Tag Archives: year in review

2020: A Year In Books

(Previous Year-in-Review posts: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016)

At the end of each year, I like to look back and highlight some one my favorite books of the year. These were selected from books I read in 2020, not necessarily what was first published in 2020. First, the numbers:

This word cloud of my Goodreads shelf names gives a good idea of my usual reading fare
  • Books read this year: 103
  • Did Not Finish: 2% (man, were they dreadful)
  • 3-Star Ratings: 16%
  • 4-Star Ratings: 35%
  • 5-Star Ratings: 49%
  • Number of Audiobooks: 39
  • Pages Read/Listened To: 24,242

(I’ve explained elsewhere why there’s usually no 1-star or 2-star ratings, and why my ratings skew higher.)

That’s enough of that. On to the good stuff! As it turned out my favorite books of the year easily broke down into categories: m/m romance and urban fantasy. Four of my top five m/m romance books/series were set in Australia, and three of those have an asexual/demisexual main character. The latter is a lot easier to explain than the former: I identify as a gray-asexual/demisexual (homoromantic) man, and representation matters. That aside, with the quality of their writing and descriptions of the locales, all of these authors have made a powerful case for visiting Down Under!

My absolute favorite book of the year is one that I recently reviewed here, The Gentle Wolf (Perth Shifters #2), by Pia Foxhall. I urge you to ignore the fact that it’s #2 in the series – it can be read as a standalone. Great worldbuilding and relatable characters (not just the main characters – the entire cast!) elevate a strong story into something really special. Read my full review here.

Continuing on the theme of Australian shifters, Furborn by Isabelle Rowan was a delight. The setting, in the sheep country of Victoria outside of Melbourne, was new to me and the descriptions of the area were fascinating. This is a story of fox shifters slowly being forced into hiding by the encroachment of modern living, and of one fox who befriends a farmer’s son who would rather be anywhere else. It takes its time and allows the relationship between the two to slowly develop, and I found the conclusion wonderfully satisfying.

Moving on to contemporary stories, I enjoyed N. R. Walker’s Upside Down very much. No one writes adorkable like Walker, and it is always quite endearing. Sidney resident Jordan is a lovable goof, but also a complete mess as he tries to reconcile his asexuality with his attraction to Hennessey. I can identify closely with coming to terms of where you fall on the asexual spectrum, and as such this book really spoke to a lot of my experiences. This is a lovely, low-angst story that is well-worth your time. Here is my full review of the book.

Keira Andrews’ Honeymoon for One is an adorable collection of romance tropes – hurt/comfort, friends-to-lovers, and probably a few others – in a single story. Ethan finds his fiancé in bed with another man the night before their wedding, then says to hell with it and goes on their (pre-planned, pre-paid) honeymoon by himself. There are complications, of course, including the fact that Ethan is losing his hearing. I thought this aspect was handled thoughtfully, and really felt for Ethan’s struggles trying to navigate a world where full hearing is taken for granted. The book turns into a bit of a travelogue as the tour bus he had booked travels from Cairns to Sidney, all while Ethan and Clay, the tour bus driver, fall for one another. I listened to this as an audiobook, and it was a case where the performance by the narrator (the ever-talented Joel Leslie) really enhanced the experience. He does accents and dialects so well, and I appreciated how the effect of Ethan’s hearing loss came across.

Finally in my Top Five are the first two books in Lily Morton’s Finding Home series: Oz and Milo. These take place in the Cornish countryside in the UK, and are a fine example of how compelling great characters can be. Oz is from a working-class Irish/English family and somehow winds up with the job of Estate Manager for the Earl of Ashworth (but please, really, just call him Silas). Oz is delightfully snarky and all of the dialogue is so much fun! The chemistry between Oz and Silas is so good. Milo, on the other hand, grew up in an aristocratic family. He is sweet and shy, and usually has good control over his stutter unless flustered. He is definitely flustered by his older brother’s best friend Niall, a brash and coarse man who was always protective of Milo. The blossoming relationship between the two made me smile. There’s one more book in the series; I’ll be starting off 2021 with that!

Moving on to my other favorites, these fell neatly into the urban fantasy genre. The market is a crowded field, and it seems that some get tucked away into the m/m romance niche because the main characters happen to be men who love other men. This spins into a big rant for me about book marketing and genres and institutionalized homophobia that I’m not going to get into right now. Anyway, here are five urban fantasy books/series that I think are worthy of note.

I’ll start out with Hailey Turner’s Soulbound series, and oh my gosh! This is one of those series where I want to buy a bunch of copies of Book 1 to shove into people’s hands, saying “Just read this. You’ll thank me.” The worldbuilding here is fantastically intricate, interweaving magic users as part of the military, direct intervention by gods from all possible pantheons (and what a pain in the ass they can be), and all variety of supernatural beings. Multiple plotlines are woven through the series, and Turner keeps everything going at a breakneck pace in all five books (and Book 6 is coming in March 2021!). Patrick Collins, former Mage Corps soldier and now federal agent is reluctantly in the vanguard against the demonic forces of hell (in all its incarnations), accompanied by Jonothan de Vere, his smoking hot (and badass) werewolf boyfriend. Each book takes us to a different locale, with some, um, impressive collateral damage (the events in Chicago are pretty epic). There are a lot of characters involved and a lot of action, but I never had any problem following what was going on. Turner has done an amazing job with the plotting and character arcs here. I listened to all of these as audiobooks, and Gary Furlong is masterful in keeping the different character voices separate and easy to follow. If you like audiobooks, these are a great choice!

Keeping with the action/adventure theme, K.D. Edwards’ The Hanged Man (The Tarot Sequence Book 2) was every bit as good as its predecessor The Last Sun, which was one of my Best of 2019 choices. Great character development, some surprising plot twists, and hints of ever more sinister goings-on ratchet up the tension. Here is my detailed review of The Last Sun.

Turning to a very different setting and tone, we have T.J. Klune’s House in the Cerulean Sea. This is one case where the blurb says it the best:

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

The descriptions of the Department in Charge of Magical Youth immediately put me in mind of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. This contrasts starkly with the idyllic Marysas Island Orphanage. There’s a lot going on in this book beneath the obvious, and the hints of how Linus’ demeanor changes throughout the story are a lot of fun to follow. This was different from any other book I’ve read in recent memory (although there are some interesting parallels that could be drawn with Klune’s The Bones Beneath My Skin).

Finally, a series that is plain ol’ mainstream [heterosexual] urban fantasy. Given its success, it is not a great surprise that Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson universe has given rise to a whole genre of action-oriented urban fantasies with strong female protagonists (which is pretty awesome, I think). Some series have been less than successful, but K. N. Banet’s Jacky Leon books are a whole lot of fun. The setup is intriguing: modern-day society, but the existence of werewolves (whose wolf looks more like a dire wolf) is known to the public. What is not known is the existence of the rest of the supernatural world – vampires, fey, and other werecreatures. Jackie Leon is a werecat (whose cat looks more like a saber-toothed tiger). She’s trying to lay low and live a quiet life, running a dive bar in Jacksonville, Texas. Fate has other plans for her, of course. I’ve read (well, listened to) the first three books of the series, and I’ve been really impressed. The plotting is tight and the action moves along at a good clip. The cast of characters is great fun, and the political intrigue adds an additional tension to the events that I like. I look forward to reading the other books in this series!

Finally, although I like to use these wrap-ups to highlight great books of the year, I have a dishonorable mention: Anne Bishop’s The Others alternate-history series. The first two books were interesting, if written a bit archly, and quite slow-moving until the final act. The third book is when it all comes crashing down, though. Some egregious retconning and flat-out stupidity on the part of the main characters left me sorely disappointed, feeling like the first two books were a waste of time. I’m out.

Anyway, to end on a happier note, here are some of the honorable mentions from this year:

My goal in 2020 was to read 100 books, which I just slightly surpassed. I’m setting the same goal for 2021, but I am hoping to beat that! We’ll see how the year plays out. Happy New Year, all!

2019: A Year in Books

(Previous Year-In-Review posts: 2016, 2017, 2018)

I wanted to take a moment to look back on 2019 and mentioned a few of the fantastic books I read last year (note these are not books that came out in 2019, but books I read in 2019). Although I usually read m/m romances almost exclusively, two of my favorites were from outside the genre, proving that sometimes a little variety can always be a good thing!

First, the best of the year:
A big chunk of my reading last year was consumed by Patricia Briggs, who writes some of the best urban fantasy I’ve come across. All of the books in her Mercy Thompson series were almost uniformly great, and even when they weren’t quite 100% they were still really enjoyable. I am impressed that after 12 books (starting with Moon Called), while there’s still a hint of a formula to each book there’s enough new and interesting things going on that everything remains fresh and exciting. The Alpha and Omega spinoff series (five books, starting with Cry Wolf) ties into the main series in some ingenious ways, sharing the occasional side-character and events, even though the main characters of the two series never meet face to face. This series was fun because, having established a fascinating world, Briggs is free to use different narrative conventions and plot twists that wouldn’t be possible in the main series. Both of these series are really enjoyable!

Lee Welch’s Salt Magic, Skin Magic was a delightful find. It’s a paranormal mystery set in a Victorian England where magic is real and such a commonplace thing. I loved this one because the spark between the two main characters was so well-written, the mystery was a challenging puzzle, and the ending was supremely satisfying.

In a similar vein, K.J. Charles’ Spectred Isle was a delightful foray into a magical Victorian England, though here magic is much more secretive. This is another mystery, and as shown in previous works that I raved about last year, Charles is skilled at weaving a complicated web of a mystery, then revealing it little by little. This particular book was great fun because of the banter between the new-to-magic Saul and experienced magician Randolph. The ending is a tour de force that ties things together brilliantly. In addition to this, The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal is a collection of short stories that serves as a prequel of sorts to Spectred Isle featuring some historical figures spoken of with reverence there. For all that short stories often leave me wanting more depth and development, this is a great read and a worthy addition to the world that Charles has built.

Two books by T.J. Klune make this list. Ravensong is the sequel to Wolfsong, which I absolutely adored in print and in audiobook. Ravensong continues the story, and in true Klune fashion, ripped my heart out and stomped all over it. Seriously, how Klune manages to keep such a high quality of writing going I’ll never know, but I’ll sure appreciate it! The other book is The Bones Beneath My Skin, an odd one-off novel that’s a departure from most of his usual themes, but the writing style is still familiar. In tone, I would place it toward Into This River I Drown (another tour de force, and a story which is slyly referenced here) but the atmosphere is a lot less somber. Great characters drive a great story – I really liked this one.

After enjoying their Hexworld series and Whyborne and Griffin series, I was delighted to pick up Jordan L. Hawk’s Spectre Series 1. These are written in the sense of a “season” of a TV series, which each book having its own plot but also an overarching plot that spans all six books that gets resolved in the finale. I really enjoyed the moody side of Charleston, South Carolina that serves as the backdrop to these paranormal stories, and the characters allow Hawk to have a lot of fun with disparate personalities, and the problems that arise when you have three people, but only two bodies. Oh, and one of those three is a few thousand years old.

The Last Sun by K.D. Edwards…well, you can read my review right here. It’s a fantastic book, and absolutely belongs on my best-of-2019 list.

Finally, there’s Gary Paulsen’s Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod. This nonfiction autobiographical book tells the story of how Paulsen was bitten by the mushing bug and drawn into the world of sled dog racing. This was an incredible read, filled with laugh-out-loud moments, some terrific personal insights and thoughts about the relationship between humans and dogs, and moments that moved me to tears. Even if you’re not a fan of sled dog racing, this is worth picking up.

There are also a couple of books that deserve honorable mention:

Stealing His Heart by Bru Baker is a spinoff from her Camp H.O.W.L. trilogy. Nothing terribly complex, but still an enjoyable story, with werewolves. Werewolves always make things better, but I might be biased.

In Any Light by Sam Burns is a lovely short story, a brief detour in The Rowan Harbor Cycle to explore the relationship between side characters Isla and Cassidy. I love these characters, and the fact that Isla is ace made me smile a lot when she found her “happy for now”. The ending definitely had me tearing up.

The Long Way Home by Z. A. Maxfield is a tense paranormal thriller that had a great mystery and even better chemistry between the main characters. There were a few stumbles at the that took this out of the ‘best of’ running, but I still enjoyed the book. I’m kind of sad there wasn’t a sequel because I’d love to read more of these guys!

N. R. Walker’s Finders Keepers was hugely enjoyable. I jokingly accused her of secretly working for the Australian tourist board because the descriptions of Coolum Beach and Australia’s Sunshine Coast made it sound like an absolute paradise. This is a fun, low-angst story with a fun twist on the meet-cute trope where the main characters ‘meet’ over text messaging and get to know each other before they ever meet face to face.

Finally, I want to return to Mercy Thompson’s world to mention Faerie Gifts, an ongoing fan fiction series by Liv Campbell and William Alexander on Archive of Our Own. I really enjoy how the authors retain the feel of Patricia Briggs’ Mercyverse while bringing in new characters in an entirely different location in the world. Also, Sam the werewolf is absolutely freakin’ adorable!

2020 is already off to a great start, and I look forward to adding many great books my best of 2020 list! As always, you can find me on Goodreads as Duncan Husky, plus there you can find my reading lists of m/m shifters, m/m werewolves, and m/m paranormal books.

2018: A Year in Books

I’m a little (OK a lot) late but:

2018 has come to a close, so now it’s time for me to look back at the year in books. I read (or re-read) 129 books over the course of the year. Of those:

  • 100% were M/M romances
  • 74% were paranormal romances
  • 51% featured shifters (42% featured werewolves specifically)
  • 17% were audiobooks

Looking at my Goodreads ratings, my reviews broke down to:

  • Rating 5 out of 5 – 40%
  • Rating 4 out of 5 – 44%
  • Rating 3 out of 5 – 15%
  • Rating 2 out of 5 – 1%
  • Rating 1 out of 5 – 0% (none, actually)

No low ratings? Why is that?

One reason my reviews are as high as they are is that I do lean heavily on Goodread’s aggregate reviews. If a book’s rating is less than 3.70, there has to be something pretty spectacular for me to pick it up. Like Yelp, Amazon or anything else, though, a book has to have a significant number of reviews for any rating to be meaningful. I usually look for at least 100 reviews.

Greatest Hits

I loved Kris Bethke’s “Requiem Inc.” trilogy. I wrote a detailed review of the first book, and I’m happy to say that the second and third books continued with compelling characters and engaging plotlines. This is a series I will be coming back to as a form of “literary comfort food.”

Sam Burns’ Rowan Harbor Cycle was a fantastic discovery of a new-to-me author. All told the series will be three trilogies; the first two trilogies were published in 2018, and the seventh book is about to come out as I write this (I reviewed the first book, Blackbird in the Reeds, in detail). Burns has created a fantastic setting here, a remote Oregon coastal town secretly populated by all sorts of paranormal folks – witches, shapeshifters, vampires, and more. For the most part, though, they lead pretty normal lives. The dramatic tension comes from outside threats to the town and its denizens. I adore the main characters here. Devon, Jesse, and Fletcher each have a time in the spotlight, and each finds their match who complements them well. With a large ensemble cast it would be easy to get lost in who’s who, but Burns does a great job keeping the focus narrow enough that the reader doesn’t lost, but wide enough to tell a larger story.

I’m way late to the game on this series, but K.J. Charles’ A Charm of Magpies series (I wrote a detailed review of the first book, The Magpie Lord) was a delightful find. I normally shy away from historical romances because of the homophobia that tends runs throughout, and while it exists here it’s in the background. These novels are set in Victorian England, but one in which practitioners (users of magic) are a part of society. The interplay of class friction, social machinations, and evil magic makes for some very enjoyable tales. I listened to these on audio, and Cornell Collins’ narration was spot-on, and his range of accents to denote not only a character’s voice but their class as well was extremely well done.

Austin Chant’s Peter Darling has us exploring what happened next in Neverland, and we find that things are not quite like what we may have read in the tales of Peter Pan. This is a stunning reimagining of Neverland, and touches on gender identity, the lies we tell ourselves, and roles we are forced into by others. This was hands-down the most imaginative and innovative book I read in 2018.

Amy Lane has a knack for creating some wonderful characters and then putting them through the wringer. Her Promises series remains one of my all-time favorites, but the Bonfires series (first book reviewed here) is shaping up to rival that. The main characters are in their forties and fifties, and have established lives and families. The stories of them getting together and creating one big family are just fantastic. Like most of Lane’s books, it’s the characters that I really enjoy, and Aaron and Larx are such a great couple that I really related to. This was another audiobook, performed by Nick J. Russo, whose work with each character’s speech patterns and inflections made some excellent books really outstanding!

Honorable Mentions

The Delta Restorations series by Diana Copland is a lovely contemporary series that I enjoyed on audiobook. Again, great characters help create some compelling stories, with a bit of suspense thrown in.

Annabelle Jacobs’ Regent’s Park Pack series gives us a London in which werewolves are commonplace among humans. Pack politics, true mates, and happily-ever-afters abound. I tore through this series like popcorn, and I think it will hold up for rereading as well.

Ethan, Who Loved Carter by Ryan Loveless was simply stunning. It’s an intimate portrait of two characters in difficult situations, Carter, who lives with Tourette’s Syndrome, and Ethan, who has suffered a traumatic brain injury. This book really made me think about how we view people with disabilities or are just different, and it wasn’t always a comfortable read. Still, it was definitely one of the most enlightening books of 2018 for me.

By Fairy Means or Foul by Meghan Maslow (reviewed here) was an enjoyable goofy romp in a farcical fantasy world. Greg Boudreaux’s narration of the audiobook was brilliant!

Finally, In This Iron Ground by Marina Vivancos (reviewed here) was a werewolf novel where the werewolves more incidental than central to the plot. It’s a difficult story of a boy, Damien, growing up in the foster care system and learning to deal with abuse and the aftereffects. He finds a family who offers him escape and healing. That they are werewolves is almost peripheral, except that it introduces a kind of otherness that separates them from Damien. This was a deeply emotional book, and a very well-written one at that.

That’s the best of 2018 for me! Here’s looking forward to more wonderful books and stories for 2019.

2017: A Year In Books

As I did last year, I wanted to recap my reading from 2017 in a single post, and mention books I thought really stood out to me. I have been reading exclusively books in the M/M Romance genre because I find them extremely enjoyable. I have a gut reaction to try to defend this statement and the genre, but that’s silly. I think these books immensely rewarding, and they contain some of the finest writing I have ever come across in any genre. Finally, I note these are books I read in 2017, but are not limited to books published in 2017. To start off, we have the statistics:

Out of 110 books read, my Goodreads ratings were:
Did Not Finish – 4
1 out of 5 – 0
2 out of 5 – 3
3 out of 5 – 14
4 out of 5 – 53
5 out of 5 – 36

As I noted previously, the low number of stinkers have a lot to do with the fact that I have a low-water mark of a 3.65 rating on Goodreads (with at least 100 reviews) – anything with a rating under that had better have an amazing blurb to get me to read it. Of the books I did not finish, two were Just That Awful and two were “It’s not you, it’s me.” (i.e. probably good books, but not to my tastes at all).

Enough of the bad, let’s talk about the good.

The hurt/comfort trope, in which the physical or mental distress of one character is eased by another character, is a common one in fiction. An extreme example of this is Aaron, by J.P. Barnaby. I am glad that I listened to this audiobook because reading the physical book would have been difficult. It tells the story of Aaron, a recovering survivor of sexual abuse and violence, as he struggles to come out of the protective shell he and his family have created. He meets Spencer, a deaf man who is trying to make his way in a hearing world. The interactions between the two and their families are an incredible story. The description of what happened to Aaron is harrowing, and the author makes us understand what it is to deal with the aftermath. The audiobook is performed by Tyler Stevens, and he nails the characters and the overall tone of the book perfectly. This one is simply a stunner.

The hurt/comfort trope is also prevalent in Alex Jane’s Home Is Where You Are. The story takes place in an alternate-history Nebraska in the 1870’s. It gave me warm, fuzzy feelings and not just because of the werewolves who are the main characters. Caleb is a former Union soldier. He left his family behind abruptly when he went off to war, and saw and survived the absolute worst. Now, years later, he lives an isolated life, fighting PTSD and barely tolerated by his neighbors. Jacob’s arrival changes all of that. There is a quality to this writing that I enjoyed – matter-of-fact in describing about the harsh realities of hardscrabble life in the Great Plains, but also showing thoughtful insight into the main characters. All three of the books that are out now are great (Returning Home and Longing for Shelter, with a fourth book on the way).

In another alternate history, Hexslayer, by Jordan L. Hawk, takes us to New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. This is the third book in the Hexworld series, and takes place in a world of policemen who use magic in conjunction with their shapeshifting familiars. There is so much to love here – the gloomy atmosphere, the steadily mounting narrative tension, and in Jamie and Nick two intriguing characters. Several narrative threads from previous books start to come together here in a satisfying way that left me looking forward to more.

Moving into the present day, the Guardsman series by Cooper West (The Protector and Parker’s Sanctuary) brings us to an alternate reality similar to our own, but where a very small percentage of the population become Guardsman, a weredog (“Protector”) and a human “Handler” who share a mental bond. West has created a world of remarkable detail here, and the populated it with memorable characters. The descriptions of how Protectors and Handlers are represented in popular culture are clever, and follow logically. These are well-written and I look forward to the next book.

N.R. Walker’s The Weight of It All, on the other hand, is firmly rooted in the reality of the here and now, albeit in Australia (which I am told exists…). This is a lovely story of a guy who gets dumped because he’s too fat, so he joins a gym and falls for his trainer. This is a gross oversimplification of a sweet, hilariously funny book that is written with sensitivity and empathy. Henry is a guy who creates a wall of self-deprecating humor and isolation around himself to hide his lack of self-esteem. Reed, his trainer, is the perfect foil for Henry – serious, at times nonplussed, but slowly falling for Henry as the walls Henry has built start to fall. Joel Leslie performs the audiobook brilliantly. The tremulous emotion that Leslie’s voice carries as Henry agonizes over his life is heartbreaking; the elation in Henry’s successes is thrilling and contagious. This is by far the best audiobook I listened to this year!

Finally, we get to the favorite book that I read in 2017: G.L. Carriger’s The Sumage Solution. Carriger has created a fun world here. The supernatural is commonplace, with shifters, magicians, and kitsune all sharing space in a modern-day San Francisco. We learn about the laws that bind the place and how magic works as we go, so not a lot of time is wasted on exposition. The ending is telegraphed far ahead, but this was a case where even if you knew where you’re going, you’re still going to enjoy the ride. The best part of the book is the characters, though. Max is a guy who has been through a lot but still maintains a snarky wit. Bryan is a complete sweetheart and a gentle giant. They make a great couple, and make this a supremely satisfying story.

It was difficult to select the just top six books. I want to give honorable mention to some of the other really great books I read (links are to the reviews I wrote): Breaker, by Kelly Wyre and A.F. Henley; Lord Mouse, by Mason Thomas; Murmuration, by T.J. Klune; and Finder’s Keeper, by Shira Anthony.

I wanted to also single out a couple of other books for a different reason. Some, but not all, M/M romances veer into the territory of erotica. Werewolves of Chernobyl by K.A. Merikan and The Protection of the Pack series by Dessa Lux are both SMOKING hot, but at the same time have wonderful narrative wit and don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re really fun reads.

Looking ahead to 2018, I have at least a dozen books I’ve purchased but haven’t read yet, and at least another hundred books on my to-read list. I’ve got enough to keep me busy for a while!