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Tackling the TBR [68]: April 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:

April 2021 TBR Tackler Shelf:

I’m mostly satisfied with my reading completion in March. I finally finished Deadhouse Gates and managed to also find time for Blood Heir by Ilona Andrews and The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie. I went back to work from maternity leave and have been striving to find a balance between work/kids/reading. I discovered I missed my littles so much while I was at work that I didn’t bust out my headphones very often while home with them. Reading may have to transition to something I do at work and during commutes, which doesn’t offer a lot of time throughout the week. Careful title selection will be even more key than ever because if I’m going to find precious time to read, the book better at least be something I’m really going to enjoy. 

To that end, I’m continuing series with authors I already know and love and starting a new YA trilogy for my book club. Maybe by this time next month I’ll have found a new rhythm. 


Have a great month in reading!

by Niki Hawkes

 

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Book Review: Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

Title: Deadhouse Gates

Author: Steven Erickson

Series:  Malazan #2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: In the vast dominion of Seven Cities, in the Holy Desert Raraku, the seer Sha’ik and her followers prepare for the long-prophesied uprising known as the Whirlwind. Unprecedented in size and savagery, this maelstrom of fanaticism and bloodlust will embroil the Malazan Empire in one of the bloodiest conflicts it has ever known, shaping destinies and giving birth to legends. -Goodreads

The Review:

I started Deadhouse Gates in January… Of 2019.

The writing is dense, no bout a doubt it, but it took a lot longer than it probably should have to get through the book considering how good it is. Part of my problem is that I’m a perfectionist and a completionist, so if I was going to tackle a series like Malazan, I wanted to make sure I got the full experience from it. There are so many characters and places referenced that it really does take a lot of extra concentration to keep it all straight. And I don’t know about you, but as soon as I start to lose focus and get confused on which character I’m reading about, my level of engagement and investment in the story drops significantly. So I read this at a snail’s pace, utilizing kindle’s X-ray feature what seemed like every freaking page to make sure I knew who or where or what was being referenced. Not to mention that the writing itself is very abrupt and succinct, especially surrounding revelations and epiphanies, so I constantly had to reread passages to make sure I understood all of its implications. All in all, a very slow process. And one that is not conducive to dragging out the reading over several, uh, years. I kept putting it down in favor of things that took less effort and eventually, this past January 2021, decided to lay everything else aside and commit fully to Malazan. I restarted the book and overall, with my full attention devoted, it took about three months to read.

It was soooooo worth the effort!

There’s no doubt in my mind that this book and series (as far as I’ve gotten) are masterpieces brilliant in their originality, expansiveness, and execution. The reading experience is unlike anything I’ve come across before (clearly) and the total immersion required almost guarantees you’re going to take a few gut punches. I can see why so many proficient fantasy readers hold Malazan on a pedestal – it’s truly an amazing story.

Believe it or not, DG was actually a little easier to follow than Gardens of the Moon. There were fewer new characters to follow and it seemed like we circled back to them more frequently. I particularly loved the elegant plot construction. It was an intertwined, unfolding “dance” of information and convergence of characters that built to an amazing peak that left my brain wheeling. It was so thoughtful and so well-executed. I truly can’t wait to see what the author has in store for me next. Now that I think I’ve gotten the hang of reading this series, I’m hoping I’ll be able to clip along a bit faster.

So how do I rate something like this? If I’m applying based on merit alone, it’s a solid 5 stars. However I think it’s important to also consider my actual reading experience with the book, and the fact that it took so much time and effort should be represented (even though that’s just as much on me as it is the writing). 4.5 stars it is.

Recommendations: this is one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read and I consider the series a must-try for fans of the fantasy genre. It’s not for everyone and will require a lot more concentration than most novels, but the payoff is well worth the effort. Maybe try not to be as anal-retentive as I was in keeping the details straight and just enjoy the process (after all, if an element is truly important the author will most assuredly highlight it again at some point). If you can get into the swing of it, get ready for one of the coolest reading experiences you’ll ever have!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

Title: The Heroes

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Series: First Law World #5

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: They say Black Dow’s killed more men than winter, and clawed his way to the throne of the North up a hill of skulls. The King of the Union, ever a jealous neighbor, is not about to stand smiling by while he claws his way any higher. The orders have been given and the armies are toiling through the northern mud. Thousands of men are converging on a forgotten ring of stones, on a worthless hill, in an unimportant valley, and they’ve brought a lot of sharpened metal with them. For glory, for victory, for staying alive. –Goodreads

The Review:

The Heroes was an entertaining read even though it’s my least favorite of the saga so far.

But not by much. True, it didn’t offer a lot of variety in setting and plot (which I think accounts for why some may not have liked it as much) but it did make up for it considerably with good characters and a really creative execution of the story. It’s essentially a series of battles in the north that take place over the course of just a few days. Bouncing around POVs, it provided insight into what the battle experience was like from every perspective. In that regard I really appreciate the total immersion. There was one battle scene in particular that was done so creatively I’ve never seen anything like it before. Abercrombie’s deft writing style continues to impress me more with every book. He’s definitely solidified among my favorites.

I’ll admit it took me a good 25% to get acclimated with all the characters. I had to use a few more brain cells than normal to keep straight who was on which side. I also thought the POV bounced around too much for me to really get invested at first, but eventually we came back to the same ones often enough that by the halfway point I was super into it. It helped considerably that many of these characters we’ve seen before and I love how Abercrombie expands his reach to give secondary characters a moment to shine. It’s not something you see many authors doing. It’s also cool that some now have a ton of depth and development because we’ve been with them in past novels. It feels like a giddy secret knowing the history behind certain characters when they are still enigmas to those around them. I’m excited to see how Abercrombie ties in the stars of this show in future books. Not surprisingly, Gorst was my favorite here (though they were all good). Reminiscent of Glokta with his many dualities and entertaining inner dialogue, he added that heavy sardonic flair that I’m starting to crave from Abercrombie’s works. I’m not sure how I’m going to cope when I finally get caught up in the series.

This is one of those books which compared to other Abercrombie novels is a bit more modest, but compared to any other book on the market is still superb.

Recommendations: I highly recommend anything Abercrombie as a staple in the fantasy genre. He’s a master of character and writing and the more time I spend with him, the more he solidifies as a new favorite author. Don’t be like me and let the books sit collecting dust for 10 years before picking them up. They’re worth a jump in the TBR.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Decoy Princess by Dawn Cook

Decoy Princess by Dawn Cook

Title: The Decoy Princess

Author: Dawn Cook (aka Kim Harrison)

Series: Decoy Princess #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Princess Contessa of Costenopolie knows everything a royal should about diplomacy, self-defense, politics… and shopping. She ought to. She had every reason to believe that she was groomed to rule. But her next lessonis in betrayal… The sudden arrival of her betrothed, a prince from the kingdom of Misdev, has forced Tess’s parents to come clean: She’s no princess. Their real daughter was raised in a nunnery for fear of assassins. Tess is nothing but a beggar’s child bought off the streets as an infant and reared as a decoy. So what’s a royal highness to do when she discovers she’s a royal target? Ditch the Misdev soldiers occupying the palace, use magical abilities she didn’t even know she had, restore the real princess to the throne, and save her own neck. But first, Tess has to deal with the scoundrel who’s urging her to run away from it all, and the Misdev captain who’s determined to thwart her plans… -Goodreads

The Review:

Dawn Cook (aka Kim Harrison) is one of my favorite authors. There was a point in my life when her Truth series (written as Cook) was my favorite fantasy and The Hollows was my favorite urban fantasy. And this was BEFORE I discovered they were one and the same person. Talk about mind blown. In any case, while my tastes have evolved, I’ll still always love her works. This little duology was the only thing I hadn’t yet devoured…

And it was fun. :)

It’s one of those fantasy books that would be a great transition novel from YA to adult fantasy. It didn’t take itself too seriously and all the characters were fun and animated. I especially liked the hidden plot (involving a secret society) and hope she expands on that in the next novel. 

Even so, a couple of things kept me from really loving it. For one, the main conflict of the story. I’ve read a lot of fantasy novels recently with dynamic court politics and somewhat ruthless rulers. The situation in this book involving the King and Queen was just so bubble gum and unrealistic, it made me stop taking the story seriously early on. It’s hard to describe without spoilers, but suffice to say they got themselves in a situation I don’t think would’ve ever happened if the castle was manned by guards and if the rulers actually had any common sense. They came across very naive and ignorant, and those aren’t usually characteristics I associate with kingdom rulers.

The only other bother was the love interest. Grown men don’t usually drop everything to blindly follow a stranger around indefinitely, even if she’s pretty. It made his character profile feel rather thin, as if he didn’t have anything going on before she became his whole focus. It was unrealistic, speeding up the relationship development for the sake of advancing plot more quickly, and I think the story suffered because of it.

It sounds like I’m majorly knocking the book, but really, I liked it overall and plan to continue. The issues were just too prominent not to mention, but didn’t really affect the story much more than in plausibility. I was able to just go with it and enjoy it for what it was. It definitely wasn’t bad, by any means. It just wasn’t as gritty as some of the books I’ve been preferring lately.

Recommendations: this is a light, fun read perfect for those wanting a transition between YA and adult fantasy.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Guardian by A.J. Hartley

Guardian by A.J. Hartley

Title: Guardian

Author: A.J. Hartley

Series: Steeplejack #3

Genre: Either YA Fantasy or Adult Fantasy… it’s one ofthose that straddles both genres and I keep changing my mind on where to shelve it. It reads more YA, but the format of the books suggests it belongs in a different category. Perhaps even Mystery.

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: The city of Bar-Selehm is tossed into a whirlwind of scandal when the Prime Minister is found dead on the floors of Parliament: and Anglet Sutonga’s friend and employer, Josiah Willinghouse, is the one holding the knife. Determined to prove his innocence, Ang investigates leads throughout the city, only to discover even more chaos wherever she goes. A mysterious but fatal illness is infecting the poor. A fanatical politician seizes power, and rolls out his plans to make Bar-Selehm great again. Amidst these surrounding dangers, Anglet Sutonga must gather her friends from places high and low to form a resistance… and hopefully, protect everything she knows and loves. -Goodreads

The Review:

There are a lot of things I liked about about this series, but unfortunately The Guardian was just a bit too ridiculous for my tastes.

The author does a great job hanging a lantern on diversity, discrimination, and racism in this series. In fact, the whole plot of this book kind of hinges around those ideas. I just wish the story hadn’t gotten so far-fetched because it stole momentum from other really solid components.

For one, the writing. The author has a very sophisticated yet accessible writing style and I quite enjoyed it. Another great element is the cultural immersion through settings, dialogue, world-building, and plot. It has a 1920s vibe with some South African indigenous people and wildlife along with a subtle albeit weird fantasy twist. It’s such a unique atmosphere, I’ve never read anything like it, and that’s saying something these days. I’d also never heard of a steeplejack before but loved every single page describing the profession. It’s just now occurring to me that I don’t even know if it’s a real thing or just made up for the series. Whatever the case, it gave the main character some interesting background skills and knowledge that played an active part in the unfolding mystery of each book. I really loved that aspect, even when things got weird.

There were a few eye-rolling moments where I thought “okay, I know I’ve been pretty amiable about just going with all the weird ideas up to this point, but that was so completely far-fetched. I just can’t.” A few such scenes really cheapened a lot of the other fantastic things going on. I also thought the overall conflict was too oversimplified; resolved a bit too seamlessly. The idea behind it was great, it just needed a more realistic approach and a longer timeline to satisfy what I wanted out of it.

Recommendations: read this series if you want something fun, unique, and slightly odd.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The King’s Own by Lorna Freeman

Title: The King’s Own

Author: Lorna Freeman

Series: Borderlands #2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: When Rabbit joined the Royal Army of Iversterre, he was just trying to get off the family farm. Instead, he got mixed up with a magical from the Border, learned he couldn’t escape his noble lineage, and developed some surprising talents that he can’t always control. But with Iversterre sliding toward the abyss, Rabbit needs to master his powers quickly-before someone else does it for him. -Goodreads

The Review:

I still think this series is a hidden gem for all of its great components, but the King’s Own was a bit of a random tangent.

The first book did such a great job in gradually expanding the plot and the settings. The ultimate culmination of events left things wide open for the second book to push the boundaries even further. The stage was set for the conflict to get much broader, and I honestly thought this middle book would be a setup for some sort or final throwdown in the last book…. not so much.

The entire book was one random trip to a random town to solve a random mystery. And as far as I can tell, none of these random things added a single thing to the overall arc of the series. What’s more, it was a bit odd that, despite the interesting political maneuvering in the first book that shook the framework of this world, the king and his entire retinue decided to pack up and join the main character in this random town. For no compelling reason I could see other than the author just wanted include him.

It was a head-scratcher.

I normally don’t have the patience to continue series when too many tangents are in play. And although this was the Great Bambino of tangents, it was written beautifully and I somehow still actually enjoyed it. It did take me a good 30 or 40 percent in to figure out that it wasn’t going to go beyond its narrow framework, so I’m sure that was a factor. The main character is cool – I like how the author writes him with a subtle yet very distinctive voice. To my surprise, I enjoyed the writing, the characters, and the world building despite the fact that they didn’t add anything new of value to the series this time around (or so it would seem… I have yet to read the final book, so I could be eating crow at some point).

Overall, I both acknowledge that it’s a little weird and random yet appreciate most aspects of this book. The final novel will be telling and I’m hoping it’s good enough for me to continue endorsing the series.

Recommendations: this is an old hidden gem series (so far) that’s heavily character driven – the kind of slow-burn story that makes you feel like you’ve really gotten a lot out of your time reading it. The King’s Own lacked trajectory from the first book, but it was still an entertaining read. The jury is still out for the series as a whole…

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes