Sunday, 15 January 2017

#CBR Book 1: "The Way of Kings" by Brandon Sanderson

Page count: 1325 pages
Rating: 4 stars

We primarily follow the story of three people in this book, with occasional points of view from others to further shed light on goings on. The first (and in my opinion, most interesting) of our protagonists is Kaladin Stormblessed, a surgeon's son, turned army spearman turned slave. After numerous escape attempts, he ends up at the long-running war on the Shattered Plains, a desolate landscape made up of numerous rocky plateaus, requiring the fighting armies to have bridges to get across the chasms. Kaladin becomes part of the bridge crew of bridge four, and discovers that being a bridgeman is a near-certain death sentence, and bridge four is probably the place you'll get killed the fastest. But whether he is in fact Stormblessed, or perhaps cursed, Kaladin's experience is that those around him, the ones he gets attached to and tries to protect, die around him, while Kaladin is left, pondering his failures.

Our second protagonist is Shallan Davar, is a young noblewoman from a small estate whose lived a sheltered life and now needs to persuade the king's sister, notorious heretic Jasnah Kholin, to take her on as a ward. Shallan claims she wants to learn from Jasnah and become a scholar of renown like the older woman, but she's secretly planning an audacious theft, to save the fortunes and reputation of her entire family. 

The third protagonist (and by far my least favourite, until 95% into the book when things turned considerably) is the king's uncle, Dalinar Kholin, one of the most famed warriors of his generation. He's been fighting the war on the Shattered Plains for six long years, trying to avenge the death of his brother, the former king, who was spectacularly assassinated after signing a peace treaty with the strange and savage Pashendi people. As the Pashendi claimed responsibility, the twelve brightlords of Alethkar have been fighting a war made up of countless minor battles against these people they barely understand, with twelve separate forces and strategies. With each new highstorm, Dalinar has visions, where he hears voices admonishing him and sees scenes from Roshar's past. He believes that their tactics are wrong, and that a change needs to be implemented. His nephew is young and relatively inexperienced and convinced that assassins lurk around every corner trying to kill him. But what if the visions are just delusions, and Dalinar is actually going insane?

About six years after I first put it on my TBR list and around five years after I bought the book (having first heard Mr. Sanderson talk about it at a signing at my local fantasy/comic book store way back in 2010), I decided to start off my reading year by reading The Way of Kings. A veritable brick of a book, it has taken me more than two weeks and I'm not going to lie, there were times when I questioned my choice. Sanderson's fantasy epic the Stormlight Archive is apparently going to be ten whole books long. Each of the books are also about three times the length of a normal novel, so there's going to be a lot of pages devoted to this story, and the page count here is not necessarily an advantage.

I really did like a lot of things about this book. I'm giving it four stars. I did, however, remember why I read maybe one or two epic fantasy books every few years now, rather than all the time, like I used to when I was a teenager. The massive page count is one of the things I did not like. It takes something like 500 pages for things to even start getting beyond the setting up stages. The book has three prologues, although my book twin on the internet, Narfna, has pointed out that at least one of them is clearly the prologue to the series as a whole and we therefore cannot expect to understand it at the end of the first book. Once upon a time, I used to love these intricately plotted, slow and dense stories, generally thinking the more pages, the better. The longer I got to spend in one world with the characters, the happier I was. Now I get impatient, and would very much like it if there is significant plot development before I've read more than a standard paperback novel's worth of pages.

Kaladin's story was good pretty much all the way through. Sanderson cleverly reveals Shallan's double-crossing motives early on, so the reader is interested in seeing exactly how she's going to outsmart and steal from probably the most powerful woman in the known world. Dalinar's storyline is like treacle, however. He worries about his nephew, he feels guilty that he was drunk when his brother was murdered. He's frustrated about all the petty infighting among the other brightlords. He keeps having confusing visions (I'm sure these are going to be very significant in later books, but right now, no) and generally pissing off everyone by being tiresomely noble, stuffy and judgmental. Every so often in his chapters, they have to fight some sort of giant beastie, or there's a battle against the Pashendi, but mostly, there is just chapters and chapters of boredom.

Sanderson is famed in fantasy circles for his world-building, and this book is no exception. Roshar, as this world is called, is largely barren, a world of stone, where powerful storms sweep the landscape and all cities have to be built in sheltered areas to withstand the forces of the highstorms. Very little grows, and instead of dogs and horses (although these do exist) there are crustacean creatures called chulls or axehounds. The only part of Roshar that seems to be similar to our own world is distant Shinovar, where they have horses and chickens and grow crops the way we would expect. The people of Althkar and other places in Roshar seem to use a type of magic to transmutate stone or metal into food. They can also turn rocky cliffs and caves into habitable dwellings.

As with all illustrious fantasy epics, there's always stuff in the distant past that echoes into the present. In the past, there were an order of famed warriors with possible supernatural powers, known as the Radiants. They either betrayed humanity or grew disillusioned and left them. There was something called the Desolation and the arrival of something called Voidbringers. Dalinar's visions seem to be from this past, and his niece Jasnah is trying to investigate them, but the reader is given very little and have to try to piece together understanding from fragments.

While the book took longer than I would have liked to really get going, once the plot really does kick off, I naturally didn't want to stop reading (this always happens). As the second book, Words of Radiance is supposed to be even longer, it's going to have to wait until I at least finish my first Cannonball, though. I just hope that there is more real action and less slow filler, and that Dalinar doesn't go back to being a boring old stodge.

Judging a book by its cover: Drawn by the legendary cover artist Michael Whelan, who has illustrated so many covers for decades, the cover gives the reader some idea of the rocky and inhospitable landscape of the Shattered Plains, showing one of the powerful brightlords with their legendary shardblades (that paired with special armor can almost make a warrior near-invincible). It's a really good cover, evoking a lot of the feel of the book. I can see why Sanderson was so excited to have Whelan do the cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Reading Challenges for 2017

So last year, I tried to cut down on my reading challenges, but still completed a total of about 16 throughout the year. As is always the case during December, once I start looking for new challenges, there are just SO many that look exciting. Case in point, I'm currently looking at 28 different ones, most of them running throughout 2017. A lot of them are ones I've done before, but others are brand new ones I found while browsing online. Doing separate sign-up posts for all of them would just be exhausting (as it is, this post is likely to take hours), so I'll gather them all here.
  1. The Cannonball Read. The reason I started book reviewing in the first place. The Cannonball Read (sign-up here until the 13th of January) is an online race to read and review 52 books in a year (or 26 or 13) with a mission to donate profits to the American Cancer Society. We’re essentially a virtual book club where participants read what they want and write what they want, all while shouting “F— Cancer!”. My goal has always been at least a double (104 books), but in a very good year, I can complete a triple (156). My goal this year is just to do better than 2016, when I came in fourth, and reviewed 135 books.
  2. The Goodreads Reading Challenge. Again one I do every year, because I like to see the line creeping closer to my goal being fulfilled. For the last few years, my goal has been 104 books (the aforementioned double Cannonball), I don't see any need to change that. 
  3. The Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge. Read a total of 26 books, with a title starting with each of the letters of the alphabet (removing A, and or the). The exception to the rule are letters Q, X and Z, where the letter can be anywhere in the title. 
  4. The Backlist Books Reading Challenge. In an attempt to get through more of the MANY books on my TBR, most of which were published quite a few years ago, I'm signing up for this challenge, where the goal is to read backlist books - defined as anything published a year before you read it. So if I read a book on the 16th of January 2017, it needs to have been published on the 16th of January 2016 or earlier. I read a lot of new books, but should be fine with this challenge too. My goal is that at least two thirds of the books I read this year fit in this category.
  5. Color Coded Reading Challenge - one I really enjoy. Read books with the colour in the title or as the dominant colour of the cover (the challenge became so much more doable once they changed this rule). The colours in question are Blue (or any shade thereof, like turquoise, navy, azure, aquamarine etc.)
    Red (or any shade of it, like Scarlet, Crimson, Burgundy, Bloody etc.)
    Yellow (or Gold, Lemon, Maize, Blonde etc)
    Green (Emerald, Lime, Jade etc)
    Brown (Tan, Beige, Chocolate, Sand, Cinnamon etc.)
    Black (Ebony, Charcoal, Raven, Jet etc.)
    White (Ivory, Eggshell, Cream etc.)
    Any other colour in the title/on the cover (Purple, Orange, Pink, Silver, Grey etc.)
    A title/cover that implies colour (Rainbow, Polka-dot, Paisley, Plaid, Stripe, Darkness etc.)
  6. E-books Reading Challenge. As nearly all books I read over the course of a year, with the exception of the occasional dead tree book, or a comic book, are e-books, this challenge seemed like an obvious choice. The books have to have an ISBN, so you can't just read online serials. There are also levels. I signed up for Terabyte - at least 75 books in a year. I can choose to move up levels, but not down.
  7. Flights of Fantasy Reading Challenge. Because I find that I have so many fantasy novels littering my TBR shelf (and my physical bookshelves), I figured signing up for this challenge might motivate me to read more of them. It doesn't have any levels, but I've challenged myself to read at least 12, so approximately one a month. I don't know if urban/paranormal fantasy counts, but I'm going to pretend it doesn't, just to make it a bit harder for myself. 
  8. 10th Annual Graphic Novel & Manga Reading Challenge. I have far too many comic book trade collections and graphic novels on my shelves that I've not taken the time to read (I bought four in New York last summer - have I read them yet? Nope). So to make myself read them over the course of this year, I'm signing up for the lowest level of this challenge; Modern Age - read and review at least 12 books during the year. 
  9. Historical Romance Reading Challenge. I do like a reading challenge that basically lets me keep reading exactly the genres and books that I already enjoy. Because I'm trying to diversify a bit away from historical romance, one of my favoured genres, or at least read a bit more widely within it, I may try to read from some of the various sub-categories suggested on the site: Medieval, Regency, Victorian, Western, Pirate, historical romance with a diverse protagonist or Time Travel romance (must take place 80% in the past). I've signed up for level 4 - Marchioness - 26-35 books.
  10. Diverse Reads Reading Challenge. As in previous years, I'm very aware that I could do a lot better about reading books by and about people who are not cis-gendered, straight white women. The challenge doesn't have levels, but I've promised myself to read at least 30 books that are written by or about characters including but not limited to LGBTQIA, persons of colour, gender diversity, people with disability (including physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual or developmental; chronic conditions, mental illnesses and addiction) and ethnic, cultural and religious minorities.
  11. Literary Pickers Reading Challenge. I really enjoyed this literary scavenger hunt last year, so I'm going to do it again. Check the website for the full list of items to be found. Only one item per list can be included per book. The books must be published ones, and be of the romance genre or with a strong romantic element. There are a hundred items on the list, I've signed up for Garage Sale Guru (25 items). Apparently I'm also to make an update post once a month with my progress (will need to set a reminder in my phone for that).
  12. Monthly Keyword Challenge. This is one of my favourite challenges of the year, and it allows me to do one of the things I love almost as much as reading - making lists about things I'm planning to read. With five or six keywords for each month of the year, you read books that contain one or more of the keywords. The keywords can also be tweaked so that the keyword "family" lets you choose a title containing "sister", "mother" or the like. 
  13. Monthly Motif Challenge. After a year's hiatus, I've once again decided to do this challenge, mainly because I liked the looks of the 12 different motifs featured this year. I need to read at least one book a month featuring the suggested theme or motif, which should be eminently doable. 
  14. New Author Reading Challenge. A challenge that simply wants you to try books by new authors, be they debut writers or just ones whose books you've never tried before. Last year I set myself the challenge of 25, and beat that easily, so I'll challenge myself to try 30 new authors this year.
  15. New to Me Reading Challenge. It's important to me to not just read the same things and genres, it would get very boring. So I like this challenge, as it prompts me to discover new authors, series and genres. This year, there doesn't appear to be any levels, just a minimum requirement of 12 books, so I've set myself the challenge of at least 40 new things over the course of the year. 
  16. Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. This challenge allows all kinds of historical fiction (historical romance, historical mystery, historical fantasy, young adult) which is nice, because I read a lot of it. As in previous years, I'm signing up for the highest level (Prehistoric) of 50+ books.
  17. Pick Your Genre Challenge. Because I don't have a specific challenge for all the various romances I read, I made this my Romance Challenge last year, and I intend to do the same this year. The minimum here is also 12 books, but I'd like to be able to read at least 50 over the course of the year. 
  18. Paranormal Reading Challenge. Another challenge that is pretty much me linking up reviews for books I will already be reading, whether I'm signed up to this or not. I'm not reading as many paranormals as I used to, but figure I can set myself a challenge of 24 books. 
  19. Pages Read Reading Challenge. Last year, due to a massive workload and just generally life getting in the way, I read fewer pages than I had since 2011. I'd like to do better this year, but still don't think I'll be able to sign up for more than level 4 - Apple Tree - 48 000 pages. I do still have a lot of correction work in the coming months. 
  20. Review Writing Challenge. This challenge wants readers to actually review the books they read. Because I already try to review everything I read (and post them on a group blog where we try to make money for cancer charities), this seems like a fairly natural one to take part in. My goal is the same as on my blog - a minimum of 104 reviews.
  21. #ShelfLove Challenge 2017. This challenge tries to make you grow your TBR pile responsibly and read the books you actually own. As I currently have 544 books listed as "To Read" in my personal library (according to LibraryThing), this seems like a very necessary challenge for me to take part in. Last year, 28% of the books that I read were ones I'd acquired before 2016. I'd like my goal for this year to be at least 30% of the total. Because of that, I'm signing up for level 5, My shelves are now my BFF (41-50 books). 
  22. #RockMyTBR Challenge 2017. After a heroic cull of my Goodreads TBR shelf, said shelf still contains 947 books, so more books than I could read in about six years, even if I didn't keep adding to it. One of the side effects of the Cannonball Read is that I keep discovering authors and books that seem so tempting, and that's before you count all the other ones I find on the many other review sites I frequent. So a challenge to try to reduce my TBR list seems essential. With previous TBR challenges, my goal has always been to read at least 50, so while this site doesn't set levels, that's the level I've set for myself. 
  23. What an Animal Challenge. This is one that I've taken part in for years now and really enjoy. They appear to have changed the rules so that it's no longer enough if the book you count just has an animal on the cover or an animal as part of the title. An animal has to play a major part in the plot, or one of the characters is or turns into an animal of some sort (dog, cat, monkey, wolf, snake, insect, centaur, mermaid, dragon, vampire, were-creature etc). It does make it a tad bit more challenging than before, but I still think I can manage the highest level - 21 or more books. 
  24. What's in a Name 2017 Challenge. I failed to complete more than two of the seven categories of this last year, because I just didn't feel inspired. I like the categories for this year a lot more, and will therefore try again. 
  25. Women Challenge 2017. I've mentioned before that I think this challenge may be targeted towards people who don't already read primarily books written by women, but it's not going to stop me from signing up once more. As always, I'm signing up for level 4, Wonder Woman, 20 or more books written by female authors. As always, to make it a teeny bit harder, I'm only allowed to list each author once. 
  26. 2017 YA Reading Challenge. This challenge is all about the YA books, of which I also read many. Books may be horror, romance, dystopian, supernatural, graphic novels etc. There are no levels, but I feel like I should challenge myself to at least 12. 
  27. You Read How Many Books? 2017. As I failed in my goal to reach level 2 of this (150 books), I'm not going to sign up for more than level 1, 100 books, this year. I don't want to set myself up for failure, after all, but I certainly hope I'll be able to pass level 2 anyway. 
  28. Reading Challenge Addicts 2017. As the site says "Some of us have a bit of a problem. Some of us have a huge problem". Looking at the list of challenges I've signed up for this year, I think I'm in the HUGE problem category. I'm just competitive by nature, and like getting credit for things I already like doing. With my monster list of challenges, it'll take something spectacular for me not to be able to complete Out of This World - 16 challenges entered and completed by the end of 2017.
In addition to all of these numerous challenges, I will also be taking part in the RIP Challenge in September and October, and trying for two Dewey Read-a-thons (April and October). 

Sunday, 1 January 2017

End of year review 2016

So 2016. It was a horrible year, both on a global scale and a personal one. While I didn't get physically injured this year, I did have it confirmed, not once, not twice, but three times, that conceiving is apparently something I just don't do. If you count our first IVF attempt, where I had a negative result just after Christmas last year, by Christmas this year, I'd had four perfectly healthy fertilised embryos implanted on four separate occasions, and every single time, the results were as dispiriting. We now get one more state sponsored attempt, but I can't say I'm looking forward to the months of hormones, injections, the absolutely gruelling egg extraction and quite possibly more disappointment and further confirmation that I will never have children of my own.

Then there was the cancer theme running through 2016. My godfather is still fighting his battle with. One of my female cousins has breast cancer. My eldest male cousin died just after Christmas, having battled lung cancer for the best part of the year. Add to that, the various celebrities that died, whom I admired - David Bowie, Alan Rickman.

It's quite natural, as we get older, that the people we look up to and admire,who are usually quite a bit older than ourselves, get sick and die. Everyone dies, it just feels like a lot more people who actually mattered to me kicked the bucket. The one that absolutely broke me, at the end of a year with very few positive memories, was Carrie Fisher. Four days after having a heart attack on a plane from London, Ms. Fisher died and the world grieved. I couldn't stop crying for hours. I watched Star Wars before I was old enough to understand how narratives work. I watched Star Wars before I could actually read. That's how long Princess Leia was part of my life, someone strong, courageous, spirited and independent that I could look up to. That Carrie Fisher was so much more than the one part she will always be associated with just made it all the more sad to me.

Because it just makes me sad to dwell on more negatives, I'm not even going to touch the train wreck of political disasters that have taken place in the past year, and try to focus on something positive. Sadly, I'm genuinely struggling to come up with positive things. Neither my husband nor I got injured. Our cats are healthy. We spent three lovely weeks in New York, visiting the sister of my heart, Lydia and her family. I got to meet up with several dear book friends during a lovely outing to the Metropolitan Museum. I set myself a journal challenge - to write one page a day in my Moleskine. I also have to find three positive things each day. Some days this year, that's been nearly impossible. So far, I've managed to journal for 295 days straight. That's pretty good. I've also set myself a daily challenge on DuoLingo, where my streak is now 340 days. I've completed the language trees for German, French, Swedish, Norwegian and am now about halfway through teaching myself Spanish. Sadly, my language skills aren't exactly great when I'm not in the app - I suspect my reading and writing skills are better than my actual active vocabulary or pronunciation, but it's at least goals I set myself that I've been able to complete.

My work load during the first half of the year was heavy, but since August, when my supervisors have done their very best to absolutely drown me in work (my life seems to consist of grading essays now), it's been all the harder to find the energy and motivation to read and review. As a result, I've read a lot less than I'd like and I have to go back to 2011 to find a year where I read fewer books and pages in total. My hope for 2017 is that I have more time to read and enjoy what I'm doing, and that while the world is quickly going to hell in a hand basket, perhaps the year will bring more happy things for me on a personal level, at least.

Let's move on to my reading. I got acquired 285 new books in 2016. 238 were e-books, 14 were audio books. Only 11,5% were actual physical books. 29 were gifts. 16 were free on various websites.

Total pages read: 52292
Total books read: 150
New books: 124
Novellas: 10
Re-reads: 24
Audio books: 15
Comic books/graphic novels: 12
Since I did the BOYB challenge, intended to make me read books I actually owned prior to 2016, I can also extrapolate that 28% of the books I read over the course of the year were my own property, acquired before the reading year began. I like discoveries like that.

The genre breakdown for 2016 is as follows:
Romance - 41.3% (I couldn't be bothered checking how many historical vs contemporary)
Paranormal/urban fantasy - 10.6%
Fantasy - 16%
Mystery/suspense - 2.6%
Science fiction - 6%
Historical fiction (non-romantic) - 5.3%
Non-fiction - 2.6%
Young adult - 15.3%

I found that I do not appear to have read any contemporary fiction that isn't also romantic. I should possibly do something about that in 2017. I've already done my round-up of my reading challenges. I failed to complete two, but took part in enough that I still felt like I did ok. I would like to say that I'll take part in fewer challenges this year, but having gone through a list of available ones that look fun, it looks like there's going to be closer to twenty in 2017 as well.

I sat down, while waiting for 2016 to finally expire, to try to organise my best of the year list. I have managed to cut it down to twenty by including whole series in some spots. The following list is a mix of books published in 2016 and books from before. I ruled out all re-reads to make the list more manageable. The books are listed in alphabetical order, because trying to rank it gave me a headache.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I listened to the audio book back in March and later in the year, this book was also selected as one of the Book Club Picks for the Cannonball Book Club. I'd heard many positive things about it, but was still unprepared for how this book was going to affect me emotionally. It's such an honest, wonderful and important book. I look forward to getting to teach excerpts from it to my pupils in the spring.

Magic Binds by Ilona Andrews. It'll come as no surprise to long-time readers of my blog that there are two entries by the Andrews' on this list. The penultimate book in my favourite paranormal fantasy series currently being written sees our protagonist trying to plan a wedding while thwarting an ominous prophecy, while also desperately fielding power plays from her ruthless, power-hungry and immortal father. Others may disagree, but I love these books and can't wait to see what happens in book 10.

One Fell Sweep by Ilona Andrews. One positive thing about 2016 is that I got two books from my favourite paranormal authors. Not content with excellent characterisation, action and plotting in their Kate Daniels series, they also publish a sort of urban fantasy/science fiction hybrid series in instalments for free on their website. What started as a fun little side project keeps getting more ambitious with every book, and in the third volume, there is romantic pay-off both for our protagonist and supporting characters.

Six of Crows duology by Leigh Bardugo. This action-packed, heist-driven historical fantasy series, consisting of Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom helped me not go entirely mad in November, when the only physical book I had time to read was the massive Count of Monte Cristo and my world was pretty much non-stop correction work. Amazing world building, clever and razor-sharp plotting, with a super cast of characters, these two books made me happy I'd stuck with Bardugo's Grisha trilogy, which I was never all that impressed by. When certain characters showed up in cameos here, it made it all the more satisfying.

A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet. The first volume in what is going to be a trilogy, this very entertaining book by a debut author manages to combine both well-plotted and realised fantasy with a very satisfying and slow-burning romance. Both protagonists and supporting cast are people I want to keep reading about, there are monsters and deities from Greek Mythology and the next two books are coming out in early 2017, so none of the endless waiting that you get with longer traditional fantasy series.

The Ivy Years by Sarina Bowen (including the excellent novella Blonde Date, but NOT book 5, The Fifteenth Minute). Having heard many positive things about these books by my fellow romance enthusiasts online, I finally got round to this series of New Adult romances early in the year. Focusing on college age protagonists involved in various sports at the fictional Harkness College and every single story I read is absolutely excellent. Bowen also deserves credit for writing very sex positive books with likable characters who never slut-shame.

Him by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy. While I haven't actually read any of Elle Kennedy's solo romances yet (they're high on my reading list for 2017), I very much enjoyed her collaboration with Sarina Bowen. Another New Adult romance, this one focuses on two hockey players and former best friends who initiate a love affair when they meet again after several years apart. A very satisfying M/M romance, at least to me, a cis-gendered, very straight woman.

The Red Rising trilogy by Pierce Brown. With the third book, Morning Star, coming out this year, I finally allowed myself to start this very hyped dystopian science fiction trilogy and for the most part, I was never bored or disappointed. I've seen it classified as young adult, but really don't think that any but the most sophisticated of teen readers will fully get the themes and stories explored over the course of these three books. Rather than just being a boring bridging instalment, Golden Son was probably my favourite of all three books.

Radiance by Grace Draven. Another satisfying fantasy romance, where an arranged marriage between a two parties who initially find the other physically repellent, but manage to develop a close friendship, which later blossoms into devoted love. While I can see why some people had problems with aspects of both the world building and the story, I was absolutely engrossed throughout and really need to get round to reading the sequel soon.

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye. An homage to the classic Jane Eyre, where the heroine instead ends up murdering multiple individuals over the course of her life. Where the hero doesn't have secrets in the attic, but instead a past in colonial India and possibly unsavoury goings-on in the cellar. With a much more diverse cast than the classic Victorian Gothic novel and marvellously narrated in audio by Susie Riddell, this is one of my very favourite discoveries of 2016 and I will be seeking out other books by the author as well.

The Belhaven duology by Emily Foster, consisting of the books How Not to Fall and How Not to Let Go. Written by a scientist in response to 50 Shades of Grey and the many similar books its success has spawned, Ms. Foster wanted to write a romance which was feminist, sex-positive, science-driven and actually erotic. The protagonists are both science nerds who also love rock climbing, so there isn't just steamy smexy times. The first book is mostly fun, infatuation and getting to know one another, the second part is in large part time-consuming psychological healing, angst, separation and trust issues, before the couple finally get their well-earned happy ending. I found both protagonists incredibly compelling and love books that show that love and great sex can't magically cure deep psychological trauma, it needs to be dealt with by professionals.

Wicked Sexy Liar by Christina Lauren. The final book in their Wild Seasons series, I was initially not entirely sure why this book needed to exist. As it turned out, it was the most satisfying romance of the lot. The story of commitment-shy London and the charming Luke, who initially just want a casual hook-up, but develop their relationship into so much more really surprised me with how great it was and probably the first one I will be recommending to someone curious to try a book by this romance-writing duo.

Her Every Wish by Courtney Milan. After last year's rather disappointing historical romance, Once Upon a Marquess, it was a great relief to see the stellar Ms. Milan back on form with this delightful novella about reaching for your dreams, ignoring your critics and not apologising for your desires. Featuring thoroughly working class protagonists, an adorable inter-racial couple in the Victorian era, I was glad to see that Milan hadn't lost her touch. 

Hold Me by Courtney Milan. Further evidence that Courtney Milan is one of the best romance novelists (if not THE best) writing at the moment came later in the year, with this contemporary New Adult, featuring a transwoman Latina heroine and an Asian bisexual hero. Dealing more with the struggles women face in the STEM fields than making a big issue out of the heroine's gender identity, this enemies to lovers story was deeply satisfying.

The Captive Prince trilogy by C.S. Pacat. Another series I had heard a lot about on the interwebs, but had resisted reading until I was sure it was completed, this alternate history fantasy featuring two sworn enemies falling in love. There is unreliable narration, all manner of political intrigue, slavery, spying, warfare and dysfunctional family dynamics. With each new book in the trilogy, it seems like the story is turned on its head, and the reader is kept entertained throughout, hoping for a happy outcome for the complex, star-crossed lovers at the centre of the story.

Kindred Spirits by Rainbow Rowell. If Ms. Rowell has a book out in a given year, no matter how short, it's pretty much a given that it will find its way to my best of list. A novella written for World Book Day, this tale features Star Wars fans waiting in line for The Force Awakens. It's short, but very sweet and my only complaint is that there isn't a lot more of it. One of my fervent hopes for 2017 is that there will be another Rowell book in the later half of the year (there are sadly none scheduled for the first half).

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. One of those modern classics that I had never got round to reading, this heartbreaking, but ultimately uplifting historical novels centres around Francie Nolan, growing up in Brooklyn in the aftermath of World War I. While the family is poor, the father an alcoholic, there is love and loyalty and a lot of positive things in between all the bleakness. While the book made me cry more than once, it's a wonderful book and should be read by more people.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. If I had to pick my very favourite book from 2016, not necessarily in terms of overall quality or worthiness, but the book that gave me the most sheer enjoyment and that I proceeded to re-read twice in the months after it came out in August. This contemporary romance, where bitter enemies Lucy and Josh discover just how much they have in common when they start fighting for a new CEO position, and their "hating game" turns into the "something else" game was just so comforting and delightful to me, and I keep finding new things to love about it with each new reread.

Saga, vol 6 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. While maybe not one of the very best volumes of the series so far, it's still a new instalment of Saga, enough said. I would obviously have preferred more Lying Cat, but watching Hazel turn into an actual little person and having Marko and Alana reunited again feels so good.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. I had only ever watched the movie before, but found that the book was just as delightful and, as is often the case, possibly even better than the cinematic adaptation. The uplifting tale of downtrodden governess Guinevere Pettigrew and her absolutely wonderful day of adventure is just such a sweet story. It's not a very long book, and it deserves more readers. The movie is also highly recommended.

There you go. My year in review. Now I need to go make lists of potential reading challenges and plan what I want to read in January.

Reading Challenge Round-Up 2016

Happy New Year! This is my Reading Challenge Round-Up for 2016. I don't have the time or patience to do separate posts for all my challenges. There are still too many essays waiting to be corrected and graded before I go back to work in a few days. For anyone interested in which books I read for the various challenges, visit my Goodreads page, where I have shelves assigned and clearly labelled for each of them.

1. The Cannonball Read. The reason I even have this blog and the "challenge" nearest and dearest to my heart. I was not able to complete as many books as last year, but did manage a total of 135, so a little bit more than two and a half Cannonballs. With my workload this past semester, it's amazing I've managed as much reading and reviewing as I have.

2. You Read How Many Books? hosted by the Crafty Engineer. I signed up for level 2, 150 books and am sad to say that I did not manage to reach this goal. My grand total for the year was 137 (although some of those were re-read more than once). I'll have to set a lower goal next year.

3. Alphabet Soup 2016, hosted by Dollycas. I completed this challenge in the middle of December, mainly because I'd gotten a bit lax about checking off the various letters. It's a really fun challenge, I will be repeating it next year.

4. Colour Coded Reading Challenge 2016, hosted by My Reader's Block. I managed to complete this challenge by the end of May. After they made it possible to read books that feature the colour not just in the name, but as the dominant colour of the cover, this has become a lot easier to complete. Absolutely repeating it next year.

5. The 2016 TBR Pile Reading Challenge, hosted by Bookish Lifestyle once again stopped posting link-up posts by May, I think it was. They seem to be a bit bad about organising the actual challenge throughout the year. Nonetheless, I tried chipping away at my TBR, and was able to reduce it by 78 books. Please don't ask me how many books I've added to the list over the course of the year (I wouldn't be able to answer even if I tried).

6. The Bring Your Own Books Challenge, or B.Y.O.B, is hosted by Literary Distractions. Trying to actually read some of the many many unread books that I own, I finished this challenge having read 42 books that I owned prior to 2016. Again, let's not ask how many books I added to my shelves (most of which I haven't read either)

7. The 2016 Monthly Key Word Challenge, hosted by My Soul Called Life, is one of my favourite challenges and I've really tried to find books I actually OWN with the keywords in them. That doesn't always work, but I managed to read at least one book every month that fit with the assigned keywords, and for most of the months, quite a few more. I ended up having read 43 books for this challenge this year

8. What an Animal IX Challenge, hosted by Socrates' Book Reviews is really a piece of cake for me, as I read so many books featuring paranormal creatures and shapeshifters. As the challenge also allows you to add any book with an animal in the title or on the cover, or in some other way important to the plot, I always enjoy this challenge, because I do so well at it. I set myself the highest level - 21 or more books, and had completed that by early July. In the end, I read 55 books that fit into this challenge.

9. Finishing the Series 2016 is now hosted by Bea's Book Nook was another challenge where the host just plain forgot to make posts where you could log your reviews. I'd promised myself to finish at least 7 ongoing series this year, I ended up managing to complete 28.

10. I suspect the 2016 Women Challenge, hosted by Peek a Book is actually aimed at someone who doesn't primarily read books by female authors. Since I'm a huge fan of challenges that I can complete without actually working to hard, it's another one I've taken part in for the last few years. I read a lot of female authors and therefore set myself the level Wonder Woman - to read 20+ books by female authors. Even if I've read multiple books by some authoresses, I've only allowed myself to count one book per person. I'd completed my initial challenge goal by the end of April, and read books by 81 different female authors this year.

11. The 2016 New Author Challenge, hosted by Literary Escapism, was in its eight year in 2016 and I signed up to discover at least 25 new authors in 2016. I'd completed that challenge by mid-July and ended up nearly doubling my goal, reading books by 49 different new authors over the course of the year.

12. The 2016 New to You Challenge, hosted by The Herd Presents, allows for some crossover with the previous challenge mentioned, as anything new to me - be it an author, a series, a genre all count. I signed up for 50 "new to me" things, and completed that goal in mid-September. In the end, there were 65 "new to me" entries on my list by the end of December.

13. The 2016 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, once again hosted by Passages to the Past, is one I also enjoy, because I love reading historical novels. As always, I signed up for the highest level, "Prehistoric", with 50+ books and completed my goal by mid-November. My final tally for this challenge was 63 books.

14. The Pick Your Genre Challenge, also hosted by The Herd Presents, allows the reader to pretty much design their own reading challenge. I set myself romance as a genre (of any kind) and read a total of 90 books that would qualify because of a central romance plot or very strong romantic elements as part of the story.

15. The 2016 Diverse Reads Challenge, hosted by Chasing Faerietales, doesn't have any set reading levels. They just want you to read diverse books, with main characters including but not limited to LGBTQIA, persons of colour, gender diversity, people with disability (including physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual or developmental; chronic conditions, mental illnesses and addiction) and ethnic, cultural and religious minorities. I set myself a personal goal of at least 30 books, which I'd managed to complete by the end of July. In the end, I'm proud to say that I read 52 books that qualify for this challenge, and I should really try to match that number in 2017.

16. What's in a Name 2016, hosted by The Worm Hole is a fairly small challenge, which I completely failed at. Despite the challenge only requiring you to read six books in total, the categories this year were such that I just never felt particularly inspired, and in the end, just gave up on it. I only read two out of the six required books, but the categories for 2017 look more doable, so I will sign up for this one again, to hopefully complete it this time.

17. The 2016 Literary Pickers Challenge, hosted by Delighted Reader is a new one for me this year, a literary scavenger hunt. There's a list of 100 different items to be found in romances (or books with a strong romance element) and I thought it looked like fun. I signed up for level 2, "Garage Sale Guru" (25 items) and had managed to find that many by the end of August, abouts. In the end, I managed to "find" 43 out of the 100 items. I suspect this challenge will require its own round-up post, as just linking to my Goodreads shelf won't actually say what item matches which book in the challenge.

18. The R.I.P (Readers Imbibing Peril) XI Challenge takes place only in September and October and encourages readers to read books in the mystery, suspense, thriller, gothic, horror and dark fantasy genres. I read my seven books fairly quickly and always enjoy this one.

18. I mustn't forget the Goodreads Reading Challenge for 2016 either. I always set my reading goal to 104 books (basically a double Cannonball), but obviously hope to read a lot more. With re-reads and the like, I have read a total of 147 books this year, says the tally.

19. My final challenge of the year was the Reading Challenge Addict where I signed up for "Out of this World", 16+ Reading Challenges entered and completed. For the first year in a long time, there are two that I didn't manage to complete, but the benefit of taking part in such a ridiculous amount of challenges is that I still managed to hit my target for this one (but only just).

I also took part in the October Read-a-thon, but am at a loss to remember why I couldn't do the one in April. I keep saying that I want to reduce the number of challenges I do, but then the end of the reading year finds me discovering all these tempting new ones (or just wanting to repeat the ones that have worked for me for years). I need a day or two to ponder what I want to do with reading year in 2017.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Bonus post: #CBR8 Book 135: "Midnights" by Rainbow Rowell

Page count: 15 pages
Rating: 4 stars

I know I said yesterday that number 134 was going to be my last review of the year, but that was before I remembered that there was a Rainbow Rowell short story out there in the world that I hadn't read. Also, it has it's own entry on Goodreads, so even though it's part of a bigger anthology, My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories (eleven of which I have yet to read), I don't feel reviewing it is cheating. 135 is a nicer, rounder number to end the year on.

Margaret "Mags" and Noel meet at a New Year's Eve party at Mags' friend Alicia's in 2011. Margaret doesn't really know anyone else there and is feeling a bit left out when a tall boy comes over and chats with her. He explains how he's allergic to any number of things, including tree nuts, and therefore feels that Mags may in fact have saved his life by alerting him to the fact that the dip had pine nuts in it. We meet the couple again the next New Year. Noel is still the socially outgoing one and well-liked by everyone. Mags observes everything and everyone from the sidelines. Noel considers Mags one of his best friends, but as she points out, he has lots of best friends.

We see a number of parties at Alicia's, where Noel is charming and tries to get Mags to dance with him. He gives her so much attention, but always ends up kissing someone else at midnight. Come 2014, Mags is seeing most of her friends for the first time since they went away to college, Noel included. Mags got a scholarship to a school in Omaha, so she's the only one who hasn't gone anywhere and experienced new things. She can't take the idea of seeing Noel kiss another girl when midnight comes, so she hides outside.

Rainbow Rowell is one of my favourite writers. I cannot think of a book or story she has written that I haven't absolutely loved (seriously, the lowest rating I've given to any of her books is 4.5 stars). The only reason this is now my lowest-rated of all of her works is that one thing has to be, and this is so very short. It has that wonderful Rowell wit, great characters who you make a connection with instantly, even if you've barely had any time to read about them. She paints a very vivid picture of the setting in very few words, and even this 15-page story has a recurring cast of characters that she develops the lives of cleverly, off-page. We only see them in little glimpses every New Year's Eve, in the same location, but we are given hints of how their lives have changed since the last time. As with Kindred Spirits, the little novella she wrote for World Book Day earlier this year, there just isn't enough here. I get all the things I associate with a great Rowell story, but with only 15 pages to spend time with these characters, I'm left unsatisfied and wanting MORE!

There is also no longer anything out there in the world published by Rowell that I haven't now read. I really hope she's working on something new,  and I can't wait until I get my hands on whatever it is.

Judging a book by its cover: This story doesn't have any cover of its own, I've used the cover for the short story collection where it's included. As far as I can tell, the cover has all the various protagonists from the stories ice skating on a pond. I couldn't begin to tell you which little cartoon people are supposed to be Mags and Joel. It's a pretty cute cover for a short story collection, though.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR8 Book 134: "How Not to Let Go" by Emily Foster

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Spoiler warning! This is a direct continuation of part one of The Belhaven series, How Not to Fall, and while the reader is given enough context to understand what happened in the previous book, it will not make as much sense or have the emotional resonance for the reader unless you have read the first one. Seriously, these books are two halves of a whole story. Also, you will probably get spoilers for the first book in the series in this review. So maybe skip it until you've read part one. It's a really great start to a romance, and I promise you that the second part gives the story a satisfactory ending.

At the end of an extremely steamy month of physical intimacy, medical student Annabelle "Annie" Coffey can't help but fall in love with her intense lover, Dr. Charles Douglas, only to be told that due to the horrible abuse he watched his family go through at the hands of his father, and the extreme emotional strain this has had on him, Charles isn't capable of returning her feelings. Their arrangement was always meant to be one month of no strings attached sex, before they went their separate ways, remaining friends. Utterly heartbroken, Annie is in no fit state to maintain any sort of friendship. She leaves Charles without even saying goodbye and goes home to her parents, hurt and devastated, to slowly put herself back together. The couple meet briefly a month later, at Annie's best friend's wedding, and Charles is mortified at how much he has hurt her.

They don't have any contact or see each other for nearly a year. Having worked closely together for years before they started their sexual relationship, both deeply miss the company and professional input of the other. Annie keeps writing long e-mails to Charles, but never sends them. She knows he will be at a big conference in London, where she will be presenting, however, and having spent their time apart trying to come to grips with her feelings for him, and recalibrating them, so they might have a chance at a friendship, she reaches out and asks to meet Charles when they are both in England.

Back in London for the first time in four years, Charles also has to face his family again. His genius computer programmer brother and his long-suffering, abused mother. When the airport is closed down suddenly as Annie is due to fly back to the US, she ends up staying over at Charles' brother and gets to meet and see for herself just how monstrous his father actually is. She begins to see the challenges Charles struggles against and what is he fighting so desperately not to become.

While at least the first two thirds of How Not to Fall is all laughter, intimacy, getting to know each other better, the flutterings of infatuation and a LOT of smexy times, the last third shows that in the face of severe psychological damage, the love of a good woman and an amazing physical connection isn't enough to magically heal.

In How Not to Let Go both Annie and Charles have to change and redefine their relationship. Annie has to get over her initial heartbreak and figure out if her heart has lied to her, or if Charles is worth loving and keeping in her life, even if she can never be his partner. It takes her a year of processing and soul-searching before she's ready to consider a friendship with him, despite their continued physical attraction. Charles, on the other hand, is gutted that he ever caused Annie a moment of pain and has spent a year just trying to be worthy of her respect. Through a lot of gruelling therapy, he's started mapping out exactly how messed up his psyche is and how many protective layers there are, keeping him from being able to allow himself to get close to or trust anyone.

There is a LOT of pain in this book and several rounds of gruelling emotional exploration. It's quite clear that both Annie and Charles are better together than apart, but Charles has such a long way to go before he can return Annie's love and his family situation really is so very messed up. While the first book was told entirely from Annie's point of view, this one has more or less alternating chapters from Annie and Charles, so the reader gets to fully see inside Charles as he works his way up from the pit of despair, through the swamp and wasteland, up rage mountain to battle the metaphorical dragon, before he can begin to break down the walls surrounding his inner self.

With How Not to Fall, I had trouble putting the book down, and kept reading long after it was entirely sensible. I find Annie and Charles such incredibly compelling characters and kept wanting to read more about them. In this book, I occasionally had to take a break, though, as their emotional journey was absolutely exhausting to me. While the first book focuses mostly on Annie, the second book is probably more Charles'. We get to meet Charles' family, his anorexic little sister, who has no end of imagination games to parse out people's inner psyche; his extremely brilliant and sensitive younger brother, who seems to express himself best through piano playing; his lovely mother and see the joy they can share when Charles senior, Lord Belhaven is nowhere near them. We also get to see the contrast in Annie's home life with her incredibly loving and supportive parents.

The first book ends on a cliffhanger, when Annie leaves Charles. The second book begins at the same place. Neither book will be entirely satisfying without the other, they are really two halves of a whole story. While some romances get the couple together quickly and spend very little time actually having them get to know each other, the opposite has to be said for Emily Foster. By the end of the book, Annie and Charles have known each other for about four years, and have had their "Thing" for the best end of two. The course of their true love certainly doesn't run smooth, and there is a lot of pain to work through and a whole lot of metaphorical dragon slaying to do before they can have a chance at their HEA.

I have no idea if Foster intends to write any more about the younger Charles siblings, but based on their appearances in this book, I would absolutely love to see a book starring Charles' younger brother Simon as a hero, or his wounded but snarky younger sister Elizabeth as a heroine. Preferably both. I know that she primarily writes scientific non-fiction, but based on these two books, it would be a terrible shame if she didn't continue writing realistic and very satisfying romance as well.

And with this, I post my final book review of the year. Cannonball 9 starts on January 1st. Anyone interested in participating can sign up here.

Judging a book by its cover: How Not to Fall had a couple embracing and kissing in the rain, here the weather is a lot more sunny (possibly indicative of the brighter times faced by the couple towards the very end of the book). It may just be me, but the male cover model reminds me a lot of Ryan Gosling. Charles does not. I forget exactly how Annie is described in the book, but I'm pretty sure the female cover isn't a very good match for her. Nonetheless, it's a sweet and romantic book cover. Doesn't quite match the emotional turmoil of the contents, but there IS a happy ending, so maybe I'm just being overly critical.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR8 Book 133: "My Lady Jane" by Cynthia Hand, Jodi Meadows and Brodi Ashton

Page count: 512 pages
Rating: 4 stars

According to history, when King Edward VI, Henry VIII's son died young and childless, certain noblemen who wanted to make sure a ruler of the Protestant faith ruled the country put his young cousin Lady Jane Gray on the throne. She ruled for nine days, before Mary Tudor arrived with her armies, removed the poor girl and had her beheaded. This book bears a vague resemblance to that story.

In the England of this story, the conflict in England isn't between Catholics and Protestants, it's between non-shapeshifters, also known as Verities, and shapeshifters, better known as eðians (pronounced eethians). King Henry VIII himself turned into a great big lion, on occasion, but even so, the eðians are generally hunted and distrusted by the populace in general. Princess Mary is staunchly against them and want them all killed, while young King Edward and his best friend and cousin, Lady Jane Grey read everything they can about them and would like nothing more than to discover eðian abilities of their own.

Sadly, Edward appears to be dying. He has been told by Lord Dudley, his chief adviser and his physicians that he's suffering from "the affliction" and that he is unlikely to have long, certainly not long enough to marry and produce a male heir. Luckily Dudley has a plan to secure a succession that will make sure an eðian-friendly ruler ends up on the English trone. He suggests that Edward change the line of succession to ensure that his cousin Lady Jane's heirs inherit. Of course, Jane needs to be married to produce heirs, but Dudley has just the candidate. His younger son, Gifford. There is the minor difficulty that Gifford Dudley is an eðian and spends every day from sunup to sunset as a magnificent stallion, but any heirs would be conceived at night anyways, so Dudley is sure Jane wouldn't mind too much.

When the extremely intellectual Jane finds out that she's to be married off within a few days, she travels to the Dudley estate (carrying with her a suitable supply of books to entertain her) to meet her intended. Unfortunately, because of some rather shameful nightly pursuits, Gifford (just call him G) has let it be known that he's a rampant womaniser. It's more socially acceptable than what he gets up to. Hence his older brother mistakes Jane for one of his younger brother's many suspected floozies and Jane believes her impending husband is a lecherous libertine (he's not, he's actually a poet). Nor does anyone deem it appropriate to tell her about her husband's eðian status, so she has quite the surprise the morning after her wedding, when the groom turns into a big horse in the middle of her bedroom.

As Edward takes a rapid turn for the worse shortly after the wedding, his sister Elizabeth warns him that he mustn't trust his physicians and he realises that Dudley is up to no good, and that Jane may be in terrible danger as well.

This is a delightful farce of a book, where we follow the points of view of Edward, Jane and G (he never liked the name Gifford) as the story progresses. Since there are three authors, I suspect each of them took one character and wrote their sections. Having loosely based the first half on actual historical events (if you ignore the shapeshifters), the second half is pure fantasy and a lot of fun. The book is clearly inspired by The Princess Bride, with the narrators occasionally interrupting the narrative to address the reader directly. Readers will recognise that most of Gifford's poetry is strikingly similar to that of one William Shakespeare. There is humour reminiscent of Monty Python and Blackadder, while at least one plot development brings to mind the lovely Ladyhawke, one of my favourite eighties movies (I'd love to get a version with a non-synthy soundtrack).

I've seen this book included on several best of 2016 lists, and while I'm not sure I enjoyed it enough to include it in my top ten of the year, it's a very enjoyable romp from start to finish. My one complaint is that the book is a bit long and I think some of the parts in the second half could have been edited a bit more. As a huge fan of Tudor history in general, and having always been sympathetic to poor Lady Jane, the nine days queen, who really didn't have much choice in the matter and was a political pawn her entire life, it was nice to see a story that reimagines a much happier ending for her. Possibly not the book for you if you take your history very seriously, but highly recommended for anyone who wants a fun, creative and irreverent reimagining of history.

Judging a book by its cover: While on first look, this may seem like any old historical novel, with your red-headed girl in Tudor era clothing and a big red font bringing your attention to the title, you need only take a closer look to see that there's more here. In little "hand-written notes" and arrows pointing to the girl on the cover, the writers explain that "Sometimes history gets it all wrong". The other notes say "It's not easy being queen" and "Off with her head".

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.