A Year in Books – Part 1

As 2021 comes to a close, I’ve been taking a look back at my favorite reads for the year. This was a fun exercise to reflect on what I consider to be the best of the best for my year of reading.

January: A Woman is No Man

There are some books that manage to rip your heart out, filling you with grief for the characters, and then they give you hope for the future at their conclusion. A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum is a story of three generations of Palestinian-American woman, and it explores fate, choices, culture, and traditions. It is a book about suppression and violence, but also about faith and personal strength. I loved it so much!

Read A Woman is No Man if you want to explore the depths of female relationships and cultural expectations.

February: A Court of Silver Flames

Sarah J. Maas took the Prythian world to the next level with her much-anticipated novel of Nesta and Cassian. With new mythology, new creatures, and new steam, A Court of Silver Flames is a great story of fierce action, heat, and love, all the things the Maasdom has come to expect.

What I loved most is that Ms. Maas went even further with this book. In taking us back to the Night Court and sharing Nesta and Cassian with us, Ms. Maas managed to build a fantasy that also addresses mental health, self worth, and the Me Too movement. The struggles and desire for empowerment may be cloaked in Fae magic here, but they’re relatable to us humans as well.

Read A Court of Silver Flames if you want a steamy book that makes your heart ache for an unlikeable protagonist (Nesta) while diving deep into a fantasy world that is well-designed and intricate.

February: The Four Winds

I couldn’t pick just one book for February, so here is my second favorite book from the shortest month of the year: The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah. Ms. Hannah is an author whose books I pick up knowing that my heart is going to be ripped out, and her newest novel did not disappoint!

I could feel the despair and heartache that these characters experienced in the Dust Bowl of 1930s Texas and in the neverending circle of poverty when Elsa, our heroine, moves her children to California in search of a better life. From the touching relationships between Elsa, her in-laws, her children, and her friends, and the emotive descriptions of the landscape during the Great Depression, Ms. Hannah has created a book that will stay with me for a long time.

Read The Four Winds if you love historical fiction and deep-rooted familial love alongside a lot of conflict.

February: Concrete Rose

And another favorite from February is Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas, a book full of Ms. Thomas’s beautiful prose, vivid imagery, and glorious characters. I truly hope she continues to tell stories about Garden Heights because each novel gets better and better.

Maverick Carter is 17 and dealing with a lot: his dad is in prison, he’s dealing drugs outside of his gang’s operation, and he just found out he’s a father. That’s just the start of the challenges that Maverick faces in Concrete Rose, and every bit of his journey brings all the emotions. With plenty of Easter eggs from The Hate U Give and On the Come Up, this book takes us back to the Garden Heights in the 1990s. It’s a powerful, emotional book that deserves all the Sevens, all the roses, and all the stars.

Read Concrete Rose if you want a brutal, beautiful story of a young man who has to grow up suddenly and to see how his choices make an impact on everyone’s future.

March: People Like Her

People Like Her by husband-wife writing team Ellery Lloyd is a cautionary tale about social media, motherhood, and appearances not being what they seem. Told from three points of view, the story is fast-paced and nuanced. We get an inside look at the world of Instamums, their hangers-on, and what happens behind the little squares of our favorite social platform.

I loved the relationship between Emmy and Dan, the power couple of the story. They love each other, but also they want to pay their bills and achieve greatness. As their priorities conflict, their husband-and-wife relationship becomes more convoluted, ending in a climax that shocks you.

Read People Like Her if you like fast-paced novels that make you question all your expectations of the characters and if you want to see a behind-the-curtain view of social media influencers.

April: The Last Story of Mina Lee

The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim is a beautiful read! Ms. Kim crafted a gorgeous story about family, loss, language, and tragedy. I loved the dual timelines that told the story of Mina Lee and her daughter, Margot. With differences in culture, understanding, and desires, this mother-daughter relationship is complex but realistic, and I felt empathy for both characters.

The book shares the immigrant experience in a vulnerable, often brutal way, while honoring the stories of each character. As her debut novel, Ms. Kim has set the bar high and I can’t wait to read more from her.

Read The Last Story of Mina Lee if you like books about mother-daughter relationships and the complexities of the immigrant experience.

May: The Final Revival of Opal & Nev

I know there have been comparisons to Daisy Jones & the Six, but The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton goes so far beyond a journalism-style review of a 1970s rock group. Ms. Walton addresses racism and bigotry in the U.S., weaving a story that shows that we really haven’t done that far since the 1970s. She illustrates how women’s voices – especially those voices of BIPOC women – were silenced then and now. She brings together music and fashion to demonstrate how art can take so many forms for so many people.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev that spans 40 years but is timely for today. It is a book that is about much more than music and a failed rock band. It’s about the choices each character has made themselves and the demands that society places on them because of their appearances and their backgrounds.

Read The Final Revival of Opal & Nev if you love it when an author combines historical fiction, music, and social justice to craft a great story that sticks with you.

June: Finlay Donovan is Killing It

Different than most of my heavy picks for the first half of 2021, Finlay Donovan is Killing It by Elle Cosimano is a wild romp of a novel that pits a woman who’s life is falling apart against her ex-husband’s fiancé.

This book was funny and fresh with a touch of murder-for-hire thrown in. Finlay is a nuanced protagonist who makes a lot of bad decisions but remains plucky and endearing at the same time. I enjoyed this one at lot more than anticipated, so it was a pleasantly surprising read. My only complaint was I wanted more backstory for Vero, Finlay’s nanny-accountant-accomplice.

Read Finlay Donovan is Killing It if you like protagonists who make bad decisions but keep a deadpan sense of humor about them. Pick it up before the sequel, Finlay Donovan Knocks Em Dead, drops in February 2022!

What’s Next?

I’m wrapping up the last half of 2021 this week and still haven’t found my favorite book for December! Stay tuned for what I choose! Happy reading, friends!

Fairy Tales for the Modern Reader

A Recap of the Amazon Faraway Collection

Did you like fairy tales as a child? I loved them! I fully bought into the Disney universe of princesses and their knights in shining armor when I was a kid. I remember my parents taking me to see Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast, and I loved every minute. I think I loved these movies so much because I was fascinated with the perfect endings – when everything comes together, the prince kisses the girl, and all is well beyond those final credits.

My love for fairy tales isn’t dead, even though I know that a fairy-tale ending is never going to happen. But, I get a lot of enjoyment from reading retellings so I can relive that euphoric feeling and also discover the twists that a new author will add to a story. My favorite of all, A Court of Thorns and Roses, is a series that starts out as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast but morphs into so much more than that. The series is a gorgeous tribute to love and magic and finding yourself. If you haven’t read it yet, please check it out soon!

But ACOTAR isn’t the series I need to talk about today. I added Amazon’s Faraway Collection to my e-reader on a whim, thinking that the short stories would be quick palate cleansers as I plod my way through my backlist of to-be-read books. But, each of these stories caught me off guard for a variety of reasons and they’re lingering in my mind.

The Cleaners by Ken Liu

The Cleaners is a haunting retelling of The Princess and the Pea, a lesser known fairy tale of a very finnicky princess. In Ken Liu’s story, Gui is a professional cleaner who erases memories from objects. Clara seeks out his services while her sister Beatrice wants to remember. This story was unique and interesting.

The Prince and the Troll by Rainbow Rowell

The Prince meets a female troll under a bridge. He brings her Starbucks and falls in love. That’s the gist of Rainbow Rowell’s short story, and while I didn’t love it, I applaud the creativity.

Hazel and Gray by Nic Stone

Hazel and Gray was my favorite story in the Faraway Collection. Nic Stone has crafted a story that stands on its own, full of magic and mystery, while blending in the integral components from the beloved fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. It is a great, quick read that has stuck with me.

The Princess Game by Soman Chainani

What happens when someone starts killing all the It Girls at a prestigious high school and cloaks each murder scene with fairy tale memorabilia? Two cops – one a desk jockey and one a young recruit undercover – must find out in The Princess Game. This was a fun story because of the many fairy tale Easter eggs throughout. With so much murder, it’s not an easy read, but it’s still worth your time.

The Wickeds by Gayle Forman

When three wicked stepmothers make a connection during a spa visit, they decide to take back their power and rebuild their reputations. After all, their stepdaughters – Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel – are really to blame for these mothers’ pain, right? Again, so many Easter eggs in Forman’s story! I loved imagining the other side of the story with this one.

Do you like retellings? The five short stories were each unique and fun to read and good to break up my long reads for the winter.

A Beautiful Reaper at the Gates

A Reaper at the Gates by Sabaa Tahir
A 5-Star Book Review

Warning: Spoilers for those who haven’t read the series!

Reading the third installment of Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes series was like coming home to a very complicated family situation. A Reaper at the Gates is a fantastic read full of fantasy, love, and jinn.

Laia of Serra continues to lead the story as she fights to save her people – the Scholars – and the world. Betrayed by the Nightbringer in Keenan’s form, she must rebuild her trust in others. Being reunited with her brother, Darin, helps give Laia strength, but she feels an urgency in everything and being torn from her true love: Elias doesn’t help our young protagonist. As Tahir continues Laia’s journey, we meet the somewhat-trustworthy magical character Musa, and we know that much more will happen to Laia before the end of this third book.

As Laia continues her fight, Elias is still amongst the ghosts and jinn in the Waiting Place. He has his own battles as he negotiates his role as the Soul Catcher; he questions his decision to barter with Shaeva and doubts his ability to give everything to Mauth, the source of all fey powers. Elias continues to show his strength as a Mask, despite his internal pain and his deep love for Laia.

And then there is the Blood Shrike. She has suffered unimaginable loss, having been witness to the execution of her father, mother, and sister. Now her only goal is to protect her other sister, Livia, who the Emperor Marcus has claimed as his wife. The Blood Shrike is no longer Helene of Aquilla in any way. She is a murderer, a commander, and a sister whose mission is to rid the world of Commandant Keris Veturia, the Blood Shrike’s former teacher and the mother of her now-banished best friend Elias.

Sound complex? Yes, A Reaper at the Gates is a complicated world full of betrayals and questioned loyalties elevated by ancient magic and the jinn who are determined to break free from their captivity in the Waiting Place. The Nightbringer, their leader, is bent on retribution against the Scholars and as he seeks their freedom, he is willing to destroy everything that Laia, Elias, and the Blood Shrike have known and loved.

This is a five-star book for me because of the world-building and deep connections that the characters feel. While the complicate plot and twists take some time to get used to, the book is magical, and I found myself rooting for all three of the main characters. I can’t wait to read the final installment, A Sky Beyond the Storm, in January!

Five Stars for Firekeeper’s Daughter

Firekeeper’s Daughter

By Angeline Boulley

A 5⭐️ Book Review

Firekeeper’s Daughter has been on my TBR list since my Book of the Month order this summer. I can’t believe I waited this long to read it!

This book wasn’t what I expected, but I’d heard great reviews. Because of the cover, I thought it would be more of a fantasy read, but you know what happens when you judge a book by its cover, right? Luckily, the real story here was so much better than I expected.

Daunis Fontaine is a dutiful daughter. She balances her life between her hometown and the Ojibwe reservation with respect and honor as she cares for her family and friends. Having opted not to go away for college, she is putting her dreams of studying science to the side in order to help others.

But all isn’t well in her community or with Daunis. Her mother, Grace Fontaine, still grieves for Daunis’s father, Levi Firekeeper Sr., who she was unable to marry when she got pregnant with Daunis because of her age (16) and her parents’ misgivings about Grace being with an Ojibwe man. By the time Grace returned home, Levi had found another woman, who bore him a son, Levi Jr. Despite the familial tensions, Daunis and her half-brother remain close, even after their father’s death.

That is not all. There’s an epidemic of meth in the community, and Daunis loses a loved one in a shocking event because of addiction. That leads her to work with the FBI and on her own mission to find out what’s killing her loved ones. The story weaves together culture and gender roles and social issues in a way that feels simple, but is filled with complexity beneath the surface.

I opted to listen to this book despite having a beautiful copy on my shelf. While I will say I felt like it was a little long in parts, every chapter contributed to the story. I rooted for Daunis and felt such satisfaction – and sadness – in the end. This is a well-deserved 5-star book for me!

A Winning Hand Against the Ace of Spades

Ace of Spades

By Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

A 5⭐️ Book Review

Sometimes a book sits on my TBR for a long time because I know my expectations are so high that I don’t want to ruin them by reading it. Anyone else?

Luckily, Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé exceeded my expectations and more. This book is amazing, and I was shocked to learn that this is the author’s debut novel. It’s smart, socially aware, and engaging, and I’ve continued to think about it since I finished yesterday. All of that equals a great book in my opinion!

Devon and Chiamaka are seniors at Niveus Private Academy. They both have high hopes for their futures, but Aces wants to dash all those dreams to the side. This anonymous bully knows their secrets, and isn’t afraid to tell. Devon, a quiet musician who is determined to fulfill his mother’s wishes of going to college, and Chiamaka, an overachieving It Girl who considers popularity as important as her college applications, are desperate to confront Aces, so these polar opposites join together to bring the masked texter down.

This book has been marketed as Gossip Girl meets Get Out, and I can see the parallels in so much of the plot. With race, sexuality, social status, and money factoring into all parts of this story, Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé created a world where you don’t know who to trust or what to believe, and then she brought it all home to an incredibly satisfying ending.

I listened to this one on audiobook but am glad have the lovely hardcover to add to my collection. Isn’t the cover great? The audio was amazing, and I would love to see Devon and Chiamaka’s story brought to screen.

P.S. If you read this one, be sure to read the Author’s Note at the end. It’s fantastic!

Found Family in The People We Keep

The People We Keep by Allison Larkin

A 5⭐️ Book Review

So many people recommended The People We Keep by Allison Larkin, and I’m mad that I took so long to pick it up. This book is so good!

Teenage April is lost, physically and emotionally abandoned by her parents, adrift in her relationships with boys, and desperate to use her music to make a statement. As she tries to escape from her past and from her mistakes, she meets a collection of characters who teach her about the world – some lessons are good, and some not so good. But what she finds along the way adds to her strong sense of survival.

I can’t give away too many details except that this is a love story of friendship and found family, and an amazing one at that. I loved the nuanced characters, how they drive the plot to this story, and the outcome is so satisfying without being at all saccharine. Ms. Larkin has written a winner with The People We Keep!

Another Five-Star Read from Chandler Baker

The Husbands by Chandler Baker

A 5⭐️ Book Review

I love a good neighborhood storyline. In a perfectly luxurious enclave of suburban households, there’s always something amiss. Add a few devious housewives, and I’m hooked.

That’s probably why I flew through The Husbands by Chandler Baker. This is my second book by Ms. Baker, as I read and loved Whisper Network a few years ago.

Nora isn’t a particularly likable protagonist. She’s a bit needy and has somewhat of a victim mentality, but those flaws are realistic and are valuable to the plot. She clearly loves her husband Hayden, but she resents that he is rarely an active participant in their daily family life. When she and Hayden take a trip to see a potential new house in the idyllic Dynasty Ranch subdivision, Nora sets her sights not just on the perfect new upgrade to their living conditions, but also an upgrade to their marriage.

“Every home in Dynasty Ranch has neat lawns. Every home is sixty-three feet apart. Every home is a model home, perfect, a promise of domestic bliss. The American Dream. The white picket fence.”

The perfect model homes come with a price tag, but be that Nora thinks she’s willing to pay, but as she digs deeper into the lives of her newfound friends – The Real Housewives of Dynasty Ranch – she discovers that what she thought she’d be paying is so much more.

The Husbands is Stepford Wives turned on it’s head, with husbands who willingly bare the same amount of household duties as their overworked wives; with husbands who remember kids’ play dates, lunch money, and class parties; with husbands who revere their wives and welcome you into their homes with fresh-pressed juice and five-course meals. But is that the husband Nora really wants?

I loved this book! It hits all the high points of a domestic thriller with complex relationships, seemingly idyllic lifestyles, and a battle for control. It’s a slow burn novel, one that immersed me into Nora’s life. On the heels of her brilliant Whisper Network, Chandler Baker has written another twisty novel that pits expectations against reality, friend against friend, and women against men.

Good Reading with Illicit Intent

Illicit Intent

By Debbie Baldwin

A 5-Star Book Review

I love stories and movies in which seemingly unconnected storylines and characters come together over the course of the main plot. It’s so satisfying when the connections become apparent. That’s why I enjoyed Illicit Intent by Debbie Baldwin so much, in addition to the amazing chemistry between her characters, particularly Miller “Tox” Buchanan and Calliope Garland.

This installment of the Bishop Security series weaves together a grand art heist, a financier’s wrongdoings, and a lot of steam between Tox and Calliope. I really enjoyed the characters and their rapport, as well as the interactions between Tox and his brothers of Bishop Security. The plot and subplots art fast-paced and intricate, making for a great read!

Thank you to Debbie Baldwin for my gifted copy of Illicit Intent and the other books in her series: False Front and Buried Beneath. I can’t wait to read them!

And as a bonus? My Fire Pet and Fantasy candles from Serpent and Flame add just the right amount of color-coordinated glitter to this post! Fire Pet is a blend of saffron, ginger, amber and a dash of lemon with warm, spicy and citrus notes while Fantasy is sweet and earthy blend of red currant, sandalwood and citrus. I love them!

That Disappointing Summer

That Summer

By Jennifer Weiner

A 3-⭐️ Review

I’ve tried to write this post without spoilers, but there is a significant plot point that I must include.

I feel like I missed the content warnings that should go alongside That Summer by Jennifer Weiner. This book was a real struggle to read because of its focus on rape, the aftermath of trauma, and the #metoo movement. I was taken aback when I continued to read this one, like, “How did I miss that this one is about rape?”

As you can see from the photo, I’m a big fan of Weiner, but this one missed the mark. I miss the books of Weiner’s previous years: Good in Bed, Little Earthquakes, Who Do You Love, and others.

I am a survivor of sexual assault, and Diana’s story did resonate in parts. But it wasn’t for me. Maybe it’s because I am a survivor, or maybe it’s because I just didn’t connect with the other characters. 

Like all of Weiner’s books, That Summer features interesting characters on a trajectory toward growth. Daisy seemed like a character of convenience, and her daughter Beatrice didn’t play enough of a role; neither did Danny, Daisy’s brother. Everything wrapped up a little too easily, despite Weiner’s vague Coda. It wasn’t without merits, but this one just wasn’t for me.

What book took you by surprise in a good or negative way recently?

Love, Comment, Subscribe – A RomCom for 2021

Love, Comment, Subscribe

By Cathy Yardley

A 5-⭐️ Book Review

What happens when an up-and-coming beauty influencer and a nerdy gamer reconnect from high school to bring fresh content for their YouTube channels? Sparks fly and subscribers love it, that’s what!

Lily Wang – aka EverLily – is hyper-driven and focused on hitting the 6 million subscribers mark on her YouTube channel so she can secure a deal to create her own palette and join the ranks of other popular beauty influencers. She lives and breathes by her rigid content calendar and her Social Blade stats. But her numbers aren’t moving as quickly as she planned and a chance encounter with frenemy Daisy, a Flapper-esque YouTuber with an enviable YT channel, forces Lily to rethink her strategy.

Enter Tobin Bui – aka GoofyBui – whose Lord of the Rings tribute video has just gone viral. Lily and Tobin were part of the Nerd Herd at Ponto Beach High a decade before, and their friends consistently bet on whether the pair would either hook up or throttle each other. Tobin is smart, cute, and funny, but his impulsivity and jokester persona doesn’t vibe with Lily’s carefully curated look. Tobin has his own problems: he’s creatively blocked now that he has to surpass the numbers for his gone-viral video, his parents don’t understand his job, and nothing his agents bring to him feels right.

Lily rarely speaks to Tobin now, but when she’s backed into a corner, she reaches out and pitches a collaboration, six videos across their channels. Will they be able to turn their beauty and gamer personalities into videos that people want to watch? Of course. With a lot of our-of-the-box thinking, compromise, and sexual chemistry.

Love, Comment, Subscribe is a sweet romcom with a ton of heart. Author Cathy Yardley’s book isn’t just about YouTubers finding love. She builds the relationship between Lily and Tobin by crafting internal and external tension for her characters, whether it’s their mutually felt pressure to succeed, or Lily’s desire to finally be popular and not part of the Nerd Herd, or Tobin’s own battle to earn a living at what he loves without compromising his morals. This tension and pressure is what pushed the book to a 5-star rating for me as I could so very much relate to those struggles.

Love, Comment, Subscribe is a 5-star for other reasons, too. Here are a few more things a loved about this book:

  • The diversity of the characters. Lily and Tobin are Asian American protagonists, which is refreshing to see in romcoms, as is the LGBTQIA representation by characters like Asad, Mikki, and Chrysalis.
  • The YouTube/influencer environment. I don’t watch much YouTube unless I’m researching something for work, and I’d be hard-pressed to name any famous beauty influencers. But, I enjoyed reading about what it’s like to be in this sphere.
  • The high school Nerd Herd/popular kids trope. The throwback scenes gave me Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion and Can’t Buy Me Love vibes, both of which are two of my favorite high school movies.
  • Tobin’s arc as a carefree prankster with a heart of gold.
  • The steam between Lily and Tobin. This is a romcom that does it right. There was just the right amount of steam to be realistic for the plot.
  • The cameos by Lily and Tobin’s high school friends. I wanted more of Emily, Josh, and Asad, just to name a few, so I’m thrilled to know that Ms. Yardley is writing a Ponto Beach Reunion series! Gouda Friends will be released in March 2022 and will focus on Josh and Lily’s friend Tam.

Thank you to Cathy Yardley and InkSlingerPR for the opportunity to read and review Love, Comment, Subscribe! Pick up this book today!