The Testaments by Margaret Atwood ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited (34 years!) sequel to her terrifying and groundbreaking Handmaid’s Tale does not disappoint. Her writing is as deliberate and masterful as ever, and even though I don’t think The Testaments quite reaches the highs or the lows of its near-flawless predecessor, it’s still a great sequel even if it is arguably superfluous. Gilead, the nightmarishly sexist and authoritarian landscape of the duology, feels even more alarmingly possible today than it did when Atwood first introduced it in 1985, making The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments both as scary as they are scarily good, and the former is an absolute must-read.
Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Other than centering on a romantic relationship that probably would have been better had it stayed platonic, Emergency Contact is enjoyable. It’s a pretty standard (good) YA book. The characters are cute, there’s some handling of more serious issues (like anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and unplanned pregnancy) that deepen the story without bogging it down or making it less fun, and the texting is a nice way to present a modern relationship. Mary H.K. Choi has a new book out as of a month or so ago, and while I’m not going to rush out to read it, if I happen upon it at the library at some point in the future, I’ll probably read it.
After I Do by Taylor Jenkins Reid ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
I loved After I Do. It’s a rare take on a love story, but one that I really want to see more often; getting together is not the end of a love story, not even close. Focusing on the part of a partnership after the initial spark has gone out and irritating habits make themselves known allows author Taylor Jenkins Reid to explore ideas of what it means to love someone. Throughout the course of the novel, the characters question the role of romance in their lives and the main character Lauren gets the opportunity to focus on her familial and platonic relationships in a way she couldn’t—or in any case hadn’t—while married, and she gets to rediscover herself as an individual. The writing isn’t spectacular. I could tell that this is one of Reid’s early books, but that did not keep me from thoroughly enjoying the excellent themes, fully developed characters, and realistic but still romantic love story.
Finding Yvonne by Brandy Colbert ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I read Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert a couple of weeks ago and really loved it. When I wrote my review for it, I said that I was going to search out her other work, and now I have. I wasn’t as blown away by Finding Yvonne as I expected to be following Little and Lion, but that’s no slight to Colbert’s writing. A few pacing issues aside, the book is an excellent story about growing up, dwindling passion, friendship, class and more. I wish that Colbert had slowed down a bit at the end, because the story could have used a couple of extra chapters, but the rest of the book is good enough that it hardly matters. A few plot points rubbed me the wrong way, but that has more to do with particular storylines that I historically dislike, which means that people with different hangups likely don’t even know what I’m talking about (but I’m not going to clarify, because they’re all late-act twists and I try to avoid spoilers whenever possible).
Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Wayward Son is a ton of fun. I’m glad that it takes a slow approach to plot and spends most of its page time on characters and relationships. The people reading Wayward Son are here for its heroes, so I’m glad Rainbow Rowell didn’t shortchange their development for plot stuff. From its inception, the Simon Snow series has been a love letter to fandom, and Wayward Son is an official/”real” book that focuses hard on the things most beloved in fandom (specifically: it’s openly queer, focuses on mental health issues, and spends more pages on emotional downtime than dramatic plot stuff). While I wish that there had been more parody, as I loved that element in Carry On, overall I have no complaints about Wayward Son. I flew through it and now I’m ready for book three. There better not be a four-year hiatus this time, because now there is a cliffhanger I need resolved.
Frankly in Love by David Yoon ⭐⭐
I really wish that I could have liked Frankly in Love more than I did. Even though there wasn’t any real evidence suggesting it, I was convinced that this was going to end up being a favorite, and instead it really disappointed me. It’s been a while since I’ve been this disappointed. An unappealing hero, predictable twists, and over-reliance of disgusting descriptions made Frankly in Love a novel I can’t really get behind, even though its depictions of racism and cultural conflicts are complex and fascinating.
Loki: Where Mischief Lies by Mackenzi Lee ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Unfortunately, my primary impression from Loki is that it plays it safe where it should’ve gone way out there. Loki is a character perfectly suited to Mackenzi Lee’s strengths, but instead of playing into those strengths, Lee wrote an origin story that is made of potentially fascinating story blocks fashioned into something entertaining but a little bland. At the very end of the novel, things speed up and improve. It’s awesome. I only wish we could’ve started at that point instead of taking more than two hundred pages to get there. While it’s probably true that I would not have read Loki if a different writer had written it, I think it’s also true that I would’ve liked it more if it didn’t have Mackenzi Lee’s name on it. I brought too many expectations with me. I thought Lee and Loki were a match made in heaven, so I went into the novel assuming that it would be glorious. It’s good. It’s fun. The problem is that I expected it to be spectacular.
The Prom by Saundra Mitchell (with Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin, and Matthew Sklar) ⭐⭐⭐
I have a hard time knowing what to say about The Prom. There are a lot of things about it that are good, but reading it upset me and put me on edge. There’s so much hatred and homophobia in it that it’s hard to see anything else. In truth, I struggle to know who this book is for, because queer readers are likely to be depressed or triggered by the too-real hate and too-easy love, and straight readers have plenty of happy prom stories of their own. The Prom the musical may be a comedy, but I’ll wait to comment on that until there’s a film version to see; The Prom the novel has a few moments of comedy in an onslaught of misery that relaxes only when it’s time for the neat happily-ever-after every YA romance needs. At the end of the day, I think the most honest thing I can say about The Prom is that I expected it to make me happy, and instead it made me sad.
Ghosts of the Shadow Market by Cassandra Clare (with Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson, Kelly Link, and Robin Wasserman) ⭐⭐⭐
I love Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunters, but I don’t like short stories. As a result, my responses to these collections are always a little mixed. I like half the stories in Ghosts of the Shadow Market; the other half struggled to keep my attention. There’s an uneasy mix of fluff and plot here. It would be hard to pitch a collection of short stories in which nothing happens, but honestly I kind of wish that’s what’d happened. Because so many of these stories take place in the past, any reader who has read through Queen of Air and Darkness (so, everyone) knows how everything shakes out. Jem doesn’t die, and he does eventually find Kit Herondale. These facts remove a lot of the tension from may of the earlier stories, and frustrated me at times because it made so much of Ghosts of the Shadow Market recaps of things I already knew. However, when Clare and her cowriters settle in to simply enjoy characters and eras we haven’t seen or haven’t seen in a while (revisiting Raphael was fun, and seeing Jace and the Lightwoods as children is always a treat), Ghosts hits its stride. It’s not the best Shadowhunter book, but it scratches the itch while we wait for the next one.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Leigh Bardugo has quickly become one of my favorite writers. I was absolutely blown away by her spectacular Six of Crows, and I will read anything she ever writes. I was initially upset that she had published this book rather than the sequel to King of Scars, but after reading it my opinion changed. Ninth House is fantastic. It’s terrifying and atmospheric, and Bardugo masterfully mixes fantasy horror with terrors that are all too real. Ninth House is very much about sexist and sexual abuse, which makes for an agitating and occasionally upsetting read, but it is done so well and the mysteries in it are so compelling that Ninth House is overall somehow as enjoyable as it is terrifying.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd) and illustrated by Jim Kay) ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
I’ve read A Monster Calls many times, but no matter how many times I read it I will never stop being blown away by it. It’s a small book, but it packs more emotional wallop than anything else I’ve ever read. I get emotionally invested in books, but I don’t cry. Usually. I have cried while reading A Monster Calls every single time. I can count on one hand the novels that have actually caused tears, and this is one of them. And no, that’s not an exaggeration: Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera, and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness have reduced me to tears. That’s it. This book is devastating in its raw simplicity and beauty. It is both a deeply affecting story in its own right and a powerful catalyst to draw from the reader’s most profound experiences. People who read this book experience their own grief alongside Conor’s. I’ve never read anything else like it and I’ll keep reading it every year or so for no other reason than to experience again how evocative language can be. And I would be remiss not to praise Jim Kay (of illustrated Harry Potter fame) for his gorgeous and unique illustrations.
The Colors of All the Cattle by Alexander McCall Smith ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Alexander McCall Smith’s series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is absolutely delightful. I’ve been reading it for years. They’re the sort of novels that are gentle and repetitive. Somehow the fact that all the books are basically the same is what makes me love them so much. The characters are incredibly charming, and the fact that they’re very set in their ways is part of that charm. The Colors of All the Cattle breaks from the format more than usual. It is not my favorite individual #1LDA novel because it has a very different feel… and not one that, in my opinion, fits the Ladies’ Detective Agency especially comfortably. That said, it’s still quite a lot of fun, and I very much enjoyed reading it.
Circe by Madeline Miller ⭐⭐⭐
Madeline Miller is an excellent writer. In her hands, Circe is so much more than a witch who turns people into pigs, and her story is in some ways a story of simmering rage and the oppressiveness of the patriarchy. Until she uses her powerful magic to change things, Circe is very much at the mercy of the powerful men in her life. Gods and heroes alternately abuse her and overlook her, and it’s immensely satisfying to see her come into her own. It’s particularly interesting that she is transformed from the mythological villainess into someone who is far more complicated than that. She is still arguably a villain, but she is also a hero and a victim and, more than any one of those, a person. Circe is impeccably written, but it didn’t command my attention like Miller’s previous novel did. My issues with it are all personal, though, and this is one of those mileage-may-vary situations. Plotlines centering around solitude and motherhood are unlikely to excite me, and the fact that Circe held my attention as well as it did despite its subject matter is a real testament to Miller’s skill as a writer. Anyone who does like to read about motherhood or who is interested in experiencing the transience of human life through they eyes of an immortal should definitely give Circe a go.
The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Riddle of Ages by Trenton Lee Stewart ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
When I opened this book up and realized that ¾ of the Mysterious Benedict Society are now in their late teens and that there is now a fifth member of the Society, I was deeply skeptical. I love these books, and only recently reread the first one and found to my delight that it holds up especially well even though I’m older and it was published more than a decade ago. There’s always a worry with childhood favorites, because what if they’re not as great as you remember? The Mysterious Benedict Society is, and when I saw how much things had been shaken up for book four, I was afraid. Thankfully, I didn’t need to be. As always, there’s a great combination of cleverness (I don’t know how Stewart comes up with all his riddles and tricky clues) and adventure. Riddle of Ages is a great continuation of what remains one of my favorite series. I hope that the rest of the world is reading The Mysterious Benedict Society and I just coincidentally haven’t noticed it, because otherwise people are really missing out.
I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
I Wish You All the Best is an excellent book. With a deeply human, painfully sympathetic character at its heart and several more filling out the supporting cast, it moves from charming to heartbreaking to silly to bittersweet quickly and relentlessly and somehow manages to address larger issues like toxic relationships, gender identity, and anxiety without missing a beat. I was not sure what to expect from this one, but I was very pleasantly surprised.
These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling ⭐⭐⭐
I liked These Witches Don’t Burn, but I’m surprised by the almost universal enthusiasm it has been met with. Lots of people loved it. I wish I could’ve been one of them. I expected to be. It’s about a teen lesbian witch balancing life and magic! That sounds right up my alley! Unfortunately, I found that the small inconsistencies and lack of specificity kept me from getting particularly invested in either the main plot or the central romance. It’s very possible I would have liked this book more if I’d heard more measured responses to it. I heard nothing but overwhelming enthusiasm, and I expected to join the chorus, and my high expectations were sadly not met.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy
I didn’t write a full review for this one because I don’t want to have spent more time writing about the book than it took to read it. My coworkers all adored this book, which is the Barnes and Noble book of the year. I just don’t get it, I guess. Admittedly I’ve never been much of a visual person, so I sometimes struggle to absorb writing and illustrations equally, but The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse didn’t do it for me, and not just because it fails to use the essential Oxford comma in its title. It’s full of cheesy, arguably empty platitudes. It doesn’t even come up with its own platitudes. It just illustrates them. Plus, and admittedly this is petty, but the text is very difficult to read. I did enjoy the mole’s love of cake, though.
The Trials of Apollo: The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Since Tyrant’s Tomb was just published and I often fall into the trap of not rereading previous books and therefore forgetting everything that was going on, I decided I would go ahead and reread The Trials of Apollo. I love Rick Riordan. I will always love Rick Riordan. His books are fun, clever, snarky, diverse, and filled to the brim with Greek mythology… all things I love. This is the third time I’ve read The Hidden Oracle, and it was just as much fun this time around. As long as Riordan keeps writing, I will keep buying and reading his books. He hasn’t let me down yet, and he’s got a whole shelf to himself on my bookcase!
Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun by Guillermo del Toro and Cornelia Funke ⭐⭐⭐
Not having seen the movie, I have no idea how similar the book and the movie are, although I would guess very because of the very visual element. I do wonder, however, why del Toro and Funke decided to release this novelization in 2019 when the movie is from 2006. It’s an interesting book for sure, but my overall takeaway is “why?” Why make a popular and well-received film into a novel thirteen years later? Why try to turn images so famous that even people who have never seen the film are immediately familiar with them into text descriptions that don’t achieve the same effect? Why shoehorn two plotlines together when they don’t do much to reflect on each other? Why focus so hard on the villain at the expense of all other characters? I liked Pan’s Labyrinth fine. It’s entertaining and imaginative and the writing is good. I didn’t love it, and while it was an easy enough read, I’m not entirely sure I understand for whom it was meant.
The Trials of Apollo: The Dark Prophecy by Rick Riordan ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
The linked review was actually written a year or so ago, the first time I read The Dark Prophecy. I actually enjoyed it much more the second time around. Because I remembered Apollo and company sticking around at the Waystation for almost the whole book, I didn’t read with the expectation that they’d move along at any moment, and as a result I let myself actually care about the new characters. I also enjoyed Apollo’s dynamic with Leo and Calypso more the second time around. I must have been in a somewhat grumpy mood the last time I read it, because I had a lot of unnecessarily harsh criticisms that I’m now side-eying. Sure, Dark Prophecy is not my all-time favorite of Riordan’s books, but it’s still pretty great.
Virtually Yours by Sarvenaz Tash ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
A few minor qualms aside, I really enjoyed Virtually Yours. It has a mature, balanced take on romantic relationships that isn’t always present in stories that revolve around them, and it takes the time to lovingly craft a full cast of diverse characters whose emotional lives are in plain view for the reader to follow. Sarvenaz Tash is a talented writer who keeps her characters sympathetic and likable while holding them accountable for their worst behaviors, which allows for satisfying and believable development that slots perfectly into the central romantic storyline. I don’t read a lot of romances, but if more of them were like Virtually Yours, I would.
Too Much is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Towards Adulthood by Andrew Rannells ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Too Much is Not Enough is an entertaining read. I’ve been a fan of Andrew Rannells for a while, and this memoir is both very different from what I expected and very in-line with what I already knew about him. It’s clever and funny and balances silly anecdotes with serious turmoil while maintaining a witty, self-depreciating tone. While I would’ve enjoyed reading about Rannells’ time with The Book of Mormon or Falsettos or Hamilton, I really enjoyed this “longer, more honest version of [his] bio” that focuses on the mistakes and the failures that eventually—through hard work and perseverance—turned into success.
The Trials of Apollo: The Burning Maze by Rick Riordan ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Another Rick Riordan reread, another fun ride. Riordan is a very consistent writer. If you like one, you’ll like ’em all. I like ’em all. The Burning Maze is interesting because it marks the first significant heroic character death and takes the series to a much darker place than I would’ve expected while still managing to keep things–for the most part–fun. I didn’t sprint through this one quite as quickly as some of the others in the series, possibly because by this point I was reaching reread fatigue, but I still very much enjoyed it and it gave me a much needed reading boost at the end of a low-quantity reading year.
Let it Snow by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle ⭐⭐⭐⭐
This is a cute, romantic story that goes all out for the holiday cheesiness. One story stars a girl named “Jubilee;” she was named after a collector’s Christmas item that her parents collect so passionately that they get arrested while shopping. Another follows a barista as she quests to relocate a teacup pig for her best friend after her selfishness gets it accidentally sold to someone else. The last makes a game of twister and a plate of waffles life-or-death. The book is almost campy in its silliness, and it absolutely works. Christmas stories are supposed to be cheesy and heartwarming. They don’t have to be emotionally complex or thematically nuanced. Actually, they shouldn’t be. Ninety-nine percent of the time I want emotional complexity and thematic nuance, but if I’ve opened up a Christmas romance, I want it to be a simple Christmas romance that leans into–not away from–its own ridiculousness.
The Trials of Apollo: The Tyrant’s Tomb by Rick Riordan ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Rick Riordan’s books are always good, and Tyrant’s Tomb is no exception. As with the book it follows, the stakes have increased and the threat of death is more tangible than it was in the earlier books set in this universe, which contributes to an older, more mature feeling overall. The Greek gods are a morally suspect bunch, and never has that been more on display than in Tyrant’s Tomb, when Apollo’s past sins begin catching up with him with a vengeance. The clash of immature arrogance and humbled culpability inside Apollo makes him a fascinating hero, far different than any other Riordan has penned (despite sharing the classic sarcastic humor Riordan is famous for), and this book—like those it follows—is an excellent continuation of a long series that has aged with its audience. It will probably be another year before the fifth and final book is published, but I already can’t wait.