Image

Tackling the TBR [60]: August 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:

August 2020 TBR Tackler Shelf:

Physical Copies:

Audiobooks:

I didn’t get around to reading The Light of All That Falls last month even though it’s still high on my list. Ashes of the Sun took me almost three weeks to get through and by the time I finished I needed a break from high fantasy (so I picked up the new Hunger Games Prequel instead). Heading into August finds me with a few different priorities. I’ve been playing in my library at home and have decided to start including more of books I actually own in my TBR. Something about knowing they’re secure in my collection takes away the urgency I feel to get around to reading them. It’s odd. But hopefully I can start training my brain out of that thought process. I’m also doing my 1500 for 1 challenge again to help regulate how many new titles I’m bringing home. Overall, I’m feeling more like myself again. It took three months to dig out of my reading hole and I’m almost clear (two more titles to wrap up). Unconquerable Sun is my review obligation for the month and I’m hopeful it’ll be a good scifi novel. In any case, I have a nice balance of specfic genres here so I’m hoping it’ll be another great month of reading.


Have a great month in reading!

by Niki Hawkes

Image

Book Review: Ashes of the Sun by Django Wexler

Ashes of the Sun by Django Wexler

Title: Ashes of the Sun

Author: Django Wexler

Series: Burningblade & Silvereye #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: Long ago, a magical war destroyed an empire, and a new one was built in its ashes. But still the old grudges simmer, and two siblings will fight on opposite sides to save their world, in the start of Django Wexler’s new epic fantasy trilogy. Gyre hasn’t seen his beloved sister since their parents sold her to the mysterious Twilight Order. Now, twelve years after her disappearance, Gyre’s sole focus is revenge, and he’s willing to risk anything and anyone to claim enough power to destroy the Order. Chasing rumors of a fabled city protecting a powerful artifact, Gyre comes face-to-face with his lost sister. But she isn’t who she once was. Trained to be a warrior, Maya wields magic for the Twilight Order’s cause. Standing on opposite sides of a looming civil war, the two siblings will learn that not even the ties of blood will keep them from splitting the world in two.Goodreads

The Review:

Although there were a lot of things I really enjoyed about Ashes of the Sun, I didn’t like it as much as I think I should have… and I can’t quite pinpoint why. From an evaluation standpoint, it had all the elements I expect from a high fantasy: intriguing world-building, great characters, an interesting plot, good pacing, and a more than adept writing style. It had a good mix of exciting action scenes and slower character development moments. So what’s my malfunction?

I think part of the problem may have been the audiobook narrator. In some ways the characters felt over-performed, coming across as more caricatures than real people. On one hand it set the tone for cheeky characters who I think were supposed to bring a bit of lightheartedness and fun to the novel (which they did), but on the other hand it made a couple of them come across a bit juvenile even though on paper they were actually pretty badass. The final nail in the coffin in this regard may have been how recently I’ve read Wexler’s YA Ship of Smoke and Steel. Both female leads, Maya (AotS) and Isoka (SoSaS) were a bit more similar to each other than I’d have preferred.

Also, based on the name of the series and where the story culminated, it kind of read like a prequel.

Also, also, I don’t know who had the idea first, but the magical constructs in the book were very, very similar to the villain in season 3 of Stranger Things. It’s entirely possible both ideas originated organically (much like the monsters themselves, lol), but either way the timing is quite unfortunate. Had I read this a year ago I think it would’ve come across a tad more original.

Okay, so on to the things I liked, which were plentiful. The world-building. Perhaps not completely original, but the framework for the story – an empire still suffering the after-effects of a war for power fought hundreds of years ago – set a wicked cool atmosphere with a city divided into factions, underground vies for power (often literally underground), and ongoing biases of politics. I loved the expansive feel of some of the settings and felt completely satisfied at how much Wexler helped me explore in this first book. It also added another great dynamic that the main characters fought on opposite sides of the conflict.

Another thing I liked was the overall character construction and how the author treated them. The beginning had a lot of great camaraderie, which really connected me to the characters. I like that he gave some of the minor characters a bit of a spotlight here and there because the way he did it felt unconventional. I’m not sure I liked where the story headed for many of them because I’m trying to wrap my head around what to expect in the sequel, but for this novel alone it was great.

So overall I’m battling between a rating based on comparable merit (solid 4 stars) and my own personal enjoyment of the book (3 stars). There were parts that had me glued to it mixed with others that had me wondering if I should consider a DNF. I’m going to split the difference with a 3.5 rating with the disclaimer that I think others will enjoy it a lot more than I did. It has a lot of things going for it.

Recommendations: this is a great high fantasy novel for fans of Wexler’s work. Dive in if you’re looking for great character dynamics, a cool world, and good action scenes. Maybe, just maybe, consider skipping the audio version.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

Image

Book Review: Death and Relaxation by Devon Monk

Death and Relaxation by Devon Monk

Title: Death and Relaxation

Author: Devon Monk

Series: Ordinary Magic #1

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: Police Chief Delaney Reed can handle the Valkyries, werewolves, gill-men and other paranormal creatures who call the small beach town of Ordinary, Oregon their home. It’s the vacationing gods who keep her up at night. With the famous Rhubarb Festival right around the corner, small-town tensions, tempers, and godly tantrums are at an all-time high. The last thing Delaney needs is her ex-boyfriend reappearing just when she’s finally caught the attention of Ryder Bailey, the one man she should never love. No, scratch that. The actual last thing she needs is a dead body washing ashore, especially since the dead body is a god. Catching a murderer, wrestling a god power, and re-scheduling the apocalypse? Just another day on the job in Ordinary. Falling in love with her childhood friend while trying to keep the secrets of her town secret? That’s gonna take some work.Goodreads

The Review:

I’ve had a high opinion of Devon Monk’s writing for a while now, so when Death and Relaxation was offered as a review copy (audio production quality) I snatched it up. I’ve been on a pretty hard urban fantasy kick lately, but I’ll admit this series wasn’t even on my radar (probably because of the atrocious cover). But I tell you what – it hit the spot!

It had a great combination of concept (small town Oregon where gods go to vacation), character (a young female police chief who takes over the department after her father dies), mystery (who the heck is ballsy enough to commit a murder in a town of gods?), and love story (the cute dynamic between the MC and the love interest – it’s just enough to be a clear selling point of the novel, but not overdone to the point where it becomes the sole focus). It was one of those books perfectly suited to my mood, and because it came from a seasoned author I trust, I was able to turn off my over-critical eye and just enjoy the ride.

Admittedly the concept wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny, but it’s clear from the start that its main purpose is to enhance the quirky nature of this small touristy town. I started with the novella (Dues and Don’ts – Free on the author’s webiste), which I would recommend because it sets the stage on what to expect in this town a lot better than the first book. It incorporated the tradition of local artisans hiding glass figurines along the beach for tourists to find, which apparently is something that actually happens in the town the series is based on. I was enamored with the whole thing. I think the fun dynamics between all the characters in this little community is my biggest source of delight. Quirky fun things like rhubarb cooking contests an long-standing interpersonal squabbles (which, naturally, involve the whole town). Any Gilmore Girls fan out there will get a better idea if I say it’s a supernatural version of Stars Hollow (only without the aggravating characters that take the fun out of the scenes – Mayor Taylor Doose, I’m talking to you).

The only ding against its rating is that I thought the solution to one of the main conflicts of the story was completely obvious right from the start. I can half-rationalize it away if I try hard enough. Like, maybe the main character had too many things going on to see it clearly. But really it would’ve made the book stronger to either hide it better or to have the characters figure it out sooner. So far that has been my only gripe.

This is one of my new personal favorite series starters – I enjoyed it that much. It is definitely more on the lighthearted side of the genre. There’s not a lot of dark grittiness that sets the tone for comparable series. But maybe that’s what I’d needed – a bit of a pick-me-up. :)

Recommendations: start with the novella! I’d hand this series to people who like urban fantasy without the semi-horror aspect. It’s actually a great crossover novel between uf, mystery, and romance. If you can snag the GraphicAudio version, you’re in for a treat! Go in with a light heart and have some fun. :)

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

Image

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.
&
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

Image

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

.

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

Image

Chronicles of an Obsessive Bookseller: The Snowball Book Slump Effect

The Snowball Book Slump Effect

In my last Tackling the TBR post I mentioned I’d gotten myself into a reading pickle, signing up for too many things and having next to no progress on my priority titles. After some serious analyzing, I think I’ve finally identified the cause behind the book slumps I’ve been experiencing over the last few years. I’m calling it the Snowball Book Slump Effect.

In my entire book-loving life (…10+?) I’d never experienced a reading slump until I became a blogger and joined an online book community. I can remember times before that when certain books seemed to take me forever to get through, but those unfortunate circumstances were rare (even more so when I mastered the art of the DNF) and never sent me into actual slumps.

So what changed? Obviously joining the book community added even more opportunity cost considerations than I’d faced as a bookseller. So many titles!! And so little time. It made prioritizing reads even more important (see my TTT feature), but that in itself wasn’t enough to send me into a slump. If anything, it encouraged me to read more and made it easier to hand pick stellar titles. So I ask again, what happened? It’s only after this last month of analyzing my reading habits that I finally figured out exactly what has been leading me down the path of less enjoyment:

Reading schedules.

It started with ARCs. Reading suddenly became something I did on a deadline, and I can say with completely certainty that the stress always affected my overall enjoyment of the stories. I recognized the problems right away, yet it was something I was reluctant to give up because having access to early titles is the absolute bomb and building good relationships with publishers is part of my overall goal to establish myself as a credible spec-fic reviewer. It served my biggest passion, so it had to stay, but I did get a lot smarter in how I managed my time (see ARC Management Tips: How to Avoid Over-Requesting). I figured out how to schedule things far enough in advance to avoid the pressures of ASAP reviews, and what’s more got realistic about what volume of obligations I could actually handle, and for what titles I was willing to sacrifice leisure reading time for. People make the mistake of undervaluing their time in this regard. Books take a LOT of energy and commitment time to read, and the longer you’re in the field, the less you find yourself willing to risk that precious leisure reading time for anything short of the best titles. This is why I never accept self-published requests, and very rarely pick up anything unsolicited unless I was planning to read it eventually anyway and other authors, friends, or publishers are involved. It’s all about balance.

What started with ARCs eventually evolved into a paid reviewing gig (of audiobook production quality) which I also let get away from me for a while. At first I was so excited for the opportunity that I went overboard. Most of my selections in the first couple months were good books, just not ones I’d identified as high priority for myself. But I was dazzled by being able to call myself a professional reviewer, receiving a ridiculously small paycheck (just getting one was enough, trust me), and seeing my writing in print. However, it quickly brought up many of the obligational issues I’d had with ARCs early on, but these schedules were so much more strict that it often required me to abandon whatever I was enjoying midway to make sure I had enough time to complete my review copies. Scheduling these meant I had to plan all my other reading around them. That in itself wasn’t too bad when done right, but it’s the combination of all these things that snowballed me to hell.

Another thing that has popped up over the last few years is access to digital library books. I absolutely love how many free titles are available from my TBR, but as someone who thrives under predictability, I absolutely LOATHE the crap-shoot nature of the checkout system. I can’t plan, and every time I think I have everything figured out, a title that wasn’t supposed to become available for several more weeks pops up and I jump at the opportunity every time, even if I’m not ready for it. Because, as Murphy’s Law would indicate, when I finish a book and am ready to immediately start another one, there is never anything ready to check out unless I pounced on it earlier and have been playing “beat the clock” with it for a couple weeks. Now it’s on a looming deadline too. Utilizing the library has saved me literally thousands of dollars in book purchases (I should calculate the exact amount one of these days just for kicks), but it comes at the sharp cost of my leisurely reading. I feel like I have to read whatever becomes available while I have it, and that’s annoying. I’ve debated on more than one occasion between saving money and the quality of life improvement that arises from having books purchased and alway accessible.

All of that aside, the addition to my reading life that had the biggest effect on book slumps was signing up for Buddy Reads. If you don’t know what those are, they’re basically online threads where people converge to read and discuss books together. Kind of like an impromptu/impermanent book club. It’s a truly rad way to connect with people all over the world with common book interests, and I absolutely love sharing my passion with other people in this way. However, when it comes down to it, a schedule + peer pressure (aka other people counting on you to be there) = reading panic. And here, finally, is where the snowball effect takes place.

I’d schedule out one or two BRs for the month, making sure to leave significant buffers between books. However, my reading planning NEVER cooperates with reality, and inevitably I start to fall behind. Then between reads I try to squeeze in my paid obligation reviews and in the meantime a book I’ve been waiting on for months becomes available at the library and certainly I can squeeze that one in too and before I know it I’m only halfway through the first BR while working on an obligation read and have already started that library hold (which I won’t finish before it goes back to the library and I’ll have to wait another several months to see how it ends) and I find myself in an awkward position of starting yet another BR and putting all the other books on hold or bailing on people who I was excited to read with. Usually I end up saying “I’ll be late” and by the time I get back to it, my hold has expired for THAT book and I’m outside the socially acceptable timeframe to join the conversation, anyway. Not to mention that through all of this I also always have a digital ARC copy going and omg I’m overwhelmed. ::inhales::

This is how the snowball always seems to happen, and it results in a packed 5+ book lineup in my “Currently Reading” shelf.

Enter the slump.

Which book should I focus on now? Should I bounce back and forth? Go in order of obligation? I have to hurry though because the next round of paid reviews are coming due and yet another long awaited hold has become available at the library. What do I do?! ::sobs::

There ends up being too many things going on at once. I’ve discovered I thrive under any system that has me finishing books consistently. The payoff I get from checking “Finished Reading” is one that fuels my motivation way more than I’d originally thought, so any time I get myself buried like this, enthusiasm dies and reading becomes a chore. I end up feeling pressure no matter what I read because I have all the other half-finished titles looming over me. Instead of reading more, my daily page count consumption plummets to 0%-25% of what it is during peak months. I’ll go several days without reading anything, and often will get back into it by starting yet another book that oddly has no pressure associated with it because I didn’t start it during the snowball. I’m literally escaping from reading certain titles by immersing into something new.

Eventually I’ll chip away enough not to feel as overwhelmed. Usually this requires abandoning a few titles, rushing through others, and effectively vanishing from online communities so I’m not reminded constantly of my plight. On average, a single month of snowballing takes me three months to fully dig myself out of, and that’s a long time to feel like you’re not enjoying books as much as you could be. I’ve done this to myself at least a dozen times throughout the last three or four years, and a couple of bad back-to-back snowballs led me to the biggest slump I’ve ever experienced. I wasn’t reading, I wasn’t reviewing, and all of my important-to-me book-related goals came to a screeching halt (problems associated with this lasted almost two years until I figured out a new system to handle keeping an online presence while dealing with a book slump. I’ll probably do a separate post sharing my experience and tips on that later). So the only thing to conclude is that all these things combined are making it very difficult for me to enjoy my favorite hobby.

… but it stops now. I have a plan.

1. Continue Arc Management

This one is the easiest of my strategies because, as mentioned above, I already have a good hold on my process. I’ve mentally added to it recently by only committing myself to one ARC per month. And it’s working. When I’m not stressed about other reading problems (facepalm), reading ARCs is completely manageable and stress free. Another thing I’ve been doing is checking often enough to sign up for reads several months in advance, which also takes the pressure off. Before these last two months hit, I had a three month buffer. Now I’m feeling a slight edge to focus more…

2. Show more restraint with Paid Review Obligations

To keep a healthy balance, I’ve discovered I can handle only one of these per month. Every single time I see awesome titles in my lineup and request more than one, I regret it. Always. Because it means up to half of my audiobook enjoyment for the month is obligation-driven and that doesn’t allow me as much time for the titles I’ve identified as high-priority/important to me. A lot of times I get myself into this mess because the shiny titles available are ones that EVENTUALLY would be high-priorities (often new series starters from authors I love), but the way they affect my current priorities is just not worth it. Restricting myself to a single title per month will go a long way in alleviating some stress. The due date for those reviews creeps up on me faster than any deadline I’ve faced in years, and so I have to make sure I have them read well in advance (so, naturally, whatever else I’m enjoying at the time takes a backseat). These are cause for the most stress when I mismanage them because I have a contract to provide my content by a specific date and it has to be good because it’s published both in print and online. Half-assing it just won’t cut it.

3. Manage my Library holds better.

My library introduced a new system for checkouts at the beginning of the year that I’ve been too greedy to take full advantage of so far. Basically, instead of automatically checking out titles you forgot to suspend the hold for, they now have a three day checkout window that requires you to confirm that you’re ready for the book before it checks it out. If you say no or don’t respond, you keep your place in line and the book jumps to the next person. I think it’s brilliant. I know books were being auto-checked all the time by people who weren’t ready to read them (because I’m one of them), so it would sit the full 21 days with each person, thereby drastically increasing the wait time for everyone else. As good as this new system is, I’m still treating some of my checkouts like I did before it came into effect. When a book I’ve been waiting on becomes available, I get excited and confirm the checkout immediately even if I already have too many going to get to it soon. I need to be patient and wait until availability lines up with a lighter schedule so I can get though the entire book without missing the end (recheckouts required) or speed listening. I can do this. I hope.

4. Stop signing up for Buddy Reads more than 2 days out.

Seriously. Any more than that and I can’t be trusted to actually be available to join. These last couple months I tried to schedule things out several weeks, and that just did not work at all. I was late to every single one, missed two, and was so buried that by the time one came around that I was REALLY excited for, I just couldn’t justify adding yet another half-finished title to the lineup… and my new obligations were due. Ugh. Luckily, my group (Fantasy Buddy Reads) is super active, scheduling reads all the time. And we have a nifty monthly schedule that I plan to take more advantage of. If I really want to read something, I’d better be ready immediately. It’s as simple as that.

Overall, not only are these problems sucking the life out of my reading enthusiasm, they’re reducing the enjoyment rating of every single title associated with the snowball. I’m grateful I was finally in a good reading place again before this latest slump hit because it gave me the perspective I needed to figure out which specific actions were affecting me so much. I’d had inklings, but figured my biggest problems were more life-related than book-choice related. But if that were truly the case then why wasn’t I affected when I was going though my Masters program? Changing jobs? Going through breakups? Buying a house? Moving? Giving birth? Having an existential crisis?? Nope. Life variables don’t usually have an effect on my reading. It’s a hobby that’s so important to me, I always manage to make it a priority. Heck, sometimes stress can even make me read more. This is why all the reading drama I’ve had recently has been so distressing. It’s a hobby that has survived the worst of the worst and yet something has been affecting it significantly and I don’t like it Sam I am. I’m grateful I finally got the perspective I needed to figure it out, and I think working through and implementing these new strategies will go a long way towards the reclaiming the reading balance I’ve been missing so poignantly.

… I just need to finish some books first.

by Niki Hawkes