Grac's Never-ending TBR Pile of Doom

Grac's Never-ending TBR Pile of Doom

Mostly science fiction and fantasy, though the odd non-fiction book will crop up now and then...

4 Stars
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe - Kij Johnson
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe - Kij Johnson

I have to admit, though I'd seen recommendations for this book, I'd partly avoided it after having a not-great experience with a previous ebook by this author (formatting issues but also a story I couldn't get into) and then hearing there were elements of Lovecraft involved with it, since I've never read any and am extremely unlikely to in the future. However, as this novella has cropped up as part of this year's Hugo Awards, I thought I'd give it a go anyway and see how I got on. 


Our protagonist is a professor in a women's college who discovers that one of her most promising students has run off with a man and who sets off on a long quest to find her and bring her back. This is complicated somewhat by the fact that said student is apparently the granddaughter of a god and if the god wakes and she's gone, the land where Vellitt lives will probably be destroyed. In addition to this, most of the journey is happening in the dreamlands, since the missing student has fled to our world, the so-called 'waking world' with one of its usual residents. 


What I really liked about this story were two things in particular. Firstly, Vellitt is clearly no spring chicken and not only has a history with various people she either runs into or needs to help her, she has aches and pains because travelling is hard work. Secondly, less usual for a story of this length, is that it doesn't seem to just stop or really be part of a larger work that the writer hasn't bothered to finish. Both of those tendencies really annoy me in shorter fiction, which needs to be more self-contained in and of itself, I think.

My Hugo Awards reading list 2017

Just downloaded the Hugo Award voter packet - for anyone who doesn't know how this works, for the past few years it's been traditional for anyone who's a member of WorldCon to be able to access a voter packet for the awards which contains a slew of material designed to help people make an informed decision on what to vote for. Membership to WorldCon is still open for anyone who's interested in voting on this year's awards and also therefore getting a big wodge of SFF ebooks, though not everything is included as some publishers prefer to provide an excerpt. 


So, I thought I'd have a look at what's available this year and what I've already read, just to see what the likelihood is of getting through most/all of it before voting closes on July 15th.


Best novel: 6 nominees, of which I have already read 3. Two others I'm excusing myself from reading because they're second books in a series and I didn't like the first one. That just leaves me with Too Like the Lightning to read.


Best novella: 6 nominees, of which I've already read 3, so 3 to go.


Best novellette: 6 nominees, of which I'd already read 2 and I finished another one last night, so 3 left. 


Best short story: 6 nominees, I'd already read 2 and finished another last night, so again 3 left. 


Best related work: 6 nominees of which I'd already read absolutely none, because I don't really tend to pick this kind of thing up normally. A couple of the books look interesting, so I guess I'll be reading 3 or 4 of these?


Best series: this is a new award for this year, with eligibility based on a series with a minimum wordcount but also where something in that series was published in 2016. Again, 6 nominees of which I'd already read some or all of 4, so I feel I can make an informed decision about them. The exceptions for me are the October Daye books (with the publisher providing ebooks of 14 books!) and the Expanse series (where the publisher has gone the other way and provided just an excerpt of the first one). I guess I'll be trying out a couple of the former then, unless it really grabs me, in which case thanks in advance!


Campbell award: this is the not-a-Hugo for new writers, who are eligible for 2 years from their first professional sale. Too Like the Lightning is the supporting book for one of the writers nominated, so that's helpful. I plan to read at least one of the things submitted for each of the other 5 writers.



What's the damage? At the moment, it's looking like a minimum of 8 novels, 3 novellas, 3 novelettes, 3 short stories, and 3 or 4 non-fiction books. Given that there's bound to be stuff I won't want to finish in there as well, that seems eminently do-able in 2 months. 

1 Stars
Immortal Quest - Alexandra MacKenzie

I can't remember who recommended this book to me, so I have no way of deciding who is ultimately to blame for this deeply mediocre experience, but I feel a little betrayed anyway. 


It's rare that I finish books that underwhelm me as much as this one did but there was a sense of wanting to know if it could get any worse and also making a list of the ways in which the (clearly non-British) author would demonstrate that they didn't really know how life in the UK works. Particularly when you decide to send your characters off to a castle on a small Scottish island and then treat it like living there works like a big city - given the location of the island, the nearest Chinese takeaway is a 60-mile round trip, so your chances of delivery are less than good to say the least. 


Anyway, clear lack of research aside (seriously, you would not 'stop off in Liverpool for lunch' if you're driving from Wales up to Scotland) part of the problem with this book is that I didn't actually care about either of the characters or their relationship. We get told a lot that one of the characters loves the other but it was massively unconvincing and I was extremely glad it only cost me £1.30 for the ebook. I still feel like I was overcharged and they ought to be paying me, I would even throw in a free list of all the things that demonstrated lack of local knowledge!


Anyway, it's not particularly clear when this book is set but a final word on the importance of doing your research if you want to write a book set in a foreign country: if your overall plot hinges heavily on people missing ferries, make sure the island in question wasn't connected to the mainland by a very large road bridge in 1995. 

The Fox Woman - Kij Johnson

Couldn't get into this one, alas, not helped by the numerous text errors - lots of the kind of spelling mistakes that don't get picked up by spellchecker, not to mention formatting errors. Very disappointing from a publisher like Tor!

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
3 Stars
The Drowning Eyes - Emily Foster
The Drowning Eyes - Emily Foster

I'm starting to wonder if I have a bit of a problem with novellas, in that many of them feel like they're not actually stand-alone stories but are part of a bigger whole that doesn't (ought to?) exist. The Drowning Eyes is a case in point for this, although I had some other problems with it too.


The basic premise of the universe in which this story is set is that certain people have the ability to be Windspeakers and control the weather, though this is understandably a power that can be easily abused. As a result, the way it is controlled by the system is the literal removal of the person's eyes and replacement with a set of stones which allow them to be more 'balanced' and also to be more powerful, as they can connect with others who have a similar power. This power is used not just to move ships about but also as a way of controlling the wider community, as punishment. We also discover that those who've been brought up to understand their powers from childhood basically accept this procedure as part of being a Windspeaker.


Of our main characters, Shina is a Windspeaker whose temple has been overrun before the procedure could take place and whose powerful icon was stolen. She is, she believes, the only survivor of the attack on the island and hires a ship to take her to another temple where she hopes for guidance on what to do next. Her control of the weather plays an important part in the story, firstly to get her where she needs to go and secondly, to get revenge on those who killed her fellow Windspeakers. 


All well and good until suddenly, two-thirds of the way through the narrative, the story cuts off and jumps forward in time. Maybe I missed it, but there doesn't seem to be any mention of whether or not Shina managed to get the icon back, when the last we saw of her was her literally throwing herself into the harbour in search of it. Likewise the ending is a bit unclear and leaves the entirety of <I>The Drowning Eyes</i> feeling for me as though it's parts of a larger novel rather than a complete story in and of itself. The writer clearly has the talent to produce something worth reading but this format leaves me wanting more than just the rest of the story. 

Books read (or not!) in December
The White City  - Simon Morden The Nameless City - Faith Erin Hicks Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game & the Race for Empire in Central Asia - Karl Ernest Meyer, Shareen Blair Brysac The House of Discarded Dreams by Ekaterina Sedia (2010-11-18) - Ekaterina Sedia The Desert of Souls - Howard Andrew Jones Kicking Off: How Women in Sport Are Changing the Game - Sarah Shephard A Taste of Honey - Kai Ashante Wilson The Bones of the Old Ones - Howard Andrew Jones Europe at Midnight - Dave Hutchinson Traitor's Blade - Sebastien de Castell

Books started: 12 (including the 2 I'm currently reading)

Books finished: 10

Books not finished: 0


Genre: This month sees the rare appearance of a couple of non-fiction books among the usual SFF - I've always been fascinated by Central Asia and so Tournament of Shadows had been on my bookcase for a while and also took a while to get through!


What progress on Mount TBR? Got rid of a couple and haven't added any, so I guess that's progress? 


Book of the month: To be perfectly honest, while I've enjoyed the books I've read this month (though the ongoing sluggishness of Booklikes makes me not want to review them and say why!), none of them really stand out. 

Books of the year, 2016 edition!

Yep, it's that time of year again and I'm looking back at the best things I've read this year - let's try and do this in categories, shall we?


Science fiction: We started the year off with Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor, a first contact novel set in Nigeria, before what might be a real contender for next year's Best Novel Hugo, the wonderful Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. The other book which is a contender, though I know it's unlikely a middle book in a trilogy will pick up that prize, was the awesome The Obelisk Gate by NK Jemisin. Seriously, if you haven't read it (though you need to read The Fifth Season first, or else you won't understand most of what's going on or why it was a deserving winner of the Hugo for Best Novel), what are you waiting for?


Young Adult: It feels like this should be a category on its own, if only to recognise the excellence of A Gathering of Shadows by VE Schwab, another middle book of a trilogy which left me with yet another horrific cliffhanger ending. Pah. I think Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace gets to go in the YA category as well. Another great discovery has been Lila Bowen, whose book Wake of Vultures I loved last year and the sequel, Conspiracy ofprobably like nothing you've ever read before. And then there's also the excellent Updraft by Fran Wilde, which finally came out in paperback in the UK a couple of months ago.

Fantasy: No surprises for me in terms of the quality of City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett, a middle book that doesn't lag at all and which made an appearance around the same time as I was enjoying the first 'season' of serialised story Tremontaine (a prequel to Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, which is one of my favourite books). March saw the arrival of Uprooted by Naomi Novik, which subsequently went on to win the Nebula and World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. Two books for Jen Williams in any list I make for best fantasy of this year, as she rounded off her Copper Cat trilogy with The Silver Tide and The Iron Ghost, both of which were excellent. 


Graphic novels: A stunning debut this year from Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, which really surprised me with how funny and clever it was. Anyone who's been reading Saga for a while won't be surprised to see that series has carried on being both beautiful to look at and extremely thought-provoking. In terms of first books, I also need to mention The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks, which I finally got my hands on this month and definitely recommend.


Fewer reviews towards the end of the year, mostly because of the instability of Booklikes, so we'll see how the new year finds us...

3 Stars
The White City - Simon Morden
The White City  - Simon Morden

This is the follow-up to Down Station, which I reviewed earlier this year, again kindly supplied to me by my local library. Life got to me a bit, all the recent stupid political shenanigans in particular, so I was starting to wonder if I'd actually make my target for the reading challenge this year!


Anyway, the basic premise of The White City and its predecessor is that a bunch of folks from modern day London have found themselves in a mysterious place called Down where things don't work quite as they expect. For starters, there is magic and one of our group ends up being able to change into an enormous bird and light fires with her mind, and secondly the place is inhabited by people who have come from London in other times through portals like theirs. 


When we first return to Down, our main characters (Mary and Dalip) are engaged in a plan to try and create an overall map of the place and are both assisted and impeded by Crows, who always seems to have plans of his own. Both Mary and Dalip have made difficult decisions along the way, and fortunately there's significantly less this time around of Mary reminiscing about her childhood in care (which I'd thought could make a fine, but liver-threatening, drinking game in Down Station). 


This time around there's also dissension with the group who've come through with Mary and Dalip, with one of them blaming her for an unexpected death, which in turn leads to problems further down the line. Mary and Crows go in search of the eponymous White City, which Crows promises will answer all their questions, only to discover it occupied by those responsible for setting up the portals in the first place. There are definitely answers, but probably not the ones that anyone is looking for, and they set up for further books set in the same universe with a bit of a cliffhanger about what exactly is happening in Down. 


Anyway, I wasn't massively smitten with The White City, but it's not the worst thing I've ever read and it kept me interested so there's that. I'll probably check out any future books in this series, but I don't think I'd be buying them directly (rather than via my council tax).

Belated books read (or not!) in November
Last First Snow (Craft Sequence) - Max Gladstone A Conspiracy of Ravens - Lila Bowen Hexbreaker - Jordan L. Hawk The Hanging Tree - Ben Aaronovitch

Books started: 6 (including the 2 I'm currently reading)

Books finished: 4

Books not finished: 1


Genres: All SFF, though I'm currently reading a substantial non-fiction history book!


What progress on Mount TBR? Not much. 


Book of the month: A bit of a quiet month, mainly due to RL stuff impinging on my willingness to read anything that wasn't either long-anticipated or stuff I didn't really have to think about. Anyway, book of the month for November was The Hanging Tree, which was well worth the wait. 

4 Stars
The Hanging Tree - Ben Aaronovitch
The Hanging Tree - Ben Aaronovitch

Anyone who knows me already probably knows that I really like this series of books, while anyone who knows this series also probably knows there'd been a bit of a wait for The Hanging Tree to arrive, after the publication of Foxglove Summer in 2014. 


The Hanging Tree pretty much runs straight on after the events of that book, with Peter Grant back in London and continuing his relationship with Beverley Brook, though it starts with a tie back to an earlier book in the series, where Peter made a deal with one of the other genus locii of the city (Beverley's sister Lady Ty) that if she helped him out of a very bad situation he would owe her a favour. When his phone rings in the early hours of the morning and Lady Ty is on the other end, she wants to call on that favour and get Peter to sort out a problem involving her daughter and a drugs-related death.


Naturally, there's more going on here than just a simple overdose, with various pupils from a posh girls' school encountering more of the demi-monde than they ought to and a number of different people trying to get their hand on some very old and very powerful books. And then there's also the return of Lesley May, who had been Peter's fellow trainee back when we first met them both and was now working for the Faceless Man, a powerful magic-user who definitely doesn't have the best of intentions towards pretty much anyone, especially if they get in his way. 


Overall, The Hanging Tree was well worth the wait though it's not clear when the next book will be out either - I think we got spoiled by how quickly the first few books appeared and now we're possibly back to a more natural production cycle. Oh well. 

5 Stars
Conspiracy of Ravens - Lila Bowen
A Conspiracy of Ravens - Lila Bowen

Last year, I read the first book in this series (Wake of Vultures) and was absolutely blown away by it - it was definitely one of the best books I read in 2015 and was also one of the most original. So I'd been waiting for Conspiracy of Ravens to come out for almost a year and finally got my hands on it a little while ago, courtesy of my local library...


This book pretty much carries on from where Wake of Vultures left off, with Rhett having killed the Cannibal Owl and trying to come to terms with who he is as a shapeshifter. All he knows is that he becomes some kind of enormous bird of prey, but initially he's quite concerned that when he's the bird, he doesn't really want to change back and be human again. While in the desert, Rhett encounters another shapeshifter who turns out to be an escapee from a railroad gang which is pretty much functioning on forced labour - Earl is desperate for the Rangers to help him rescue his brother and hopefully also kill the man in charge, who is using various body parts for magical purposes. 


Initially reluctant, Rhett is swayed by the idea of dealing out justice and also the possibility that there's a healer in that camp who can help one of his other friends. Earl also helps Rhett to start to get some control over his changes between man and bird, and Rhett eventually infiltrates the railroad camp with a view to putting a particular plan into action. Naturally, because Conspiracy of Ravens is part of a series, things don't go completely as Rhett hopes and so sets up the storyline for the next book. 


More great writing, maybe with a little more implied sex than was really necessary, but a total page-turner. I can't wait to see what Rhett does next and I hope Book 3 comes out soon!

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
4 Stars
Last First Snow - Max Gladstone
Last First Snow (Craft Sequence) - Max Gladstone

This may be a little bit confusing at times, because Last First Snow is actually chronologically the first book in the Craft Sequence but is the 4th book in terms of publication and we also have characters making an appearance here before they turn up in 'later' books I've already read...


Last First Snow is set in the sprawling city of Dresediel Lex, just like Two Serpents Rise, though our protagonist for much of the book is not Caleb but his father Temoc - Caleb does make an appearance but he's a child in this book. Because I'd read Two Serpents Rise first, I knew what Temoc was going to do at some point but Gladstone does a great job of making Temoc himself much more sympathetic as a character than the man we meet some years later and often from his son's perspective. 


We also encounter Elayne Kevarian, who is one of Tara Abernathy's mentors in Three Parts Dead, though a younger and somewhat less jaded version, even though she's a survivor of the war which led to the death of Temoc's gods. The King in Red, their Craftsman-powered destroyer and new ruler of the city is also here, though at least by the time we encounter him again in Two Serpents Rise he seems to have learned a thing or two about self-control. 


The story itself is set around an attempt at gentrification, as the territory once occupied by the slaves kept for sacrifice and work by the gods is being targeted for redevelopment. Elayne is brought in to try and broker a deal between the locals and those who want to profit from the place, especially as all the protections on that area are now breaking down following the death of the gods who underpinned them. She and Temoc find themselves embroiled in attempted insurance fraud and financial shenanigans, even as the King in Red massively over-reacts to a relatively peaceful occupation. 


It's going to be interesting to read these books all in chronological order once I get hold of a copy of the final one, Four Roads Cross, which sees the storyline return to Alt Coulumb and pulls in both Tara Abernathy and a bunch of other familiar faces.

Books read (or not!) in October
Spirit Gate - Kate Elliott Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen - Garth Nix Travel Light - Naomi Mitchison Thieftaker - D.B. Jackson Gunpowder Alchemy (The Gunpowder Chronicles) - Jeannie Lin Annihilation - Jeff VanderMeer Black Widow Volume 1: The Finely Woven Thread - Nathan Edmondson, Phil Noto The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 3: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now - Erica Henderson, Ryan North Updraft - Fran Wilde Saving Bletchley Park - Sue Black

Books started: 13 (including the 2 I'm reading currently...)

Books finished: 10

Books not finished: 1


Genre breakdown: As usual, it's SFF all the way, though this time one exception when I was given a copy of Saving Bletchley Park, which is non-fiction.


What progress on Mount TBR?: Some, but not much. Oh well. 


Book of the month: In terms of the books I've finished reading, the clear winner this month is Updraft, which is excellent. 

5 Stars
Updraft - Fran Wilde
Updraft - Fran Wilde

It feels like I'd been waiting to read Updraft for a long time, as it came out in the US last year and has finally come out in paperback in the UK in the last few weeks. As you can imagine, it's a bit frustrating to be that far behind what everyone else seems to be reading...


Anyway, on to the book itself. I have to admit, it was a bit of a slow-starter for me and for a while I wondered what all the fuss was about, but then it kicked things up a gear or three and I was hooked. All of this despite the fact it's written first person, which as anyone who reads my reviews will know, is personally a hard sell. 


The basic premise of Updraft is that the people in the story are living in towers made of a bone-like substance, one which is encouraged to grow and form new living areas as a reward for following the many Laws. Yep, Laws with a capital L, because we're in fantasy land here and random nouns get capitalised. Because of the towers thing, as nobody goes downwards if they can help it and there are only so many bridges between some of the towers, the main mode of transport is flying (but we're talking complicated gliding methods here, using man-made wings). The main rite of passage for teenagers is about flight and proving that you know the Laws and it's that which our main character, Kirit, is working towards. 

Except that, right at the start of the book she breaks a major Law and also nearly gets herself killed, but reveals that she has a particular talent to deal with a major threat to the tower system. From that point on, Kirit is up against the folks who enforce the Laws, who want her to join them even though the only thing she wants is to work with her mother and be a trader between the towers. Because it would be a short book otherwise, you can probably guess that Kirit doesn't get her way but that unwanted move also puts her right into the middle of finding out all the things the people in charge don't want anyone else to know. 


Anyway, the book rattles on and secrets are revealed, with the story continuing pretty much immediately in the next book in the series (Cloudbound) which is told from the perspective of another character, not Kirit. That deals with the difficult situation of what you do after you've overthrown the folks in charge and I'm looking forward to reading it.

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
3 Stars
Annihilation - Jeff Vandermeer
Annihilation - Jeff VanderMeer

From reading the other reviews of Annihilation, this seems to be one of those books which people either love beyond reason or are underwhelmed by and I've definitely fallen into the latter category more than the former. Not that it's a bad book and I certainly wanted to know what the hell was going on, not that I felt that I got any kind of resolution and, for me at least, that's one of the problems with it...


The basic premise of Annihilation, which is the first of a trilogy, is that there's a part of the world called Area X which is apparently encroaching on the rest very slowly and the folks of the Southern Reach have been sending expeditions in to find out what's going on. This requires some kind of hypnotism, as apparently it's impossible to cross over without it, and it's also unclear exactly how many expeditions have been sent even though none of them seem to have been either successful or to have survived unaffected. Partway through the book our main character finds a room full of journals which suggests hundreds of expeditions rather than the dozen or so she's been told about, but she's seriously losing the plot by that time so how reliable is her perspective anyway?


Yes, this is serious unreliable narrator territory, right from early on. There is 'something' living in an underground tunnel which is slowly writing post-apocalyptic ramblings on a wall going down into the earth, writing which turns out to be made of fungus and our protagonist breathes in some spores. From that point she begins to change, firstly in that she can no longer be controlled by the leader of their expedition who has been using hypnotic suggestion (the title of the book being one of them) to get her own way all the time. Anyway, bad things happen to the other expedition members and our hero (if she can be called that) starts to suspect that folks from other expeditions never really left Area X even though they supposedly returned home afterwards. 


This was one of the points where things broke down a little for me, as our protagonist is pushed to join an expedition to find out what happened to her husband, a doctor on a previous expedition, but a lot of the time she seems quite flat as a character. Still, I read the entire thing even though it doesn't really have a resolution, and will probably read the next one (Authority) since my library has a copy. 

4 Stars
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, volumes 1-3
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 1: Squirrel Power - Ryan North, Erica Henderson The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 2: Squirrel You Know It's True - Marvel Comics The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 3: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now - Erica Henderson, Ryan North

I really only got into graphic novels in recent years, but I'm heartened (or possibly concerned, I'm not sure which) to see them creep across the shelf of my bookcase where they all live as time passes. While it's true that graphic novels don't have to be about superheroes (and if you don't take my word for that, go read Saga or The Wicked and the Divine and see if you're not convinced) some of the best still are...


Which is where we come to talking about Doreen Green, star of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, whose adventures I've been reading with much enjoyment - I recently read volume 3, with collections also having the virtue of gathering together assorted issues of other comic runs which might be relevant (so, for volume 3, an issue of Howard the Duck since there was a crossover).


The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is another example of talented writers and artists taking a character and making it their own, much like the current Ms Marvel run which has introduced and developed the amazing Kamala Khan. Doreen Green lives in the attic at Avengers Mansion and has recently started college, but still has time to battle against and alongside a wide range of classic Marvel villains and heroes. To date, by volume 3, we've already seen Doreen deal with Dr Doom, discuss her X-Men fanfic with Wolverine and travel back in time to the 1960's.


For me, the highlight of any issue is the footnotes, which can be found at the bottom of pretty much every page, full of in-jokes and references back to previous events. It's this, along with the liveliness of the writing and sheer obvious pleasure taken by everyone involved in making a viable superhero out of someone with the relative powers of a squirrel, that makes Unbeatable Squirrel Girl such a pleasure to read every time I get my hands on another volume. So, get ready to eat nuts and kick butts! :P