Tackling the TBR [76]: December 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:

December 2021 TBR Tackler Shelf:

I read 8/13 books on my TBR last month +3 more – holy cow! Now, granted, several of them were novella length, but still, it’s indicative of how much more I’m enjoying reading lately. My lineup is sufficiently stocked for December, and I actually think I’ll make it through a fair number of them. They are all high priority!! I carried over Leviathan Falls because, as it turns out, it didn’t come out until the end of November… peesh. I can’t wait to read and talk about all of these titles. :D

Booktube Tackling the TBR video:

Have a great month in reading!

by Niki Hawkes



Book Review: A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie

Title: A Little Hatred

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Series: First Law World #8

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: The chimneys of industry rise over Adua and the world seethes with new opportunities. But old scores run deep as ever. On the blood-soaked borders of Angland, Leo dan Brock struggles to win fame on the battlefield, and defeat the marauding armies of Stour Nightfall. He hopes for help from the crown. But King Jezal’s son, the feckless Prince Orso, is a man who specializes in disappointments. Savine dan Glokta – socialite, investor, and daughter of the most feared man in the Union – plans to claw her way to the top of the slag-heap of society by any means necessary. But the slums boil over with a rage that all the money in the world cannot control. The age of the machine dawns, but the age of magic refuses to die. With the help of the mad hillwoman Isern-i-Phail, Rikke struggles to control the blessing, or the curse, of the Long Eye. Glimpsing the future is one thing, but with the guiding hand of the First of the Magi still pulling the strings, changing it will be quite another… -Goodreads

The Review:

Warning: you’re about to witness and Abercrombie fangirl moment.

Aside from The Blade Itself, which I liked but wasn’t blown away by, my appreciation for this author has continued to grow with each passing installment. I think Abercrombie is only getting better with time – his writing has solidified into a distinct, immediately recognizable voice, and he seems to be really embracing the wickedly funny things that come along with being human, and is doing so to my unabashed amusement.

He’s such a brilliant study in character development. It’s not just that his characters are among the best in the genre, but also how he weaves the most unassuming drop-in details about their mannerisms into every iota of text. Constantly poking at each character’s deficiencies, it’s this constant reminder that they’re just people getting along as well as they can that makes them feel so alive. Their character profiles are so strong, even if I lose concentration and miss dialogue/thought tags, I can almost always figure out who’s POV we’re in just from the way things are written. It’s absolutely brilliant.

As a sort of next-gen continuation, A Little Hatred was everything I’d hoped it would be. Unlike with many other authors, I never worry about liking new characters as well as the last – they’re always good, which makes the possibilities of the First Law world endless. I delighted in all of the new faces (as scarred and misshapen as some of them may be) and felt that giddy excitement that I’d get to see what happened in this world next. I’m such a grouch these days. Coming back to a series that makes me feel as excited for a new book as I did back when I was a young bookseller is something to be cherished. I savored every page, felt completely engaged the entire novel, and am eager to pick up the next book.

Ranked against any other book I’ve read, Abercrombie books are solid 5-star reads. When comparing A Little Hatred to other books in the series, I’d say it’s near the top but not quite my favorite. So it gets a 5-stars on Goodreads and every endorsement I can offer, but a 4.5 for my personal records to indicate it’s not my favorite of the series.

Recommendations: this series takes a little time to get going. I read the first one twice before finally continuing and wasn’t sold from the beginning. It has now evolved into one of the funniest, most gut-wrenching, amazing things I’ve ever read, and I can’t wait to read more. Pick him up ASAP. Preferably via audio – Steven Pacey completes the experience.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes


Weekly Writing Workshop: Diction


Last time (here’s a link to the series so far) I talked about finding your voice as a writer. In doing so, I broke voice down to diction (word choice) and syntax (the order in which you choose to place those words). Today, I want to take a closer look at ways we can improve the diction part of our voice as writers.

Have you ever been offended, not by what someone said, but by the way they said it? Maybe, their diction was a little too harsh, informal, or crass. This idea works in reverse as well. I’ve often thought, “I totally disagree with what you said, but by god did you say it well.”

Imagine that you’ve been waiting around for thirty minutes for a friend to show up at your place. When they do, they say one of the following.

“Sorry, I’m late. I stopped to pick up some food on the way over.”


“Sorry, I’m late. I grabbed some food on my way.”

While you’re still peeved at them either way, the second option has a better chance of being less abrasive. Why? Look at their word choice. “Stopped” feels slow. There is no motion here. Whereas “grabbed” not only shows motion but hurried motion. “Grab” is a blur. It shows a sense of urgency. When someone is late, we want to know that they were late despite rushing not because they weren’t rushing. Likewise, if you look at “picked up” you see a slow process broken into two words. Picking something up is a careful, deliberate, gentle process. You pick up an infant. You grab the Arkenstone ( because you don’t want to take a trip down the digestive system of a dragon ( .

Perhaps my favorite example is “rock” vs “stone.” To everyone outside of a geology department, these two words mean the same thing. They have the same denotation (literal meaning), but they have very different connotations (impressions). Picture a rock. It’s rough, jagged, dirty. Now, picture a stone. It’s smooth, polished, and round. While we can chalk this difference up to common usage in part, sound also plays a part here. While I won’t get into the “why” today—that’s another post altogether—for now, notice how both of these words sound. “Rock” sounds rough, hard. “Stone” sounds smooth, refined. Pay attention to how your words sound. Pay attention to their denotation and connotation. While I could say, “Sally’s dinner was a culinary abortion.” It’s probably not the best use of diction.

In part, the way a writer’s diction affects us has been wired into our brains through evolution. If I write:

“Tim went quickly to the store.”


“Tim ran to the store.”

Which one hits you harder, grabs your attention more? By using more words to say the same thing, I literally slowed down how quickly you could process the information in the first sentence. This slows down the action. In addition, the first sentence is counting on the adverb “quickly” to create a sense of speed. Verbs are always stronger than adjectives or adverbs. Through evolution our brains have been hardwired to notice movement. It’s what made the difference between getting dinner and being dinner for our ancestors. Verbs grab our attention. Thus, “run” feels faster than “quickly.”

Take a look at one more example.

“Sally was laughing a lot and really loudly.”


“Sally was bursting with laughter.”

Which of these gives you a clearer image? The second one most likely. Notice how much energy there is in the verb “bursting” versus “a lot and really loudly.”

While every writer should have their own unique voice developed from their own literary influences, there is a lot we can do to ensure that those voices are as polished and as effective as possible. Here are some tips to consider as you work on developing the diction side of your voice as a writer.

  1. Verbs are stronger than adverbs or adjectives.
  2. In general, you’ll want to select specific words over abstract ones.
  3. Consider the denotation of the words you’re using. Will your audience fully understand the words you’ve chosen? How much work are you asking your reader to do? How much are they willing to do?
  4. Consider the connotation of the words you’re using. While questioning my marriage isn’t necessarily a bad thing (I could be asking questions like, “Why is Niki so damned amazing?”), the word “questioning” has taken on a distinctively negative connotation.
  5. What level of formality do you need? Contractions and slang create a less formal feeling.
  6. Avoid using big words just to try and sound smart. If you use them incorrectly, you’ll look dumb. If you use them correctly, you can end up looking pompous.
  7. Try to avoid using hyperboles. People don’t “always” do something. Likewise “everyone” hardly think the same thing. Ask yourself, “Does my character really never think about her childhood?”
  8. Don’t use two words when one word will do.

The list of tips for developing good diction could go on for pages, but these are the ones that I’ve found the most helpful.

For this week’s prompt, write a scene without thinking about your diction. Just free-write it. Make sure that you double space it. Then, go back and examine your diction. Look at it like an editor. Are there places where you can exchange two adjectives for a better verb? Is your character speaking to formally/informally? Are there any words your audience might not understand? Are there any that could be interpreted in a way you didn’t intend?

Use the comment box below to let me know how it goes. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.




Book Review: Darkness Rising by Keri Arthur

Title: Darkness Rising

Author: Keri Arthur

Series: Dark Angels #2

Genre: Paranormal Romance

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: Risa will go to any lengths to avenge her mother’s murder—even if it means making a pact with the most evil vampire she’s ever met. Lethal and powerful, Madeline Hunter is leader of the vampire council, and will put her resources behind finding the killer—for a price. The venerable vampire requires the assistance of Risa’s psychic powers. Quid pro quo. Someone—or something—is targeting the elders of the local council, cursing the immortal vampires to rapidly age, sink into madness, and die. Risa must track down the vengeful being responsible. But Risa’s father, a rogue Aedh priest, also enlists her in a dangerous mission. And not even the great Madeline Hunter may be able to protect her from the shadowy forces that desire nothing less than Risa’s destruction. -Goodreads

The Review:

It has only been a week and I’ve already forgotten what I read.

I’m still reconciling how my tastes have changed since I first read Darkness Unbounded five years ago, and how that one lost almost 3 stars on the reread. This was my first venture into Darkness Rising, and my grand plans for bulldozing through the series this month have been derailed… I didn’t love it.

The book didn’t have a lot of substance. It didn’t deepen the characters. It didn’t broaden the plot. The sex scenes were hard to read. And probably the most disappointing: the main conflict was simple but at the same time confusing. I kept thinking I’d missed something. Like, why are we suddenly in the sewers? What’s the whole point of this exercise? WHY do the characters have to do anything about this in the first place? It all seemed so contrived. The overall conflict lacked enough substance to sustain the story. It was was very similar to a middle grade novel when it came to flat villains, surface-level conflicts, and lack of character depth.

Now, granted, I’m evaluating this alongside urban fantasy works that I’ve loved. This is in fact a paranormal romance, which have an entirely different plot focus, story purpose, and target audience. Even though I avoid the genre these days, I picked this one up because I liked Riley Jensen, and loved the author’s City of Light urban fantasy series. But… here’s the thing. For a paranormal romance with the love story and sex scenes as the main overall arc, it wasn’t even satisfying compared to others I’ve read in the genre. I can see where the author is headed with things, but to evaluate just what has been presented so far, it left me wanting.

Recommendations: urban fantasy readers, don’t even give this one a second glance. Not only is it a continuation spinoff of the Riley Jensen series with spoilers, but it’s also written more for the paranormal romance crowd. Paranormal romance readers: this one missed on all accounts for me.

I’d recommend these other similar books instead:

by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: Empire’s Ruin by Brian Staveley

Title: Empire’s Ruin

Author: Brian Staveley

Series: Ashes of the Unhewn Throne #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5stars

The Overview: The Annurian Empire is disintegrating. The advantages it used for millennia have fallen to ruin. The ranks of the Kettral have been decimated from within, and the kenta gates, granting instantaneous travel across the vast lands of the empire, can no longer be used. In order to save the empire, one of the surviving Kettral must voyage beyond the edge of the known world through a land that warps and poisons all living things to find the nesting ground of the giant war hawks. Meanwhile, a monk turned con-artist may hold the secret to the kenta gates. But time is running out. Deep within the southern reaches of the empire and ancient god-like race has begun to stir. What they discover will change them and the Annurian Empire forever. If they can survive. -Goodreads

The Review:

Ever finish an amazing series feeling like there should be more? Know the pure elation at discovering there actually will be more?! That’s how I felt when learning Staveley was continuing in the Annurian Empire.

I left the Unhewn Throne Trilogy happy that I’d read it but found myself ever so slightly dissatisfied with how a few things played out. Empire’s Ruin, continuing the same timeline albeit through different POVs, alleviated all of the uneasy feelings I’d had. I was worried about diving in without a reread, but the story stands solidly enough on its own that I only needed to remember a couple of characters (I recalled two of the three), and major climactic events. Other than that, it jumped right in to a new set of exotic adventures!

The fun world-building is the first thing I highlight when talking about Staveley’s works. His setting is a deadly jungle reminiscent of the Amazon filled with jaguars, snakes, alligators, and pretty much every other man-eating threat the author could think of. He does an amazing job at immersing you in the setting and having the environment play an active role in the story.

The Emperor’s Blade, the first book of the Unhewn Throne, still claims a spot in my very conservative list of all-time favorites. It had the perfect balance of characters, setting, and world-building, but stood out to me for its training sequences. I love when characters learn skills in books, and was wondering if I’d enjoy this continuation as much without that element. As it turns out, the author must share my appreciation for those components because he included more in Empire’s Ruin! Not quite to the same degree, but it did satisfy my craving.

Comparatively, the only thing that kept my rating from solid five star was that the story progression between the three POVs was not very well distributed, especially in the back half of the book. Granted, he focused most of his efforts on the most interesting thread, which was stellar, but did not advance the plots for the other two quickly enough for my satisfaction. I usually don’t notice pacing issues in multiple POV fantasy novels like this (other than in Feast of Crows… don’t get me started), but it struck me that several sittings later and the characters two of the plots were still sitting around arguing about the same things instead of actually doing the things. Had Gwenna’s POV been removed completely I think I would’ve been saying I liked the story but he could’ve done so much more with it. Especially the arena stuff (yes, there’s an arena… the idea was initially so compelling, but not much happened with it). I’m hoping we’ll get more in the next book so it doesn’t feel like those were just filler sections.

Recommendations: overall, Empire’s Ruin was an awesome continuation after the Unhewn Throne Trilogy, but make sure to read that one first unless you don’t care about major spoilers (I don’t know how people can be okay with spoilers, but it’s more common than I realized… freaks. ;P). This is an excellent fantasy adventure series perfect for those who like a lot of action, cool settings, and multiple POV stories.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: Taltos by Steven Brust

Title: Taltos

Author: Steven Brust

Series: Vlad Taltos (#1 chronologically / #4 traditionally)

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Journey to the land of the dead. All expenses paid!

Not my idea of an ideal vacation, but this was work. After all, even an assassin has to earn a living.

The trouble is, everyone knows that a living human cannot walk the Paths of the Dead, and return, alive, to the land of men.

But being an Easterner is not exactly like being human, by Dragaeran standards anyway. Thus, the rule doesn’t apply to me… I hope. -Goodreads

The Review:

Intro: Vlad Taltos is a lot of fun. One of the most unique series I’ve ever read, it’s a great mix of high fantasy elements with an accessible urban fantasy writing style. Each book also has a fairly well-contained mystery, so it kind of reads like a detective novel. Overall, it’s a great hodge-podge of ideas that somehow all work together. The author claims you can read them in any order. I personally can’t stand that lack of organization, so a few of us over at Fantasy Buddy Reads are going the chronological route…

…and Taltos (technically book #4) is first in the lineup.

Ten years ago I read the first three (according to the publisher) Vlad Taltos novels and loved my experience with them. Taltos started out with a bang! Reminding me why I enjoyed the books so much. It had a lot of flashbacks, which were deftly woven into the story to enhance what was going on in the present-day sections. I loved reading about how Vlad came to be the quirky businessman he is. However that strong pacing and careful weaving started to fade near the middle of the book.

At one point in the story, I had to check in with my fellow buddy readers because I no longer knew what the heck the characters were trying to accomplish in the present-day sections. There were a lot of scenes where the author wasn’t clear in his description on what had happened, and the ambiguity made a few of us backtrack thinking we’d missed something. Nope. It was just vague.

As the story neared the end, the flashbacks were a constant interruption to the story (we’re talking every couple of pages) which effectively killed any momentum it had, eventually making me apathetic to the entire thing. I finished it. Barely. But had I not enjoyed the first half so much and had I not read and liked a few others in the series, I might have called it quits there. Yikes.

Series status: we’re moving on to Dragon (chronologically book #2) next, and I’m hoping it’s better.

Recommendations: while I’d almost always recommend the most organized route of reading (i.e. chronologically), I’d say the way the publishers have arranged it (with Jhereg as book #1) is a much stronger introduction to this series. With that route, I remember feeling a bit lost at the many people and events referenced that clearly had more solid backstories somewhere, but at them moment I think that’s preferable to the poor execution of the second half of Taltos. We’ll see if that opinion changes as we continue.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes