Posted in Literature

Read: 2020 Wrapup

2020 on Goodreads2020 on Goodreads by Various
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If there can be one good thing that came out of 2020, it’s that my reading hit an all-time high. I don’t think I’ve read this many books in a single year before! In part, this is due to all the circumstance changes throughout the year with lockdowns and working from home meaning I was more inclined to read in my spare time. I also started a Booktube and a Bookstagram account because I was enjoying myself so much! (YT: Rai Reads; IG: @what.rai.reads)

Things I learned this year:
– if it has a Goodreads entry, it counts!
– if you’re not enjoying it, DNF it!
– I still don’t like 95% of ‘classics’
– I can enjoy some YA but it’s still largely not my bag
– I still love fantasy & sci-fi
– I am increasingly loving horror books
– I need to be a touch more discerning with thrillers

Challenges completed:
My initial GR goal was 24 books, which I increased to 30, then 36, then 52, then 60 and then ended up reading 80 books. I am still astounded by this and rather chuffed.
I set myself a variety of mini-challenges for the year that I also completed, which can be seen here:
https://aspectsof.me/2020/10/05/reading-challenges-2020-update/

Favourite Books of 2020:
The Arkhel Conundrum
The Priory of the Orange Tree
The Obelisk Gate
The Hate U Give
All Systems Red
Artificial Condition
Fahrenheit 451
Gods of Jade and Shadow
The Gravity of Us
Traitor’s Blade

Disappointing* Books of 2020:
Spare Room
Slaughterhouse-Five
The Woman in the Window
The Woman in Black
The Haunting of Hill House

*These are books that I was disappointed by, which doesn’t necessarily make them bad, it means that I expected a lot more of these titles and was sorely let down: I didn’t enjoy them, I found them boring or over-hyped, and they were a bit of an effort to get through. Don’t get me wrong I read some genuinely BAD stuff this year but I don’t feel like that stuff is even worth mentioning.

Moving forward:
– in keeping with my +6/year approach to my GR target I think I’ll start with a goal of 30 and if I hit that before mid-year I might up it to 52.
– I’m attempting #MountTBR2021 and starting with a climb up Pike’s Peak: this is a challenge to read books you already owned before the start of the year and Pike’s is a humble target of 12. I suspect I’ll read more than that but as it’s my first attempt I’ve started off at the lower slopes.
– I’ve written up a new list of challenges for myself and tried to keep them fairly generic and simple just in case my reading slumps in 2021 after such a boom year in 2020. Challenges are here: https://aspectsof.me/2020/11/16/rais-reading-challenge-2021/
– I’ve sorted myself a few buddy reads already: Dune, House of Leaves & Black Leopard, Red Wolf
– I’m considering an extra bonus challenge to read all books I received this Christmas by next Christmas (that’s 10 books)

So that’s my wrap up for 2020 and a taster for 2021’s ideas and plans. Thanks for reading and good luck in all your challenges!


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Posted in Literature

Read: The Bear & the Nightingale

The Bear and The NightingaleThe Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is floating somewhere between a 3 and a 3.5 for me so I’m hedging my bets with a 3.

I really enjoyed the folkloric elements of this story especially Vasya’s interactions with the various spirits she encountered as well as her affinity with the horses as another part of the natural world. The conflict between Christianity and the old ways is a fraught one and I found myself getting frustrated with the characters championing ‘good Christians’, which is testament to Arden’s writing that I’m supposed to hate those characters and did! The same can be said of getting frustrated by the very patriarchal and sexist society (historically accurate, I’m sure) and many people constantly reminding Vasya’s that it’s “just a woman’s lot” to get married and have babies or get hidden away in a convent. This really helps to push your sympathies towards Vasya as a character who doesn’t seem to fit in.

The book overall felt a little more like an origin story you might read as an extra to an existing trilogy or series and I would’ve liked it to feel a little more like the start of a trilogy than it did. I can see where threads will be picked up in book 2 but this one feels like a completed story on its own; the threads that continue (based on reading book 2’s blurb) are really quite negligible in this book that they’re almost forgotten entirely. I was expecting Vasya and Morozko to meet properly a lot sooner than the 75% mark and while I can see why the set-up before this was useful it did make the final section of the book seem a bit quick or rushed.

I’m curious to see where Vasya goes next, yes, but I have a lot of other books I’ll be prioritising above continuing this series.

 

This was book 78 of 2020.

Posted in Literature

RaiReads: Gideon the Ninth

Gideon the Ninth (The Locked Tomb #1)Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you’ve come for the “lesbian necromancers in space” then, er, readjust your expectations. There’s no romantic or sexual involvement between anyone. Sure, Gideon fancies women but at no point does anyone identify themselves by a set sexuality – she could be bi for all we know – and while she sort-of fancies one of the other necromancers (not Harrow) for a while, that’s it. She notices when one of the other women is in very flimsy attire but also notices the ’58 abdominal muscles’ of one of the male cavaliers too. Also, Gideon is not a necromancer. Also, they’re not really in space, they’re on a planet. So forget all the taglines, because they’re bullshit.

I liked Gideon as a character but felt like there wasn’t enough development of her and Harrow (more in the spoiler section below). Sure, their relationship changed but it made some big leaps as opposed to a steady progression and as such some of the story that relied on their relationship fell a bit flat. The necromancy and sword fights were pretty fun and if there’d been more than 2 or 3 actual fights I might not have felt quite so bored mid-book. I started skim-reading toward the end of Act III through some of it just to get to the next dialogue section as that seemed to be where all the information lay.

One criticism I heard before reading was that it was hard to follow all the names of characters because there were so many ways to refer to the same person, e.g.: Coronabeth Tridentarius was also Corona and ‘the glorious twin’ (or something similar). And while ‘the mayonnaise uncle’ was an amusing moniker, it was a bit difficult keeping everyone straight in my head and I had to keep referring back to the roster at the start of the book. The names were also a complete pain to try and pronounce correctly and I spent the whole book arguing with my brain and ended up shortening names to make it easier to read. After I finished the story, I found the pronunciation guide right at the back of the book, however, even then, my brain rebels.

One such other naming scheme was that of the Fourth house’s obnoxious teens. The awful teens. And so on. Despite the fact Gideon and Harrow are also teenagers. This felt like something a person in their late 30s or up would moan about – teenagers so obnoxiously full of life – not an 18 year old.

———SPOILERS BELOW————-

There was a lot unexplored and unexplained and bits that seemed to contradict other parts of the story; it is mentioned that Gideon survived huffing nerve gas for 10 hours as an infant; she’s survived a lot of things that should’ve killed other people; her parentage is a mystery; and then all of a sudden she’s dead at the end of the book. Um, what? Sure I expect those things will be explored in the next book(s) but the ending doesn’t exactly encourage me to read those because there’s just too many arrows that were let loose all at once and only some hit their mark, the rest are scattered all over the place.

In a review for Harrow the Ninth, I read that Gideon was H’s “one true love” and, I’ll be honest, that is 100% not what I got from this book. They realise they need each other and rely on each other but “one true love” was not what they were exuding at all. Here, I’ll point back to my comment about their relationship development taking some awfully big leaps without any groundwork to justify them.

It took me almost a month to read because of all these little niggles and because Act 3 & 4 were just a bit bleh. The novelty of having Gideon be a foul-mouthed teen using 21st Century language wore off pretty swiftly as I wondered how the heck she was meant to have heard of pizza or mayonnaise while spending her entire life on a dingy rock of a planet where they all live underground and eat gruel and ‘snow leeks’. Hm. It’s not quite bad enough to be a 2 star but I was really hoping for better.

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This was book 75 of 2020.

Posted in Literature

Reading Challenges 2020: Update

Back at the start of the year I published a post with my self-assigned Reading Challenges for 2020 and now it’s time for an update as I have completed the main list! Below I’ve re-listed all the challenges and updated them to include what book I read for them or what/when I completed an activity. I allowed myself to use the same book for more than one prompt initially because I was worried I wouldn’t otherwise complete the list but as 2020 has progressed I’ve read a lot more than I anticipated so I’ve added extra books in that fit the prompts I may have previously ticked off.

Rai’s Reading Challenge Prompts 2020:

  • A ghost story: Pine; The Carrow Haunt; The Haunting of Ashburn House
  • A story with dragons: The Arkhel Conundrum
  • A book that’s published in 2020: Pine; Mexican Gothic; Home Before Dark
  • A book by a trans or nonbinary author: Beyond the Gender Binary
  • A previous Goodreads Choice award winner: The Silent Patient
  • A sci-fi/fantasy novella (< 150 pages): Bloodchild; Binti
  • A ‘doorstopper’ (> 500 pages) published after 1950, written by a woman: The Arkhel Conundrum; The Priory of the Orange Tree
  • A book you picked because the title caught your attention: The Nothing Man
  • Read a banned book during Banned Books Week: Slaughterhouse-Five
  • A book published in the month of your birthday: Craven Manor; My Sister, the Serial Killer
  • Read the last book in a series: The Stone Sky
  • Read a retelling of a classic, fairytale or myth: The Turn of the Key
  • A book gifted to you: The Arkhel Conundrum; The Priory of the Orange Tree; The Turn of the Key; The Gravity of Us
  • A book you chose because of the cover art: Pine
  • A book outside of your (genre) comfort zone: The Gravity of Us (YA/Romance)
  • A book with a queer character/s: salt slow; The Gravity of Us; The Priory of the Orange Tree
  • A book with a disabled character: The Stolen Ones
  • A book with a 4 star rating on Goodreads: The Echo Man; The Killing Room
  • An audiobook: The Power
  • A book that has been on your TBR since 2017 or earlier: The Girl With All the Gifts

Reading-related Challenges:

  • Only buy myself secondhand books
  • When buying a new physical book, ‘destash’ an equal number of books to make space on the shelves I’ve let myself off these two as the pandemic has made it very difficult to get to secondhand/charity shops to do this!
  • Show up to a Book Club at least once: Work Book Club (organised by me!)

Goodreads Challenge: 24 books67 read as of 4th October 2020

6 ‘Must Read’ TBR 2020:

  • The Obelisk Gate – finished in July
  • The Arkhel Conundrum – finished in July
  • The Priory of the Orange Tree – finished in August
  • Reality is not what it seems – finished in July
  • Daughter of the Empire
  • The Twelve
Posted in Literature

Read: The Whisper Man & The Hate U Give

The Whisper ManThe Whisper Man by Alex North
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5.

An engaging thriller with a hint of the supernatural mixed in.

This is a multi-perspective thriller with a good balance between victim/s, killer and police POVs set in England with some internal themes around parenthood – specifically fatherhood – and the relationships between fathers and sons. The added reflection between the different father-son relationships in the book made for some extra content to think about in relation to the central story and characters as well as a couple of unseen twists along the way.

One part of the killer’s identity was guessable but another aspect to it was hidden until late in the book and there were other reveals that I didn’t see coming.

The prose was easy to read and still engaging and the main character was sympathetically written. There were some supernatural-ish elements that I can’t add much more about without spoilers and some additional creep-factor moments that added to the suspense.

Worth a read and can be picked up fairly cheap (e.g. The Works, paperback, £2; Amazon Kindle ed, £2.99).


The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a brilliant book that, while fictional, is drawn from the author’s own experiences as a black woman in a predominantly white environment in the aftermath of police shooting and killing Oscar Grant (2009). Thomas has taken some of her own experiences, feelings and even guilt over her silence in that situation and turned it into a novelisation focusing on Starr, a 16 year old black girl who attends a predominantly white private school and lives in – as she describes it – “the ghetto”.

Starr witnesses her childhood friend Khalil get shot dead by a policeman and the book then follows her as she struggles to keep herself and her world from falling apart. She seeks justice for Khalil while her neighbourhood erupts into riots and the police roll in with tanks and tear-gas.

Black Lives Matter has been around since 2013 and we have seen a huge surge this year, 2020, again following the multiple unlawful killings of unarmed black people by police in America. THUG is as relevant now as it was in 2017 and when it began as a college short story for Angie Thomas in 2009. Despite being fictionalised this is a very realistic account of aftermath of one such police shooting and the various ways in which oppressed people can react.

I am not usually one for YA but this book doesn’t feel like YA to me. By all means, it still is, I mean more than it doesn’t dumb things down and that’s important especially with a topic like this.

If you haven’t read it, please do so, it’s a brilliant book with captivating prose and a seriously important story.


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Posted in Literature

Read: Convenience Store Woman & Knight’s Shadow

Convenience Store WomanConvenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a bit of a weird one to rate and categorise for me. It’s billed as being ‘darkly comic’ but I didn’t feel anything like that coming through. It’s a tale of a woman who does not fit in and trying to fit in the only ways she knows how. It explores ideas of normalised behaviour within society and how these normalisations can make anyone who doesn’t adhere to them feel alien or, in Keiko’s example, not human.

She goes from trying to be normal based on what her family and sister want or react to, to people she’s known from school, to her colleagues at the convenience store, including Shirara, who also falls outside social norms but is equally no good for Keiko.

This is a story about following your instincts whether or not that makes you appear ‘normal’ and ultimately trying to shake off the restrictive expectations that are placed upon us by societal and cultural norms.

Keiko is a well-written, neurodiverse character in a story that does not focus on naming and parading her differences. The author has successfully made a sympathetic character and does an excellent job of telling the story through the eyes of someone who feels out of place and as if they don’t understand the world swirling around them. Keiko’s slice of normalcy as a ‘Convenience Store Woman’ feels tangible and provides an excellent opportunity to explore the difficulties she faces getting on in life.


Knight's Shadow (Greatcoats, #2)Knight’s Shadow by Sebastien de Castell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ah, Falcio, Falcio, Falcio; sometimes you are a bit of a great big dumb-dumb.

As this book was significantly longer than the first I was expecting it to take longer to read but somehow it was just as easy to make progress with and went by quite quickly for 600 pages. Compared to the first book there was also a lot that was very similar and Falcio seems to be somehow both clever and utterly oblivious all at once, which did start to grate on me a little in this installment.

How is he so intuitive in battle and negotiations and putting all the pieces of the puzzle together to see the picture no one else can and yet still never figure out who is behind the grand machinations that are sweeping Tristia? I guessed both “big reveals” of who was behind the two different forms of atrocities fairly early on and found myself getting more and more frustrated by Falcio’s dumbest genius routine. This happened in the first book too but as that was a lot shorter it didn’t impact my overall enjoyment quite so much; in this book I found myself getting a bit bored of Falcio’s selective stupidity.

Oh, and can we stop calling every woman in the book a ‘whore’? I mean, c’mon! Use your imaginations, boys & girls.

DESPITE the drawbacks above, I still enjoyed the story overall though it feels very compact. I will continue with the series to Saint’s Blood and I’m curious to see if any of my other predictions will come true.


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Posted in Literature

Read: When We Cease to Understand the World & The Turn of the Key

When We Cease to Understand the WorldWhen We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When We Cease to Understand the World features an exploration of major scientific advances in the 20th century alongside the idea that genius is often beset by madness. It is important to note, however, that there are increasing fictionalised elements as the book goes on and it becomes hard to determine what is truth and what is fiction. I was unsure how to rate this book because of this. On the one hand, I enjoyed the scientific content whereas on the other hand I would’ve appreciated more a genuine account of genius vs madness, to see what the real correlation is (if, indeed, there is one).

In order to separate facts from fiction, the onus is placed on the reader to go and do further research to determine what is true and I have two issues with this:
1) I don’t read a book in order to be left with the prospect of extensive research to unravel it, and;
2) There is a risk others will not read the Author’s Note (noticeably at the end of the book) to see that parts have been fictionalised and continue believing everything within it’s pages as truth and fact. In an age of ‘Post-Truth’ this is a bit of a risk to take and I felt like the scientific discoveries detailed are diminished because of this.

Otherwise, the book is well written and interesting. It’s not too heavy to read and seems to have been translated well.


The Turn of the KeyThe Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a modern retelling of The Turn of the Screw I was sceptical at first as I didn’t enjoy the original. I saw a lot of positive reviews for Ware’s interpretation and ended up receiving this via a giveaway on bookstagram.

I enjoyed this much more than ‘…of the Screw’! The modernised elements (such as the smart house) gave more avenues to explore strange goings-on at Heatherbrae and had me guessing. It is a clever use of technology in a ghost(-ish) story, proving that not all spooky things have to be in ancient mansions purely by candlelight.

I would have liked to have known what happened to the characters after the end of the main story – written as a letter from the protagonist as she waits in jail for trial – but I’m content enough to draw my own conclusions.

A good thriller, cleverly written and enjoyable (so much so I finished it all in one day).


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Posted in Literature

Read: The Priory of the Orange Tree

The Priory of the Orange TreeThe Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a book with a lot to offer. We have four POV’s from two main characters and two slightly more secondary characters. The narrative swaps between these four in a chronological fashion, as opposed to simultaneous so the book covers a good period of time and develops events and characters over this. Our two key protagonists are Ead and Tané, two women from opposite sides of the known world who each come to discover their importance to the endeavour to save the world from the returning Nameless One: a big, nasty fire-breather dragon (or wyrm as the book prefers) who will destroy humankind just as he attempted to do before, 1000 years ago.

Both face danger, tragedy and huge feats of endurance and strength to reach the end battle; Ead as a member of the eponymous Priory of the Orange Tree and Tané as an Eastern dragonrider. The East reveres dragons – these are water and air dragons, not fiery fiends – as gods and to be a dragonrider is a great honour that requires years of training to compete in a once-every-50-year selection process. These Eastern dragons are graceful and beautiful and able to live in harmony with humans; the Western dragons/wyrms are the fire-breathing kind who seek to dominate the world and they are waking up from their slumbers to heed the coming of The Nameless One.

Without going into the story much more (trying to avoid spoilers) I can only attest that it is well pace, cleverly written and highly engaging. While I found the first few chapters a bit of an ‘info-dump’ and a little difficult to get used to the dialog, after this I was constantly wishing I could stay awake a little longer to squeeze one more chapter in. Shannon does a great job of dripping mystery and questions into the story; as one resolves, another question appears to keep you intrigued.

It is a long book at 804 pages of story and while there are sections/parts that this is divided into, each part could not be separated out to make this into 2 or more books. It all flows together and is well worth the commitment. Commendations to Shannon on creating such a massive tome that doesn’t feel like a chore and keeps the reader interested throughout.

There are a lot of themes that are explored in the course of the story including, love, duty, justice, courage, honour, religion and the overcoming of our differences. The two key Western religions both venerate a female figurehead of one sort or another; and same-sex relationships are not frowned upon in these societies. There is a historical m/m relationship and a present-day f/f one; while both encounter resistance, this is not because the relationships are queer, as we would see it, moreover because they each involve a member of nobility or royalty who is controlled by other forces to conceal their relationship – one of the men is already married and a father, honour-bound to remain so; and one of the women is controlled by external, malicious, forces to the extent she keeps her true self thoroughly hidden.

While there are battles and tragedy, romance and intimacy, there is nothing particularly graphic or gory in this book; if that is any concern to you. What you will find are beautifully written characters and compelling story with mages, witches, queens, emperors, dragons, wyrms and many other magical beasts besides. It is a great read and this edition has magnificent cover art so that The Priory of the Orange Tree will shine on your shelves for years to come.

This was book 57 of 2020.


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Posted in Literature

Read: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are a lot of things that can be said about this book and given it’s almost 70 years old at this point I’m sure most of what I have to say has been said before. Nevertheless, in trying to keep up the habit of reviewing what I read, here we are.

The first thing that struck me about Fahrenheit 451 was how lyrical it is; I was not expecting a dystopia about burning books and controlling knowledge to be so beautifully written. Bradbury did an excellent job in composing some brilliant prose that still managed to feel light and easy despite the dark topics it explored.

In addition to this, Bradbury has woven in quite a few literary references in the telling of this tale that it feels exciting to pick up on when you spot something not in quotation marks. It doesn’t feel like he was trying to be too ‘high brow’ about it either, moreover it seems like an extra dimension to a story about how and if literature is worth saving from destruction. It was also interesting to wonder why exactly Bradbury picked the references he did, how they are related to the story of Montag and what extra depth can be eluded to.

The second thing that I’m sure everyone notices is how prescient the content of the book is: personality politics, war, inundation of information, control of information, valuing the sciences over the arts, TV, social media, even down to the little ‘green bullet’ that sounds awfully similar to Bluetooth earpieces! There is a lot to unpack in such a short book and you will end up thinking about it long after you finish. While we now have greater access to books than ever before that isn’t to say that Bradbury was wrong about other aspects of Fahrenheit 451.

Lastly, though I could talk for quite some time on this book, if you haven’t read it let me highlight that this is not just a story about burning books vs saving books. It explores censorship, yes, but not simply in the forbidding of the printed word. Who controls the information you are fed? Who controls the ideas that are allowed out into the open? How do we censor ourselves within a society even without a government to do it for us?

Fahrenheit 451 will certainly make you think, if nothing else.

This was book 54 of 2020.


This was also the first choice of a Book Club I started at work and below are the discussion questions I went through with our participants:

  1. Have you read the book before? What are your impressions, whether you are reading it for the first time or re-reading it?  
  • Were there any parts of the book you found disagreeable? 
  1. Is the book’s title a good one? 
  1. On the 50th anniversary edition there is a quote from Barack Obama on the front cover: “Ray Bradbury’s gift for storytelling reshaped our culture and expanded our world.” Would you agree? 
  1. Montag comes to learn that “firemen are rarely necessary” because “the public itself stopped reading of its own accord.” Bradbury wrote his novel in 1953; to what extent has his prophecy come true today? 
  • What other prescient elements did you notice in the book? 
  1. Aside from directly quoted passages, did you spot any literary ‘Easter eggs’ woven into the story by Bradbury? 
  1. As Montag is on his way to see Faber, he is trying to memorise Matthew 6:28: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.” Do you think this was a significant choice? 
  1. How can Beatty’s knowledge of and hatred for books be reconciled? 
  • Do you think Montag’s assessment was correct, and that Beatty wanted to die? Why might he have wanted to die? 
  1. If Bradbury had written Fahrenheit 451 today, what do you think would be different about the novel? 
  1. Are there any circumstances under which the banning of a book might be a reasonable or beneficial action? 
  1. If you had to memorise one book (or risk it’s complete loss), what would you pick and why? 

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