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My Best (and Worst) of 2016

My Best (and Worst) of 2016

Happy New Year, everyone! We all made it out of 2016, and that’s an achievement to be proud of in and of itself, right?

I meant to do something like this at the beginning of last year, but I never got around to it. Out of the 55 books I read last year, I chose my favorites (and least-favorites) and put them all in one big post. With the exception of one book, I’ve already done full reviews on everything listed here, so I just tried to offer quick summaries here.


Best Fiction

  • Tam Lin, Pamela Dean

The rest of my picks are listed in no particular order, but this one definitely takes the top spot. Dean’s lyrical prose, her enchanting and authentic little universe, her genuine, three-dimensional characters, the way she interweaves the mundane and the magical and slowly builds up to the big fantasy reveal…it all had me hooked from the beginning. Tam Lin is also as much a loving homage to a four-year liberal arts education as it is a folklore retelling, and as a slightly “homesick” graduate only two years out of college, I loved it all the more for being both.

  • Three Dark Queens, Kendare Blake

This book is, as I said in my recent review, “really something.” Strong world-building, a suspenseful slow-burning plot, and some great characters all add up to a wonderful read.  And unlike in a lot of YA books that are marketed as “dark,” I appreciated that Ms. Blake proved herself willing to “kill her darlings,” as the saying goes. That went a long way towards making my reading experience far more gripping. While some element of Blake’s world and some of her characters need more depth added to them in the sequel, I still ate this one up.

  • House Broken, Sonja Yoerg

I picked this one up for personal reasons thinking it would be a bit light-hearted, but in reality it’s a sobering multi-generational tale that revolves around the consequences of substance abuse and family secrets. The three main female characters–grandmother, mother, and daughter–are well-drawn. They come across as both realistic and sympathetic even at times when they aren’t likable. The revelations contained within the last hundred-fifty pages are difficult to swallow, to say the least, but are nevertheless handled deftly and delicately by the author in an excellently crafted debut.

  • Dark Triumph, Robin LaFevers

By turns dark, funny, and romantic, this book shows up its prequel, Grave Mercy. This book, not that one, is the top-shelf historical fiction about lady-assassins that I wanted to read  when I started the His Fair Assassin series in the first place. The sharp-witted and sharper-tongued heroine, Sybella, is a delightfully active narrator–she gets stuff done–and her story bursts with action and intrigue. Apart from a slightly weak ending, Dark Triumph is intense, entertaining, and sets the trilogy up for a (hopefully!) excellent conclusion.

  • Still Star-Crossed, Melinda Taub

This “sequel” of sorts to Romeo and Juliet boasts a much more engaging plot than the play upon which it’s based. Believably sixteenth-century characters, well-executed Shakespearean-inspired dialogue, and overall solid writing come together to create a unique novel with a lot of charm and humor. Even a few implausible plot twists and a (sigh) love triangle failed to spoil Melinda Taub’s terrific debut for me. I’m still hoping that she’ll put out something new in the next few years.

  • Cleopatra’s Shadows, Emily Holleman

Lush with rich historical details, political intrigue, and wonderfully compelling characters, this novel tells the stories of Berenice and Arsinoe, sisters of the (in)famous Cleopatra VII of Egypt, and of their struggles following the coup that makes Berenice the queen of an increasingly unstable kingdom surrounded threats from all sides. Berenice is fierce but troubled, while Arsinoe begins as a naive child but grows into driven and determined young woman. Shadows is a well-written, well-researched debut for Emily Holleman whose sequel comes out this year–hooray!

  • The Midnight Dress, Karen Foxlee

I never reviewed of this beguiling little book properly. It’s two parts coming-of-age story, one part fantasy, one part murder mystery. It offers poetic language, a breathtaking setting, and sympathetic and somewhat tragic characters. Though I can’t honestly remember the finer details, I remember getting swept away by Foxlee’s lyricism and the magical realism that transforms the plot from merely sad to something truly haunting.

Honorable Mention

  • A Court of Thorns and Roses, Sarah J. Maas

The heroine, Feyre, sort of annoyed me, and the first two hundred pages dragged a bit, but Sarah J. Maas nevertheless creates a fascinating–and unexpectedly ferocious and dangerous–fantasy world in ACOTAR, one which is populated by some truly memorable characters and creatures. It doesn’t hurt that she’s a really excellent writer, either.

Dark Horse

  • Mafia Girl, Deborah Blumenthal

Call it a guilty pleasure, but I loved the titular heroine, Gia, the teenage daughter of an mafia boss who really just wants a “normal” life. She has a very distinct voice and a great sense of humor, and though I can’t exactly rave about this book’s great prose or plot, I will say that there’s more to it than meets the eye. It may have melodramatic and even silly moments, but the story nevertheless tackles some realistic and heavy issues with more grace than one would expect.

Best Non-Fiction (History)

  • The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives

Sometimes Ives’ meticulously-researched book is referred to as the “Anne Boleyn bible” and for good reason. It’s chock-full of as many details as can be known about the fascinating and still somewhat enigmatic woman that Ives calls the most influential queen consort in English history. It also encourages readers to reconsider things they think they know, such as the true cause(s) of Anne’s fall and ultimate execution. If you have anything more than a passing interest in the second wife of Henry VIII, this one is an absolute must-read.

  • Good Wives, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

While this one is very much a “niche” book–it deals with a very specific group of people, time, and place, and ones that I happen to be interested in–it’s nevertheless fascinating, insightful, and surprisingly readable for an academic work. Like Ives, Ms. Ulrich challenges readers’ preconceived notions about the roles of women in colonial New England, then offered plenty of evidence that they had far more agency and influence than most people can imagine.

  • First Family: Abigail and John Adams, Joseph J. Ellis

Oh, look, it’s another book about colonial America. What a surprise! I already loved the Adams family, and I think that anyone else who–again–has more than a passing interest in them will enjoy Ellis’ examination of John and Abigail and their marriage, even if there’s not much new or unknown here. The pacing of the book is a little off–first it’s rushed, then it drags–but the touching two centuries-old love story at its heart still won me over, though, as I’m sure it would most people.

And just for fun…

Best Covers

  1. This cover is so much lovelier in-person. Really just beautiful!
  2. There are several “starry” covers on my list, but for some reason I liked this one the best.
  3. Closely followed by this one.
  4. Original artwork is cool.
  5. I love the delicate, feminine, vulnerable look of this cover, all of which (in theory) reflects the plot of the book itself.

Honorable Mention:


Worst Fiction

  • The Boleyn King, Laura Andersen

What a total waste this was. It was one of the only books I “DNF’d” last year. The premise is great: what would have happened if Anne Boleyn had given birth to a son and had never been executed, therefore reducing Henry VIII’s number of wives to an unremarkable two? But the writing is juvenile at best, clumsy at worst; the characters, both real and imagined, are simply awful (Anne Boleyn is portrayed as a shrill, short-tempered egomaniac, surprise…); the plot centers around a ridiculous love triangle, and there are so many anachronisms and unbelievable conversations that I had to give up a hundred or so pages in. Really, really bad.

  • Blackhearts, Nicole Castroman

More trash historical fiction! This one reads like a poorly-written, melodramatic high school TV show. It’s dressed up with some very vague (“floppy hat,” “powdered wig,” etc.) historical details, but those can’t hide the forced teen angst at its core. Oh, and it’s marketed as being about a young Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard–the infamous pirate–even though almost nothing (much less any pirating) actually happens. I didn’t care about a single one of the characters; they’re all arrogant, selfish, and spineless. To make matters worse, the writing itself is choppy and bland, and the author herself comes off badly in her (inaccurate) author’s note at the end. Suffice to say, the whole experience of reading this ] left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

  • Hold Me Like a Breath, Tiffany Schmidt

This was the first book I read last year, and it was such a let-down. Despite its crime-family marketing, it has nothing to offer besides a dull, meandering plot led by a remarkably inactive, clueless, whiny “heroine,” as well as a love triangle about as interesting as plain toast. Even if it was doomed to fail as an organized crime story, I felt that it should’ve at least had something worthwhile to say about disabilties, given that the MC has a rare debilitating blood disease. But no; she walks around feeling sorry for herself and crying, and that’s about it. What little plot there is relies on unbelievable coincidences to work, meaning I spent a lot of time rolling my eyes. It is, overall, a very weak, very boring novel.

  • The Darkest Evening of the Year, Dean Koontz

A less-than-thrilling thriller full of underdeveloped Very Good characters with haunted pasts pitted against over-the-top Very Bad ones. Also dogs…a lot of dogs. The plot is contrived and, again, relies on a bunch of coincidences to work at all. The back cover declares that it’s “The Silence of the Lambs meets Marley & Me,” but that’s total hogwash. Silence is legendary. Meanwhile, I can’t recall the name of a single character from this bloated and uninspired book.

  • The Star-Touched Queen, Roshani Chokshi

Purple prose does not a good fantasy novel make (in fact, sometimes it gets in the way of actually telling a story). Despite the interesting premise and beautiful writing, the actual world-building and plot are paper-thin and often confusing, which is a real shame, because Indian and Hindu mythology are so fascinating. A retelling based on those ideas, set in that culture, should be something special. But here, all the characters and the heroine in particular are forgettable. The romance falls flat as well, which makes it difficult to buy into the rest. The second half is so chock-full of rushed, underdeveloped backstory that I completely lost track of what was going on. Fortunately, though, the one character who did interest me is getting a stand-alone novel of her own. I’m hoping that Chokshi’s hot mess of a debut is just a fluke and that her genuine talent will make the companion to this book a pleasure to read instead of a chore.

Most Disappointing

  • Blood of My Blood, Barry Lyga

I loved I Hunt Killers, the first book in the Jasper Dent trilogy. It was original, well-written, and just plain interesting. But I found its sequel, Game, pretty lacking. Nevertheless, I still hoped that the final book would recapture all the good things about the first. Alas, ’twas not to be. Blood of My Blood isn’t bad. It’s just not what I wanted it to be. None of the characters do much growing or learning (except learning a few twisted secrets from Jasper’s past), and much of the book comes off as repetitive and difficult to believe for various reasons (most of them quite unpleasant). It left me wanting something more–or something else–and questioning whether or not this series should’ve been a series at all. Maybe one solid book would’ve served the story and its characters better.

  • The Wrath and the Dawn, Renee Ahdieh

“You were supposed to be this Colossus! You were this great, legendary thing!”

Since everyone and their brother seems to be head-over-heels in love with this book, I was excited to read it myself. Though it never hooked me, I kept thinking that somehow, somewhere along the way it would surely improve. It never did. An unappealing heroine, a bad case of instalove, and the nearly total lack of a plot really did this one in for me. Ms. Ahdieh’s language is pretty enough, but it’s also overly descriptive and flowery over the time, as if it’s trying to mask the book’s myriad flaws. There’s not much world-building or character development to supplement the bare-bones plot, either. To top it off, the already-unconvincing romance gets needlessly complicated by love triangle, and it all ends on a cliffhanger just as the glacial pace finally picks up towards the end of the book. Honestly, though, I should’ve known better than to fall for the hype in the first place.

Well–here’s to more hits and fewer misses in 2017!

Review: When the Sea is Rising Red

Review: When the Sea is Rising Red

Title: When the Sea is Rising Red
Author: Cat Hellisen
Published: 2012
Length: 296 pages

My star rating:  ★ ★ ★ ★

[14/15 14 novels in November]

Highborn sixteen-year-old Felicita begins questioning everything about her life after her dearest friend, Ilven, jumps off a cliff to escape from an arranged marriage. When her cruel, dictatorial brother arranges a match for her as well, she stages her own suicide and escapes into the city, though doing so means giving up not only the comforts of her privileged life but also her ability to perform magic. She takes the name of her servant girl, Firell, and soon gets caught up in the noisy and sometimes nasty world of Pelimburg. As she tries to find her place there, tragedy strikes the city, and she soon realizes that she may be in over her head.

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Review: The Spanish Queen

Review: The Spanish Queen

Title: The Spanish Queen: A Novel of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon
Author: Carolly Erickson
Published: 2013
Length: 276 pages

My star rating: ★ ★

[13/15 novels in November]

When Infanta Catalina of Spain is sent to England to marry Arthur, the Prince of Wales, she is confident that a great destiny awaits her as the future Queen of England. But Arthur dies just months after the wedding, and Catalina—now Catherine—spends seven long, uncertain years waiting to see what will become of her. As soon as her father-in-law dies, her handsome young brother-in-law, Henry, becomes king and chooses to marry the Spanish beauty himself. So begins a tumultuous and tragic marriage that will change the course of English history.

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Reflections: Twilight

Reflections: Twilight

Go ahead and do a double take.

Twilight has gotten a terrible rap over the past five years or so. Some backlash was probably inevitable, given its level of popularity, but when you examine the severity of the backlash objectively, it’s sort of stunning. This book has become the go-to example of terrible fiction, YA or otherwise. The mere word Twilight has become a joke.

But especially after watching Twin Peaks last summer, I found myself remembering the Twilight aesthetic (if nothing else) with fondness. This was a story with a great deal of potential. Vampires are an old favorite, and the Pacific Northwest has great atmosphere for that sort of story—just ask David Lynch!

Please understand that this is not to say that Stephenie Meyer’s books lived up to their potential. They did not, as most people would admit. But I was willing to give the first novel a reread for nostalgia (I read—or rather listened toTwilight before it became a smash hit, and enjoyed it as somewhat interesting bubblegum vampire story)…and to answer a few questions.

Since I seriously began reviewing books, I have been guilty of comparing bland, annoying, or unlikable female characters to Bella Swan. Several YA novels I read over the past year made me extremely angry for being blatant Twilight ripoffs; wasn’t one bad enough?!

And so I asked myself, when I checked out the book again: is Bella Swan as much of a Mary Sue as everyone says she is? Is Meyer’s writing as juvenile as everyone claims? Is the book itself as embarrassingly bad as is now common wisdom?

Let’s find out.

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Reflections: The Silence of the Lambs

Reflections: The Silence of the Lambs

I just finished rereading The Silence of the Lambs, one of my all-time favorites, and wrote a few things–not a review exactly–that I guess I’ll go ahead and post here.

After two or three years, without a memory like Hannibal’s, I had forgotten some of the details and nuances that make Silence of the Lambs such a masterpiece.

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