2020…what a major dumpster fire. Finishing college and graduating into a pandemic has left me with a lot of uncertainties, but not all of them are bad. Remote opportunities have been popping up all over publishing, which is a huge deal for many people living outside of New York and hoping to break into the industry, especially BIPOC (now if one of them could just hire me…). For a while, I had what I thought was a concrete, post-grad plan, and the pandemic completely threw that out the window. For someone like me, who relies on structure and certainty, this was terrifying for a while – and honestly, I’m still terrified sometimes. But I’m also really excited about where the future will take me as I figure out what I’m truly passionate about. I’m a pragmatist, so my career and education plans have always focused on stability and security, but I’m learning to take chances on myself and my future in order to ensure that it’s the one I want.
I’ve been a reader for my entire life. I’ve fluctuated between wanting to be an author, an English teacher, an editor, a lawyer – I still kind of want to be all of those things, actually. My aspirations have shifted throughout high school and college, but my core interests haven’t; whatever I ended up doing, all I knew was that I wanted it to be related to my English degree. Love Yo Shelf has been an integral part of helping me realize that I’m still very much a book nerd at heart, and whatever I do in the future, I want it to relate back to books. 2020 most definitely and objectively sucked, but here are some books that provided some much needed comfort along the way.
For too long the cruel, beautiful Automae have lorded over the kingdom of Rabu, oppressing the humans who live there. But the human revolution is on the rise, and at its heart is Ayla. Once handmaiden, now fugitive, Ayla escaped the palace of Lady Crier, the girl Ayla had planned to kill . . . but instead fell in love with. Now Ayla has pledged her allegiance to Queen Junn, whom she believes can accomplish the ultimate goal of the human rebellion: destroy the Iron Heart. Without it, the Automae will be weakened to the point of extinction.
But playing at Ayla’s memory are the powerful feelings she developed for Crier. And unbeknownst to her, Crier has also fled the palace, taking up among travelling rebels, determined to find and protect Ayla. As their paths collide, neither are prepared for the dark secret underlying the Iron Heart.
This is easily one of the best sequels I have EVER read, full stop. Crier’s War was such a pleasant surprise for me back in 2019, and Iron Heart did not disappoint. I love stories that explore the morality and consequences of war, and who people can become when fighting for a cause they genuinely believe in. Nina Varela’s skill with prose makes for absurdly tender moments in between all of the action, and I just. I love Crier and Ayla so much. You can check out my full review here.
9. UNRAVEL THE DUSK by Elizabeth Lim
Maia Tamarin’s journey to sew the dresses of the sun, the moon and the stars has taken a grievous toll. She returns to a kingdom on the brink of war. The boy she loves is gone, and she is forced to don the dress of the sun and assume the place of the emperor’s bride-to-be to keep the peace.
But the war raging around Maia is nothing compared to the battle within. Ever since she was touched by the demon Bandur, she has been changing . . . glancing in the mirror to see her own eyes glowing red, losing control of her magic, her body, her mind. It’s only a matter of time before Maia loses herself completely, but she will stop at nothing to find Edan, protect her family, and bring lasting peace to her country.
It’s rumored that if you chant walnut in front of a mirror three times at the stroke of midnight, I’ll show up in your bathroom crying over Edan and Maia. When I first read Spin the Dawn, I never could have predicted how much this duology would end up meaning to me. Maia is one of my favorite protagonists ever, and I recently discovered that the red string of fate trope is my ultimate kryptonite – throw in some mythology and folklore and I will never recover. You can check out my full review here.
8. WE SET THE DARK ON FIRE by Tehlor Kay Mejia
At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society. Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run a husband’s household or raise his children, but both are promised a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class. Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, but her bright future depends upon no one discovering her darkest secret—that her pedigree is a lie. Her parents sacrificed everything to obtain forged identification papers so Dani could rise above her station. Now that her marriage to an important politico’s son is fast approaching, she must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society, where famine and poverty rule supreme.
On her graduation night, Dani seems to be in the clear, despite the surprises that unfold. But nothing prepares her for all the difficult choices she must make, especially when she is asked to spy for a resistance group desperately fighting to bring equality to Medio. Will Dani cling to the privilege her parents fought to win for her, or to give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio—and a chance at a forbidden love?
And to think, I read the entirety of this book on a flight to California because I was spending my 22nd birthday in Disneyland – what a concept. But this book was such a completely phenomenal examination of privilege, revolution, and love, and shook me to my core. I still haven’t read the sequel, I’m so apprehensive of what’ll happen to Dani and Carmen, but that’s one of the hallmarks of a great book for me. As terrified as I am, I’m looking forward to witnessing a revolution and hopefully?? getting a happy ending??
7. THE BONE SHARD DAUGHTER by Andrea Stewart
The emperor’s reign has lasted for decades, his mastery of bone shard magic powering the animal-like constructs that maintain law and order. But now his rule is failing, and revolution is sweeping across the Empire’s many islands.
Lin is the emperor’s daughter and spends her days trapped in a palace of locked doors and dark secrets. When her father refuses to recognise her as heir to the throne, she vows to prove her worth by mastering the forbidden art of bone shard magic.
Yet such power carries a great cost, and when the revolution reaches the gates of the palace, Lin must decide how far she is willing to go to claim her birthright – and save her people.
The Bone Shard Daughter was such a pleasant surprise! After a slow start, I got truly sucked into Stewart’s world-building and became very fond of the dynamic cast of characters. The multiple perspectives caught me off guard in the beginning, but once I got used to them, I was so invested in the characters there wasn’t a single perspective that I wanted to skip. I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel and find out what happens next! You can check out my full review here.
6. THE RISE OF KYOSHI by F.C. Yee
In a small Earth Kingdom village, a humble Kyoshi must come to terms with her role as the Avatar and her transformation from a servant to the world’s savior. Burdened by her past and the tragedy she is still grieving, Kyoshi struggles with finding the balance between being the Avatar the world needs and staying true to herself.
Accompanied by her loyal and disciplined Firebender bodyguard, Rangi, and some rather unconventional masters, Kyoshi embarks on a mission for revenge. Embracing her ability to bend all four elements, Kyoshi grows into the relentless pursuer of justice whose reputation and legacy are honored in the beloved animated series.
I have been a diehard Avatar: The Last Airbender fan since it first aired on Nickelodeon, so I really shouldn’t have been surprised by how much I enjoyed The Rise of Kyoshi. I don’t think it’s perfect by any means, but it’s a fantastic tribute to the original series that holds up on its own as well. ATLA is one of those shows that gets better every single time I watch it, and The Rise of Kyoshi offers a grittier perspective with a similarly complex exploration of morality that’s a refreshing companion for people around my age who grew up with the show. Definitely recommended for any ATLA fan out there.
5. YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN by Leah Johnson
Liz Lighty has always believed she’s too black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But it’s okay — Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor. But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, Liz’s plans come crashing down . . . until she’s reminded of her school’s scholarship for prom king and queen. There’s nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, but despite her devastating fear of the spotlight she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington.
The only thing that makes it halfway bearable is the new girl in school, Mack. She’s smart, funny, and just as much of an outsider as Liz. But Mack is also in the running for queen. Will falling for the competition keep Liz from her dreams . . . or make them come true?
This was my first ever audiobook and a story I will cherish forever. It’s full of joy and heart and humor, and is so affirming for anyone who’s ever thought they were too much or not enough. I couldn’t help smiling while I was reading You Should See Me in a Crown, and there was no shortage of moments that made me tear up a little, too. Honestly, if you’re unsure of where to start with audiobooks, you can’t go wrong with this one. (Also, here’s my Scribd referral link if you want a 60 day free trial!)
4. TAKE A HINT, DANI BROWN by Talia Hibbert
Danika Brown knows what she wants, and romance certainly isn’t on the list. She’s focusing on her career and her thesis and doesn’t have time for distractions, so Dani asks the universe for the perfect friend-with-benefits, no emotions necessary, please and thank you.
When brooding security guard Zafir Ansari rescues Dani from a workplace fire drill gone wrong, it’s an obvious sign from the universe. But before she can explain that fact, a video of the heroic rescue goes viral. Now half the internet is shipping #DrRugbae—and Zaf is begging Dani to play along. Turns out, his sports charity for kids could really use the publicity, and Dani isn’t going to refuse. Dani’s plan is simple: fake a relationship in public, seduce Zaf behind the scenes. Unfortunately for Dani, it turns out that Zaf is a hopeless romantic bent on breaking past her stone-cold realism. Suddenly, the master plan Dani dreamed of is more complex than her thesis. Is her focus being tested? Or is the universe just waiting for her to take a hint?
This was so. good. I’m normally not one to say relationship goals, but good God, Dani and Zaf are definitely the exception to that rule. Take a Hint, Dani Brown is fake dating, friends-to-lovers at its absolute finest. Their relationship is built on mutual trust and support and patience, and they’re able to bring out the best of each other. This book made me yearn so bad and I’m not ashamed to say it.
Nothing is more important than loyalty. But what if you’ve sworn to protect the one you were born to destroy?
Tarisai has always longed for the warmth of a family. She was raised in isolation by a mysterious, often absent mother known only as The Lady. The Lady sends her to the capital of the global empire of Aritsar to compete with other children to be chosen as one of the Crown Prince’s Council of 11. If she’s picked, she’ll be joined with the other Council members through the Ray, a bond deeper than blood. That closeness is irresistible to Tarisai, who has always wanted to belong somewhere. But The Lady has other ideas, including a magical wish that Tarisai is compelled to obey: Kill the Crown Prince once she gains his trust. Tarisai won’t stand by and become someone’s pawn—but is she strong enough to choose a different path for herself?
After I saw so many 5 star, rave reviews from my friends in the book community, I knew I’d find a new favorite in Raybearer, but it still managed to knock any expectations I had completely out of the water. I cannot rave about this debut enough. The characters and their relationships are all precious, and we get to watch them grow up from gangly pre-teens to world leaders in the span of the book, so it’s no wonder I basically consider them all my children now.
2. CEMETERY BOYS by Aiden Thomas
Yadriel has summoned a ghost, and now he can’t get rid of him.
When his traditional Latinx family has problems accepting his true gender, Yadriel becomes determined to prove himself a real brujo. With the help of his cousin and best friend Maritza, he performs the ritual himself, and then sets out to find the ghost of his murdered cousin and set it free.
However, the ghost he summons is actually Julian Diaz, the school’s resident bad boy, and Julian is not about to go quietly into death. He’s determined to find out what happened and tie off some loose ends before he leaves. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian, so that they can both get what they want. But the longer Yadriel spends with Julian, the less he wants to let him leave.
I was checking my Goodreads review of Cemetery Boys to try and see if I could reuse any of it for the purpose of this post, and all I have written there is “I’M NOT CRYING YOU’RE CRYING,” which, yeah. You can tell Cemetery Boys was written from the heart, because it leaves you feeling all warm and tingly inside. Straightforward and amazingly moving, I have nothing but praise for this book. Check out my full recommendation here.
1. THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS by Chloe Gong
The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery.
A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.
But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.
This should come as a surprise to absolutely no one. These Violent Delights is easily one of my favorite books of all time. The writing is gorgeous, and it’s such a clever and original remix of Romeo & Juliet. I probably sound like a broken record by now, so you can check out my full recommendation for all of my gushing.
Bonus: THE MAGIC FISH by Trung Le Nguyen
Real life isn’t a fairytale.
But Tiến still enjoys reading his favorite stories with his parents from the books he borrows from the local library. It’s hard enough trying to communicate with your parents as a kid, but for Tiến, he doesn’t even have the right words because his parents are struggling with their English. Is there a Vietnamese word for what he’s going through?
Is there a way to tell them he’s gay?
The Magic Fish tackles tough subjects in a way that’s accessible with readers of all ages, and teaches us that no matter what—we can all have our own happy endings.
Gorgeously illustrated and written, The Magic Fish is a quiet, tender love letter to queer immigrant teens and the stories we carry with us. One of the fairytales included in The Magic Fish was the same foundation for Spin the Dawn, so you know I was immediately driven to tears. I never would have discovered (aka been wrecked by) this beautiful story without Skye, and I’m so so grateful.
Here’s to a kinder year for us all.
Fadwa @ Word Wonders
this list is what we call TASTE and it also reminded me that i need to make IRON HEART and THE SHADOW OF KYOSHI a priority this year. If you haven’t read the latter yet and want to br hit me up 👁👄👁
Lauren @ Love Yo Shelf
I think I’m gonna treat myself to physical copies of both Kyoshi novels for my birthday so I will definitely let you know 👁👄👁