Thoughtful Thursday: What’s the best book you read last month?

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsIt’s the first Thursday of the month. Time to report!

What is the best book you read in January 2021 and why did you love it? It doesn’t have to be a newly published book, or even SFF, or even fiction. We just want to share some great reading material.

Feel free to post a full review of the book here, or a link to the review on your blog, or just write a few sentences about why you thought it was awesome.

And don’t forget that we always have plenty more reading recommendations on our Fanlit Faves page and our 5-Star SFF page.

As always, one commenter with a U.S. mailing address will choose a book from our stacks.

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19 comments

  1. John Smith /

    “The Arsonist’s City” by Hala Alyan. It’s a sweeping historical family epic about a Syrian/Lebanese/Palestinian/American family over the past 50 or so years.

  2. Kevin S. /

    “News of the World” by Paulette Jiles

    I admit I never would have known about this book if not for the movie. It’s a simple, heartwarming story that is easy to read (my paperback is 209 pages). Very enjoyable.

    • Katharine Ott /

      Loved this book – it was my choice for our book club in April 2019. Looking forward to seeing Hanks in the movie.

      • Kevin S. /

        As I read the book, I had a mental picture of Sam Elliot or Robert Duvall in the role of the Captain. Not sure why. Tom Hanks is a brilliant actor and has played a wide variety of characters, but I can’t picture him in this role. I’m anxious to see the movie and I’m sure he’s terrific in it!

  3. SandyG /

    Flamescape by Gerald Hammond.

    It’s a mystery where a young photographer’s photos help the police solve a string of arsons. I had read it years ago and enjoyed re-reading it.

  4. Anna Stanford /

    Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) Review:
    https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3767290433

  5. Katharine Ott /

    My top read for January was “The Raven’s Seal” by Andrei Baltakmens. He is a Dickens scholar and that dark, dreary atmosphere permeated the story, mostly taking place in a prison. It’s hard to describe the book in a way that shows how much I enjoyed it, but I did – it was wonderful, especially all the descriptions of weather. This copy took a while to find and I have another of his, “A Hangman for Ghosts,” on ILL. So glad I read it.

  6. Katherine Rossero /

    Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir 😭😭😭😭

    I honestly didn’t expect it, but the sequel was even better than the first book (which is among my favorites). She’s just such a clever writer, and everything about the story, the characters, the world, pulls you in. I was so sad for it to end. I had to switch to a non fiction book to let HtN just dwell in my head for a while.

  7. The Distinguished Professor /

    The next Sunday Philosophy Club book by the prolific Alexander McCall Smith: “Friends, Lovers, Chocolate”. I even messaged him about how profound an impact his series have had on me, and his assistant asked if they could quote me on social media.

  8. Paul Connelly /

    Best: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade, follows unheroic Bily Pilgrim through his out-of-order life. Unmoored in time, Billy’s consciousness flips from his near death in an airplane crash to his boyhood, to his midlife marriage and successful optometry practice, to his time as a zoo animal on the planet Tralfamadore, to his World War II days as a POW in Dresden shortly before the Allies firebombed it. In the POW camp he occasionally crosses paths with Kurt Vonnegut, the author of this book, who actually was a POW in Dresden during its destruction. An anti-war novel, but without preachiness or dramatic psychological realizations, with some humor but more bewilderment at the absurdity and terror of war for those stuck in the middle of it.

    Gravity of a Distant Sun (R. E. Stearns) completes her Shieldrunner Pirates trilogy. Systems hacker Adda and her wife, ex-soldier Iridian, have to escape from separate prisons and evade the three “awakened” AIs that have been trying to compel Adda to help them. The couple want to try to get on Dr. Bjorn’s mission across the “interstellar bridge” to escape the law and the AIs, but they need to continue their life of crime to get money. Like the previous novels, this one is dense with incident, and I again think it could have benefited from shorter chapters. It brings out the claustrophobia of space travel, orbital stations and asteroid colonies; the background political conflicts and prevalent criminality seems more realistic than many space stories.

    An easier read, Devin Madson’s fairly fast-paced We Ride the Storm has the minus of using more generic fantasy tropes (struggle over who’ll be the Emperor’s heir, evil theocratic invaders, etc.). As in Chris Wooding’s Braided Path trilogy, Madson gives characters familiar ethnic sounding names that don’t make sense in the novel’s world. We follow three first person narrators: Miko, a Kisian princess trying to get her twin brother on the throne; Rah, conflicted leader of a group of Lavanti mounted warriors forcibly drafted into the Chiltaean invasion of Kisia; and Cassandra, assassin for hire with a sideline in prostitution (or vice versa). Cassandra has another spirit inhabiting her body that can be cast out into a fresh corpse but that eventually returns to haunt her. So her story is more interesting, but frustratingly has the slowest progression. Happily, book 2 just came out.

    Wonder Tales combines two shorter collections of Lord Dunsany’s stories, with half published prior to the start of World War I and half after. With the exception of one novelette, these are all very brief tales (2-5 pages) of the magical (or very improbable), in which the protagonist usually comes to a bad end, told in an ironic and sometimes whimsical style. Plots are very simple, occasionally nonexistent. The influence on both Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance is obvious.

    Nghi Vo’s When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain may not exactly be a shaggy cat story, but it seems a bit less consequential than Empress of Salt and Fortune. Cleric Chih in this one engages in an overnight retelling of a shared human-tiger legend to stave off being eaten by three tigers that have waylaid their traveling party. The embedded story gets prolonged as the tigers raise objections and try to correct Chih’s version. Diverting but rather slight.

    Also feeling a bit slight, The Factory Witches of Lowell (C. S. Malerich) is a story of proto-union action in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, with labor solidarity enforced via a magic spell. Two generations back some of my family members worked in the mills, but this story is set even further back, decades before the Civil War. It tries to provide an at least temporarily upbeat outcome for the adolescent girls who go on strike, but in reality the biggest union gains came nearly a century later.

    Re-enchantmd (Maria Sachiko Cecire) subtitles itself as a study of “the rise of children’s fantasy literature in the twentieth century”. But it doesn’t really cover that topic in detail, nor what the arguments for and against disenchantment and re-enchantment are. The author proposes classifying Oxford alums J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Susan Cooper, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Philip Pullman as an “Oxford School” of medievalist children’s fantasy creators. The book makes some interesting points, but it conflates a number of unlike things, including the five writers (who aren’t that similar in style, settings or narrative techniques), children’s versus more grown-up literature, literature versus Hollywood/Netflix fantasy blockbusters, as well as 20th century versus a bit of the 21st. Origins of Santa Claus and New Age self-help also get dragged into the argument. Sticking to a narrower but more in depth focus on the subtitled subject would’ve been more fruitful. Cecire offers fantasy authors the mundane personal epiphanies of highbrow literature as an alternative source of re-enchantment, but let’s face it, that dog won’t hunt outside highbrow literary circles.

  9. Noneofyourbusiness /

    Corum: The King of the Swords come to a bittersweet conclusion in issue 12, as Corum and Jhary set loose the lost gods and they kill all the lords of both Chaos and Law, including Corum’s patron Arkyn, leaving a godless, monsterless world for humanity. Cue next trilogy.

    In this issue, I couldn’t help noticing all the places where Rhalina just stands there and says nothing. Corum and Jhary are discussing the fate of the world all over the place, and she’s supposedly there the whole time but she has barely any lines. If I were writing a synopsis, I’d have to put “Rhalina says nothing” at the end of every paragraph. It’s embarrassing. Very disappointed in Moorcock there.

  10. Michael Voss /

    Far and away best in Jan was Peter McClean’s PRIEST OF BONES. Just in time to score $5 off the first sequel on Kindle too :-)

  11. Lady Morar /

    As I’m writing about a piano student, I read “Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story–How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War” by Nigel Cliff for my research.

  12. I have continued to read a lot of books, and am missing out on sleep! Most were romances again, so I’ll only briefly mention a few that I really liked.

    I read books by Sean Ashcroft, Keira Andrews, Jay Northcote, Romeo Alexander, Riley Hart, Cari Z., Alexis Hall, R. Cooper, and K.M. Neuhold.

    I missed reading one fantasy novel in January by a few hours–so that one will make next month’s post. And I’ve already read one SF novel as well.

    Even when I mark one of these romances as five stars, I often can’t remember the details without checking the book. The ones that stood out for me this month include:

    Alexis Hall’s Arden St. Ives trilogy (a university student manages to intrigue a rich alum–who’s had a messed up personal life)

    Romeo Alexander’s Men of Fort Dale and Heroes of Port Dale series (military or police/firemen-related). I started with the end of both series–My Kind of Christmas and Two Best Men, Only One Bed. The first was very sweet and the second I found quite funny.

    Sean Ashcroft’s Wild at Heart trilogy (all related to a wildlife sanctuary)

    K.M. Neuhold–I really like her books so, Ranger, Love Logic trilogy (book 3 just released), co-written Ballsy Boys series, Heathens Ink series, Inked series and Change of Heart. The last is about a man whose partner suddenly died. Several years later, he decides to find the man who received his partner’s heart.

    R. Cooper’s The Other Side of the Roses was unusual. The main character, Sami, is a 20-something of south Asian descent, living in suburbia, working as a CNA (certified nurse assistant). His high school crush, Toby, moves back across the street. There was bad blood between their mothers in the past, but Sami just can’t keep away from Toby. Toby appears to be on the autism spectrum. Sami’s family is great!

  13. Jillian /

    A Man Called Ove by Fredrich Backman! It’s not fantasy but it was so heartwearming and laugh out loud hilarious that I couldn’t put it down.

  14. I read an ARC of “First, Become Ashes,” by K.M. Szpara. It’s an urban/low fantasy about a cult whose followers believed they were being trained to defeat “monsters” beyond the community’s “border.” After a SWAT Team descends up the cult and arrests its leader, the protagonist escapes for his “quest” to defeat a “monster.”

    Please Note: There are several TRIGGER WARNINGS within the novel, but it’s worth reading.

  15. I really enjoyed The Midnight Library and the first four books in the Queen’s Thief series.

  16. Mary Henaghen /

    I enjoyed the Court of Fives trilogy by Kate Elliott

  17. Kevin S,if you live in the USA, you win a book of your choice from our stacks.
    Please contact me (Marion) with your choice and a US address. Happy reading!

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