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: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

This is my twelfth and final book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

I’ve seen and heard so many glowing reviews of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie that I can’t possibly have anything really new to say but it’s worth repeating.  This book is fantastic, the most original thing I’ve read all year, and a debut novel to boot.

The main character, Breq, is especially intriguing because not only is she Breq, she’s also the ship Justice of Toren and all the ancillary soldiers that belong to the ship.  In this unique perspective, you get such sentences as “My bodies sweated under my uniform jackets, and, bored, I opened three of my mouths, all in close proximity to each other on the temple plaza, and sang with those three voices.”  Or this: “The tech medic went swiftly to work, and suddenly I was on the table (I was walking behind Lieutenant Awn, I was taking up the mending Two Esk had set down on its way to the holds, I was laying myself down on my small, close bunks, I was wiping a counter in the decade room) and I could see and hear but I had no control of the new body and its terror raised the heart rates of all One Esk’s segments.”

She has different scope at different points in the story, and it was fascinating to see how Breq was not the same as One Esk, but plausibly a part of it, just as One Esk was not the same as Justice of Toren, but also a plausible part of it.  Despite the seemingly barbarous practice of taking bodies and replacing their original personalities with someone else’s, I never felt like it was Breq’s fault, and I enjoyed seeing the way she didn’t think twice about it for herself, but was always aware that she made other people uncomfortable.

The other intriguing bit of world building is the Radchaai erasure of gender differences.  Breq is incapable of distinguishing between the sexes, and uses “she” as the default pronoun for everybody.  It was fun at the beginning to see her struggle, knowing she could get into trouble by calling non-Radchaai by the wrong pronoun, but always just guessing and hoping she got it right.  Later, though, there was a mind-blowing moment when a non-Radchaai starting talking to her about characters we’d already met and referring to them as “he” instead of “she.”  It was jolting and revelatory, how much I had been thinking about them as women even though I knew Breq didn’t mean it that way; and then, after the initial shock, realizing that it didn’t make a bit of difference.  Turns out individual character traits actually are more important than gender.  I heard an interview with the author where she said that for a lot of the characters, she didn’t actually know which gender they were, which seems perfectly fitting.

Of course, the book is more than just an original character and a gender-blind society.  It’s also a really great space opera, and once all the pieces of the backstory are revealed, the plot just barrels full speed ahead, keeping you guessing all the way.  Don’t get me wrong; this is by no means an easy or mindless read.  But it made me care, made me want to know, and any work on my part was well rewarded.  There are two more books on the way, and you’d better believe I’ll snatch them up the moment they hit the (internet) shelves.

WoGF Book Review: Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

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

Beggars in Spain by Nancy KressI’ve always been intrigued by stories about sleep, or not sleeping, probably because I tend to need so much of it.  From my perspective, being able to function on less than 8 hours of sleep seems like a superpower some days.  The things I could do with all that extra time…

Somehow, those stories all seem to be about how there’s always a cost.  The technology goes wrong.  The super-soldiers who can never sleep again are driven insane.  Beggars in Spain is the first story I can remember about it not only working, but turning out better than anyone dreamed.  The Sleepless are so much better than the rest of humanity as to be like a separate species.  Which, of course, is the problem.  The rest of humanity, the Sleepers, don’t deal well with being inferior.

I love the way the conflict begins so intimately, with two sisters: Leisha, Sleepless, and Alice, Sleeper.  Their mother wanted an ordinary daughter; their father wanted an extraordinary one.  The conflict that grows between the sisters mirrors society at large, and as Leisha grows into her role as a lawyer we see all the little injustices: her teenage friend barred from competing in the Olympics, her own college dorm room trashed.  The escalation: Sleeper parents abusing the Sleepless children they had thought they wanted, but found they didn’t understand; a Sleepless friend killed in prison; boycotts against Sleepless-made products and services; the Sleepless withdrawing into Sanctuary, and finally leaving the planet.

All the well thought-out ramifications were fascinating to me, and somehow logically leading to a future dystopian America where 80% of the population lives on the dole and does nothing, the other 20% do all the work and keep the economy going, and their taxes pay for everything.  It takes care of the hatred from the normals, sure, but I must have a bit of Sleepless in me, because I can’t imagine being content to just not do anything.  It feels so un-American—after all, don’t we pride ourselves on being a self-made people, where anyone can bring themselves up out of poverty if they just work hard?  But that’s me looking back at our roots through rose-colored glasses.  When I manage to set those aside, this dystopia is disturbingly like looking through a window to our future.  We’ve become a culture that worships Free Stuff.  If we somehow found a way to wrest the money from the richest 1% to keep the rest in Big Macs and iPads, 80% of the country probably would applaud the system and never go to work again.

I don’t know, maybe that’s too cynical of me.  But then again, what is science fiction for but to take all the little flaws of our now, and follow them to the bitter end, revealing perhaps a worst possible future if we continue down the path we’ve started.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Sleepless value individual effort and achievement above all else.  It’s a value I can understand, even mostly agree with, but in the end the characters most dedicated to that belief end up committing the most horrifying acts.  It’s the above all else that makes the difference.  I think the moral must be that any one value cannot stand as the sole pillar of civilization—the same way that any viewpoint, isolated and left unopposed as in Sanctuary, will only become more extreme.

Highly recommended, thought-provoking book.