Editorial Articles

NJGENTERTAINMENT’S Top 10 Books of 2020!

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Another year is in the books, and boy oh boy, I think we can all agree that we are surely glad that 2020 is nearly behind us! I mean seriously… what a shitty year this has been, amiright? I don’t need to rehash the gory details, I’m sure we’re all trying to forget about most of it, but one thing that has certainly gotten me through some of the hard times was—of course—reading some absolutely amazing books!

Below I have gone back through the course of these months since January and have looked back on some of the books/series I’ve started and have compiled a list of the top ten of what I considered to be the much better stories. This list is in no particular order, and feel free to share with me what you considered your favorite books of 2020! I’m always looking for new recommendations to add on my “To-Read” list on Goodreads!

Just a few reminders: This will be my last post of 2020, and you can also check out my full book reviews by clicking on any of the hyperlinked titles!

Enjoy!

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1. From Blood and Ash (From Blood and Ash #1): by Jennifer Armentrout

This book series has been an unexpected hidden treasure of 2020, I’m so completely obsessed with it! Poppy and Hawke are an absolutely amazing couple to read, and 2020 gets even stranger when I say I’m such a big fan of a Vampire/Werewolf fantasy series! Strange times indeed, but If you haven’t read these books yet, I can’t say it enough: GET ON IT!

2. House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City #1): by Sarah J. Maas

It should be NO surprise that if Sarah J Maas has a book published that it’d end up on this list… that woman just checks off so many of my needs in order to make a book utterly addicting, and if not, I know to check out other authors instead of bashing her to change her stories for me! Oka rant over… This is her first “adult” fantasy novel—it’s also the first in a new series—and despite a weird beginning clumped with WAY too much worldbuilding information, it’s just as entertaining as her other books if not more, and is filled with every “fuck” that Aelin wasn’t allowed to say.

3. Serpent & Dove (Serpent and Dove #1): by Shelby Mahurin

Serpent and Dove was a surprisingly fun debut novel about a young witch and witch hunter who (of course) fall in love despite the world—that’s a little too similar to France—threatening to tear them apart. It’s a slower read than what I usually look for in the fantasy genre, but I still say this is one to check out for those who love a good forbidden romance. There’s many tropes like “marriage out of convenience,” “there’s only one bed,” “enemies-to-lovers,” and more I’m sure I’m forgetting, and Lou and Reed give me some major Nina and Matthias vibes from Six of Crows!

4. The Fever Series: by Karen Marie Moning

Image courtesy of thesaucywenchesbookclub.blogspot.com

It honestly feels so weird to think I only started this series at the very beginning of the 2020 year, it almost feels like it’s been a favorite of mine for many, many ages already. I am so entranced every time I open the latest installment in this addicting book series, and I can’t believe the final book comes out already in Early 2021! Full of mystery, scorching romance, and brilliantly executed plot twists, the whole Fever series is of course on my list. With having the whole series included, I don’t have the hyperlinks to each of my book reviews or the Fancast, sorry for the inconvenience!

5. A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire (From Blood and Ash #2): by Jennifer L. Armentrout

The sequel to From Blood and Ash that you came across earlier up on this list, A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire is so much bigger and even so much better than its predecessor. So many secrets are revealed yet so many more that are merely hinted at, some absolutely smoldering romance, plus a major war on the horizon! That’s only a small tidbit of what this epic series entails. I’ll say it again: READ THESE BOOKS!!!! I’d even go as far as to say this was the best book of 2020 that I’ve read, and that Casteel Da’neer is my favorite Book Boyfriend!

6. Silk & Steel (Silk & Steel #1): by Ariana Nash

I was not expecting to like this book as much as I did, but WOW did it sure impress me when I clicked on it to read on my Kindle! Its darkly intense, sexual, aggressive, but an extremely fun and (kinda) sexy start to a fantasy trilogy starring a developing LGBTQ+ (M/M) love story! I definitely will be checking out the other books that continue this story!

7. The Hook Up (Game On #1): by Kristen Callihan

This was definitely the best contemporary titles I’ve read this year, I just loved both the main characters so much! It’s a new-adult college romance, and both Drew and Anna grow so much through the course of this story, and I couldn’t get enough of the hot romance blooming between the two of them.

8. Top Secret: by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

Whenever these two authors get together and write an LGBT+ new-adult romance, it equals to a very happy Nick Goodsell! This was another college romance between two fraternity brothers who also compete against each other to become the next president, each of them having their own secret/personal reasons for doing so, but their love story begins all because one’s girlfriend wants to try and have a threeway! They anonymously find themselves on a dating app (not knowing they’re literally next door neighbors in the frat house), and the fun goes off from there…

9. Check, Please! Vol. #2: by Ngozi Ukazu

The second part—and conclusion—of one of the only graphic novels I’ve read, this book was a gigantic anticipated release for me ever since I’d first discovered the first book the year prior. It’s an amazing coming-of-age college story filled with laughs, first love, hockey bros, friendship, courage, and also plenty of baking from our cinnamon roll of a main character!

10. A Sky Beyond the Storm (An Ember in the Ashes #4): by Sabaa Tahir

I had to end this list on a high note! The epic conclusion to this series was an exciting if not bittersweet tale, but it was certainly a great way to end the year in books that also didn’t disappoint either. I can’t believe this series is now over, but I also cannot wait to see what Sabaa Tahir comes up with next!

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BONUS CONTENT!

Honorable Mentions:

Wicked Saints (Something Dark and Holy #1): by Emily A. Duncan

All the Stars and Teeth (All the Stars and Teeth #1): by Adalyn Grace

Aurora Rising (Aurora Cycle #1): by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Legendary (Caraval #2): by Stephanie Garber

Boyfriend Material: by Alexis Hall

Rhapsodic (The Bargainer #1): by Laura Thalassa

Captive (Beautiful Monsters #1): by Jex Lane

Thanks for Reading!

— Nick Goodsell

YA Fantasy, YA romance

My Review: Legendary (Caraval #2): by Stephanie Garber

Publish Date: May 29th, 2018

Number of Pages: 451 Pages

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Genre(s): YA Fantasy, YA Romance

***Warning!!! This review contains spoilers from the previous book in this trilogy, continue reading at your own risk! You’ve officially been warned!!!***

Too see my review of book #1 – Caraval – Click HERE

Total Star Rating: 4.25 Stars

This was why love was so dangerous. Love turned the world into a garden, so beguiling it was easy to forget that rose petals were as ephemeral as feelings, eventually they would wilt and die, leaving nothing but the thorns.

— Stephanie Garber, “Legendary”

A much lighter and whimsical tale amongst the many that fall under the YA Fantasy genre, Legendary utterly sweeps you away, takes you on an enchanting quest, much like the previous book in this trilogy, Caraval. Both are filled with exotic locations, mysterious twists and turns at every street corner, gorgeous men with devilish smirks full of secrets, magical gowns that can transform based off the emotions of whomever is wearing them, and dazzling lights of the stars and streets as those who play the game and enter a hunt for the hope of something more.

Caraval was a fun summer read that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, but there were definitely some things I had to say that I think could’ve made it better. I wanted more danger, more mischief and dark aesthetics; the stakes needed to be raised in order to add even more the excitement of this annual game. For me, Legendary seemed to have added all that to enhance the whole reading experience of these books! It was obvious that Stephanie Garber, the author, had decided to focus more on the storytelling aspect and less on the imagery and how it was described.

I’m sure it’s an added bonus for many readers that this time around, there’s less focus on Scarlett and more on her younger sister, Tella. Scarlett was our protagonist in Caraval, and the goal of the game was for her to find and rescue her sister, who’d been kidnapped as soon as she’d stepped foot on the island town where the game of Caraval was played. Not too many readers seemed to have liked Scarlett as the protagonist; she made some not-so-smart decisions, was cautious and sheltered, and was constantly the damsel in distress who needed the mysterious Julian to come and rescue her…It’s hard to get behind a character like that when there are so many stories out there now that have strong, fierce females who don’t need no man to help them out whenever things get rough. Tella is the complete opposite of Scarlett; she’s much more impulsive and daring, she’s more charismatic, and seems much more adventurous and courageous. I have to say she did make for a much more interesting story this second time around.

There was a much larger sense of worldbuilding in this book too that has to do with a larger story involving much mythology and lore that the author hadn’t included in the previous book. It involves the sister’s long lost mother, a deck of cards, and these ancient & immortal beings called “The Fates” that used to rule the world long ago, but have disappeared until recently. This had such a huge impact on the story and added so much to the overall depth of much more intricately crafted plot, and helped raise the stakes a large amount that the previous book needed.

I’m very curious if the author had all this planned out before she wrote the first book, or if all these new features were thought up afterwards as a way to keep the story going somehow. How much did she truly know before the first book?

Much like the last book, there were also a vast array of riddles and twists that I’m sure quite a bit of readers didn’t see coming, but there was also a fair amount of foreshadowing that I also think more seasoned readers would be able to catch so long as they’re paying attention. Some are more surprising than others, of course, but they get seriously much more juicy around the climax of the story. It all leads to a very cliffhanger-like ending that will make you want to get your hands on the third and final book ASAP!

I also love the theme that these books have become so consistent with; the whole play on what’s reality and what’s all just a part of the game. Everyone has secrets, everyone has their own motives behind their actions, and some are so much easier to read than others, and it’s actually so much fun to see how things play out, like, who are really allies? Who’s really an enemy? What are their true feelings for that character? Who the EFF is Legend already? The author asks so many questions about so many aspects of the story, it almost drives you completely insane at how much is going on behind the scenes and the rate in which they reveal themselves to Tella and you, the reader. I saw a comparison to HBO’s Sci-Fi thriller, “Westworld”, and it’s actually so true how the show and these books have such a similar theme driving the story. The whole idea of a park that draws people in, the cast of “actors” that enhance the experience, the story the audience experiences is entirely based on their choices, and there’s the scavenger hunt to find the ultimate prize at the end of the maze. It all raises some interesting points on the mysteries of the world and the human condition.

One thing I didn’t particularly like was how the romance building between Tella and Dante felt too similar to how it was built up between Scarlett and Julian in the second book. It was still enticing and a well drawn out slow-burn, but it lacked originality and just felt repetitive. I’m not sure if it’s the only setup the author is able to do in the romance department, but I hope for future stories that she can switch it up a lot better.

I’m happy to say these books are becoming a perfect choice for anyone who’s looking for a circus/theatre/performing arts-like story. Like Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles, these books have the unpredictability and angst of “The Phantom of the Opera,” mixed with the over-the-top campiness of “Moulin Rouge.”

What It’s About:

The Official Blurb:

A heart to protect.

A debt to repay.

A game to win.

After being swept up in the magical world of Caraval, Donatella Dragna has finally escaped her father and saved her sister, Scarlett, from a disastrous arranged marriage. The girls should be celebrating, but Tella isn’t yet free. She made a desperate bargain with a mysterious criminal, and what Tella owes him no one has ever been able to deliver: Caraval Master Legend’s true name.

The only chance of uncovering Legend’s identity is to win Caraval, so Tella throws herself into the legendary competition once more—and into the path of the murderous heir to the throne, a doomed love story, and a web of secrets…including her sister’s. Caraval has always demanded bravery, cunning, and sacrifice, but now the game is asking for more. If Tella can’t fulfill her bargain and deliver Legend’s name, she’ll lose everything she cares about—maybe even her life. But if she wins, Legend and Caraval will be destroyed forever…

Welcome, welcome to Caraval . . . the games have only just begun...

She loved the feeling of doing something bold enough to make her future hold its breath while she closed her eyes and reveled in the sensation that she’d made a choice with the power to alter the course of her life.”

— Stephanie Garber, “Legendary”

What I Liked:

  1. Donatella Is Now The Protagonist! The most consistent complaint anyone had about Caraval was how a lot of fellow readers found they didn’t like Scarlett Dragna. She made bad decisions, she constantly got into trouble and needed a man to get her out of it, I’m sure the list goes on for more readers, but you get the point. Tella is the exact opposite of Scarlett, and she is much more courageous and impulsive, and it seems like a lot more readers prefer her over her older protective sister. Personally, I liked them both and didn’t mind as much, but I have to agree I did love seeing more of Tella this time around.
  2. The Stakes Have Been Raised! There was definitely a higher dose of danger this time around that the books really needed, and it was nice to see how the lines between performance and reality continued to become even more murky, the plots became more sinister, and even more mystery shrouded the carnival event with people’s lives and the fate of the world on the line this time around. The question “Is this really still just a game?” was asked a lot throughout the story, and I love how the author crafted so much mystery and left so much up in the air. It also helps that there’s a for sure villain this time around too: You’ll meet Jacks, who has some seriously twisted thoughts inside his blond, bleeding silvery-blue eyed head. I’m not going to give too much away, but read the book and see for yourself!
  3. The Theme: What Is Reality? With the added danger I mentioned before, it also goes into what I also mentioned of whether this is all still just a game, or if now it’s real. You’re constantly questioning the motives of so many characters and all that’s going on behind the scenes, I liked the comparison I saw somewhere with someone comparing this story to “Westworld.” Now, some may think that’s a reach, but let’s think about it: the theme of “what is reality?” There’s the idea of a park where people go and become someone else, they let the game take them over, there’s actors surrounding you playing roles to only enliven the atmosphere, and then there’s the hunt to win the heightened scavenger hunt to find the prize at the end of the game or the maze.
  4. More Mythology/Lore: The Fates! Another aspect of the story that made this so much more impressive of a story was how the author added these ominous figures known as “The Fates.” Spoiler Alert as I explain who they were:…………. ………………… …………….. Centuries ago, they were these immortal beings who ruled the world and were agents of chaos, but were banished into a deck of cards by a powerful witch. There’s much more to it, like who each one is and a list of magical objects too, but that’s the main gist of it, and I don’t want to ruin the full experience of you reading it for yourself. It all does nothing but add to the story and continue to heighten the drama of how the story develops.

What I Didn’t Like:

  1. I’ve Seen This Before…I do love Dante; he was in Caraval but was a minor character. He was the pompous, hot, mean guy, so I was happy to see him receive much more attention this time around. I also thought he was a great love interest for Tella, but I noticed with him and Tella that it basically just felt like a total repeat of the whole dynamic between Julian and Scarlett in the previous book. It seems like Stephanie may only be able to write YA versions of alphaholes with a Mr. Darcy kind of vibe in her dashing male love interests, and I was hoping for maybe something with more original between Dante and Tella.

Conclusion:

Everything that I said needed to be added to Caraval happened in this book; Legendary was like a new and improved version on it with so a much more intricately drawn plot filled with much more sinister plots, daring twists, enchanting magic, and of course scorching romance!

If you enjoyed the first book in this trilogy, you’ll definitely love this sequel too. It’s not grimmdark, epically high fantasy, or anything too serious. These books are just a more fun. light-hearted, whimsical tale that can still entertain and enthrall all the same! I’d say just about everything about Legendary was bigger and better, all except for whether I can’t decide whether Dante or Julian is the better love interest.

Like I said earlier, I wonder if Stephanie Garber had everything all planned out in advance before she wrote the first book, or if she came up with it all later on or as she was working. I must say, she really does know how to expertly weave an intriguing story together with just about everything I love in a story: mystery and lore, unexpected twists, mysteries galore, second guessing everyone and everything, and of course scorching romance. You can bet I am going to for sure be reading what is sure to be an epic conclusion with Finale being the next title.

Thanks for Reading!

— Nick Goodsell

YA Fantasy, YA romance

My Review: Caraval (Caraval #1): by Stephanie Garber

Publish Date: January 31st, 2017
Number of Pages: 407 Pages
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Romance

Total Star Rating: 4 Stars

Your running through the streets of Venice, Italy at night with thousands of colorful lights dancing on the edge of your vision. The gondolas are traipsing through the canals, and a menagerie of people in glamorous costumes walk past. The sweeping feeling of adventure and slight danger as you turn towards the sailor that brought you there, the one that you know is hiding something, but you’re curiosity to find out overpowers the dread of the unknown. They take your hand, your heartbeat accelerates with attraction mixed with distrust as you run towards what you think may be the answer to the next clue on the list, and you forge on because it means getting that much closer to whatever it is you want most…

Thats some pretty cool sounding visuals, right?

This title is filled with aesthetically pleasing images and beautiful words that sweep you off your feet, take your breath away, and bring you on a magical adventure that so many readers, authors, and reviewers have praised since it’s initial release back in 2017.

I’d actually owned this book twice to be completely honest; I bought a copy earlier on, but gave up before I even opened it and sold it to a used book store, thinking that it sounded too juvenile for me and not worth my time, so that was it and I’ll never open those pages or even think about them ever again. But as time went on, and the other titles of this trilogy, Legendary & Finale, released and more and more praise rang out. That, plus a personal recommendation from my old store manager, I reluctantly bought another copy and decided to give it another chance, and was happy with that decision upon finishing this book!

This book was escapism literature in some of its finest form. I so easily got lost inside the pages; letting the imagery overtake my senses, and give me excitement over what would happen next, even as it got late into the night and I had to get up early for work the next day. It was nothing too dark or too serious of a read, and I think that’s what made it so much fun, honestly. There was danger, but nothing too dramatic or gritty as its essentially people playing this scavenger hunt in order to win an ultimate prize from its mysterious host.

What It’s About:

Our main protagonist’s name is Scarlett Dragna, and she lives on a tiny island somewhere what feels like some land thats similar to Italy or Greece, and she has one younger sister as they are the daughters of the Governor. Over the years, she’s dreamed of escaping his harsh rule, and has imagined going to Caraval, a once-a-year event where the audience is specifically chosen to arrive and to participate. She’d written letters to its mysterious host, Legend, at least once a year for many years, but to no response every time. Those dreams suddenly evaporate into a cloud of mist as the wedding day of her arranged marriage draws closer, but then the unthinkable happens…

She receives a letter from Legend. Inside, she finds three personal invitations to this years Caraval; one for her, her sister, and her betrothed.

Her younger sister, Tella, has always been the exact opposite of her. While Scarlett is cautious and sheltered, Tella is much more bold and impulsive. She allows herself to have more fun and to give into her desires. When Scarlett goes searching for her with the news of the letter, she discovers her down in the whiskey cellar in a compromising position with a handsome stranger. Fed up with their father’s unfairness, they decide to escape into the night and go towards their dreams, towards Caraval

Plans quickly change, and Tella ends up being kidnapped as soon as they set foot on the island where the magical event takes place, and it turns out that that she will revolve around this season’s contest as the winner will be whoever can find her first. With the help of a charming but aloof sailor, Julian, Scarlett races across the coastal town in search of her missing sister, swept up into the elaborate performance of it all. She will find out that things are NEVER as they appear to be, secrets are the way of currency, that everyone has some sort of motive and should be weary of being trusted.

How much of a game is it all, really?

What I Liked:

  1. The Aesthetics! Like the image I painted in the very first paragraph, the visuals this story paints for you are so incredibly gorgeous; I imagined Venice Italy celebrating Mardi Gras with Cirque du Soleil performers running around. Plus, coastal towns right on the ocean back in what I imagined as 17-1800 era Europe, and dress-wear that changes form and color with your emotions make for the overall setting of this story quite memorable.
  2. The Romance! Some people would say they didn’t like it or that it cheapened the story a bit, but I personally was a fan of it. A huge part of the book was the developing love story that was taking place while the game was escalating, and the mystery surrounding it along with everything else. I thought it developed rather well and I became invested with it as it was a great addition towards the enemies-to-lovers trope.
  3. Julian! I have to give him then MVP award of this book, because he was probably my favorite character out of everyone. Scarlett kind of took the heroine protagonist spot a little backwards, as she constantly got into trouble and needed a man, usually Julian himself, to come rescue her. It’s true its a part of her character arc, but I’d read too many badass female characters already to revert back to the damsel. Julian is bold, rugged, charming, secretive, and it was good to see him become a more important role to the overall plot instead of just being eye-candy. He’s constantly grappling with what he wants to do versus what he should do, and it’s great to see him usually choose the later, especially when it came to Scarlett.
  4. The Mystery/Lore of Caraval! It’s never really explained how the annual event came to be or how it disappears every year, along with the rumors and stories that surround the host, but the lore behind it all did add a whole lot to the story, making it more intriguing and fun to read! Hopefully, more answers come in the next books!
  5. Scarlett’s Terrible Decisions! The girl makes a ton of bad calls, no joke…if anyone’s seen the first Scary Movie, where Carmen Electra comes to a fork with two signs that point towards safety or death, I think you know which one Scarlett would probably take. I know A LOT of criticism towards this book is because of that, but honestly, I found it actually pretty realistic. She’s never done anything like Caraval before, she has a hot-but-distrustful sailor working with her and she’s constantly worried about her sister…whose mind would be in the right place during all that?! I’d for sure be making those bad calls too, and I thought it was endearing how she makes a lot of mistakes but still learns from some of them and finds an alternative path towards what she’s after.
SCARY MOVIE, Carmen Electra, 2000, ©Dimension Films/courtesy Everett Collection

What I Didn’t Like:

  1. It Needed More Danger…While her sister is taken from her and the threat of what may happen drives Scarlett forward towards finding her, I still felt like the stakes could have been raised even higher with this story. It hardly felt like there was any actual danger as it’s supposed to be one big show/game/performance, but I can say there are a couple scenes that change this around. I wished the author added more scenes like those ones to give this book an even sharper edge.
  2. The Abusive Father…With all the lore, all the mystery, all the magic, I still found having an abusive father like Scarlett and Tella’s to be a little more ridiculous part of the story. It made their decision to run away almost too easy, but what really made me scoff was how he didn’t even try to hide the fact that he was abusive…Usually, abusers try to hide that little tidbit towards the public or anyone else; he’d only leave bruises on areas of the body that wouldn’t be seen, he’d try to keep up the persona that everything’s okay and normal, and wouldn’t dare try to strike anyone else in front of others either. Nope, he smacked his daughters around for everyone to see; he even struck other characters later on in the story, and it felt like cheap plot manipulation just to easily makes us hate him, and we do, but it could’ve been done better.

Conclusion:

Overall, this book was a fun, entertaining, magical, escapist read that is safe, but a great addition to the YA Fantasy genre nonetheless. I haven’t read this other title yet, but it has what I imagine to be a similar vibe to Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus. Even just reading the blurb, I feel like they have similar themes, aesthetics and story arcs (Not a bad thing, and I do plan on reading that title as well some day!)

I will definitely be reading the next books in this trilogy because while the ending was satisfying, it left some things open ended and hints at much more to come, and I want answers! This title isn’t too dark, ominous or creepy, and even the romance is pretty tame, but that’s totally okay! It’s supposed to be not be taken so seriously; a little more lighthearted, fun, fairytale-like and dreamy as it left images of lights, cobblestone streets at night, laughter in the air, and the chills that creep onto your skin as you sneak away into the night about to do something you know is wrong, but it feels so right!

Thanks for Reading!

— Nick Goodsell