Top Ten Tuesday: 2021 Releases I Was Excited To Read But Didn’t Get To

Top Ten Tuesday is a series hosted on That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we’re looking back at tantalizing new releases from a year already past. I’m known to revive the backlist, so there’s a good chance I’ll still get to these in the years to come…


1. Jade Fire Gold by June C. L. Tan

June C. L. Tan’s epic fantasy debut turned my head from the get-go: worldbuilding inspired by Chinese mythology, a slow-burn romance between reluctant allies, and an exiled prince’s quest to reclaim the throne all make for a rather enticing pitch––a pitch made even more impressive by the fact that Jade Fire Gold goes after them all as a standalone. It’s rare that I see a recent YA, especially, try to capture that kind of scale between just two covers (and for good reason! It’s difficult to do justice in even two or more books!), and for that reason, as well as the author’s Zutara comparisons, I’m still eager to see how Tan manages it in her hotly-anticipated debut.


2. Little Thieves by Margaret Owen

Once upon a time, there was a horrible girl…what more could one ask of a book, really? Margaret Owen’s thoughtful, textured Merciful Crow duology was enough to pique my interest in whatever she wrote next, but Little Thieves, a wicked, sharp-tongued retelling of “The Goose Girl,” invites its own enthusiasm. Following the crafty servant girl who stole the real princess’ crown in the original tale, this work of fantasy has earned plenty of praise from reviewers whose tastes I share, and it’s a promising potential romp.


3. Down Comes The Night by Allison Saft

Released in March, Down Comes The Night, another YA fantasy debut, offers enemies-to-lovers romance between characters trapped in a cursed manor. Besides my contractual obligation to pick up anything with even a passing resemblance to Jane Eyre, Down Comes The Night hooked me with promises of a snow-drenched wintry setting and a main character who knows her way around medicine, and its beautiful spine has been beckoning me from my shelf since its release date––perhaps I’m just waiting for the perfect stormy night to dive in.


5. The Skyward Flight Novellas by Brandon Sanderson & Janci Patterson

After beefing a little with Cytonic, the third book in Brandon Sanderson’s pilot-minded YA space opera, I stalled on picking up the novellas, all e-books following side characters that dropped in the months surrounding its release. I still want to hop back into this galaxy and follow FM, Alanik, and Jorgen (my inevitable favorite!) on their respective adventures, but for now, I’m happy to wait until they’re re-released in a paper-and-ink bindup in April, because me and e-books just don’t mix.


5. My Contrary Mary by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

My Lady Jane, the first in a series of zany, magical, ahistorical adventures involving famous Janes, was a fast favorite for me in 2016, and, on the authority of a 2020 reread, likely poised to be a lifelong one! Last year, one of the characters who appears in the book, a young Mary Queen of Scots, got her own story as the first in a trilogy of Mary-themed books, and My Contrary Mary landed itself on my ever-growing TBR pile. I can’t say when I’ll pick it up, but when the desire next strikes me to read about historical figures turning into ferrets, birds, and/or mice, this will certainly be the first place I turn.


6. Instructions For Dancing by Nicola Yoon

Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also A Star is a star among the few contemporary novels I find myself reading these days. It renders real-life settings in Manhattan with the wonder of fictional ones, crafts a love story that thoughtfully accompanies its romantic leads’ search for meaning, and totally made me cry. Of course I’d have my eyes peeled for Yoon’s follow up! Instructions for Dancing, released in May, follows a girl disillusioned with love after happening upon the power to see instantly how a relationship is fated to end, as she stumbles into her own love story in the world of ballroom dance. Having a fondness for dance stories (and romance with magic-lite à la Instant Karma), I’m likely to fall in love with this, too.


7. The Lady or The Lion by Aamna Qureshi

Another intriguing retelling with a somewhat niche source, The Lady or the Lion puts a YA spin on the short story “The Lady or the Tiger,” a tale that, depending on how you read it, is about a princess who sends her beloved into a tiger’s jaws…or a happy marriage. Aamna Qureshi’s original take on it stages the action in a Pakistan-inspired fantasy setting, where a crown princess must decide whether she can trust a mysterious ambassador, or if her dangerous feelings for him will lead her astray. This book’s premise had me at “court intrigue” and “forbidden love,” and I can’t wait to be swept away by it.


8. Small Favors by Erin A. Craig

Released in July, this fantasy by the author of House of Salt and Sorrows (the first title reviewed on the blog!) is set in an isolated small town where the surrounding woods are still believed to harbor demons. Promising eerie atmosphere, secluded horror, and bees (?), Small Favors gives me high hopes for another dose of the rustic, gothic-tinged chills of Erin A. Craig’s gorgeous, ocean-tossed debut.


9. The Hawthorne Legacy by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The odd non-fantasy duck on this list, The Hawthorne Legacy is the 2021 sequel to 2020’s The Inheritance Games, a riotously fun thriller-lite about a girl who inherits a fortune from a billionaire she’s never met. It has puzzles, a compelling supporting cast, and some solid twists, but it’s the love triangle that has me chomping at the bit for book two, and since this gives me the chance to say it, Team Grayson. Obviously.


10. Once Upon A Broken Heart by Stephanie Garber

I haven’t read Garber’s much-beloved Caraval trilogy, but the premise of Once Upon A Broken Heart, set in the same world with what I’m told are a few familiar faces, was too good to resist. I love a good “favor by a god in exchange for a kiss” story, and Garber’s reputation for bringing the spirit of fairy tales into her novels un-subtly suggests that this’ll be right up my alley. (Though a few people have told me I’d love Caraval, so it’s possible I’ll go for that first!)


Thank you so much for reading! What are some releases you ‘missed’ last year? Have you read any of these titles? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 💕

What I Read In December

Hello and welcome back to the blog! I hope you capped off your reading year with a delightful final month. For my part, I read so much that I felt the need to split my wrap-up in half, a blessed occurrence that I can’t say I get to enjoy very often. Part 2 goes up soon, so, for now, allow me to regale you with Part 1!


107. The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

A troubled legacy kept me away from this play for a long time, and when I finally picked it up, I wasn’t visited with any pleasant surprises: Merchant begins with a fundamentally antisemitic premise and, though it has its moments, it never truly manages to overcome the harm done. While productions that work to depict Shylock sympathetically can be very moving (the 2004 film comes to mind), the problems of the ‘happy’ ending, the play’s handling of his daughter, and Shakespeare’s ultimate failure to challenge the status quo make me hesitate to hold it up as an example of any kind. The cast is compelling, the romantic subplots have meaningful cores, and some excellent uses of symbolism punctuate the play, but the flaws in The Merchant of Venice run deep, and I’m of the mind that it has to be staged very carefully. (It certainly doesn’t help that one of Portia’s early appearances contains a truly gobsmacking instance of unchecked racism, in Act II Scene VII.)


108. The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

This frothy thriller follows a working-class heroine who gets called up to the principal’s office one fateful morning to discover she’s heiress to a total stranger. Fast forward no more than a few chapters, and we learn that she gets practically the entire fortune if she lasts the whole year in said stranger’s lavish mansion. Things proceed from there at a compulsively readable fast clip: a central mystery with high stakes and, admittedly, a few stumbles, makes Jennifer Lynn Barnes’ short chapters go down like absolute candy, and a superlative love triangle rounds out the rest. Barnes is careful to keep her characters in danger, but, striking a skillful balance, she also gives The Inheritance Games all the trappings of a future comfort read, yielding a book that’s hundreds of pages of almost unbroken giddy delight. (Reviewed here.)


109. The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

Sunsets, air conditioning, and the Piggly Wiggly chain of grocery stores: each is a condition of a world where humans have an outsize influence on, well…the world. Each is also reviewed and rated on a five-star scale by John Green in this collection of essays. Green gives some much-needed voice to the contradictions of (privileged, English-speaking) contemporary life––I particularly appreciated how he made note of our being both destructively powerful and devastatingly powerless––but the essays themselves have a few unfocused misses in their midst. Memoir makes plenty of enriching appearances, but sometimes, Green uses it as an excuse to wander, and he’ll shuck the original topic for a broader conclusion the form doesn’t quite allow him to reach. Where he avoids this, though, his nonfiction writing has even better mileage than his fiction on making me cry. The best reviews have just the right ratio of research to reflection, and as such, are perfectly timed for a good sob. I give The Anthropocene Reviewed a tenuous four stars.


110. Ace by Angela Chen

Tackling a good mix of subjects through the asexual lens, reporter Angela Chen’s book is a solid entry into a sparse category of nonfiction for an even sparser area of public awareness. Being asexual myself, it was illuminating to see someone who shares my umbrella make such potent observations about the way we move through the world, and with such care given to other intersections of identity. Asexuals of color, asexuals who date and asexuals who don’t, male asexuals, and plenty in between all make an appearance in these pages, and Chen’s graceful incorporation of interview quotes and memoir make Ace read like several meaty magazine features in a row. The book sometimes wavers on organization, and it struggles to construct definitions that aren’t primarily by opposition, but it’s fascinating even for someone who’s familiar with the material, and I suspect it’d go a long way for someone who isn’t.


111. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

I say I don’t read paranormal, but paranormal keeps surprising me. The Raven Boys opens with ghosts, and for the most part, that’s what I expected going forward, but Stiefvater merely uses them as a way in to a modern tale of the legendary past that defies categorization. A psychic’s daughter sees the ghost of the boy she’s doomed to love…or kill. A prep school boy’s dogged mission to wake an ancient king is not all that it seems. With this setup, The Raven Boys makes potent observations on class, interrogates its complicated found family dynamic, and brings some much-needed self-awareness to a familiar fantasy quest for glory-meaning-absolution, three key successes that more than outweigh its fumbled twist, leisurely pacing, and occasional distance. (Reviewed here.)


112. Gilded by Marissa Meyer

As delightful as Marissa Meyer’s books are, one must admit: she has long struggled with villains. Her new duology opener, a Rumpelstiltskin retelling, marks a departure in lots of promising ways––darker tone, more rustic, storybook prose style, richer worldbuilding––but I found the greatest of its many little charms to be the discovery that, at long last, I was both afraid of and intrigued by Meyer’s Erlking. Marking the story by the full moons that light his brutal excursions into the mortal world, Meyer frolics with the sharper-toothed undertones of her fairy tale influences, and the result is enchantingly dangerous. Against the perilous backdrop, the softness of her hapless (not) gold-spinner heroine and the tenderness of the romantic subplot provide an enlivening contrast, leading Gilded to new depth for the author that I can’t wait to watch her explore.


113. As You Like It by William Shakespeare

As You Like It, is, I think, one of the weaker comedies. It makes use of plenty of the tropes and devices that Shakespeare delights with elsewhere, from the framing of nature as a counter to the rigidity of high society to a cross-dressing female lead, and at least one player or pairing is bound to win your heart (mine is Celia). Something, though, is missing. Maybe it’s the absence of real stakes once we leave Act I. Maybe it’s the tiresome, confrontation-poor anticlimax. Whatever it is, I can’t find enough to chew on in As You Like It, and, tragically, I think its spiritual siblings in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream far surpass it.


Thank you endlessly for reading! As always, I’d love to hear about your reading month (and if we share any titles!) in the comments below 💕

An Excellent Romance and a Middling Mystery in “The Inheritance Games”

It’s a pitch straight out of Knives Out. Or, barring that, a common American fantasy. Avery Grambs, a working-class teenager with a penchant for actuarial science, struggles to make ends meet, until, one day, an eccentric billionaire bites it, and leaves her his entire fortune.

Except, in The Inheritance Games, it comes with a caveat: in order to receive this windfall, Avery must survive a year in the aforementioned billionaire’s extravagant mansion…with his disinherited and displeased family. Along the way, she’ll uncover damning secrets, solve puzzles, and find herself entangled with two of the family’s grandsons in a love triangle that recalls the young adult days of yore: I’ve yet to encounter a reader who hasn’t chosen a side, and vehemently so. (For the record: Grayson. Obviously.)

Delivered in sparse, first-person prose and short chapters that seem to devour every spare moment you have, The Inheritance Games is one thing above all else: decadent. Literally decadent, with cartoonish wealth adorning every page, but decadent as a reading experience, too. Jennifer Lynn Barnes crafts a frothy thriller with an edge as a future comfort read, using the trappings of Avery’s flashy new circumstances in a way perfectly calibrated to induce giddy delight on her behalf. Like Monte Carlo (2011) with life-and-death stakes, or, again, Knives Out with, admittedly, far fewer knives.

And, yes––if you’ve seen the book around, had your doubts, maybe found yourself guessing at the root of its popularity, your suspicions are absolutely correct: it’s about the love triangle. As mentioned, it’s nigh-impossible not to pick a side, and, what’s more, it’s impossible to be assured of your odds once you do. Whatever the state of the main mystery’s reveals, the long game Barnes is playing in the romantic subplot department remains refreshingly oblique from start to finish. In fact, one could even make the case that this mystery is the most compelling among all The Inheritance Games has to offer.

Ultimately, this means that if the romance doesn’t hook you, it’s unlikely the rest of the book will, but there are definitely worse gambits to make, and the oft-dreaded love triangle, in my opinion, shows decided prowess. There are two very important things Barnes gets right in her crafting of the love stories between Avery and the two walking disasters known as Jameson and Grayson Hawthorne: value opposition, and baggage.

Avery, as a heroine, is an intriguing blend of pragmatism and recklessness. In innocuous, non-inheritance-related moments, we see her struggle between her daydreams of travel and her hard-edged game plan of majoring for salary. This distinction, as you might have guessed, is owed in large part to class, and once her class changes, the balance predictably shifts. But the question, in some form, remains. Will her new wealth allow her to let go and pursue her dream, or will she put her shrewdness to use as the governess of a fortune with broader implications?

Enter her possible romantic trysts and perfectly crafted character foils: Jameson, the reckless, obsessed middle child, and Grayson, the somber, dutiful older brother. They are her conflicting sides personified, rendering any argument about who she should end up with (Grayson) an argument about what course her characterization sets for her future (Grayson). This is what I mean when I say “value opposition:” a set of ideas ensconced in characters so purposefully that Spark Notes should make an infographic about it.

It’s difficult to do a deep dive into the second part of the equation––baggage––without venturing into spoiler territory, but I can say that The Inheritance Games also makes good use of the past. Tightly-controlled reveals are the key here: awful things are hinted at by supporting characters with motives to do so, and when the truth unravels, it feels tautly like it absolutely had to. When it implicates the Hawthorne brothers (there are four in total, but I mean the love triangle two in particular), blame is difficult to strictly assign, allowing Barnes to draw out the gray area between total trust and total caution. This all keeps an extra component of ambiguity fresh in the romantic subplot where, otherwise, by the natural course of the main plot, Avery’s suspicion of them both––at least in the killing-for-the-inheritance sense––has waned.

But, as all good things come with a caveat, so too does the brilliance of this subplot give way to a steady but lacking central suspense. Once assassination attempts enter the picture, the bait-and-switch is thoughtful (and, taken as a commentary, perhaps even incisive), but the actual culprit feels a little haphazard. The character in question has fairly limited page time, doesn’t challenge any of the reader’s assumptions when named as the guilty party, and their ending dampens the tension, rather than seeing it to a dynamic conclusion.

The same goes for the one major definitive answer we get about the real intentions of Avery’s mysterious benefactor. Emotionally, what we learn should probably be more devastating than it is, especially with Avery having come all this way for an explanation that can give her a sense of certainty, but Barnes undermines the moment with brevity, and that aspect of Avery’s wants as a character is left hanging in an otherwise well-rounded portrayal.

I must admit, though: despite all of this, I’m still hooked. If the chemistry happens to click for you, The Inheritance Games is just riotously fun even with its weak points, and sometimes, that’s the strongest hand you can play.


Thank you so much for reading! Have you read The Inheritance Games? Which side of the love triangle are you on? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 💕