Top Ten Books Read in 2020

2020 was a year of a lot of negative things, but thankfully reading wasn’t one of them. Upon consideration, it’s probably the only thing in my life that remained consistent, for which I’m grateful. Out of the 75 books finished, I managed to pick ten favorites to highlight in this post.

Top Ten Books Read in 2020

1. The Light of All That Falls by James Islington: Really, this is for the entire trilogy, as I reread the first two this year before finishing it out. Such great characters, complex plot lines, and absorbing writing. To decide on which book/series would get my top spot, I thought about which one I would most regret not having read. This series edged out my #2 and #3 spot by a smidge. Mostly because of the fantastic ending.

2. Blood of Empire by Brian McClellan: I also read the whole Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy this year and loved it just as much as the Powder Mage trilogy (Promise of Blood is still my favorite book of the lot). I love the dry humor, the subtle magic system, and the many evoking relationships between all the characters. With his works to date, McClellan is now in my top 5 favorite authors category. I can’t wait for his next book to come out.

3. Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie: my final full trilogy read this year to make the list, and one I can’t believe I hadn’t read before now. It took a while to get going, but this series is one of the best in the genre for so many reasons. It has one of my all-time favorite characters (Glokta) and is written brilliantly. I swear I don’t know how the author does it, but he someone managed to make me laugh out loud during a brutal torture scene. Of all the authors in my TBR, Abercrombie is the one I’m most excited to devour in 2021.

4. Smoke Bitten by Patricia Briggs: having not liked the previous book in the Mercy Thompson series, I was thrilled how much I loved this one. It brought back everything I appreciated about the series, had a fun mystery, and was the exciting page-turner I’d been hoping for.

5. Emerald Blaze by Ilona Andrews: I swear any new book by these authors ends up on my top lists. They are so good! Catalina is one of their most relatable characters to date, and I love her relationships with the other characters – I really can’t wait to see how some things play out. For a series with cheesy covers that’s technically supposed to be marketed to paranormal romance readers, it is a massively robust and complex world on par with the best urban fantasies I’ve ever read.

6. Deadly Education by Naomi Novik: this book took me by surprise in the best way possible. It started out with a really unlikable character who somehow evolved into an unlikable character I enjoyed reading about. The premise for the school was great and there was plenty of classes and magic workings to satisfy my cravings for that brand of fantasy. I can’t wait for the next one.

7. Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells: I gave book #5 a high rating, but I feel like this newest novella was even better (which made me question my rating for book #5). In any case, any time I get to spend with Murderbot is golden. Its character profile is only getting stronger and this novella offered a fun mystery to boot.

8. Floating Island by Elizabeth Haydon: finally a middle grade series I enjoyed almost as much as Fablehaven. It doesn’t hurt matters that I love Haydon for her Symphony of Ages – an adult fantasy series set in the same world. This series had great pacing, a good sense of adventure, and enough complexity to keep my attention. I wish I’d read these ages ago.

9. Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst: I liked Queen of the Blood, but I LOVED Race the Sands. It had interesting characters (who were perhaps a bit simplistic, but still charming), a great element of competition, and a fun story. The author’s philosophy on writing and what she’s trying to achieve with her stories really sings to me, and I think that’s why I have such good feelings about this book months later. To top it off, it’s a stand-alone.

10. Dawnshard by Brandon Sanderson: I’m not quite finished with Rhythm of War, but it would do my list shame to not have a Sanderson in the lineup. His novellas are always good, but this one sang to me. I loved the setting and world building, I loved the flora and fauna, and I loved the major “omgsh” things I learned in these pages. Such a cool piece of work, and I hope I see more from these side characters within the main novels.

What were some of your favorites this year?

by Niki Hawkes


Tackling the TBR [65]: January 2021

tackling the TBR

It’s once again time for my favorite feature: Tackling the TBR! There’s nothing I love more than picking out which books to read next, and this slightly organized method of reading has really amped my enjoyment to the next level. Bring on the mantras!

Read the best books first.
Life is too short to read books you’re not enjoying.

However you put together your TBR for the next month, the goal is to reduce the amount of obligation in reading and increase the fun.

Here’s a look at how the system works:

1. Identify the titles that take top priority in your TBR.
2. Combine them all in your own Tackling the TBR post.
3. Throughout the month pick from that pile as the mood strikes you.

Here’s what mine looks like:

January 2021 TBR Tackler Shelf:

After 65 months of experimenting, I finally found a Tackling the TBR system that completely works for me, start to finish. The ah-ha moment seemed to be a reality check I faced mid-September where I realized I’d only be able to get through a finite number of books before the end of the year… and that I could calculate fairly accurately what that number was. This brought me out of my ambitious reading TBR and lofty goal-setting (both of which are my natural tendencies, but were leading to major frustration). So I gave myself five slots a month to fill with what had better be the most important titles on my list (reserving one for review obligations, so actually four) and stuck to those titles with a determination I hadn’t been able to find up to that point. It worked so well. I’ve been able to finish everything I set myself to read and have felt MUCH more relaxed about my reading pace – more so than I have in years, if I’m honest. Who knew the key would be recognizing how delusional I am when it comes to ambitions lol.

With this type of planning in place and a fully-realized system I’m loving, I’m extremely excited for 2021. Because I’m no longer stressed about getting through everything and am truly focused on the best books first, I’m somehow squeezing in more than my five pre-allocated titles every month. I think it’s because I’m feeling reinvigorated, reading is fun again, and I’m reading only quality books.

Another change I made happened around the same time as my ah-ha moment: I became committed to becoming more digitally minimal – deleting social media, deleting gaming apps, setting limits on other time wasters, and generally making my phone a resource for only reading, writing, and adulting. It has taken some practice, but living more intentionally and getting away from the mindless scrolling that was sucking HOURS out of my days has definitely freed up a lot of time for reading and other creative projects.

In September I also decided it was time to get my eyes used to reading physical novels on a regular basis again. I used to read 100+ novels per year without audiobook or ebook (back in the day) but an eye strain injury over five years ago stole a lot of that from me. I finally realized that my eyes were as healed as they were going to get, and a lot of the trouble I was having with reading had more to do with being out of practice more than being injured (at least, I hoped that was the case). So I committed to picking up a physical book at least once a day to see how it would go. I’m not going to lie – it was touch and go at first and a little uncomfortable, but after consistently trying it and moving in baby steps for a couple of months, I’m THRILLED to be back to reading 40+ pages an hour without any major discomfort. I feel like I’ve been gifted new life in this. As a side note, I’d be willing to bet staring at backlit screens fewer hours every week per my new digital minimalism goals also increased to the amount relative eye-power I had to spend on reading. Total win.

I have a lot of new fantasy series I’m hoping to try in 2021. This month I’m adding a couple in while still reserving most of my focus for the authors I know I already love. Wish me luck. :)

Have a great month in reading!

by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: Night Shift Dragons by Rachel Aaron

Night Shift Dragons by Rachel Aaron

Title: Night Shift Dragons

Author: Rachel Aaron

Series: DFZ #3

Genre: Urban Fantasy (ish)

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: They say family always sticks together, but when you’re your dad’s only lifeline and the whole world—humans, dragons, and gods—wants you dead, “family bonding” takes on a whole new meaning. My name is Opal Yong-ae, and I’m in way over my head. I thought getting rid of my dad’s bad luck curse would put things back to normal. Instead, I’m stuck playing caretaker to the Great Dragon of Korea. That wouldn’t be so bad if he wasn’t such a jerk, or if every dragon on the planet wasn’t out to kill him, or if he was my only problem.

Turns out, things can always get worse in the DFZ. When a rival spirit attacks my god/boss with the aim of turning the famously safety-optional city into a literal death arena with Nik as his bloody champion, I’m thrust onto the front lines and way out of my comfort zone. When gods fight, mortals don’t usually survive, but I’m not alone this time. Even proud old dragons can learn new tricks, and with everything I love falling to pieces, the father I’ve always run from might just be the only force in the universe stubborn enough to pull us back together.

The Review:

I’ve read almost everything Rachel Aaron/Bach has published and she’s easily one of my favorite authors. Even so, this little Heartstrikers spinoff series takes the cake as one of the best I’ve read from her.

Some of her series have these amazing 5-star moments but don’t sustain the same consistency of momentum. She’s an exceptional writer who even has a book on how to write 10000 words a day, but sometimes that significant word count comes at the cost of conciseness and efficiency. The final two Heartstriker books, for example, I think could’ve comfortable been edited down to a single, amazing novel. As it was, the drawn out plot and endless discussions about the plot had me questioning whether I’d still enjoy her as a self-published author as much as I did when she went the trad route.

Well, this trilogy alleviated all of those concerns. The DFZ trilogy is the most consistently good from start to finish she’s written to date. And also one of the most fun, which is saying something considering how awesome her story ideas always are.

I most appreciated the character growth, specifically between the main character and her familial relations. The dynamic was relatable and downright hysterical at times and I thought the growth felt more organic than not. I also loved getting more immersed in the DFZ (basically a living city) and learning more about how it has evolved. The main conflict for this book was completely satisfying and even involved an element of competition.

Recommendations: while I think this trilogy might be fun on its own, you’d miss a lot of nuance about the city and the dragon society if you didn’t read Heartstrikers first. Not to mention that reading these first would spoil the entire Heartstrikers series. So proceed at your own discretion. These are an absolute delight and a really cool mix of urban fantasy setting & writing style, fantasy concepts and creatures, and YA-reminiscent characters (without all the annoying tropes). Highly recommend!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: The Light of All That Falls by James Islington

The Light of All That Falls by James Islington

Title: The Light of All That Falls

Author: James Islington

Series: Licanius #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: The Light of All That Falls concludes the epic adventure that began in The Shadow of What Was Lost, the acclaimed fantasy blockbuster from James Islington. The Boundary is whole once again, but it may be too late. Banes now stalk Andarra, while in Ilin Illan, the political machinations of a generation come to a head as Wirr’s newfound ability forces his family’s old enemies into action. Imprisoned and alone in a strange land, Davian is pitted against the remaining Venerate as they work tirelessly to undo Asha’s sacrifice – even as he struggles with what he has learned about the friend he chose to set free. And Caeden, now facing the consequences of his centuries-old plan, must finally confront its reality – heartbroken at how it began, and devastated by how it must end. -Goodreads

The Review:

A superb conclusion to one of my new favorite fantasy trilogies!

My reread of the first two book in preparation for the finale was definitely a highlight of 2020. It hadn’t been that long since I’d read them initially, but there’s a lot of complexity to the story and the characters that made the refresher necessary. The added benefit is that the books were even better upon my reread, as I was able to retain all the details.

I’ve said it before, but part of the reason this series appeals to me so much is the overall writing style. It takes classic fantasy elements and then twists and enhances them into something modern and complex. I felt the comfort you only get from old novels of the genre, but was completely engaged in the endless plot dynamics. The series definitely requires more concentration than normal. Not quite Gardens of the Moon level, but up there if you want to appreciate all the nuances. I wish the first time around I’d paid more attention to name distinction because it was really easy to slip into character confusion (via audio, anyway). It’s not a light read by any means, but it’s well worth the effort.

Spoiler-free, I found the conclusion really satisfying. The ultimate resolution was something I predicted, but it was written so well that I still had all the feels (that’s a mark of a good author – even when you know it’s coming, you can still experience the gut-punch). Overall, I think in this case the quality of the ending and conflict resolutions was weighted more heavily for this series because of how layered the plot had been. I’d been so patient, trusting that the payoff was worth wading through the complexity, and I was not disappointed. There were so many fantastic “reveals” in this book, and I can’t help but feel a little like a gushing fangirl whenever I talk about them.

Recommendations: I was holding out for the conclusion before making my final assessment, and it absolutely did not disappoint. The Licanius Trilogy is now a favorite and an official Obsessive Bookseller recommend. I’d hand it to anyone who loves classic fantasy but wants more complexity and dynamics in their novels.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: Velocity Weapon by Megan E. O’Keefe

Velocity Weapon by Megan E. O'Keefe

Title: Velocity Weapon

Author: Megan E. O’Keefe

Series: The Protectorate #1

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 3.5/5 stara

The Overview: Sanda and Biran Greeve were siblings destined for greatness. A high-flying sergeant, Sanda has the skills to take down any enemy combatant. Biran is a savvy politician who aims to use his new political position to prevent conflict from escalating to total destruction. However, on a routine maneuver, Sanda loses consciousness when her gunship is blown out of the sky. Instead of finding herself in friendly hands, she awakens 230 years later on a deserted enemy warship controlled by an AI who calls himself Bero. The war is lost. The star system is dead. Ada Prime and its rival Icarion have wiped each other from the universe. Now, separated by time and space, Sanda and Biran must fight to put things right. -Goodreads

The Review:

Overall, Velocity Weapon was an entertaining read. Probably in the upper half of scifi novels I’ve read lately. It’s very character-driven and political, involving two worlds on the brink of war. I appreciated the slightly more complex ideas and thought the non-human characters were handled especially well. I also liked the initial suspense – it had a lot of interesting and dynamic plot points to keep the pages turning. If I can say nothing else about the book, it was consistent from start to finish…

… which may have been why the novel ultimately left me feeling underwhelmed.

I definitely don’t mind a slow-burn plot that takes a while to unfold all of its mysteries. I do mind, however, when that slow burn doesn’t eventually escalate, as was the case with Velocity Weapon. It kept the same plodding pace through the entire novel when everything about the story supported a careening finish. Unfortunately, the height of interest for me hit at about the halfway point and never really went back up from there.

The good news is, at least it was consistently good. If you like the book right from the beginning and know what to expect, chances are you’ll continue to like it well into the second novel.

Series status: I set down the second book in favor of other series I was more impassioned about. However I can see myself picking it back up eventually because the series is written well and has a lot of merit.

Recommendations: pick this scifi up for a slow-burn, character-driven political novel.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

Title: Fugitive Telemetry

Author: Martha Wells

Series: Murderbot #6

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating:  4.5/5 stars

The Overview: “No, I didn’t kill the dead human. If I had, I wouldn’t dump the body in the station mall.” When Murderbot discovers a dead body on Preservation Station, it knows it is going to have to assist station security to determine who the body is (was), how they were killed (that should be relatively straightforward, at least), and why (because apparently that matters to a lot of people—who knew?). Yes, the unthinkable is about to happen: Murderbot must voluntarily speak to humans! -Goodreads

The Review:

I’ll be the first to admit that I love Murderbot so much that anything published in the series immediately gets a baseline rating of three stars… anything I find particularly amusing above and beyond expectation launches it up from there. The full-length novel had all the Murderbot attributes but, after some distance from my initial impressions (and review), I don’t think the extended plot did the story any favors. It was a bit repetitive and could’ve benefitted from a more generous edit. Coming back home to another novella in Fugitive Telemetry was exactly what the series needed to refresh itself back absolutely superb rather than just merely awesome.

I loved this one. Probably my second favorite after Rogue Protocol. As always, Murderbot was a scream (the humor kind), but what struck me in this one was how much the character has grown. It’s definitely still an antisocial introvert, but you can now read between the lines to see that it actually is finding a bit of begrudging comfort out of its “relationships” and gets a little butt-hurt whenever someone snubs it over a prejudice. My favorite scenes here were the ones involving it trying to work with the humans on their very inefficient terms. Hysterical.

The mystery was very satisfying and the pacing was spot-on. I had to stop myself from devouring too fast because who knows when we’ll get another one. Martha Wells has truly created a unique voice that is as memorable as it is funny.

Recommendations: I’m a huge fan of everything about this series and plan to continue recommending it as often as I can. Murderbot is my spirit animal. I don’t care how much I read, I’ll never get tired of his sardonic nature. The series is especially recommendable because the installments are so short – they give people a chance to try them out without a huge time commitment. I don’t know about everyone else, but I was sold on the very first line…

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes