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Tackling the TBR [59]: July 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.
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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:

July 2020 TBR Tackler Shelf:

As I’m in book slump prevention mode (see my Snowball Book Slump Effect post from a few days ago), I’m simplifying my lineup this month. After some questionable reading decisions in May found me completely inundated with half-finished titles in June (that have carried over to July) I’m slowly getting myself back to normal, but recognize that I need to take things easy this month. Hence, I’m focusing on obligation titles first to get them out of the way which are Ashes of the Sun, Devils and Details, and Emerald Blaze (great titles! Just too many of them going on at once). Then the rest of the month can be devoted to The Light of all that Falls – a trilogy-ender I feel like I’ve been gearing up for these last two years. If I finish that then I’d like to start Poppy War and join a Buddy Read conversation I wanted to participate in back on June 7th (oye). It’s a good lineup, and hopefully it marks the end of my habitual struggles with getting overwhelmed by book commitments (I have a few strategies). 

Which of these titles are YOU most excited for? :)


Have a great month in reading!

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Peace Talks by Jim Butcher

Peace Talks by Jim Butcher [July 14, 2020]

Title: Peace Talks

Author: Jim Butcher

Series: Dresden Files #16

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Release Date: July 14, 2020

The Overview: When the Supernatural nations of the world meet up to negotiate an end to ongoing hostilities, Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard, joins the White Council’s security team to make sure the talks stay civil. But can he succeed, when dark political manipulations threaten the very existence of Chicago–and all he holds dear?Goodreads

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The Review:

Peace Talks was everything I hoped it would be and more. Totally worth the wait! ^_^ Especially because we’re getting TWO Dresden novels this year (Battle Ground is currently slated for release September 29th!).

The last few Dresden novels have been hit or miss. Ghost Story and Cold Days were by-far my least favorite books in the series. I briefly considered abandoning it, but then Skin Game (possibly the best of the series – PARKOUR!!) came along and fuego! – total re-ignition. I didn’t know what to expect after so much time between books, but luckily Peace Talks was more of all the things that make this series great: good characters, funny dialogue, supernatural politics, lots of magic, and stakes that keep getting higher and higher. It’s a relief because I wasn’t sure I liked the direction the story has been heading in the last few books. Butcher jumped the shark at some point and I was afraid it was going to get too far from the original essence of the story while dealing with the multidimensional shit. It didn’t. Instead it struck a nice balance between the familiar and the new concepts.

The book did take a bit of time for gentle reintroductions to the characters, but it wasn’t distracting. Frankly I could’ve used more reminders on the differences between the white court, the red court, the winter court, the summer court, etc. I’ve got most of it straight, but still get lost on occasion with anything to do with the fae. That’s more of an attention span thing though – early on in the series, all the evil beings sounded and acted the same so I never bothered to get them straight. Now I’m paying for being lazy because they’ve stuck around. Anyway, Peace Talks wasn’t as action-packed as Skin game, but it more than made up for it with political intrigue and plot-advancements between key characters. There were definitely a few “omg!” moments. The story arc didn’t feel as robust as some of his other books, but that’s probably why we’re getting another novel this year. I’m ready for that one to knock me on my ass.

Really, the only thing that would’ve made my reading experience of Peace Talks better is James Marsters crooning to me on the audio version. Other than that, it was awesome!

Recommendations: Dresden continues to be an absolute joy to read, and seems to embrace its flaws to the point where it wouldn’t be a satisfying Dresden novel without them (they’re not so much flaws anymore as trademark Dresden-isms). If you haven’t read this series yet and are even mildly interested in the genre, it’s a great pick (give it until at least book 4). Oh! And if you haven’t had a chance to read the novellas yet, now would be a good time to pick up the Bigfoot ones before diving into Peace Talks. ;)

I’d like to thank Berkley Publishing Group, Netgalley, and Jim Butcher for providing an early review copy of Peace Talks – you made my year!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Betrothed by Kiera Cass

The Betrothed by Kiera Cass

Title: The Betrothed

Author: Kiera Cass

Series: The Betrothed #1

Genre: Teen Romance

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

The Overview: When King Jameson declares his love for Lady Hollis Brite, Hollis is shocked—and thrilled. After all, she’s grown up at Keresken Castle, vying for the king’s attention alongside other daughters of the nobility. Capturing his heart is a dream come true.

But Hollis soon realizes that falling in love with a king and being crowned queen may not be the happily ever after she thought it would be. And when she meets a commoner with the mysterious power to see right into her heart, she finds that the future she really wants is one that she never thought to imagine. -Goodreads

The Review:

A lot of people seem to be aboard the Kiera Cass hate train. I’m not one of them. Her writing is what it is, and that’s okay that it doesn’t work for some, but the projected disgust at a lot of her works seems a little over the top. It almost feels like shaming her books is what it takes to sit at the cool kids’ table. And if that’s the case, I’ll go sit outside by myself and read her books while I eat.

That said, The Betrothed was not a strong installment. I absolutely loved the Siren and the first two Selection books, but this one left a few key elements on the table.

Firstly, she didn’t take the time to establish the main character’s credibility. Her merit as the perfect candidate for the king was just a given, and I think it would’ve gone a long way to start the story earlier and SHOW how she’s different and what circumstances made her that way. As it stood, it was baffling enough to see how vastly opposite she was from her incompetent and overbearing parents, yet she miraculously knew how to perfectly navigate court life and the attentions of royalty. It just didn’t add up. So the only thing left to assume was that all of her success has been based on purely superficial things, which is very much not a satisfying thing to read about… unless it’s intentional and part of the character’s growth arc (it wasn’t). It was mentioned a couple of times that the lady was the only one to make the king laugh, and she wasn’t desperate for the throne or his love, so I suppose those are decent reasons for her to stand apart. But it wasn’t emphasized, the characters even going so far as to discuss how random the first encounter was and how it could’ve been anybody. None of it accounted for the how’s and why’s of it all. I wanted more development.

Second, the character didn’t have to struggle for anything. Wealthy, beautiful, witty – this character entered the picture with the world at her feet and only petty court ladies and her own questionable decision making as obstacles. Skill without having earned it in stories is unrelatable, unbelievable, and a bit of a snore. As conflict is inevitably what drives a story, a character plodding along without anything substantial to overcome was just meh. It was doubly annoying for the character to be given the world on a silver platter only to dash it to pieces without a care. She’d faced some trials by the very end of the book, but it was a bit too late to make up for the lack at the beginning.

Finally, the character didn’t exhibit a lot of emotion. If she didn’t appear to care, why should the reader? A king is fawning over you? Cool! We’ll see how long it lasts. That bitch over there is calling you names? Whatevs, I think I’ll just make friends with her. Your parents are trying to rule your life? Meh, I do what I want anyway. It all sounds rather cavalier, but in execution it led to a character that just appeared to be floating through life without any real drive or desire to contribute to her own future and well-being.

Recommendations: The Betrothed was not one of my favorites. It did not highlight the things Cass does well, and that’s unfortunate. If you’re going to try one of her books, pick either the Siren or the Selection series, but be warned that her works are incredibly polarizing. I, personally, have delighted in a few of her books and still plan on picking up future releases (aside from this series). It just missed the mark. For an adult, anyway. My observations are mostly craft-related and I don’t think my 13 yr old self would’ve cared about any of that, but rather just delighted in the loveliness of the setting, the clothes, the jewelry, and perhaps would’ve even been enamored with the love story. Tame enough for younger eyes, I think this one would be better suited for tweens and early teens.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: American Demon by Kim Harrison

American Demon by Kim Harrison [June 6, 2020]

Title: American Demon

Author: Kim Harrison

Series: Return to the Hollows #1

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: What happens after you’ve saved the world? Well, if you’re Rachel Mariana Morgan, witch-born demon, you quickly discover that something might have gone just a little bit wrong. That the very same acts you and your friends took to forge new powers may have released something bound by the old. With a rash of zombies, some strange new murders, and an exceedingly mysterious new demon in town, it will take everything Rachel has to counter this new threat to the world–and it may demand the sacrifice of what she holds most dear. -Goodreads

The Review:

If you can just mentally delete the epilogue that ended the series at book #13, American Demon is a fantastic continuation to the Hollows series.

I kind of like that American Demon is an (initially) unplanned continuation because otherwise the series might have felt too drawn out. Now it’s moving forward with a fresh intention, and that’s exciting. The book dealt with the aftermath of the crazy things that went down in the first series, and it truly felt like a new beginning in this world. Harrison did an excellent job expanding the playing field by adding a bunch of new characters, and the demon Hodin became an instant favorite (I love characters with duality). But the best part is that this new installment is still filled with the characters we’ve built connections with over the first 13 books, so it already has that developed depth that makes longtime fans like me fawn over every page.

I was enjoying the story for all the things listed above, but what really set this book apart as a strong addition to the series was the inclusion of a lot of complicated spellwork. It was awesome! I remember Rachel spelling in previous books, but I don’t recall it ever being quite this involved. She was trying to develop a new spell, and I found every stage of the process absolutely fascinating. I hope this leveled-up component continues in the next book.

The Hollows is one of my top urban fantasy series. It’s not my overall favorite, precisely, but it is responsible for a couple of my single favorite scenes across any genre. Harrison really knows how to build momentum, and she has truly dazzled me with some of her most epic moments. But that gradual momentum that always leads to amazing payoffs takes time to develop. And so, as we’re just beginning another story arc in American Demon, the pacing is rather casual throughout most of the story. Which is just fine, because when a series touches you like this one has me, even the slower parts have a lot of merit. It was a great way to ease back into the world.

Recommendations: this is a must-read for fans of the series – the story quality continues as strong as ever. With that in mind, I wouldn’t recommend new readers diving in without first reading the main Hollows series. Also, Harrison published a really good prequel novel (The Turn) that she referenced often in American Demon, so if you haven’t had a chance to read that one yet, I think it added a lot to the experience.

I want to thank Berkley Publishing Group, Kim Harrison, and Netgalley for allowing me access to an early copy of American Demon – you made my year! 

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

Title: The Stone Sky

Author: N.K. Jemisin

Series: Broken Earth #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: This is the way the world ends… for the last time. The Moon will soon return. Whether this heralds the destruction of humankind or something worse will depend on two women. Essun has inherited the power of Alabaster Tenring. With it, she hopes to find her daughter Nassun and forge a world in which every orogene child can grow up safe. For Nassun, her mother’s mastery of the Obelisk Gate comes too late. She has seen the evil of the world, and accepted what her mother will not admit: that sometimes what is corrupt cannot be cleansed, only destroyed. -Goodreads

The Review:

The Stone Sky left me shook.

I had so many mixed feelings after finishing it (…in 2017. I’ll explain). On one hand, there had been a lot of buildup in the previous two books and I wasn’t totally convinced I liked the direction the story headed for about the first 75%. I was worried it wasn’t going to live up to my incredibly high expectations. And then some of the most truly profound scenes played out and I can still feel the emotional reverberation every time I think about it even years later. This trilogy is brilliant.

I held off on writing a review for two reasons: 1. When I finished it, my feed was filled with countless solid 5-star reviews and I didn’t feel strongly enough about my criticisms to become a rallying counterpoint to all of that positivity (and didn’t really want to because of how special the series had been for me overall). And 2. It left me so confused that I didn’t know how to express my slight disappointment at the direction but at the same time emphasize the 10+ star scenes that still kind of haunt me to this day. Do I dock my rating for what I didn’t like? Or keep it a solid 5 because the amazing parts were strong enough to overpower everything else? I think with time and perspective, I can finally land on 4 as a rating for this specific book with the disclaimer that the series still feels like a solid 5-stars as a whole. There are so many things I loved about it, but my favorite element by far is the basis for why parts of the books are written with different POV styles (specifically the controversial second-person present-tense passages). It’s brilliant. Or did I say that already? 

Ultimately, even though the story didn’t go along with any of my theories, it still shattered me. It’s also my emphatic, quintessential recommendation whenever someone mentions “unique” or “cool writing styles” or “unconventional.” It’s truly a masterpiece. My only recommendation: experience it for yourself.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review Addendum: The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington

The Shadow of What was Lost by James Islington

Title: The Shadow of What Was Lost

Author: James Islington

Series: Licanius Trilogy #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 5/5 stars!

The Overview: As a student of the Gifted, Davian suffers the consequences of a war fought—and lost—before he was born. Despised by most beyond the school walls, he and those around him are all but prisoners as they attempt to learn control of the Gift. Worse, as Davian struggles with his lessons, he knows that there is further to fall if he cannot pass his final tests. But when Davian discovers he has the ability to wield the forbidden power of the Augurs, he sets into motion a chain of events that will change everything. To the north, an ancient enemy long thought defeated begins to stir. And to the west, a young man whose fate is intertwined with Davian’s wakes up in the forest, covered in blood and with no memory of who he is… -Goodreads

The (Updated) Review:

Responsible for one of my favorite reading experiences in 2017, I originally reviewed the first two books for a newspaper. I addressed the series as a whole and didn’t have the word count to really delve into specifics of each book. I also averaged my ratings of the two into a 4.5. Not a bad rating, but it didn’t accurately reflect my experience with each book. After finishing my reread in preparation to finish the series, now seems like a great time to update my review.

I loved The Shadow of What was Lost my first time through, but somehow it was even better the second time. I think I mentioned an issue with repetitive word choice near the end to justify the docking of .5 stars, but whatever pedantic mindset made me focus on that must have vanished because I didn’t notice it this time around (and I was looking). I completely loved every single moment. So much so that my re-evaluation places it with a solid 5 stars and a spot on my very conservative all-time favorites shelf.

The book does an amazing job providing that nostalgic classic fantasy/adventure feel. Between the likable nature of all the characters, the lightheartedness of the beginning chapters, and that exciting first spark leading to adventure, it reminded me of the likes of Brooks, Eddings, and Jordan. But it only got better from there as Islington used some cool concepts and concise writing to modernize the story. I love classic fantasy, but find its simplicity something I have to be in a specific mood for. Islington managed to provide the best of new and old. Combine all of that with with a quality Michael Kramer audio production, and we have a winner.

I loved the pacing, the characters, the adventure, the carefully parceled-out information, the twists, the world-building, all of it. The only thing that made it difficult on the first go-round was the similarity of many of the names. It made it difficult and slightly stressful to keep track of everyone. But this time I just kind of sat back and trusted that it would all come together, and that helped a lot. I’m sure these issues would’ve been nil had I been reading the physical copy, but for obvious reasons (Michael Kramer), I sacrificed some clarity for the experience.

Recommendations: this is a phenomenal start to a series that only gained momentum on the reread. I’d hand it to fantasy readers who love that classic fantasy feel, but crave something more complex. I’m reserving final recommendations until I read the last book, but consider The Shadow of What Was Lost an official Obsessive Bookseller favorite!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes