2017 Reading Goals

Time to talk about my reading goals for 2017! My plans are not dramatically different from past years, but I’m tweaking things to work better and trying to be ambitious in what I achieve. However, I am trying to be mindful of doing this in ways that are within reach given I’m heading into my final year of my midwifery degree. Reading is one of the things I do for self-care and stress relief – even when in semester I’ll still read for pleasure. I also find I get a bit stressed and lonely, so I’ve found that joining in with bookclubs and challenges can often be helpful for feeling connected and involved in social things, without having to use up a lot of energy to leave the house.

Overall Reading Goal

Blue banner image with picture of a book in white and the text Goodreads 2017 Reading ChallengeOnce again, 75 books seems to be the right length to aim for – I did do a little better than that in 2016, but some were shorter reads, plus it’s my final study year so I will probably be busier than previous years. Also, as with all goals this is something to aim for and give me a bit of a challenge to enjoy, it’s not about beating myself with sticks. I’m quite determined to maintain this outlook with all my goal-setting because it has to work for me, not against me.

Reviewing

In general I want to continue reading and reviewing, I am loving seeing the number of my reviews grow – both here and on Goodreads. Plus, I want to continue to review and promote new books when I can get advance copies, particularly for indie publishers.  Additionally, I am hoping to get back to doing some of my Retro Fiction Review Series for older books that could use a boost in attention. There are so many books being published that it’s easy for some great books to be overlooked and I’d like to draw some attention to ones I think deserve some more love. As far as the time frame for ‘retro’, I’m thinking books published prior to 2000.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

Silhouette of a woman with an umbrella black on a blue background with text Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.This is the reading challenge that I’ve participated in the longest, and I love it as much now as the first time I got to join in. This year I’m pledging to read and review 15 books by Australian Women Writers. As part of that challenge I’m also trying to improve on the diversity in my reading to include women who are queer, Indigenous women and women from different cultural backgrounds and experiences to myself as a white Australian person.

This is a great challenge to take on because you can set your own level of participation. You can nominate to read and review, or if you don’t want to review that’s fine too! This year there is a specific focus on drawing attention to Australian Women Writers who come from diverse backgrounds, but also to raise the profile of some Classics by Australian women. There’s already quite a lot of excited discussion about this focus, with the nominal definition of ‘classic’ being written at least 30 years ago and being significant at the time it was published, or to have had a lasting profile/impact in Australia or a region. I’m not taking on the Classics focus for my challenge but as a long time fan of Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby books, I am hoping lots of other people fall in love with these – and maybe I’ll pick up the subsequent books to reread, it’s been a long time and I’m probably overdue to reread.

Goodreads Reading Challenge

The main challenge has an active bookclub group that does a bunch of long and short, easy and difficult challenges, plus buddy reads and a gift exchange at the end of the year. I enjoyed participating in several buddy reads and challenges last year and am going to join in again. If you want to follow the things I’m doing, I’ll be tracking all the various challenges and so on in this forum post. I’m already doing a buddy read in January – we’re reading Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. I’ve also signed up for some year long challenges and a couple of first quarter challenges:

Bout of Books button with determined woman in yellow looking tired and surrounded by books.Bout of Books 18

For the first time ever I’m participating in the Bout of Books reading marathon – it’s an easy going challenge that is purely about encouraging you to read a bit more than you’d already planned that week. I like the tag line that says ‘I was planning to read this week anyway’ because, that’s true. And now this week I get to enjoy the company of a bunch of other people who are also participating – it’s rather lovely to be involved in all the twitter loveliness.  You can read my progress post for Bout of Books 18 where I’m keeping a record of what I’m reading, how much and also of the challenges I’ve participated in.

Banner with purple-pink rainbow art with flowers and flourishes and a book, tex treads Read Diverse 2017 where diverse is in rainbow colours.Read Diverse 2017

As part of my ongoing desire to improve on how diverse my reading is, particularly in intersectional ways where I’m privileged, I’m using this challenge to be a background reminder for me for the reading I was going to be doing anyway. Despite the name, it’s about reviewing and promoting works by marginalised authors as well as works that feature marginalised characters. Intersections with queerness and disability and whiteness, gender and a few other elements are the focus. I’m not going to lie, the art is definitely one of the reasons I was drawn to this particular challenge.  How pretty is the button?

Bookclubs

I still want to participate in some of the other bookclubs that I’ve enjoyed, like the Sword and Laser Bookclub, the Vaginal Fantasy Bookclub and I’ve also been participating in the readalong with the Magical Space Pussycats podcast. I’m also hoping that Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Inky Valkyrie bookclub gets up and running (if you were looking for an awesome patreon with excellent speculative fiction content to sponsor, her’s is a good one).

Finish the Journey Through the Twelve Planets Challenge

Image of a series of vertical book spines showing the twelve planet books in various colours. Header text white on transparent black overlies the image with the title 'A Journey Through the Twelve Planets'.Steph and I started this last year, we got half way through the year all on time and so on and then the mid-year just hit us both really hard. Plus, I was in the midst of a very busy semester and am not a horror reader at the best of times, so it took me a lot longer to get through Kaaron Warren’s Through Splintered Walls than I had anticipated, I expect Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan will be a similar story (but it will also be worth it I am certain). The aim is to finish the final six books in the challenge in 2017 and I am looking forward to it and that we’ve got the whole year to do it in.


That’s what I have so far, and hopefully I’ll exceed expectations in these goals I’ve taken on! I hope to report on how I’m tracking sometime around mid-year, but we’ll see how that goes (it’s a very busy time of the year for me study-wise so I may be dreaming that I’ll get the blogging time then).

 

 

Retro Fiction Review Series: “Vengance of Dragons”, second book in the ‘Secret Texts Trilogy’ by Holly Lisle

Retro Fiction Review Series

 

“Vengance of Dragons” (1999), second book in the ‘Secret Texts Trilogy’ by Holly Lisle

Published by Warner Books, New York.

This is a solid second book in a trilogy. I dived into it as soon as I finished the first book  and unearthed the third book at the same time, expecting that transition to be just as urgent. The story is fast paced, romance unfolds, the deeper plot thickens and the early promise of a utopian ending falls away to a nuance of character growth that I particularly appreciated. 

 

Namely, how do you as the heroes on the side of ‘good’ persevere when your best hope, the one you’ve been working toward for hundreds of years is thwarted. It’s not a usual part of tales like this and I really like the way Lisle handled it. At no point was it a shallow turn in the plot, it was never melodrama for the sake of it. Instead, as a reader we start to consider what being that person standing up against wrong might mean, what it might cost, how we may not actually know what the right answer is, how there is no guarantee of success… ever. 

 

I am still particularly in thrawl to the variety of characters all with different motivations some more noble or pure of heart than others. I am invested in the protagonist Kait and her lover Ry, but I’m also investested in the numerous secondary characters and how they negotiate the same story. 

 

The novel doesn’t quite stand alone, though there is a very good synopsis in the beginning of the book that may cover that for some people. It is very much the bridge in a trilogy, there’s a lot of plot that takes place relevant to the first and third books but the book at no point comes across as filler, but instead as a vital link between how the story began and how it will be resolved. The tensions and conflicts within this series are well and truly complex enough to cover all three of the books and they’re deftly woven in as part of the story.

 

I can’t say much more about this save that I relished reading it and still recommend it as an extension of what I said about the first, being that if you enjoy epic fantasy, adventure and political intrigue, you would possibly apprecate these books. 

 

 

Retro Fiction Review Series: “Diplomacy of Wolves”, first book in the ‘Secret Texts Trilogy’ by Holly Lisle

Retro Fiction Review Series

 

“Diplomacy of Wolves” (1998), first book in the ‘Secret Texts Trilogy’ by Holly Lisle

Published by Warner Books, New York.

In “Diplomacy of Wolves” Holly Lisle begins a story that really grabbed my attention and I practically devoured it. This review may be spoilery beyond this point so if that’s important to you you may wish to simply know that I highly recommend the book and go and read it before continuing on with this review.

On the blurb it is described as: 

“…a fantastic epic of ancient curses, evil conspiracies, and the darkest of sorceries.”

This is an apt description for the story. The central protagonist Kait is immediately likeable and she gives us a multi-layered insight into the world of Matrin in which the story is set. I love stories involving intrigue, politics and magic and my, this story doesn’t disappoint! The politics involves the notion of a powerful aristocratic class known as ‘Family’, inevitably two rival Families clash over power.

Any illusions Kait may hold about the sanctity of family or purity of her Family the Galweigh’s motives over the rival Sabir Family’s are quickly shattered. Kait’s place and understanding of the world around her is pulled apart and she is left to make the best choices she can to serve her Family after a brutal attack on one of the prestigious Galweigh Family Houses.  

I also love stories with romance and in this there is also no disappointment. What I love about this book and the romance threads is that Kait gets to be a sexual being. She does struggle with this as her Karnee nature lends itself to intense sexual desires leading up to the time when she Shifts. However, this is not the struggle of a young woman in the grips of a puritanical view, rather her own moral code that would see her sleep with people for a genuine connection or preferably not at all.

Kait makes her choices to engage in or not engage in sexual connections without the condemnation of those around her for the reasoning of sex for it’s own sake.Strange that this is refreshing, but it is. Too often my eyes glaze over reading about yet another female character being punished because she dared to be a sexual being. That Kait is always in fullness ‘herself’ indcluding in a sexual sense makes the book and it’s romance enjoyable to read. Other romantic threads also include such ability to choose freely and not be punished for it so the surrounding impression is that there is no sexual war of consent being fought between the characters. 

Ry as a Sabir Wolf treads a fine line in places in this book where he brushes against being a Stalker, it is only Lisle’s deft writing of his character and how he interacts with and thinks of Kait that steers this story thread away from a toxic interpretation. You can absolutely see the unhealthy patterning around relationships that seems to be almost a defining trait within the Sabir Family, but Lisle is careful not to give that reasoning any permissability. I also really enjoyed Ry’s relationships with his friends, their camraderie is believable and made me smile many times. I could actively believe in them standing with him despite the dangerous and in some ways foolhardy courses of action he proposed to take.

The counterpoint to the ‘hero’ protagonists is the characters who are the villains. There are several ways in which individual character’s roles change throughout the story but some of the true villains are easy to pick from the very beginning. You’re given an introduction to certain characters that very easily identifies them as ‘evil’, not through convenience but believably through the character actions and justifications for their actions. Some of the other villain characters were more ambiguous in their presentation, though there was always a sense of being wary of them. It makes you think… but not too hard about it. 

I won’t say much about the story itself, but as a ‘quest story’ it is interesting and both familiar (tropes are like that) but also engaged with interestingly, at no point was I bored by the procession of the story. The story itself is intricately linked with sorcery and the system of magic and religion is believable and not so all powerful as to be irritating. I particularly like the way the notion of consequences for actions are engaged with. The decision to keep one’s ‘Word’ or not, the fact that in asking for help from a God one forgot to ask for a clear sign of support. Little things that just really allow me to relax and enjoy the story.

One favourite aspect I really enjoyed was the emphasis on Love as the underpinning of  Peace in the wake of the Wizard War that events in the story herald. 

If you’re someone who enjoys the epic fantasy style of book, enjoy magic and political intrigue with a side of shape shifter magic and romance, I recommend this book (and the trilogy) to you. I’ll be interested in thoughts from other people who’ve read the series about their impressions of it. 

Retro Fiction Review Series: “Queen City Jazz” by Kathleen Ann Goonan

Retro Fiction Review Series

 

“Queen City Jazz” (1998) by Kathleen Ann Goonan

Published by Voyager, London.

‘Queen City Jazz’ is an interesting book, it has a great premise with exploring a distopian future using a melding of giant bees and hive like ‘alive’ city networks and the post effects of a ‘nano war’ on the people surrounding and within one of those cities, ‘Cincinnati’ known as the ‘Queen City’. 

The protagonist Verity is the reason I read it all the way through. As a character, being young and quite ignorant of her history and with selective teaching of her history around her she has startling indpendence and the ability to act autonomously. Her choices are her own all the way through and she is clear about her reasoning for things throughout her journey. It is delightfully refreshing (still) to read a believable female character as the protagonist in a novel where it’s not playing too much up to tired tropes for female characters. 

For example, playing into the trope, Verity is ‘chosen’ for a particular destiny, but the way in which the author uses that trope interestingly and allows Verity to interpret for herself what being ‘chosen’ means. While there were romantic threads in the book it wasn’t a strong theme and the story was stronger for it.

On the less positive side of things, I didn’t really enjoy the ‘god/prophet’ thread. This thread involved the story of a middle aged male character who was responsible for early programming of the cities, him and his issues leaked through a little bit to strongly and made my teeth hurt a little. 

Overall I liked it and am glad I read it, but it was a bit of a slog to get through and I was committed to finishing it rather than really wanting to read it all the way through. My reasons for doing so, such as the interesting premise, the female protagonist and her story remaining central, her independence, resilience and autonomy reinforced the entire way through made it worthwhile. 

I’m really glad the book exists and that I read it. It is a solid science fiction novel and it pressed a lot of my reading desirability buttons gently, but without ever really hooking me. Still, that’s my experience of reading and your mileage may vary. 

 

Retro Fiction Review Series: “Cat Fantastic” eds. Andre Norton & Martin H. Greenberg

Retro Fiction Review Series

“Cat Fantastic” (1989) edited by Andre Norton & Martin H. Greenberg.

Published by Daw Books Inc, New York.

Cat Fantastic - coverFirst Impressions: 

This anthology is beautifully put together as a hardcover with thick paper and it’s one of those books you enjoy the physical feeling of reading. The book boasts 15 stories with an interesting table of contents. The anthology features predominantly female author names, with three or four gender ambiguous names as well. There are a variety of protagonists, some human, some cat, some male, some female – a nice balance that reads well.

In her introduction, Andre Norton discusses the “weighty subject of cats” (vii) and what she suggests is an affinity between them and writers. She points out that it is because the cat is known to be mysterious, at times imperious and well known to live by their own (non-human) standards that makes cats such a fascinating subject for story telling. Certainly if this anthology is anything to go by, I find myself agreeing with Ms. Norton. She summaries the book as “fifteen histories [that] deal not only with spells but also with diplomatic relations on other planets, with forbidden research, engineering on a grand scale and with guardians who know their duty and expertly do it” (viii).

I’m not usually one for short story anthologies, although every so often I come across an anthology sufficiently seductive enough that I cannot resist. Perhaps it is that I am cultivating entirely positive experiences with short fiction so as to get past my general unenjoyment of it in the past. In any case, a book entirely composed of books about cats is an easy sell for me, I couldn’t resist if I tried. This anthology has an overall quality that left me very satisfied and when I realised that there were four more anthologies by the same editors about cats, I ordered them immediately.

I would unquestionably recommend this anthology to anyone who enjoys stories about cats particularly those stories with a speculative fiction basis, anyone who enjoys stories that feature strong and interesting female characters written by a variety of (now) well known female authors.

Note: This is a long review, even though I’m only discussing the stories that I particularly liked or particularly noted.

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The Stories: 

“The Gate of the Kittens” by Wilanne Schneider Belden

This is a story of Feathers the pregnant cat, dark magic, time crossings, a brave and compassionate librarian Judith Justin who can drive a Bookmobile confidently through a raging storm. This is a quirky kind of story, the kind about saving the world where no one else really knows that’s what’s happened.

I love the friendship and the general acceptance of things out of the ordinary that Judith exhibits. I love that the’s an ordinary and solitary woman travelling through mountains with a Bookmobile, self sufficient and all around competent. Judith is a very likeable person and the story is believable in part because her own reasoning and intuition is emphasised.

I enjoyed the story, it was sweet and satisfying – though I also wouldn’t have objected to a novel length stand-alone story with this premise. This story was an inviting beginning to the anthology, I definitely wanted to read more.

 

“The Damcat” by Clare Bell

The Black Canyon dam project is the setting for this story told by Dale Curtis, an engineer, who meets Mike, a Native American Indian man from the Hopi tribe and his bob-cat partner Tonochpa. The friendship formed between Mike and Dale is interesting, they come from vastly different backgrounds and belief systems. Yet, they form a trust and respect for one another such that a critical issue with the dam is able to be fixed when all three of them bobcat included work together to solve the problem.

This is a story involving a non-white character who commands respect, rather than the white protagonist saving the day it is instead thanks to the actions of Mike and his partner Tonochpa that make the vital difference with the support of Dale. That their actions saved the lives of many and ensured the strength and structural integrity of the dam remains a quiet achievement between them. I find myself liking these quiet stories of heroism where it is enough that those involved know what happened rathe than seeking public acclaim.

This story read a little clunky in places, and as a white person I am unsure how well the story of a non-white person was handled but my impression of it was positive, if anyone else has thoughts on the story on this particular aspect I’m interested to hear them. This wasn’t a favourite story, but it was quite different to the other stories in the anthology and I wanted to talk about it.

 

“Borrowing Trouble” by Elizabeth H. Boyer

This story is very much the kind of story that makes me want a series of books set in this world with these characters. The story was one of my favourites and it in some ways reminds me of Tamora Pierce’s characters and her worldbuilding. I also have a fondness for boy protagonists who are a little bit arrogant and full of themselves, and learn to be a little bit less so in the process of growing up, retaining the snarky charm. Agnarr is such a character, obviously the bane of the Meistari’s life and yet a great hopeful as a wizard student with lots of talent (but very little patience).

Agnarr befriends Skuggi, a cat travelling with another wizard who tells him the battle-scarred cat is too much for him to handle, but the cat is determined and so it goes that Skuggi joins company with Agnarr. The key to having a familiar is to discover their true name, a feat that Agnarr stumbles on but proves to be his saving grace when a vendetta against the Meistari is uncovered. The story is well written, easy to read and really endeared me to it.

 

“Day of Discovery” by Blake Cahoon

Another favourite, this story is about Lyssa a scientist completing her thesis. It is a science adventure and romance, involving a Guardian cat named Einstein. Her recently deceased professor and ex-lover has stolen credit for her research work on other dimensions and molecular transference and Lyssa is fighting with her friend David’s help to be able to complete it. This is a simple story but it’s effective and enjoyable – there’s not much else to say without spoiling it. This is another story that made me want more of a novel, again not in a bad way.

 

“Yellow Eyes” by Marylois Dunn

Another epic-fantasy style setting, this story was also up there with my favourites told from the point of view of Yellow Eyes the cat. Yellow Eyes leads an ordinary sort of life for a cat in a castle, things get a little bit different for him when he unexpectedly befriends a new and foreign dog who has joined the castle hunting pack. There is a mysterious jewel and the sage advice from the White Cat who is the companion of a spell weaver. Together the animals manage to save the castle, it’s a journey well worth reading. This was a beautiful story, perfectly rounded out into an ending that has the rare compliment of making me feel satisfied with exactly how the story was told and ended.

 

“It Must Be Some Place” by Donna Farley

This particular story was near the top of the list of my favourites from this anthology. It’s a story that reminds me a little of Pratchett books, and I would *love* to see this as a full length novel or a series of them – there’s plenty of material to play with. The story itself I could easily see as a novel (and one I’d lovingly reread at that). This is the story of Jack, a lost sock and Butterfly the tortiseshell tom who knows his magic and helps Jack to recover the lost sock. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but I loved the band of characters as they come together. I also really enjoyed both Jack and Butterfly as protagonists. Definitely one of the top stories for this anthology in my opinion.

 

“Trouble” by P. M. Griffin

A story like this is remarkable in the subject it undertakes and the way it handles that subject. Dory is a child from an unhappy home and it falls to her cat companion Trouble to help her. The story is a small one, but it is deft and has a sweetness to it that I enjoyed. Trouble’s decisiveness and imperious way of helping Dory and looking after her is endearing, Dory herself is an interesting character though we only begin to get to know her. This is another story which would have been well served as a novel exploring the bigger story that’s been hinted at. That said, the small story was still satisfying in it’s way.

 

“Skitty” by Mercedes Lackey

This story was also delightful, I loved the simplicity of the tale and how delightfula pair Dick and Skitty are. I loved this reworking of the cats hunting pests story – I’ve read it in a couple of children’s fairytales and I liked this version just as much. This was perfectly contained within a short story, it was just a pleasure start to finish.

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I should mention that the other stories were a pleasure as well, most of them were very solid and only one or two left me with very little to say or recommend about them. Likely as not, that’s personal taste talking. I’ve stuck to the stories I liked best or noted most for another reason for this review, as being a collection of stories it’s a long review. This was the simplest way to contain it. I hope that you’ll take a look at the collection if you can get your hands on it, the editors have done themselves proud and the contributing authors as well. I say this as someone who doesn’t generallly enjoy short stories, specifically that this collection was well worth my time and effort.

If you’ve read it, let me know what you think. Or, if you find it and read it, let me know.

New project! The Retro Fiction Review Series!

Let me tell you a little bit about this new project I’m taking on! I’m very excited 🙂

I have inherited a large number of rather interesting and awesome books from a dear friend of mine who is going ‘all ebooks all the way baby’ and as a result, I have benefited greatly. Many of these books are ones that I probably would have been delighted to be recommended from when I was a teen or in my early twenties, however, that didn’t happen and I’m hoping to go back and fill in a number of what I see are large gaps in my reading history. There are lots of female authors and stories of women and feminism and of cultural futures that I’m very interested to explore.

My project occurs out of my desire to record what I’m reading and what I enjoy about it. I’ve never really done this before and I think that if I can develop the skill my following uni and postgrad years will be eleventy-million times easier. 

Also, I suspect there’s plenty of people out there who are also interested in recommendations for books that are not brand new and just released, but part of the background of the immense number of books in genres like science fiction and fantasy (assume when I use this term that I mean the entire generous umbrella for books of this nature). There are *so many* book in fact, that someone talking about what they liked about it or didn’t like about it might just be useful. 

I’ll be talking about these books in terms of my first impressions and general overview discussing any relevant demographics – as in how  many authors in anthologies are non-white people or women, if there are any queer stories, stories of people with disabilities and so on. I’ll discuss the story and the characters, the world building and my personal experience of the book (or individual stories if it’s an anthology). It is also fairly likely that I’ll make some sort of critical commentary from my perspective as a (fledgeling) cultural analyst. 

So here we are, with the Retro Fiction Review Series, I’ll be your host Ju. Coming up next, a rather long review of the 1989 anthology “Cat Fantastic” edited by Andre Norton and Martin H. Greenberg. Then, a review of the 1994 “Queen City Jazz” by Kathleen Ann Goonan.