Top Ten Cover Freebie!

Hey everyone! This week, I had to pretend I had a good idea for this topic. Actually, I immediately thought of what I said two weeks ago: I would probably have an easier time finding 10 books with blood on the covers than 10 books with food on the cover.

Challenge accepted.

(…Is that a weird thing to say when I issued that challenge? To myself?)

Anyway, I feel like we’re all trying to gear up for Halloween anyway (my fall decorations are already up!) so I think this fits with the season and…and not some weird fascination of mine…that happens to be totally ironic because I freak out at the sight of real blood…

Top Ten Covers With Blood On Them

1. Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan

Wicked Saints (Something Dark and Holy, #1)

2. Red Hood by Elana K. Arnold

Red Hood

3. Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Stepsister

4. Red Queen (Red Queen, #1) by Victoria Aveyard

Red Queen (Red Queen, #1)

5. Half Bad by Sally Green

Half Bad (The Half Bad Trilogy, #1)

6. Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Anna Dressed in Blood (Anna, #1)

7. Frostblood by Elly Blake

Frostblood (Frostblood Saga, #1)

8. Ripper by Stefan Petrucha

Ripper

9. Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

Dorothy Must Die (Dorothy Must Die, #1)

10. Every Other Day by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Every Other Day

Conclusions: Yes, this was way easier to make than the food list! I can’t even tell you. …That sounds like a weird thing to admit, given the topic of this list…

The Difference Between a Good and a GREAT Fantasy Novel

Ok, everyone, I’ve been intending to write recently about what I perceive as the sudden influx of YA fantasy (or is it just me??) when I FINALLY CRACKED THE CODE.

Of course, I ended up figuring this out in the process of a Shower Thought, which really makes me want to roll my eyes, but whatever. I’ll get to that. Let’s start with the initial point, though.

The Current Rise of YA Fantasy

Again, this could just be my perception alone, but I feel like fantasy is becoming the go-to more and more often for those big releases. I don’t know if this is a side effect of the clear popularity of Sarah J. Maas or what, but I have noticed a definite uptick in fantasy.

When I go to the YA Novels of 2020 list on Goodreads (an awesome list if you’re looking for any new books that came out this year), it’s easy to pick out the fantasy novels. They’re frequent, like:

  • At #1: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (Hunger Games, #0) by Suzanne Collins [I know it’s dystopia, but it’s not our world, so I’m counting it.]
  • At #4: A Sky Beyond the Storm (An Ember in the Ashes, #4) by Sabaa Tahir
  • At #5: Imagine Me (Shatter Me, #6) by Tahereh Mafi
  • At #6: All the Stars and Teeth (All the Stars and Teeth, #1) by Adalyn Grace
  • At #7: A Heart So Fierce and Broken (Cursebreakers, #2) by Brigid Kemmerer
  • At #9: Blood & Honey (Serpent & Dove, #2) by Shelby Mahurin
  • At #10: The Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller

And that’s just the top ten. Even if you exclude my Hunger Games selection, that’s still over half of them. Literally, the only two at the top that weren’t fantasy were The Hand on the Wall by Maureen Johnson and One of Us is Next by Karen M. McManus.

Now, granted, this list is generated by people voting on which books they are most looking forward to, which is why the majority of those books are A) in a series and B) later in the series. But I think it also proves my point: there is a demand for YA Fantasy and the publishers know it. I mean, two of those I listed are series that were finished (Shatter Me and Hunger Games) but have recently come back.

And I know the publishing world doesn’t move this fast, but a lot of us are looking for escapism right now due to the pandemic, politics, and the general dumpster fire that is 2020. Fantasies fill that void because it just allows us to remove ourselves from what is familiar. (I have found myself reading contemporary stories and being like, “How are you going to the movies when the theaters are closed?” or something similar.)

Fantasies are also usually pretty exciting. They’re dangerous and adventurous and action-packed. The stakes are high and the books are generally hard to put down. This also heightens the escapism elements because it becomes all-encompassing as we read them. I know this is why I read as much fantasy as I do.

But as I have mentioned in many of my reviews of fantasies, I often struggle to get into the stories and I’VE FINALLY CRACKED THE CODE.

Good vs. GREAT Fantasy Novels

Ok, so to help prove my hypothesis, I’m going to give you four fantasy novels that I’m going to talk about (spoiler-free) to explain my thoughts. Those novels are:

  • A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
  • Night Spinner by Addie Thorley
  • Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan
  • An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Now, two of these books I was absolutely over the moon about (ACOTAR and Night Spinner), one I thought had merits but I struggled with (Wicked Saints), and one I’m reading at the time I’m writing this (An Ember in the Ashes).

My hypothesis as to what makes a great fantasy novel is this: a great fantasy novel allows you to get to know the main character and the world at the same time, acclimating to both before the action truly starts. That way, you have an easier time buying into what’s happening.

ACOTAR and Night Spinner pull this off. Wicked Saints and Ember do not.

When ACOTAR starts, we meet Feyre and see her walking through the village. She tells us about the type of people who live there, how poor her family is, her family dynamics, and the dangers of the fey early on. We learn about her character and discover that she enjoys painting and that she’s got a casual relationship going with a local boy. All of this before the real “action” starts. Therefore, we have a fairly thorough understanding of the world and Feyre’s loyalty and heart before the wolf shows up on her doorstep.

Night Spinner begins with Enebish sneaking out of the monastery to enjoy the night air and lament her current fate. We begin to understand her night spinner powers and why she’s so tormented by guilt and exiled to this (quite terrible) monastery. We also meet her best friend before she ever makes the deal to try to gain her freedom.

Both of those stories hooked me from the very beginning because I was able to connect with the main characters. By the time the action started, I was able to understand the stakes and begin to predict how the characters would react. Like when the wolf shows up at Feyre’s door, I already knew she’d be selfless enough to do anything to protect her family. If we had started the story at that moment instead, I wouldn’t have the same understanding of the world or Feyre’s character and I would have been learning as the story went along.

That’s exactly the problem with the other two stories, along with the multiple narrators.

Wicked Saints begins with Nadya peeling potatoes when she hears cannons and realizes the monastery is under attack. We jump almost immediately into this battle, where people who are important to Nadya are dying or sacrificing themselves to help her escape. And as exciting as it is, it didn’t draw me into the story for long because I didn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t understand why Nadya was important or why anyone was even bothering to attack this monastery. By jumping right into the action, I spent the next 50-100 pages trying to figure all of this out. It does not help that there is another narrator in this story as well, which means I’m now trying to figure out two characters of two different cultures in the same world.

I’m running into the same problem with An Ember in the Ashes. Two narrators of vastly different cultures in the same world. A story that immediately starts with the conflict rather than allowing us some understanding before we get there. In this case, we start with Laia listening as her brother sneaks back into the house during the night when they realize soldiers are arriving to raid their house. People die and Laia goes on the run. Those deaths meant nothing to me because I didn’t understand the characters yet. There were no stakes for this because again, I didn’t understand the world.

I understand why stories do this. It’s more fun to start with the action. But in the long run, I think it makes it that much harder to really get into the story. I know that’s what I tend to struggle with. If I can understand the characters from the beginning, I will devour that book in as few sitting as possible. It’s just good writing to be able to juggle the character- and world-building at the same time. I wish more writers (or editors? Publishers?) understood this and pushed for it.

Granted, this is not the end-all-be-all. A book can start strong and then suck. It can start with action and still be amazing. But I just realized there was a pattern between the books I raved over and the ones I was struggling with. And it’s really, truly as simple as did we get to know the characters and the world before the action starts?

Is this something you’ve noticed as well? Does this hold true for you as well? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear what you think of my theory!

Top Ten Books I Wish Existed When I Was Younger

Hey everyone! Ok, so this week’s theme is “Books For My Younger Self” and it’s a little vague as to what can fit in that theme. And (as usual), I don’t get warm fuzzies from that them. Or, well, it’s not so much “warm fuzzies” as it is “inspiration.” Same idea, though.

So I started thinking how I could twist it. There have been so many books I’ve read in my 20s that I wish I existed when I was in my teens to show me a different side of the world, in some way or another. I was an introverted kid who learned about life through books and I think YA back in the 2000s (the decade…God…) weren’t always the best at explaining real life (vampires, y’all). Not that there aren’t fantastic books from that time (there ARE), but I’ve been heavily influenced by so many books since that I wish I’d had as a teen.

Let’s get to it!

Top Ten Books I Wish Existed When I Was Younger

1. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

By and far, this is the book 16-17 year old me needed. Cath and I were the same person. I wrote (kind of bad) fanfiction and kept to myself a lot. I kind of wish that teenage me could read this and just know that being quiet and doing her own thing was a perfectly acceptable way to spend her time instead of worrying about being liked by people who couldn’t even both to remember my name.

2. The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler

On a similar note, this book is about losing your voice, both figuratively and literally. I love the nuance of that. But teenage me, who frequently felt like no one was listening to her, would have benefited from seeing how the characters overcame their adversity.

3. Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

This one has no deeper meaning here. Teenage me was obsessed with mysteries and trying to figure out the endings before they happened and she would have loved this series.

4. Breath Like Water by Anna Jarzab

Ok, now we’re back to the seriousness. I like this book for my teenage self for two reasons: one is just admiring the dedication that people have for the things that they love. I didn’t know too many people who committed themselves that much to something and maybe it would have helped me in some way. The other reason is that the book shows how people can be flawed yet lovable. Both of our leads have serious issues (including mental illness) that they deal with and yet we still care for them deeply. I wish past me could see that and understand that no one is perfect. Heck, present me still needs to learn that.

5. Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Besides this being an utterly astounding book, I think past me would learn from its social commentary. I was pretty in-tune to those things as a teen. I was an observer, just absorbing everything I saw around me. I would have immediately been able to apply what I was seeing in the book to the real world. And I would have loved it.

6. Some Boys by Patty Blount

This is a super serious book about rape and surviving it. I never went through anything like that, but I would have related to Grace in other ways. And watching her survive…it would have reminded me of the strength we all have inside.

7. Be Not Far From Me by Mindy McGinnis

Speaking of inner strength, I so wish I’d had the chance to read McGinnis as a teen. This could be any of her books, but I settled on the one I read most recently, about a female hiker lost in the woods. Being set in the same mountains my family has hiked many times would have been really cool for me to read about. I would have liked that.

8. The Afterlife of Holly Chase by Cynthia Hand

This A Christmas Carol retelling would have been catnip to me as a teen. Christmas has always been my favorite holiday and it’s always so hard to find quality stories set during the winter season. Mix that with such a classic story (and a character who shares my first name) and I would have flipped out. It’s already become my tradition to reread this every December.

9. The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

This book changed my life when I first read it in…college, I think? Elise is the kind of heroine that I always feel connected to. She doesn’t believe in herself, but she knows she’s highly intelligent and clever and loyal. She just feels like a pawn. But she has strength she only begins to understand when she’s tested. I more or less just described myself at 17. Factor in that Elise has a complicated relationship with religion and we could nearly be twins. Seeing a fantasy heroine like that, it would have completely shifted my world view.

10. Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

Speaking of shifting my world view, I wish this book was around when I was younger. First of all, the writing is pure poetry and I would immediately have tried to emulate it. I know I would have. But Juliette is a character you don’t soon forget, no matter how long it’s been since you last read the book. I mean, she can’t touch anyone without killing them. She’s fierce and I would have loved that.

In summation, I would have recommended a heck of a lot of books with strong unlikely heroines for Teenage Me. The funny thing is, as I was writing all of these out, I really started questioning what I remember of my teenage years…that maybe I was more like these heroines than I thought.

Yes, I was quiet and reserved and most people couldn’t have picked me out of a lineup as being in their class. I frequently felt forgotten by everyone except the teachers, who constantly used me for an example because I was That Kid, and my best friends.

But I was no pushover. I was quick-witted and clever. I never backed down from an ideological argument. I had a strong sense of justice and would never have done anything that intentionally hurt another person. I always wanted to help others, if that meant being a tutor/mentor or aiding a teacher on their prep period. …I just never saw myself as strong or a leader until someone else took it as granted that that’s exactly what I was.

Wow, this turned maudlin. But truthfully, Teenage Me turned out alright, if I do say so myself.

Wicked Saints (Something Dark and Holy, #1)

First Lines: The calming echo of a holy chant filtered down from the sanctuary and into the cellars. It was late afternoon, just before Vespers, a time where psalms to the gods were given up in an effortless chorus.

I have heard a lot of buzz about this book lately, especially since the sequel just came out. Since this was apparently all that and a bag of potato chips, I decided to check it out and see if the hype was worth it.

Since it’s so sparce, I’m just going to copy in the book jacket: A girl who can speak to gods must save her people without destroying herself. A prince in danger must decide who to trust. A boy with a monstrous secret waits in the wings. Together, they must assassinate the king and stop the war. In a centuries-long war where beauty and brutality meet, their three paths entwine in a shadowy world of spilled blood and mysterious saints, where a forbidden romance threatens to tip the scales between dark and light.

Honestly, the beginning was really slow. Like, it took a looooooong time for me to feel like it was going anywhere. It wasn’t that it was hard to read, though. I often found myself starting to be drawn into the characters, but the story didn’t feel alive until about halfway through. That’s when the real action (or…plot, frankly) started.

The characters in this are complicated. They are delightfully good and bad at the same time. Some more one way than others. But I truly do love that characters are getting more complex in YA writing now. It’s so much more fun to read about.

Like a lot of fantasy novels, it’s hard for me to just jump right into a new world with very little to help me figure out what’s going on. I kind of hate the feeling of being lost until I’m 100 pages in. This was definitely one of those books, where I couldn’t figure out what it meant to be a cleric and why each chapter started by telling me about some alleged martyr and what they were saying half the time that was clearly in a different language. (Oh, and figuring out how to pronounce some of these names was a real puzzle. Everything looks like some kind of mix of Polish/Russian/Hungarian.)

It’s a pretty decent story that definitely has a lot of twists as you really get going, but I thought the beginning was just not exciting in the least. It’s a strong premise, though, and I think it could definitely go places in that sequel. I’m willing to try it. But I don’t think I’d say this is worth all the hype.

Top Ten Delicious Covers

Hey everyone! So today’s topic is like “books that make me hungry” and I just feel like that’s an awkward wording? Maybe that’s just me. Hunger is not normally a feeling I associate with books. Unless you count my insatiable hunger for more books to read, but that’s not connected to my stomach.

ANYWAY, I decided to focus on yummy looking covers specifically rather than books about restaurants or anything. Unfortunately, I seem to have a very specific type of book that I read, so this was incredibly challenging. Like, I could do a list twice over of people with blood on them on the cover. I could do a list of covers that include a guitar. But apparently I just don’t read books with food on the cover very often.

As a special treat to you, each of these is also accompanied by my increasingly desperate thoughts as I created this list. Enjoy. Er…bon appetit?

Top Ten Delicious Covers

1. The Sweetest Thing by Christina Mandelski

The Sweetest Thing by Christina Mandelski
(Cool, I got this. I knew this one was going to make it.)

2. Save the Date by Morgan Matson

Amazon.com: Save the Date (9781481404570): Matson, Morgan: Books
(Yikes, this is harder than I thought. Eh, this has a cake on it. That counts, right?)

3. Delicious by Shayla Black

Delicious (Wicked Lovers, #3) by Shayla Black
(Hehe, this is called Delicious and that’s what this list is about…)

4. Hot Cocoa Hearts by Suzanne Nelson

Hot Cocoa Hearts: A Wish Novel: Nelson, Suzanne: 9780545928892: Amazon.com:  Books
(Oh good, a legit entry on this list.)

5. Bittersweet by Sarah Ockler

Bittersweet by Sarah Ockler
(A possibly uncooked cookie counts as delicious, right?)

6. Devilish by Maureen Johnson

Devilish by Maureen Johnson
(Oh my God, I’ve made it to the books I read in high school and I’m only at 6…but this is a good looking cupcake if you ignore the girl…)

7. The Espressologist by Kristina Springer

The Espressologist by Kristina Springer
(I don’t even drink coffee, but we’re going with this. I’m running out of options.)

8. Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr
(OMG, there was a second food book that wasn’t hundreds of books away from the last one!)

9. Coffeehouse Angel by Suzanne Selfors

Coffeehouse Angel: Selfors, Suzanne: Amazon.com: Books
(Again, don’t even care that I don’t drink coffee. I have 90 more books to look through and at this point, I’d rather make a list about blood.)

10. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Twilight (Meyer novel) - Wikipedia
(…This…this is all I’ve got? Yikes. Ok, well, um…it’s a good looking apple? Nice and…red?)

Compare This! Breath Like Water vs. Coming Up For Air

OMG I BROUGHT IT BACK! I have been reading a crazy stupid amount of books lately and, since I’m getting through them so quickly right now, I started noticing similarities between them.

So this is my special “There should have been Olympics this month” edition of Compare This! involving two books about wannabe-Olympic swimmers.

Breath Like Water by Anna Jarzab

VS.

Coming Up For Air by Miranda Kenneally

Breath Like Water by Anna Jarzab

The Pros:

  • The story has a person of color (in this case, Hispanic) lead! The diversity, especially in a sport that seems to be predominantly white, is refreshing and much needed.
  • It shows the darker side of competing — the perfectionism, the lack of social time, the bullying that is supposed to be “motivating”. I liked that it wasn’t afraid to dive deep. (Ha, omg, this probably won’t be the last water pun, sorry.)
  • Every character that we see for more than 2 minutes has a realistic personality and realistic flaws. I mean, I’m not sure there was a two-dimensional character in the whole novel. Everyone had a side to them that you liked and a side you hated.
  • The romance felt genuine and sweet with its own struggles mixed in. Again, Jarzab is keeping it real here.

The Cons:

  • This book can get dark. Like, really dark. And I think, for certain people, it could trigger something. I was not expecting it to go the places that it did.
  • There’s a good portion of the plot that’s all “Harry [the male love interest] is hiding something from me” and maybe it’s just my age or something, but I was kind of over that. It just seemed drawn out and eye-roll inducing.
Coming Up for Air by Miranda Kenneally

The Pros:

  • This book is funny. It’s awkward and hilarious because of it. Because really, I think most of us can remember a point in our lives where we had no idea what a physical relationship actually entailed.
  • Kenneally knows how to write cute characters that you like from the beginning and just want to continue to follow even after the book ends. It’s not hard to like the protagonists, Maggie and Levi.
  • The dedication and the drive to become Olympians is still here, but it’s a much healthier environment for our characters that Breath Like Water. So it was more fun to read about because everyone seemed to genuinely care about them and look out for their well being.
  • While the tone is much lighter, it still doesn’t shy away from the realities of relationships, especially how each relationship proceeds at its own pace and you shouldn’t judge what works for another couple just because it doesn’t work for you.

The Cons:

  • This is by far one of the raciest books I think Kenneally’s written, but maybe that’s just because I’ve forgotten the plots of some of the others? Anyway, this is probably not the best book to hand your 11-year-old cousin. It’s not…graphic…but it’s certainly more than a little explicit at times.
  • I’m not really a huge fan of the basic premise, which is Maggie wants to “learn to hook up” because that’s all anyone does in college. (Hint: it’s not. Like I said above, all relationship proceed at their own paces and hook ups may not be something you’re comfortable with and that’s fine.) So that just made me feel a little weird.

And the Winner Is… Breath Like Water!

Why? For starters, the writing is just pure genius. Right from the beginning, the writing pulled me in and didn’t let me go. I loved how I was just taken in by this competitive world I only knew of from the very polished view broadcast on the Olympics. The characters are also worth it because they were the most real people I have read about in a long time. Every. Single. Person. Is. Flawed. You can see characters in the story who are bad people trying to make good decisions but can’t get past their own egos. It’s just fascinating. And that goes back to fantastic writing.

Seriously. This was one of the best written books I’ve read all year.