Best of 2016

2016 shall forever be remembered as the redheaded stepchild that no one wants to acknowledge. I've had this Best Of post rattling around in my head for a few weeks now and felt like on this inauguration day, a day that has me filled with concern and doubt for the next four years, I wanted to take a moment to call attention to those little pockets of extraordinary from 2016. Because sometimes you just need to focus on things that make you happy. And all of these books make me happy. This past year I read 198 books: 89 print, 92 ebooks, and 13 audio. These numbers are staggering and when it came down to pick my favorites, I had so much trouble pairing it down. 

Best Fantasy series


A Darker Shade of Magic & A Gathering of Shadows by Victoria Schwab

This series is killing me in all the best possible ways. Inventive magical worlds, characters I dream about, and razor sharp dialogue that has me rooting for Lila and Kell like nobody's business. I was already fangirling pretty hard after reading these two but meeting the author this summer clinched my eternal love for her writing. Book 3 is coming next month and I am tense.

Best Bookish (Keeper) Romance

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne
I can't even tell you how many times I've reread this charming book already, which is incredibly unusual for me. 3? 4? Lucy and Josh with their mutual love of strawberries have cemented their place on my keeper shelf. Surprising and witty, I can't wait to see what Ms. Thorne creates next.







Best West End Romance

Act Like It by Lucy Parker
This unexpectedly delightful romp of a romance between two London actors pretending to be in a relationship left me smiling for days. Gorgeous writing peppered with quick banter (and the occasional Harry Potter reference) easily made this a standout.







Best Fantasy/Mythological/Action Romance

A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet
After hearing the promising buzz, I purposefully went into this compelling read completely blind and couldn't have been more impressed with the fantastic world building and intricate story. Cat is such a slippery character. Her snark and caginess are endlessly endearing and I inhaled it all in one sitting.







Best Graphic Novels series...okay, it's a tie


Giant Days and Lumberjanes
I'm a newbie to the bright and colorful world of graphic novels but have gotten some wonderful recommendations from friends Chachic and Maggie on what to start. Both of these series are intricately gorgeous and utterly hilarious. Which I wasn't totally expecting but am totally on board with. Giant Days reminds me so much of my own college dorm experiences and Lumberjanes is just a universally engaging story. It's always a struggle between my son and I over who gets to read the latest edition first.

Best Sports/Slow Burn Romance

Kulti by Mariana Zapata
One of the few books that I actually took the time to write a full review of this year still remains one of my favorites. It's got girl power written all over it with the best slow burn romance I've encountered in a while. As a rising soccer star, Sal is the best kind of heroine. Tough yet considerate with a unquenchable drive to be the best. I love her. I love her family. ...and I love Kulti.





Best Lady Mystery
A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas
The first in a new Lady Sherlock series, Sherry Thomas once again managed to surprise and enchant me. Gone is the socially inept male Sherlock; Thomas' creation is feminine and not without her struggles despite her excess of brains. Not only a stunning mystery, it also manages to delve deeply into the expectations and prejudices concerning women. I'm looking forward to more surprises from Ms. Thomas.





Best Nasty Woman in Training Book


Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar

"It's all Girl meets Boy, Girl steals from Boy, seduces Boy, ties Boy to a chair and burns Boy's stuff. Just your typical love story."

This tag is my favorite but deceptively lacking in conveying the rawness of this book. Yet another shattering offering from Australian Kirsty Eagar, its a biting story about women and their unapologetic sexuality in a college setting. I'm thrilled that an American edition is coming soon so that it can get the increased exposure it deserves.


Best Take You By Surprise Book

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta
Maybe I should give this one the best creep up on you and then pummel you with all the feels book. I really should have known better, but I didn't not expect such depth and twisting of emotion when I began Marchetta's latest. Mystery, fantasy, YA...if Marchetta writes it, I'm going to love it.







Best I had no I idea I would love this book so much

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
Giving into peer pressure, I got a Book of the Month membership this year and this was one of the first titles I received. Pitched to me as 'Beauty and the Beast in meth-land,' you know I was gonna be all over that. Alternating POVs deliver an unflinching look at what it means to be a family and the insane road one girl in particular has to take to get there.







Best New Author Discovery

   
Penny Reid
A few months back I one-clicked a free copy of Neanderthal Seeks Human and thoroughly enjoyed the silliness contained. It didn't change my world, but it was an entertaining read and I decided then to watch out for more Penny Reid in the future. Flash forward to a love affair with Love Hacked and then a crash-course introduction to the Winston Brothers series (don't they have THE BEST covers?). I was lucky enough to meet the ever so charming Penny at a signing at The Ripped Bodice and I am a converted fan. Her stories are fresh with unexpectedly intelligent characters with humor to spare. Her books are the ultimate happy-making experience and I thoroughly recommend them all.


Not surprisingly, you'll notice an obvious trend towards female characters who couldn't care less about what people think they should or shouldn't do. Books about women who do things, who speak their mind, and who aren't afraid to rock the boat. Stories about people changing their world and I hope we see a whole lot more of that in 2017.

So what stories and characters did you discover this year? Please share your favorites too!

See Michelle Read's Best Of 2015 2014 2012 2011 2010

Christmas Book Haul

I will get around to my Best Of 2016 post here in a bit, but this Christmas was exceptional in its book-as-presents status. So many new friends made their way to my shelves this year that I just wanted to share.

This was actually a little pre-Christmas treat yo self I got from The Ripped Bodice when I went down for a Penny Reid signing. And if you're wondering -- I adore Penny! She is so warm-hearted and funny and her books just make me smile. Anyways, I saw this little beauty and just knew it had to be mine!
Side note, here is the stairwell leading to the used books section at The Ripped Bodice. I now want to do my entire house like this.

A romance tree! So very festive.

I belong to two different book clubs -- and my online one, The YAckers, does a Sekrit Santa every year and honestly, it's probably the entire reason I joined. Look at the beauties Sandy sent me!!

My other book club meets IRL, which means we we go out to eat and chat about books for a bit then end up laughing at our hilariousness for the rest of the night. Good times. This year we decided to do a book exchange and I gifted the ever enjoyable Trouble is a Friend of Mine and received The True Meaning of Smekday in turn. Turns out the Smekday book is what the movie Home was based on (which the gifter didn't even realize -- she obviously doesn't have young kids) so naturally I  haven't had a change to even start it as my 8 year old has taken it over.

And finally, I've been salivating over this pulpy edition of P&P for awhile now and the hubby really came through this year. There is nothing better than finding Darcy under your Christmas tree. 

That's the goodies that came my way. What was in your holiday haul?

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

I keep going back and forth on this book. Sheer readability? 4 big stars. But once you get down to the nitty-gritty details? 3 stars.

First off, I don't know why I haven't picked up A Court of Thorns and Roses sooner, seeing as it's a Beauty and the Beast retelling set in the Faerie world. HELLO! That stuff's basically crack to me. And there is so much to recommend it as a retelling. Feyre's family for starters. The dynamic between the sisters which at first glance is almost Cinderella-esque in it's genericness, morphs into a complicated relationship as the story develops. So win.

In fact, the entire first third of the book is intriguing, moving along at a good clip with plenty of development. While out hunting, Feyre not only kills a deer for her starving family but also a wolf. As punishment, a beast from the lands of faerie comes and demands a life for a life. Feyre must decide whether to die right then or to leave her family to return with him to the lands of faerie. Smart girl chooses life but what really happens is Feyre is taken and installed in the 'beast's' castle, given everything she wants and the freedom to enjoy it. Wut? That doesn't sound like much of a punishment to me. Therein lies the rub, my friends. Once Feyre is taken to Tamlin's castle, baring a few high points, my interest began to drift.

For starters, while Tamlin does shift into a hideous monster on occasion, HE IS GORGEOUS and not at all remotely a beast. Okay, so he is under an enchantment that forces him to wear a mask but really? Couldn't it have been that he had to remain in beast form all the time because that is what makes the beauty and the beast story so epic-ally insurmountable? But that's a side rant and easily overlooked (I guess).

Then there is the fact that I have this one MAJOR issue with how Maas portrays her faeries -- and without spilling the secret -- all I can say is YOU CAN'T CHANGE SOMETHING LIKE THAT, MS. MAAS! SOME RULES EXIST FOR A REASON. Ahem. So, if you've read the book, you probably know what I mean (if not, ask me and I'll tell you directly). That particular plot twist just didn't work for me. At all.

Note that these drawbacks are nicely balanced by the knife-edge tension between Feyre and Tamlin which was thoroughly enjoyable :)

But then (I don't want to spoil all the fun) the last 1/3 of the book picks up and once again, I was on the edge of my seat. I know some readers had issues with the choices Feyre made to survive and complete her necessary tasks but for someone who loves descriptions about the cruel beauty of the traditional faerie world, I was fully invested. Also, there's Rysand who just stole the show, so there is that.

So a solid escapist read and you can bet I've already got the sequel queued up but it's definitely not going into my top retellings list either. But you know, mileage may vary.

series reading order:
~ A Court of Thorns and Roses
~ A Court of Mist and Fury

Kulti by Mariana Zapata

I've dabbled in a few sports related contemporary novels over the years and while semi-enjoyable, there's never been one to really stick. A fact not exceptionally surprising since I'm not the most athletically gifted person (I was secretly thrilled to be cut from the 10th grade basketball team my brother convinced me to try out for). Maybe it's because I've been watching the Olympics pretty much non-stop for the last two weeks (USA! USA!) and feeling a bit more sporty than usual that I wound up picking Mariana Zapata's Kulti. Not a totally new-to-me author since I'd listened to her more recent The Wall of Winnipeg and Me and while perfectly enjoyable, I wasn't overly impressed. I needed something I could enjoy with half an ear while I was refinishing some furniture, so I started the audiobook. And then around the half-way mark, I gave up and bought the darn ebook because Kulti reached right inside and refused to settle for anything except for my full attention.

Now, let me preface this review by stating that my entire understanding of soccer consists of what I've learned from watching my kid's U-8 soccer games. Never having played myself, I honestly have no clue when it comes to a dribble or a bicycle kick or whatever. And I was perfectly happy to remain in ignorance. But Mariana Zapata made me care. Suddenly I was utterly absorbed in Sal's training regimen, infinitely caught up in her success, sitting there with my heart in my throat with each brutal injury.

Competitive by nature and unapologetic about it, Sal trains harder than anyone else so she can run faster, kick harder, and just in general ball it up as a professional soccer player. She's a freaking work of art. I might just have a teeny crush on her. But, whatever, this girl is gold. Blessed with a solid sense of humor and an even better fan base in her friends and family, I was cheering hard for her from page one. All that finely-honed edge is thrown however when her team's newest assistant coach is named as international soccer star, the Reiner Kulti.

"He's going to be your coach," he squeaked, and I mean really squeaked.
"I know." I laughed that time. "I've gotten like ten emails from people I know asking me to confirm. You're all insane."

Dad simply repeated himself, "He's going to be your coach."

That time, I pinched the bridge of my nose to keep from making a sound. "I'll tell you when the open practice will be so you can meet him."

Then he did it, he crossed the line again. "Sal--Sal, don't tell anyone, but you're my favorite."

Kulti, the German who starred in Sal's teenage fantasies and basically inspired her to take her game to the next level. Now he's her coach and Sal has to figure out how to pick her jaw up off the turf and learn something from this god of soccer. But the silent, brooding Kulti who shows up to her practices is nothing like the explosive star player she remembers, leaving Sal confused and more than a bit angry with the surly German.

Compelling and engaging, I simply could not stop reading Kulti. This book was everything I'd been looking for in a contemporary romance. Funny with sharp dialogue and honest characters. While each famous in their own right, Sal and Kulti are real people who get hurt or tired and who periodically complain when they are pushed into crap situations. Did I mention that Sal is freaking hilarious? I was dying to find out what outrageous thing would she'd do or say next.

I'd been playing with the boys since I was a kid, and they'd missed the memo that said I was a girl seven years younger than them. Apparently, Kulti had too.
"Playing a little rough, aren't you?" I asked as I ran up behind him, trying to block him from getting a clear shot of the goal.

He looked up at me from under his eyelashes. "Are you whining?"

I huffed. Asshole. "No, but if that's how you want to play, then that's how we'll play." Between the people I played with for fun and Harlow, I could take it.

Fast and fierce. Swoon! I couldn't get enough of Sal's supportive soccer-crazy family and the teasing friendship she shared with her teammates. Honestly, I can't think of a book that has made me so proud to be a woman in a long time (Okay, maybe Summer Skin. But before that one, it's been a looong time). Plus, it comes with one of the best sloooooow burn romances I've ever had the pleasure of reading.

So do your self a favor. Pick up Kulti. Block off the evening and cozy up with soccer superstars Sal and Kulti. And then let me know so we can gush about it together.

Signing with Victoria Schwab

I went to Utah a few months ago to visit family and while there found out, thanks to my fabulous YAckers friends, that the incredibly talented Victoria Schwab would be doing a signing at the King's English Bookstore in Salt Lake City to promote her newest YA book, This Savage Song.
Well. This news just made my entire month. 

Thanks to my mom who volunteered to watch my kids, I was able to carpool with the fabulous Holly from The Book Harbinger and we enjoyed catching up on our way up to the event.

Victoria was such an engaging, personable speaker. Instead of giving a prepared speech which she declared would be boring (at least for her lol), she invited audience members to ask questions and proceeded to give extremely in-depth and revealing answers.
She talked about how she plots her novels,
how she develops her characters (she works backwards, if you're curious),
how little star stickers motivate her as a writer(!),
and my personal favorite, when describing This Savage Song..."And then it goes horrifically wrong -- as all my books eventually do."

Simply put, she was amazing and made me love her that much more.

During the signing portion, we even fangirled over Cillian Murphy's cheekbones in Peaky Blinders together. My kind of people.
Sigh. Yet another embarrassing picture of me looking like a ridiculous lunatic while a talented author patiently endures my squeeing. 
Honestly, I am an intelligent adult capable of forming coherent sentences. just not in the presence of rock-star authors it seems.

After regaining my composure, I also got to hang out with my fellow YAckers Holly and Angie. I always love seeing those smart ladies!

Verdict on This Savage Song? Get it. Read it. It will make you feeeeel!

Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee

Curious about Zeroboxer after reading  Fonda Lee's guest post over at Fantasy Cafe for their Women in SF&F Month, I dove right into this debut not realizing I would be thrown into the world of Carr Luka, a young rising star in the futuristic weightless combat sport known as zeroboxing. Which is really just UFC fighters in space! Well, color me happy! Being a MMA fan myself (who isn't these days, really?) and with a sister who competes in the sport, I had no trouble diving right into this charged story.

Instead of the UFC's Octagon, these fighters (can I just call them MMA fighters? they definitely aren't just boxers) go head-to-head in the Cube, a zero gravity, clear cube-shaped arena - each looking for a win by TKO or submission. And Carr Luka DOMINATES! He's a likable guy (none of that typical alphahole fighter stuff, thank goodness) who is conflicted on a variety of levels with his involvement in the sport, but you just know any time he steps into the Cube it's gonna be intense. The descriptions of his fights and the dynamics between the individual fighters were nuanced and highly entertaining. There is even an obvious nod to the UFC's Dana White in the form of Bax Gant, the media-hungry Martian(!!) co-owner of the ZGFA.

Despite some mild pacing problems, I was 100% behind Carr Luka's meteoric rise to stardom as a zeroboxer. The fighter's mentality was spot-on and the Martian-Earth politics terribly fascinating. This reader will absolutely be on the watch for more by Fonda Lee. Genetic engineering, submission fighting, and futurist politics, oh my!

Dark Horse by Michelle Diener

I'm a bit of a glutton when it comes to Sci-Fi. Dangle the possibility of a well-written space opera in front of me and I'm going to bite every. single. time. I do claim a handful of favorites (Linnea Sinclair, Ann Aguirre, Tanya Huff) but new discoveries are too few and far between for my personal liking (or reading habits). A while back I put Michelle Diener's Dark Horse on my WL after reading a recommendation for it at a sci-fi blog that of course I can't remember the name of now. After waiting patiently, it finally went on sale and I snapped it up and settled in with moderately high hopes. Reader, I am happy to report I was totally blown away by this uniquely crafted story!

Rose McKenzie is going to get off this spaceship if it kills her. After being unceremoniously picked up from earth by some particularly nasty aliens (aliens!) and experimented upon, she and fellow prisoner Sazo have bided their time until they finally can take control and flee in a smaller vessel. Her 'rescue' arrives in the form of Captain Dav Jallan and his crew of Grih explorers who are understandably wary of Rose and her many contradictions. But Sazo has definite plans for their previous captors and Rose finds herself caught in the middle of a inter-species conflict where her loyalty is torn between her future and the good of all.

Witty, fast paced and utterly dynamic in scope, Dark Horse was a brilliant read start to finish. Many other winning qualities aside, the characters of Rose and Sazo were complete standouts. Too often in my travels as a sci-fi reader, the human, thrust into an alien society, is naive or at a distinct cultural disadvantage, making her easy prey. Not so with Rose. Due to Sazo's foresight and Rose's natural intelligence, she is right there along with everyone else -- if not two steps ahead. She is loyal and cunning (but without malice) and endearingly brave. But neither is she a warrior; which makes it that much more satisfying to see her outmaneuver these more 'advanced' races. And Sazo is just as multi-faceted; his whirlwind development throughout the book is nothing short of genius.

Here's one of my favorite bits where Rose is trying to explain how she is able to figure out advanced alien technology so quickly (with the added bonus of trying to describe what a book is):


"That your familiarity is because your people have imagined a higher level of advancement, but haven't yet achieved it. Is this true?"

Rose nodded. "We've thought up lots of interesting things. Some of them we may turn into reality, others won't ever see the light of day."

"But how do you disseminate the ideas?"

"Written comms, visual comms."

"But if it isn't reality, what visual comms do you record? How can you record something that is imaginary?"

"People pretend it isn't imaginary, and act the story out. It's a sought-after job on my planet."

Kila made a note, but she seemed completely stunned. "And the written comms?"

"You write something that is like a report, only it's about something that hasn't happened yet."

"A lie?"

"No. A lie is a deliberate falsification. A story openly declares itself as imaginary."

"And why would people spend time reading something that is untrue?"

"Because it's fun. Exciting. When it isn't real, you can enjoy it because people aren't really getting hurt, aren't really in danger, aren't really at rock bottom. If the story writer is good, they'll make you think it is real, even as you know, at the back of your mind, that it isn't."


Exciting indeed. Bring on Dark Deeds, Ms. Diener. I'm properly hooked.

series reading order:
~ Dark Horse
~ Dark Deeds
~ Dark Minds

2015 Best Of

Welcome 2016!! 
I am in serious shock that we've already jumped headlong into a new year. And while I have consistently neglected this blog, I thought I'd do a wrap-up post for 2015. Mostly because I discovered some truly amazing books that I've been dying to gush about. Also, because I'm OCD and like my year all nice and tallied up. 

In 2015 I read a respectable 141 books. And while I continually bemoan ebooks, 53 of those were digital - which goes to show how my reading trends are headed. The rest either came from the library or my personal stash. 

And here goes my best of's for 2015:

 
Best OzYA:
Every Breath, Every Word by Ellie Marney
I'm pretty sure Maggie got me curious about this series on IG and I'll be forever grateful. What if Sherlock Holmes was a brilliant Aussie teenager named Mycroft who runs a criminology blog, and Watson a girl named Rachel Watts, recently moved from the country, who befriends Mycroft at school? In the hands of Ellie Marney, you get MAGIC. I'm still a mess over it all frankly.

*I'd add Every Move to the list too but seeing as I don't live in Aussie-land, I haven't read it yet. YET.




   
Best Brilliant Spy series: 
The Lion Hunters series by Elizabeth E. Wein
As my trusted blogger-friend Chachic affectionately calls him 'Gen-in-Africa,' Telemakos is a force to be reckoned with. His wiliness and loyalty hooked me in The Sunbird but the entire series left me utterly wrecked as it explored politics, family and even the legend of King Arthur. Please, PLEASE EWein! Write more Telemakos!!


Best YA Fantasy Caper:
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

So so soooo good. Featuring Kaz's brilliantly led band of motley outlaws (some even with magical powers) pulling off an unforgettable heist. Lots of unexpected twists and CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT like they just don't make anymore. Plus, it comes in one of the prettiest packages you'll ever find. 





Best YA Mystery:
Trouble is a Friend of Mine by Stephanie Tromly

Yet another unexpectedly good YA debut about a socially misfit yet utterly brilliant teenage Sherlock-type and his unsuspecting straitlaced side kick who get caught up in goofy yet terrifying real life sleuthing. So terribly witty and hmmm...I'm sensing a pattern here.






Best THE FEELS!! Contemporary YA:
I'll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios

I'm not ashamed to admitting that I gulped this one down in one go. Josh and Skylar's dreams of escaping small town CA each take very different forms yet together their rough edges make sense of all the unexplainable tragedies that life manages to throw their way. Their story hit me in all the tenderest spots in the best possible way.





Best I am a Woman, Hear me ROAR! book:
Girl Before a Mirror by Liza Palmer

I don't know how Liza Palmer manages to get better with each new offering but she does. She puts pen to paper to every single reason why women read and what it means to be an unashamed part of a community. There was so much power in her words that I went around for days afterwards with the words 'Just BE' rolling around in my head.





Best Middle Grade you're gonna need a tissue book:
Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

I don't normally go for MG books, but Katherine Applegate is a known quantity with her stellar The One and Only Ivan and after hearing so much about Crenshaw (a little boy facing homelessness and hunger joined by his imaginary GIANT cat) I just couldn't resist. It was profound without becoming overly heavy, but just don't forget the kleenex.





Best "I'm Going to Have to Science the Sh*t of This" book:
The Martian by Andy Weir

Another category of book I don't usually pick up but the premise (and reviews) made me change my mind: an astronaut stranded on Mars with only his formidable brain and wicked sense of humor to help him survive. Surprisingly, the copious math didn't bother me and I was holding my breath along with everyone else to see how he'd make it back home. And I'm happy to report that the movie was just as fabulous as the book. Which wasn't hurt at all by a shirtless Matt Damon.



Best Unexpected May/December Romance:
What I Did for a Duke by Julie Anne Long

NOT a book I would have normally picked up but it wound up stealing my heart nonetheless. SO MANY tropes that I thought I would hate it (the cover! the title! the revenge plot!...) but in actuality it was so very wonderful. Witty, honest, and just all around lovely. Also, the hero may have resembled Richard Armitage in a cravat just a titch...


 


Honorable Mention goes to a series recommend by the delightful YAckers who pushed me towards Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey which I read start-to-finish while on the plane to Switzerland this summer. Unfortunately, said binge reading released a flood of big, ugly tears (why did no one warn me?!) which caused the COMPLETE STRANGER sitting next to me to shove handfuls of those tiny papery napkins at me in alarm. Good times.







So apparently I either enjoy a certain type of book - quirky Sherlock-esque mysteries with twists and unexpected developments or the publishing industry is trending in that direction heavily. Hmmm. Whichever it is, I'll take it because they were all just fantastic. 

How about you? What books made your best of list for the year?