Image

Tackling the TBR [56]: April 2020

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 2020 TBR Tackler Shelf:

Physical Copies:

Audiobooks:

My TTTBR post is a little early this month, but I finished all the titles on last month’s list and found myself needing to get organized. I’ve been much more active in the book community since the end of January and have started requesting and accepting review copies from publishers again… and I’m a bit overwhelmed (and very excited!). I should be reading the ARCs in order of pending publication, but I couldn’t help but start the new Dresden book asap. :)


Have a great month in reading!

by Niki Hawkes

Image

Book Review: Anya and the Dragon by Sofiya Pasternack

Title: Anya and the Dragon

Author: Sofiya Pasternack

Series: Anya #1

Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Anya and the Dragon is the story of fantasy and mayhem in tenth century Eastern Europe, where headstrong eleven-year-old Anya is a daughter of the only Jewish family in her village. When her family’s livelihood is threatened by a bigoted magistrate, Anya is lured in by a friendly family of fools, who promise her money in exchange for helping them capture the last dragon in Kievan Rus. This seems easy enough, until she finds out that the scary old dragon isn’t as old—or as scary—as everyone thought. Now Anya is faced with a choice: save the dragon, or save her family. -Goodreads

The Review:

Anya and the Dragon was a lovely middle grade story with enough interesting elements to make it a great pick for kids to read with their parents.

I haven’t had a lot of patience for middle grade novels lately, but considering the premise and the fact that it got recognized at the ALA Media Awards, I decided to accept a review copy…

And I liked it. ^_^

It’s always fun to see different cultures represented in fantasy books, and I thought the author did an especially good job at immersing the reader in the “Tenth century Eastern Europe” lifestyle (insofar as is appropriate for a middle grade book). It also covered a few more serious topics dealing with prejudice and oppression of Jewish families at that time, which was nice to see. Both of these factors are why I think the book has so much hype.

Anya was a great main character. Faced with a moral dilemma, she showcased her ability to make hard decisions, and I appreciate that she was so humble even when she was being most brave. A lot of MG heroes seem to have to put on over-dramatic airs and make a lot of stupid decisions to prove they’re worthy, but Anya’s demeanor was subtle and lovely. The positive takeaway was that actions driven by kindness can be powerful too.

Here’s the caveat: there weren’t a lot of fantasy elements through most of the novel (well, that’s not strictly true – they were there in the background, but never really felt like the focus). The selling point was the relatable main character and the cultural immersion. The dragon doesn’t come into play until much later in the book, and when it does, it’s vastly different than I think most fantasy readers will expect. Mostly because it’s geared to be more accessible to kids. It’s friendlier storytelling, if that makes sense. I didn’t dislike it – it was actually kind of fun to be surprised a bit, but when I became apparent that the fantasy elements were secondary, I felt my enthusiasm and attention waning. That aside, it was still a fun story.

Recommendations: this is a lovely, culturally-infused middle grade book that would be fun to read with a child (or to have them read on their own). I think it may be a tad too accessible for adult fantasy enthusiasts, but it’s entertaining nonetheless if you’re in the mood for something light. It’s definitely better than most middle grade novels I’ve tried lately, so we’ll give it big kudos for that. :)

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

Image

Book Review: Smoke Bitten by Patricia Briggs

Smoke Bitten by Patricia Briggs [March 10, 2020]

Title: Smoke Bitten

Author: Patricia Briggs

Series: Mercy Thompson #12

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: I am Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman. My only “superpowers” are that I turn into a thirty-five pound coyote and fix Volkswagens. But I have friends in odd places and a pack of werewolves at my back. It looks like I’m going to need them. Centuries ago, the fae dwelt in Underhill–until she locked her doors against them. They left behind their great castles and troves of magical artifacts. They abandoned their prisoners and their pets. Without the fae to mind them, those creatures who remained behind roamed freely through Underhill wreaking havoc. Only the deadliest survived. Now one of those prisoners has escaped. It can look like anyone, any creature it chooses. But if it bites you, it controls you. It lives for chaos and destruction. It can make you do anything–even kill the person you love the most. Now it is here, in the Tri-Cities. In my territory. It won’t, can’t, remain. Not if I have anything to say about it. -Goodreads

The Review

Smoke Bitten was superb!

The plot was very engaging, involving the mystery of a body-snatching Smoke Creature, who’s identity I actually figured out around the same time as the main character. Go me!! But more importantly, I love it when books can get you involved in solving things out of your own volition. I’m a huge fan of Patricia Briggs. I’ve been following the Mercy Thompson/Alpha & Omega books almost from the start, and the saga is a strong favorite. That said, I was let down by book #11 and said as much in my (somewhat) critical review. That book didn’t have the same spark as the books before it and I started questioning whether the series was being drawn out past it’s prime. My main criticism was that Mercy wasn’t as pivotal a role-player in advancing plot as I thought she should’ve been (instead seemed more focused on the mundane). Soooo not the case here – she was central to all the happenings, and back to being that beautiful instigator of change I’ve loved her for. Smoke Bitten was easily one of the strongest in the series. It had an excellent combination of action, humor, sentiment, and world-building. This is a showcase of Briggs at her finest, and I can’t wait to read what she comes out with next!

The story is full of amazing characters, and the depth we have with each of them at this point is remarkable. This novel was a success for me partially because Briggs managed to take the deep connections between a few of the characters and forge them even closer. The way Mercy related to specific characters in Smoke Bitten was my favorite aspect of the story. As a whole, I love the pack dynamics. I love the relationships with magical beings. And I love the number of players involved that make future books so compelling with their boundless possibilities. Excuse me while I fangirl a minute…

Recommendations: I consider Mercy Thompson a staple of the urban fantasy genre. It’s also one of the easiest to recommend (most of the urban fantasy series I geek out about usually come with disclaimers… this one is just straight-forward awesome). It’s a top 5 (uf) for me. I’d especially recommend it to anyone wanting to get into the genre. I’d strongly suggest reading both the Mercy Thompson and Alpha & Omega books in order of publication. The crossover is incredibly high, and you won’t get the full experience in later Mercy books if you don’t read both.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

Image

Book Review: Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

Before They are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

Title: Before They Are Hanged

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Series: First Law #2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: Superior Glokta has a problem. How do you defend a city surrounded by enemies and riddled with traitors, when your allies can by no means be trusted, and your predecessor vanished without a trace? It’s enough to make a torturer want to run – if he could even walk without a stick. Northmen have spilled over the border of Angland and are spreading fire and death across the frozen country. Crown Prince Ladisla is poised to drive them back and win undying glory. There is only one problem – he commands the worst-armed, worst-trained, worst-led army in the world. And Bayaz, the First of the Magi, is leading a party of bold adventurers on a perilous mission through the ruins of the past. The most hated woman in the South, the most feared man in the North, and the most selfish boy in the Union make a strange alliance, but a deadly one. They might even stand a chance of saving mankind from the Eaters. If they didn’t hate each other quite so much. Ancient secrets will be uncovered. Bloody battles will be won and lost. Bitter enemies will be forgiven – but not before they are hanged. –Goodreads

The Review:

The first book was good, with flashes of brilliance… this one was better.

I’ve heard so much about this series. When talking to normal people (those who don’t read more than just casually), Abercrombie’s name comes up a lot. It’s a mainstream series that, for the most part, lives up to all the hype. It’s credited as one of the first Grimdark novels, and that sentiment is much more apparent in this second book than the first. Authors these days are taking things a lot further, but you can definitely see the base influence here. I held off on reading it for several years because said normal people kept talking about how hard the torture scenes were to read. As it happens, almost every other Grimdark series I’ve read so far has been worse (much worse), so don’t let that scare you if you’re holding off for similar reasons (or don’t let it overly entice you haha).

The Blade Itself (book #1) came across very much like a setup novel. The characters were worth spending time with and the overall story was interesting, but when it came down to actual plot-progression, not a whole lot happened. That’s where Before They Are Hanged improved: pivotal moments happened left and right and the story finally caught up with all the other brilliant story components. I loved it. There were a few moments in particular that I’m still thinking about weeks later, which says a lot about the content. I’ll be reading everything I can get my hands on from this author.

My only criticism at this point is the lack of relatable female characters. The women are either conniving, simpering, or so hard they might as well be men with breasts. And so far their contributions to the story has more to do with what they can offer the men rather than instigators of plot advancement. It’s a minor criticism because I still enjoyed the hell out of this book, but it did affect my rating, so that’s why I’m highlighting it. When compared to Brian McClellan (a writer I’ve been reading alongside Abercrombie who has incredibly similar components but ALSO manages to give satisfying characters of both genders), you can see why my current reading experiences would lead me to believe the lack of relatable female characters is was a missed opportunity worth mentioning. However, Glokta might be good enough on his own to compensate tenfold…

Recommendations: Before They are Hanged was a fantastic continuation to the First Law Trilogy – removing all reservations I had about the series from the first one. It has one of the best characters in fantasy (Glokta), some gritty action, and a lot of substance. I’ll happily recommend it as a staple of the genre.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

Image

Book Review: Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

Book: Starsight

Author: Brandon Sanderson

Series: Skyward #2

Genre: Teen Science Fiction

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: All her life, Spensa has dreamed of becoming a pilot. Of proving she’s a hero like her father. She made it to the sky, but the truths she learned about her father were crushing. Spensa is sure there’s more to the story. And she’s sure that whatever happened to her father in his starship could happen to her. When she made it outside the protective shell of her planet, she heard the stars–and it was terrifying. Everything Spensa has been taught about her world is a lie. But Spensa also discovered a few other things about herself–and she’ll travel to the end of the galaxy to save humankind if she needs to. -Goodreads

The Review:

Starsight was a little weaker than the first book, but still brought the fun-factor in abundance.

The first half of the book left me wanting a bit… there were too many “convenient” plot points for my liking. Too many things left up to random chance all happening at once. So it took a great deal of suspended belief to get me through it. The writing also felt rushed. Like Sanderson didn’t have time to get the main character from point A to point B gracefully, so he just manifested a quick fix and BOOM: plot advancement. I think it was disappointing because I’m used to a lot more finesse from him. I can’t think of very many instances in his work where “just go with it” would be my advice, but it definitely applied here.

I also wasn’t crazy about the direction the plot took. The new characters introduced seemed… juvenile may be a little harsh, but the tone of dialogue and overall presentation brought the relative badass effect of the first book down a few notches. It became more fluffy, and I had signed up for a more serious we’re-fighting-for-our-very-existence type of story. Another factor could be due to the character voices the narrator performed for the audiobook, but I didn’t have any struggle with the first book, so something definitely changed, and my bet is on the overall tone of the text.

So with all of those concerns in mind, the first half of the book was… maybe not a struggle, but I wasn’t excited about what I was reading. However, somewhere in the last quarter of the book, Starsight picked up a killer momentum that won me back over. Things got serious, crazy new things were revealed, and the ending left me reeling. It saved the entire experience, and I’m back to being super eager to see what happens next. I’m sure if I didn’t have to wait for the next book, I wouldn’t feel the need to be quite so critical of this installment, but seeing as it’s all we’ll get until the end of 2021, I’m giving myself permission to be picky. ;P

Recommendation: this series is one of those I’d feel comfortable recommending to all members of the family 13+. It has that excellent mass-appeal, really fun characters, and it’s from an author I trust. Personal biases from this second book aside, the series as a whole has been delightful. Give it a go for something that manages to be both light and fun, yet still full of substance.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

Image

Book Review: Network Effect by Martha Wells

Network Effect by Martha Wells [May 5, 2020]

Title: Network Effect

Author: Martha Wells

Series: The Murderbot Diaries #5

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Release Date: May 5, 2020

The Overview: You know that feeling when you’re at work, and you’ve had enough of people, and then the boss walks in with yet another job that needs to be done right this second or the world will end, but all you want to do is go home and binge your favorite shows? And you’re a sentient murder machine programmed for destruction? Congratulations, you’re Murderbot. Come for the pew-pew space battles, stay for the most relatable A.I. you’ll read this century.

I’m usually alone in my head, and that’s where 90 plus percent of my problems are. When Murderbot’s human associates (not friends, never friends) are captured and another not-friend from its past requires urgent assistance, Murderbot must choose between inertia and drastic action. Drastic action it is, then. -Goodreads

The Review:

There are few things in life that make me happier than spending time with Murderbot.

… which is ironic, considering it it would rather do literally anything than be social. The Novellas alone were enough to solidify the series as an all-time favorite, so discovering this full-length novel was in the works immediate jumped it to the top of my priority list for 2020. Network Effect was every bit as sardonic, action-packed, and endearing as the novellas, but took it one step further by adding even more depth to the characters.

The unique writing style is the best thing about these books (aside from character construction). It doesn’t follow typical storytelling constructs and often comes across as more conversational than anything else. There’s a great deal of punctuation used to convey Murderbot’s sardonic tone, and no shortage of profanity for comedic impact. I’ve never read anything that comes this close to how I communicate in my daily life, so even the bones of how the story was presented sang to my soul. There were a few occasions where the sarcastic voice was a bit heavy-handed, but this is one of the few cases I would rather a little too much than not enough.

And then we have Murderbot. The best character in sci-fi, hands down.

I think it’s my spirit animal. It’s awkward and introverted and just wants to be left alone to watch its tv serials and I can relate to every single solitary time it couldn’t bring itself to “people” anymore. But the brilliance in this novel is that, social obligational constructs aside, it still craves connection. And that’s where the story becomes much more than a action-packed sci-fi. It’s about a rogue SecUnit trying to carve out a place for itself in the universe. Did Murderbot make me cry? Maybe. I don’t know. Fuck off.

Recommendations: The Murderbot Diaries is in close running with The Expanse and Planetside as my favorite sci-fi on the market. It’s exciting, it’s funny as shit, and it has that magic X-factor that gets people emotionally invested. Start with All Systems Red, and I bet you’ll know within the first few pages if it’s something you’ll enjoy. I was hooked from the first sentence, and it has only gotten better from there. Consider this an official Obsessive Bookseller endorsement – this series is fantastic!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes