used it as a kind of mirror, to show the best and worst in all of us. It was beautiful. Find my review here.
Book that Made You Happy
Sherlock Holmes and the Remaining Improbable by Susanne M. Dutton
Oh, how I loved this book! The mystery was great, the author nailed the characters, and the ending was absolutely perfect. This was a brilliant homage to the foremost Consulting Detective. You can find my review here.
Most Beautiful Book You Got this Year
Sairō’s Claw by Virginia McClain
I mean…look at it! Gorgeous!
What Are Some Books You Need to Read By the End of the Year?
Oh, jeez! My tbr has a longer life expectancy than I do, so this is one of those questions that could be answered with many many titles. I’m looking forward to : A Troll Walks Into a Bar: A Nori Urban Fantasy Novel by Douglas Lumsden, Sacaran Nights by Rachel Shaw, and A Ritual of Bone by Lee C. Conley are a few that come to mind.
I’ve been privileged to read some truly fantastic books over the years, from all avenues of publishing. Here’s a list of some of the great self-published books that I recommend. There is no rhyme or reason to the order, and this is far from complete. Give them a go!
Thank you to the author for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. Sherlock Holmes and the Remaining Improbable is available for purchase now.
I am very picky when it comes to Sherlock Holmes and how he’s represented. I am not an expert or anything like that, but I’m a big fan of Conan Doyle’s famous detective and have read the original mysteries more than once (or twice). I’ve noticed that often a newer Holmes iteration will either match Doyle’s original consulting detective in writing style or spirit of character, rarely in both . I was both delighted and surprised to see that Sherlock Holmes and the Remaining Improbable managed to do both!
I fairly flew through this book, slowing down only to savor the story for a little longer. It’s extremely well written and the main players match my memories of the originals while at the same time growing and developing as only the best characters can. The additional characters (there must be suspects, after all) are all fantastic, quirky without being over the top.
The mystery itself was fantastic. It wasn’t forced, the final solution made perfect sense in response to the clues, and it was very clever. What I really enjoyed, though, was the ability to explore how Holmes himself ticked. He toyed around with hypnosis, and I’m sure you can imagine the tangled web that presents. Not only is his psyche bared, but his friendship with Watson is put to the test. I was so on board for that!
Surprisingly, the ending left me both incredibly satisfied and a little sad. It felt like the perfect epilogue to a brilliant character’s lifelong accomplishments, and I honestly wasn’t ready for the book to end. Sherlock Holmes and the Remaining Improbable is a fantastic love letter to Conan Doyle’s original works, and a wonderful representation of literature’s most inimitable detective.
Thank you to the author and to Dave at The Write Reads for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. I am so excited to be invited onto the book tour! Mirrorland is available now.
Mirrorland is disorienting and unsettling, the sort of book that will keep you up at night. It is a harsh book, but it is also an incredibly interesting look at the secrets and the horror that has hidden itself away in Mirrorland, waiting to be revisited.
The book follows Cat, one half of a set of twins. She’s hasn’t seen her twin sister, El, or her sister’s husband in years. Their relationship has gone from strained to nonexistent and Cat has avoided visiting her childhood home, only returning when she learns that her sister is missing. The police think El is dead, but Cat knows better. She would know if her twin had died, right? Plus, Cat suddenly begins receiving clues- the kind that El would leave- that lead her on a hunt for answers. But Cat might not like what she finds…
Mirrorland was unique in that, while I was sometimes left confused, it was done intentionally by the author. There’s a sense of uncertainty throughout the book that left me off balance and wanting to know more. I felt like I was putting together the clues right along with Cat. It made it hard to put the book down: I needed to know where the trail would lead next! I figured it out just a teensy bit before the big reveal and felt a huge sense of accomplishment when it turned out that my guesses were right. The suspense, though! I loved that the book moved at a breakneck pace, without giving the characters (or the readers) a chance to breathe.
There was a small cast of characters and their personalities were revealed in bits and pieces, left to fit together like a puzzle. I didn’t like Cat, the main character, all that much, but I can’t deny she was interesting. The author painted a picture of an unsure person who was desperate for approval. She waffled between anger, bitterness, and jealousy, which is always an interesting combination in a character. Where this book shines, though, is in its mysteries and how they’re revealed.
I do think I need to give a heads-up: this book is very disturbing. Enthralling, but disturbing. If you can handle a harsher storyline, definitely give this book a read. Mirrorland is a fascinating psychological thriller, one that kept me engrossed from beginning to end.
About the author:
Carole Johnstone is an award-winning writer from Scotland, whose short stories have been published all over the world. Mirrorland, a psychological suspense with a gothic twist, is her debut novel.
Having grown up in Lanarkshire, she now lives in the beautiful Argyll & Bute, and is currently working on her second novel: a very unusual murder-mystery, set in the equally beautiful Outer Hebrides.
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. In the Garden of Spite is available for purchase now.
Belle Gunness wasn’t always a murderer. Once she was a girl wronged. Once she was a child looking to escape. Once she was a hopeful mother. Maybe. Or maybe she was always vicious, always dangerous, and always hungry for violence. This book combines fact, rumor, and creative license to weave a tale both unsettling and engrossing.
I had honestly not heard of the Widow of La Porte prior to this book. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m the most knowledgeable when it comes to the bloodier side of individuals. I was completely sucked in and spent most of the book wondering how much of this grisly story could possibly be true. It turns out, quite a bit.
Belle was originally named Brynhild and spent her childhood in Norway. The reader joins the story right at what could be viewed as the catalyst to Brynhild’s bloodlust. I have to be honest: I did skip past the opening experience that Brynhild suffered. I was able to infer what happened without reading it, and it is something that I personally choose not to read about in books. I don’t usually give trigger warnings, but please be aware that this book is harsh (it is about a serial killer, after all).
After her first murder, Belle traveled to America to begin a new life. This “new life” led to the deaths of many men, including two husbands. The way the story unfolds is nothing short of enthralling. Author Camilla Bruce had an amazing way of portraying a damaged woman who can hug her children and plan a murder in the same moment. It was disturbing and brilliant in equal measure.
In the Garden of Spite is told from two perspectives: one is Belle’s sister, who is initially unaware of Belle’s tendencies, and the other is Belle herself. It was fascinating to see Belle’s sister, Nellie, as she begins to notice that there are things that are off about Belle. As the story progresses, Nellie wrestles with her desire to protect her sister and her knowledge that she might be keeping secrets for a serial killer. I really felt sorry for her, while at the same time wanting to shake her. Her dream of “saving” her sister from a bad life in Norway left her with feelings of guilt and fear. It also left a hefty body count.
Belle herself was terrifying. She was cold-blooded but was able to mimic the emotions others expected from her. She was smart but rash. She was never overwritten, if that makes sense. Instead, she was incredibly well-developed with many layers. She definitely got under my skin.
I flew through this story and was equally fascinated by the author’s afterward, explaining where facts ended and speculation began. Holy crow, author Camilla Bruce was able to mesh truth and fiction brilliantly! I was left with shivers and the hope that In the Garden of Spite won’t be her only foray into the true crime genre.