January was both a good and not so good reading month. Good in that I really didn’t have that many low ratings – I did enjoy what I was reading. And while you might considering 4 DNFs fairly high – a full quarter of the books I picked up – there are all kinds of reasons to DNF, so it’s not always possible to evaluate based on the number alone. Not so good in that, okay, this month the number of DNFs did seem to mean something. The books I ended up liking felt like I hit upon them almost by chance or dumb luck, stabbing around in the dark, and not because “I know I’m going to like this.” I don’t feel like I have a really good grasp on what I like anymore, or what my particular taste is. I thought I knew at one point in time — I definitely did, there were years I read well over a hundred books without issue, every one of them suited to my particular taste. But I don’t know what that is anymore, so now I’ve got to find it again. Anyway, it’s not like that’s going to be a chore, and that’s not what this post is about.
Here are my favorite and least favorite books I read in January.
January Ratings Breakdown (note: this month, I tried out half stars for the first time. I don’t know if I’ll continue that going forward. I also tried out flat out not rating if I don’t feel like it. I will continue that going forward):
5☆ – 1 book
4½☆ – 1 book
4☆ – 5 books
3½☆ – 2 books
3☆ – 2 books
2½☆ – 0 books
2☆ – 1 book*
1½☆ – 0 books
1☆ – 0 books
DNF – 4 books
* The 2☆ book – anywhere that my star rating factored into a public average rating – Goodreads, Storygraph, etc – I left this book as not rated. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving low ratings on public sites like that, if that’s your rating. In this particular case, it wasn’t appropriate for me to do that. I still made my thoughts available in the same way I normally would – actually, I can’t remember if I left a review on Goodreads, but there is one in my Instagram highlights, etc. Anyway, I’ll explain it in a minute. You can do what you want.
I don’t know if I’m going to call this my favorite book of the month, but it was my only 5☆ book of the month. I am determined to become an adult fantasy reader. Everything about me says I should be an adult fantasy reader. THERE IS NO REASON WHY I AM NOT AN ADULT FANTASY READER YET. Well, there are reasons. But that’s for the next post. Anyway, in my quest to become one, I had heard what we all have — that Brandon Sanderson is the accessible way in, the gateway drug. So I figured I would gateway drug even the gateway drug and pick up Mr. Sandwich’s YA Sci-Fi series first. I’m already generally comfortable with Sci-Fi, if it’s not too hard, and picking up a YA seemed to stack the deck in my favor that way. I thought I could ease myself into Brando Sando’s writing style with this, and then move on to what I really wanted to be reading, a little more prepared.
Well, listen. This book surprised me like a lime seltzer bidet in a winter outhouse. Why is there a bidet in here. This is actually what I want to be reading. I tore this shit up. I mean, read 500 pages in a day kind of tore it up. Yelling at my family and pets who all seemed to need my attention in the final climactic moments because of course they did kind of tore it up. Immediately requested the next two books from the library and if I have to wait on hold I’ll scream kind of tore it up.
The world building is excellent — there’s never a ton of description and info dumping. Anything you find out is because the characters are moving through it or interacting with it in a way that makes sense to the story, never just a big pile of history/description outside the narrative. So the world is never fully built out in excruciating detail, but at the same time, you have full confidence it’s all there. But not BORING. The characters, also excellent. The teenagers act like teenagers, which I feel like should annoy the fuck out of me, the way I’ve been feeling about YA lately, but they don’t. They all act like different teenagers. Distinctly different. There’s no generic teenager behavior, “this is how teenagers act.” I mean, they all act like teenagers, but specific teenagers, in line with their characterization. The adults are the same. Even with a stereotypical “rebellious teenager against adults who just want to KEEP HER DOWN” storyline at play, it’s not stale. It’s frustrating, but makes sense.
The battle scenes are cool and exciting, even though I have NO idea what’s going on. There’s a lot of physics, and it’s written in a way that I just trust it’s sound science. Grav caps? G-forces? Sounds legit, I’m with you, man! PEW PEW.
I think what I liked the best about this is how — hm, I’m not sure how to put this into words — the book allows things to resolve and progress. You know how in some books, things seem to be moving and it looks like things are going to be all better, and then, oh no, that shitty issue from early in the book comes back to just wreck everything and it’s so frustrating and it almost feels cheap? One of the main conflicts in this book is that Spensa’s been carrying the weight of her father’s reputation for her whole life, and people hold it against her. In other books, I could imagine people continuing to just never give her a chance, or things never, ever changing for her, or that keeping her on the outside forever. In this book, her classmates do get to know her as a person, do give her the space to grow. Rather than let that one issue be the thing that keeps cropping up and dragging the whole book, there’s satisfactory growth through it. More information is introduced and that issue changes, but additional conflict and plot points are added as well. There’s no death grip on the “girl everyone hates proves herself to be cool and SHOWS THEM ALL” story arc.
Also, the sassy sentient ship M-Bot, I liked that, too.
This might actually be my favorite book of the month. It was I think the second book I read this month, and I rated it 4☆. It took me a while to get going with it, because I found the pacing pretty choppy. I didn’t really like the way information was delivered to the reader — for me, it felt like it was always running right up to the line of info dumping, but stopping short, in a really awkward manner. It left me kind of unsure how I felt about this book overall for a while. As the month went on, though, I remembered less and less about what I thought about the writing and the pacing of the book itself, and more and more what I liked about the main characters, Robin and Edwin.
ROBIN AND EDWIN. Y’ALL. You’ve got to read this book. You will love these two. You will love them. Edwin is a prissy, uptight, keeps to himself, deeply wounded, bullied by his own family for not being magic enough, snooty rich dude. He can do magic, but compared to everyone else in his family — and most other people who can do magic, in fact — he can’t do very much at all. And Robin is just a regular dude, a bro, a former jock, a friendly absolute himbo who has never even heard of magic actually existing, but has, through a roundabout consequence of his own shit family circumstances, found himself in a government job as the liaison responsible for reporting incidents of regular people coming across magical happenings. And Edwin is his magical contact.
The magical plot and hijinks and curse and uncurse business in the book is frankly… fine. It’s fine, it’s interesting, there’s some intrigue, some murder, some high stakes, some near-deathing, some magical problem solving, and that’s all well and good. What you want to read, though, is the relationship between these two. They’re standoffish and tentative, then respectful and careful with each other. They’re both fully sketched in characters — the actions they take, the things they say, the ways they think about themselves and about each other — these are all fully informed by the histories the author has established for them. That’s not to say they behave perfectly toward each other, that there are no missteps and everything is smooth, but that everything is rooted firmly in who the character is known to be. Nothing is convenient for the plot or the moment, nothing is easily handled because it needs to be for the story. Their interactions feel real and adult and human. Even when there’s conflict, it’s not cheap, it’s not a misunderstanding that could be solved in five minutes if they just spoke to each other. It’s two adults who care about each other, but who have hurt each other. And when they come back together, it’s not because everything is swept under the rug, but because they’re adults who are behaving like adults. It’s lovely and you will love them.
At this point, nearly a month on from having read it, I barely remember my complaints. The only drawback I can think of at the moment is that there’s going to be another book in the series, but it focuses on a different character. I may read it grudgingly. I’m sure it will be very nice, but I want THESE two again.
Other favorites: If I Had Your Face – Frances Cha, Starsight (Skyward #2) – Brandon Sanderson
This is by no means a bad book. In fact, if you liked The House in the Cerulean Sea, this is probably right up your alley. I found it absolutely pleasant and gave it 3½☆. Still, thinking about it in the whole picture of what I read in January, it falls among my least favorites. Again, I don’t think it’s bad, and I wouldn’t even call it disappointing. It’s more of a sort of “I’ve done this already” feeling. If I’d read this before The House in the Cerulean Sea, I might have said the same thing about that one, though I’m not entirely certain — I do think The House in the Cerulean Sea works a bit better for me. Regardless, this book definitely suffers for me having read The House in the Cerulean Sea last year and it being probably my favorite thing I read last year.
For me, this felt pretty much exactly the same — and that’s not a bad thing, as far as books go. If you’ve got a book type, it’s good to be able to depend on finding that type of thing again. What you’ve got here is a guy who is not great, but not terrible, who ends up in a situation with a sort of mystical, woo guy, and a cast of quirky side characters, and he spends time with the mystical guy and the quirky side characters, and over the time they spend together, the guy who was initially not great, but not all that terrible, either, learns lessons about life — or in this case, death, I guess. I’m not really one for retellings.
This possibly could have been a four star book for me — like I said, it was absolutely pleasant, not a bad way to spend the time, totally enjoyable. However, the final resolution made me feel like something had been snatched away from me. I really did not like it. The whole book felt cheapened to me, and I spent a good four to seven minutes mightily annoyed.
WELL LET ME TELL YOU, I DID NOT LIKE THIS. Okay. Okay. You might like this one because it is a bit compelling in that there is a sort of magical Hunger Games going on — seven families have all each sent one child to fight to the death for the chance to have a 20-year term controlling the only existing supply of High Magick. Additionally, the title does seem accurate — every one of these children is some kind of a villain. If you’re into… hm, I’m not even going to say morally grey characters here, I’m just going to call them villains. If reading about characters with nefarious motivations sounds interesting to you, that aspect of the book is compelling. Sure, they’ve all got their own reasons and backstories and pressures and motives for doing what they’re doing, but they’re all ultimately villains in this story, so there’s that.
My problem with this book is that there are no stakes, no tension. When there’s a tournament that’s existed for hundreds of years, there are rules. These rules are established, everyone knows them, they’re explained to the reader. What kind of magic can be used, what boundaries exist, how the tournament functions with landmarks and territory, etc. On top of that, there’s a whole functioning magic system in this world. How it works, who can do what, how much a person can do, what spells and curses are, how they’re made, where they come from. This is all established as part of the world building. Then you enter into this tournament to the death — where people are going to die — and all of this starts getting thrown out the window. People are doing things that shouldn’t be possible. Alliances that make no sense to the established game are happening. Convenient explanations for things that circumvent the rules are popping up in the moment. How can you build tension when at any moment, what’s been established can be swept right out from under you? How do the deaths have any weight when the next person just conveniently escapes via some method that shouldn’t be possible? All the weight just kept getting sucked out of this book for me.
Add in a cartoonish bonus villain reveal at the end, and this whole series is an absolute nope for me.
I am going to copy in the summary I posted yesterday before I tell you what I rated this book.
The Queen of Hell – who got that name by making a deal with the devil to trade the souls of 7 musical prodigies in exchange for her own – is looking for one last soul, and she finds one in a transgender runaway violin prodigy named Katrina. Katrina likes to play video game theme covers on YouTube. There is a galactic war, and a stargate in a giant donut. There are aliens, of course, and a sapphic love story, and a child who is actually an AI, who helps with the YouTube channel. There are cursed instruments, and a demon. A boy is a in a cube. Ducks, alive and otherwise.
This is the book I did not publicly rate, and privately rated a two. That is, if you are interested in my taste in books – if you are my book nemesis like Elizabeth, and generally like things I dislike, so knowing what doesn’t work for me can point you toward things that might work for you, or if we generally have similar tastes and knowing that something was not my style serves as a good warning that your time is better spent elsewhere, then now you know — for my personal tastes, this book was a two star. However, I would not publicly rate it a two star anywhere it would count against the author, because that did not seem right.
I knew maybe a third of the way into this book that it was not for me. You know how that goes, right? You can recognize that it’s absolutely not a bad book, and it is very, very clearly FOR someone. Just not you. For me, this book was a little too… spacey. I don’t mean of or about space, but in the sense that it wasn’t enough grounded in reality for me, a little too loose, a little too much going on. Not enough real. A little too much descriptive language specifically about being a musician, a little too much metaphor about cursed instruments, cursed souls, cursed journeys, cursed artists. I don’t have the imagination or creativity to connect with this book, and the thing is, I knew that part way in. I knew it a third of the way into the book, that it was NOT for me, that I would NOT like it very much, but I still wanted to know what would happen, and I still read it. And to me, to continue reading past the point where I was CERTAIN I wasn’t going to like it — not something where I thought the story might pick up, it might turn around in the end, I might start to like the characters, get used to the writing style, not that sort of thing — that is totally on me. To affect the public rating of a book that I read fully aware that it wasn’t for me doesn’t seem right.
I don’t know if I am making the distinction clear — there are times when I will read a book and absolutely rate it 2 stars on Goodreads if that’s what it is, but this time, no. I suppose it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense to you. I read this, it wasn’t for me, but it’s definitely for someone. Who is not me. Who might be you.
Books I didn’t finish this month:
Here and Now and Then – Mike Chen
I just couldn’t get into it. It was too science. It was too… man. Mannish. Written by man, about a man. Man. Also?
The Thousandth Floor – Katherine McGee
I took this out of the library several times over the last, oh gosh, two years? I might have actually had it out when the libraries shut down at the beginning of the pandemic and I had the same books for months. I never got around to it, and by the time I finally did, I couldn’t remember why I wanted it. I finally picked it up out of my stack this time on a day I couldn’t pick what to read and decided to grab the highest and lowest rated books out of my library pile. I think at one point this sort of dystopian, closed-society, tower sort of thing definitely appealed to me, but not in this way right now — I got bored really quickly with the lives of rich teenagers.
Apples Never Fall – Liane Moriarty
Genuinely don’t know what was up with this. Liane Moriarty is pretty much always solid for me. Maybe because I had it on audio? Then again, I am pretty sure that’s how I usually consume Liana Moriarty books. Whereas the other two above are definitely permanently DNF’s, I wouldn’t write this one off forever. I can see myself picking this one back up around summer vacation, for sure.
Defy the Night – Brigid Kemmerer
So in the spreadsheet where I keep track of books I want to read and where I got the idea, it says this book was recommended by a YouTuber I watch, so I snagged it from the library for that reason. I got about a 100 pages in and was feeling neutral about it — on the fence, not really moved one way or the other with regard to keeping on or putting it down, and I was taking a brief break and watching a different YouTuber. That YouTuber said it was boring and nothing happens, nothing happens at all. So I put it down. Shrug.
I’m incredibly easy to influence. You could take lessons from me.
All right, those are my favorite and least favorite books from January. Did I leave out any you wanted to hear about? Did you read any of these? Are you going to read any of these? Are you following me on Instagram so I can be updated minute by minute if you do, because I’ll remind you it’s a crime if you take a recommendation from me and then don’t give me, specifically and directly, your every single thought as it happens. Look it up.
January Wrap Up Posts:
That’s all. Thank you for your attention and goodbye.