Emily Reads All the Books, Beats WWEnd Challenges

Remember last year’s Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge?  Well, this year Worlds Without End upped the ante with the Roll-Your-Own reading challenges, with 28 different user-created challenges to pick from.  I’m always a bit ridiculous when it comes to reading, so I picked fifteen(!), with the caveat that I wasn’t going to do any reviews this year.  I felt that was reasonable, considering I gave birth this summer.  (Strangely, the baby helped me read more, since I spent so many hours feeding him with nothing to do but read/listen.)  Honestly, the real challenge I set myself was to see how many challenges I could beat this year.

So, the challenges.  Seven were sort of no-brainers, books I would have read anyway.  First up:

Fantasia: Read 12 fantasy books

FantasiaEasy-peasy.  I finished this one within a couple months, and spent the rest of the year swapping out books so fewer were duplicated in the other challenges.  My favorite here is Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb.  (Though really, everything on this list was great.)

Read the Sequel: Read 12 sequels

SequelStand-alone books are so rare in this genre, it would have been a struggle not to meet this challenge.  Favorites were Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie, Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor, and Skin Game by Jim Butcher.  Also note several sequels to books I read for last year’s Women of Genre Fiction challenge (and one sequel from this year’s!).

Pick and Mix: Read 12 books from any of WWEnd’s lists

PickThe creator of the challenge planned to read 50 books, and I can safely say I’ve matched that, though there’s only space for 12 on the site.  Almost all of these are duplicates from other challenges, because, hey – all the harder challenges are books from lists.  My favorite here is Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton.

New Books of 2014: Read 8 books published this year

New 2014I read dozens of new books this year, so I picked my 8 favorite for this list.  My most highly-anticipated were Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson and The Broken Eye by Brent Weeks, and they both delivered.

The Book of Ones: Read 12 books that begin a seriesOnesA little more difficult than sequels, but I still finished plenty early.  Standouts that I haven’t already mentioned include Hild by Nicola Griffith and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.

2014 LGBT Challenge: Read 12 books by LGBT authors or exploring LGBT themes

LGBTI added this challenge in November when I realized I had already read at least 12 fitting the criteria.  Since I don’t actually know how a lot of authors identify, most of these are books with LGBT characters and themes.  China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh was a favorite.

Sub-Genre Focus: Read 10 books in one sub-genre (I chose historical fantasy)

sub-genreThis one technically runs from September 2014-August 2015, but I treated it as an all-2014 challenge (though I’ll probably continue it through the end and swap out all the books I read before September).  I had already read all the books by the time I discovered the challenge.

After these gimmes, the challenges got a little more, well, challenging.

12 Awards in 12 Months: Read the winners of 12 different awards

12 AwardsThis one took some doing, but I finished this one just before Halloween: Philip K Dick Award, British Science Fiction Award, Hugo, Nebula, Locus YA, Campbell, Mythopoeic, Locus Fantasy, British Fantasy Society, Clarke, Locus SF, & World Fantasy.  I already mentioned my two favorites, so I’ll give you the one I liked so much more than I expected: The City and the City by China Miéville.

The Second Best: Read nominees of 12 different awards

2nd BestSimilar effort to the last one involved here, and I finished on Halloween: Campbell Award, Locus SF, Hugo, Locus YA, British Science Fiction Award, British Fantasy Society, Nebula, Mythopoeic, Locus Fantasy, Clarke, Shirley Jackson, & World Fantasy.  Quite a few here that had been on my to-read list for a while (or already hanging out on my kindle).

Women of Genre Fiction: Read 12 books by 12 different new-to-you women

WoGFLet’s be honest, there’s no way I could do this many challenges without repeating the WoGF challenge.  Only one book here I really didn’t like (The Female Man), but it probably wasn’t the best timing to read that sort of thing with a one month old baby.

Masterworks: read 12 books from the Masterworks lists

MasterworksThe number of books I wouldn’t have read (or finished) starts going up here, but I stuck it out and finished mid-November.  I cheated a little with The Riddle-Master, since I read it before in around sixth grade, but I didn’t remember a thing except that I loved it.  On re-reading, I still didn’t remember anything, but I still loved it (and it prompted me to choose the other McKillip book for my final pick).

One World to Rule Them All: Read 12 books in the same fictional world

DiscworldI added this challenge in November when I was closing in on the end of all the others, and spent the month listening to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.  Monstrous Regiment was my favorite.

The Guardian List Challenge: Read 7 books from the Guardian list of Best SF&F

GuardianAfter the Masterworks challenge I only had two more to go, so why not?  I actually finished this one last (on Christmas!), as I waited to make sure I had time to listen to The Time Traveler’s Wife rather than reading Fahrenheit 451.  Also, Fight Club isn’t science fiction, so I’m confused as to how it made the list.

The Number of the Counting Shall Be Three: Read 3 trilogies

3 TrilogiesI finished this one in early December, by the skin of my teeth, but I couldn’t just stop doing challenges before the year was over, now could I?

Mythopoeic Award: Read 12 winners/runners-up for the Mythopoeic Award

mythopoeicThis was always a long shot, particularly with the holidays.  I started it at the end of November with five more books to read (and three other challenges yet to finish), and finished mid-December, just before leaving for my two weeks of holiday travel.

So there you have it, my year in books.  I read 131 books, 102 of which were in the WWEnd database.  95 of those went toward filling the 166 slots in the challenges.  Whew!  Given that I’m returning to work tomorrow, I think I can safely say I won’t be doing that again–at least, not to such a ridiculous extent.

WoGF Book Review: Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts

This is my fourth book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End, just squeaking in at the end of April.

I’m not a big reader of short fiction—I guess my sense of appreciation isn’t calibrated for the usual hit rate of a good anthology—but this collection by Tansy Rayner Roberts was wonderful.

Love and Romanpunk begins with “Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary,” in which, Julia says, “I have arranged the secrets of my family in alphabetical order, beast by beast.”  These family tales, told in Julia’s wonderfully dry voice, weave together into a fantastical and very unexpected version of Roman history where the monsters not only plagued Julia’s family, they were her family.

The second story, “Lamia Victoriana,” was probably my least favorite of the collection, though still quite good.  I think I’d have enjoyed it more if I was better versed in the classics.  The story is narrated by Fanny Wollstonecraft, as she and her sister Mary run away with an unnamed poet and his sister.  They are, of course, the titular lamia, seductive vampires in the old Victorian sense, and a lovely, spine-chilling change from the modern kind.  There’s an unexpected tie to Rome at the end, which I didn’t entirely understand at the time, but which sets things up nicely for the last two stories.

“The Patrician” was my favorite.  Set in modern-day Nova Ostia, a fictional replica Roman city in Australia, made with real stone from Ostia and Herculaneum.  That part’s important, because the stone attracts the beasts of Rome, giving the residents more than their fair share of monsters.  Sixteen-year-old Clea meets a stranger shortly before the Temple of Vesta burns down, killing two.  It was the stranger, of course, a man named Julius, and the dead women lamia.  He is the last of the Julias, and his task is to rid the world of the beasts of Rome.  He saves her brother from a third lamia, and disappears.  He reappears periodically throughout Julia’s life, killing monsters, and gradually revealing the story of his life, and becoming a part of hers.  I will admit, the ending tugged at my heartstrings more than a little.

The final story, “Last of the Romanpunks,” picks up with Clea’s grandson Sebastian, in an Ancient-Roman-themed bar on an airship–incidentally, owned by his ex-girlfriend, who is intent on bringing back the lamias Julius wiped out, and becoming one herself.  Fortunately, Seb learned a few things from his grandma, and the Julias never truly die.

Each story could stand on its own, but I loved the way they all connected, making a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  I may not know a lot of Roman history, but I could feel the author’s love of the subject in every line.  The monsters and monster-hunters may have been larger than life, but the ordinary people on the sidelines, Clea in particular, felt very real.  Love and Romanpunk is smart, witty, surprising, and very much worth a read.

WoGF Book Review: Ironskin by Tina Connolly

This is my third book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at World Without End.

Ironskin by Tina ConnollyWhen the 2012 Nebula Award nominees were announced, I was pleased to find I had read (and enjoyed) four out of six in the Best Novel category.  The fifth has been on my reading list for a while.  The sixth, the only one I’d never heard of, was Ironskin by Tina Connolly.

I picked it up so quickly in part because of some idiot comments floating around the web about the genre becoming too girly, and it made me happy that books like this are starting to get serious recognition.  Once I read the description, I was curious about what made this book so special that both it and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamour in Glass were included on the shortlist (both being alternate histories in the regency era).

Ironskin is a retelling of Jane Eyre with fey.  Unlike Glamour in Glass, where society is practically unchanged by the addition of magic, Connolly’s world is dramatically different.  Society had become dependent on fey technology, powering everything from lights to motor cars with magical “bluepacks”—until the Great War.  The story starts five years after the war’s end.  The fey are gone, but the country is left devastated, and scrambling to make do with coal and steam.  A generation of young men is slaughtered, and many unlucky survivors are left with fey curses that can only be suppressed by covering the scars with iron.  Jane Eliot is one such ironskin, hiding her deformed face with an iron half-mask.

I thought the language was lovely, and really captured the feeling of Jane Eyre.  The societal consequences were well-thought out, and I loved the references to slightly altered titles and quotes from plays by “Shakspyr.”  The fey were very traditional and satisfyingly malevolent in contrast with the recent abundance of urban fantasy reinterpretations.

Jane’s interactions with the fey-touched child, Dorie, actually bothered me quite a lot through the first half of the book, but I think they were meant to.  It was heartbreaking to watch all the life and spirit drain out of the girl as Jane and her father insisted she deny her fey gifts in favor of acting “human.”  There were strong reasons for her doing so, but rather lightly touched upon, and I can’t help but wish that I could have been made to really believe in those reasons along with Jane.

The other aspect of the story that bothered me was the easy resolution of Jane’s dislike of her scarred face by giving her a new, perfect fey face.  It feels like a cop-out.  I was disappointed in Jane for forcing Edward to make her a new face, and while I loved the horrifying way in which that backfired on her, I hate that she got to be magically beautiful anyway.  It sends a conflicting message.  On one hand, it tries to convince you that fey beauty is deadly and Jane’s scars mark her bravery, but the other hand snatches it all away in the ending with the impression that it can’t be a happy ending if she’s still ugly.  Needless to say, that left a bad taste in my mouth.

If you can overlook that distasteful theme, however, I found Ironskin to be very engaging overall, and the faery queen beats the insane wife in the attic, hands down.  Worth a read for fans of the classic.

WoGF Book Review: Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

This is my second book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.  I’m back on schedule—just barely!

Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth BearRange of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear is the story of an empire falling apart.  The Old Khagan is dead, and his nephew Temur is left for dead on the battlefield.  However, in a land where each of the Khagan’s living heirs has his own moon in the sky, his survival is no secret, and his uncle is determined to hunt him down.  His first instinct is merely to get away, but when an enemy sends the ghosts of his people to capture his bed-mate, he sets out on a quest to reclaim her.  Along the way, he joins with the wizard and once-princess Samarkar to stand against a hidden cult that seeks to play Temur and his uncle against each other and conquer their people.

The language in this book was beautiful.  Not overly showy, but fluid and graceful, effortlessly leading me through the story.  The love scene early on is one of the most poetic I’ve ever read.

Lots of great female characters: wizards, warriors, horsewomen, grandmothers, princesses, an even a female king.  And horses; Temur’s mare Bansh truly was a character in her own right.  I always love seeing a range of strengths.  Looking back on it now, this book was actually very heavily populated with women.  Given that a lot of the men all killed each other off before the story started, that makes a lot of sense.

My favorite part was the magnificent world building.  The feel of the silk-road fantasy world was very solidly Not European, from the Rasan custom of sticking out your tongue to show respect to the life of the steppe clans, with their horses and white-houses and true names.  The sky changes to reflect the god of whomever holds power in the land, and the gods seem very close.

It was incredibly refreshing to get away from the familiar old tropes, but in some ways it also placed an extra layer of distance between me and the characters. It felt more like watching a grand adventure unfold than being plunged into the midst of one myself.  I enjoyed the story, but I wasn’t emotionally invested.  I wasn’t compelled to keep reading.  I feel bad about saying that, because it really is a great book, and I’m planning to read the sequel when it comes out.  I think it probably says more about me as a reader; the emotion is all very subtly drawn, dipping very shallowly into the characters and letting their feelings come across mainly through their actions and the choice of description.  Quite different from a lot of my other reading fare, and requiring more concentration on my part.

I went into this book thinking it would probably end up on my Hugo nomination ballot.  I’m not sure it makes it into my top five, but Range of Ghosts is definitely in contention.

WoGF Book Review: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

A few weeks ago, I posted about the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge over at Worlds Without End.  As predicted, writing the review is the hard part.  So, more than three weeks after finishing the book, here’s my first: a review of Graceling by Kristin Cashore.

I’ve been hearing good things about Graceling for years, but the description always put me off.  A book about a smart, beautiful teenage girl with a magical talent for killing?  Right.  Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve read perhaps too many urban fantasies in the last few years about hot young women who are deadly with their weapons of choice, and I just wasn’t in the mood for another one, even if it was set in a fairy-tale kingdom.

Turns out I was wrong.  When I finally picked it up from my local library, Graceling upended all my expectations.  Katsa kills, yes, and she’s magically good at it, but that’s not what the book is about.  It’s about Katsa herself, and what it means for her to be forced to act as a thug and a killer when all she wants is to be a good person.

The book opens with Katsa in the midst of a secret rescue.  Secret, not because the kidnappers might manage to stop her, but because she can’t let her uncle, the king, find out.  I love that she doesn’t even know the victim, and she’s saving him just because it’s the right thing to do.  And contrary to my fears, she’s very careful not to kill anybody, not even the one witness who might have recognized her.

Katsa is the very definition of a strong female protagonist.  Not the physical strength, though obviously she has that in abundance, but the strength of character.  She is her own person, and she doesn’t need to hide behind or depend on anyone else; but at the same time, she can accept help with grace.  She doesn’t stupidly insist on doing everything herself and shutting out the world.  When things go wrong, she takes action—and responsibility.

I thought the interactions between her and the two potential love interests were very well done, and thought-provoking in ways you don’t find in most teen books.  When her friend turns out to be in love with her, she has the admittedly cliché reaction of having never seen it coming.  But instead of being flattered by his protectiveness, she feels insulted; after all, she can defend herself better than anyone else in seven kingdoms.  His assumption that she would change her mind about wanting children was particularly condescending, and I loved Katsa’s disgusted reaction.

I think it’s so important for young adult books in particular to show young women that they don’t need to conform to the expectations of a handsome man just because he likes her.  Her life doesn’t need to become about him—even when she does like him back.  When Katsa finally does fall in love, I love that she doesn’t turn to melodrama and decide that she can never be with him without being owned by him, so they must break their hearts and never be together.  But she also doesn’t just jump into the sack with him.  She takes the time to think about the consequences, not only the immediate ones, but whether she can be his lover without feeling owned, whether she’ll be able to leave, and how it will affect his feelings when she does.

The final showdown with the evil king was abrupt, but I realized, reading the denouement afterward, that it fit.  The encounter didn’t deserve any more page time, because it wasn’t actually the focus of the book.  Katsa’s acceptance of herself is the focus, and her relationships with the other characters.  It was only right to spend more time dealing with the consequences of the king’s evil and Katsa’s role in his demise (sorry, hope that didn’t spoil anything…but come on, was he ever going to win?) than with the actual encounter.

Graceling is a thoughtful, imaginative, and thoroughly enjoyable book, which I heartily recommend.  I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.