Cass’s Birthday Review Bonanza

We didn’t quite hit 50 reviews on From Unseen Fire, but we’re closer than we were a month ago! I’ll call that a win, so —

As promised! 30 reviews of books I’ve enjoyed, all of which I posted to Amazon over the past 30 days! There’s a broad range here — YA and adult and even middle grade, science and history, fantasy and sci-fi and romance and more. Do yourself a favor and check some of these out!

  1. Roar, by Cora Carmack: I really, really enjoyed this. The magic is innovative and intriguing, and while the characters take the shapes of some familiar tropes, they’re tropes I thoroughly enjoy, and each has some unexpected qualities to keep things interesting. Roar in particular is someone whose feels I feel. Her emotional journey is very real, and I can’t wait to see where it goes. A gripping good read.
  2. Hunter, by Mercedes Lackey: This was a fun start to a new series! I love the way that Lackey explores magic in so many different ways, and here, she envisions a post-apocalyptic world where magic has re-emerged — and with it, all the mythic monsters from legends across the globe. I enjoyed the idea of Hunters-as-celebrities, and that’s where the book feels most like the Hunger Games, in its examination of entertainment having become the new opiate of the masses. I actually would’ve loved to have seen that aspect of the book pushed further. The heroine reminds me of the star of one of Lackey’s earlier series, Diana Tregarde, which I loved. She’s motivated by a keen sense of responsibility and the desire to protect the defenseless. I listened to this one on audio and am looking forward to enjoying the rest of the series.
  3. Never Deceive a Viscount, by Renee Ann Miller: A delightfully fun romance novel! The dialogue sparkles, and it’s wonderful to follow these characters on their journey towards happiness. I particularly love that Miller is willing to explore heroines outside of the stereotypical debutante mold — reminiscent of Madeline Hunter and Lisa Kleypas.
  4. Tyrant, by Stephen Greenblatt: Greenblatt delivers a searing indictment of the Trump regime and all those who enabled its rise — without once directly making mention of modern politics. The commentary is certainly there, though, for those with eyes to see. Greenblatt provides a walk through Shakespeare’s examinations of demagogues, civil unrest, factionalism, and patriotic duty in terms accessible for a popular audience. We can only hope that Shakespeare’s assessment that tyrants only ever enjoy short reigns will prove true in the modern age.
  5. The Poppy War, by R. F. Kuang: Enthralling but brutal. This book started off reminding me of The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, but about two-thirds of the way through, it takes a sharp left turn into… something else. Kuang’s historical inspiration shows, and her exploration of the dark themes of war is unflinching. This is a tough read, but well worth it.
  6. The Belles, by Dhonielle Clayton: Pretty in pink with a lot of potential. The Belles explores weaponized femininity in action, but also embraces a lot of feminine tropes and values that get shunted to the side in many other works of fantasy (and, let’s be real, all of media). It was refreshing to read a heroine whose power is rooted in what lots of other books dismiss in order to have heroines who “aren’t like other girls”. And this book is gorgeously rendered with full Rococo splendor. The world-building brings up a lot of interesting and innovative uses of magic, as well as exploring the political and cultural implications of a world that has allowed itself to become so terribly reliant on the magic of a very few individuals. There’s a lot of room for these ideas to grow, and I’m excited to see what happens in Book Two.
  7. The Rogue Not Taken, by Sarah MacLean: I really enjoyed this one, even if it does fall into a few of the “why are you doing that, what on earth are you thinking?”/”I am feeling a thing/taking an action solely to provide plot conflict” holes that romance novels, much as I adore them, are often prone to. MacLean’s characters are always sparkling with just enough shades of darkness to be interesting, and this book is at its best when it’s a road trip romp.
  8. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, by Steve Brusatte: This was a delightful return to paleontology for someone who was once a dinosaur-obsessed kid. Brusatte’s prose is engaging and vivid, but not pop-science. He delves deep into the evolutionary transformations that created the dinosaurs, developed them, and then killed off the ones who didn’t turn into what we now know as birds. (And yes, he does come down very firmly on that point — not that birds evolved from dinosaurs, but that birds are literally dinosaurs, if a specific and somewhat odd subset of them, the way that marsupials are a specific and somewhat odd subset of mammals). I do feel like the book would have benefited from more illustrations, though, especially when he’s discussing the relative sizes of dinosaurs and their genetic brethren, or other physiological developments. Brusatte’s writing is at its best and most evocative when it it as its most imaginative: describing the fight between a T-rex and and a trike, painting the picture of the Mesozoic landscape, or chillingly rendering the catastrophic impact of an asteroid hitting what would become the Yucatan peninsula. (Seriously, that last bit put a hitch in my throat, as though it hadn’t happened 65 million years ago). Overall, this book reminded me of what joy there is in studying and imagining these creatures who once owned our world.
  9. Circe, by Madeline Miller: This wildly successful book does not need my review to help it, but I have a specific purpose: I particularly want to recommend this book to anyone who’s felt bereft of Mists of Avalon since learning about Marion Zimmer Bradley’s various crimes. CIRCE isn’t as complex as MoA, with only one point of view, and it isn’t as long, but it has the same lush immersion in a mythic world. The language is gorgeous and inundating. And Circe herself is a magnificent character, so very real and understandable. Her loneliness is palpable. I ached with her through so much of this story. But her strength is formidable as well, and her vengeance glorious. So I recommend this book, too, to anyone who’s ever called herself a witch. Circe’s magic as a path to agency resonated with me so strongly, like a piece of myself I’d forgotten was there.
    I listened to this on audio, and it was magnificent. It felt, in some ways, like the right way to hear the story, as though I were at Circe’s knee, curled up on her hearth and lounging against the flank of one of her tame lionesses.
  10. License to Quill, by Jacopo della Quercia: This book was utterly bonkers, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s Shakespeare given the 007 treatment, with all the conspiratorial madness you might imagine that entailing. della Quercia bases his story around Macbeth and the Gunpowder plot, and he tosses in actual witches, a not-really-dead Marlowe, Walsingham and son as spymasters, Francis Bacon in the role of Q, and a horse named Aston. Also Medicis, because why not? What’s fun is that della Quercia clearly knows his Elizabethan/Stuart history and his Shakespeare very well — and then throws them out the window when it suits him. I think Billy Shakes would approve.
  11. City of Lies, by Sam Hawke: Thoroughly thrilling! Part espionage intrigue, part class warfare, part murder mystery, CITY OF LIES is a captivating and occasionally heart-wrenching tale. The world is full and detailed: Silasta feels like a real city, with shades of Rome, London, or Tenochtitlan, yet entirely itself. Jovan and Kalina are compelling protagonists, each with glorious strengths and touching vulnerabilities. I greatly enjoyed this and look forward to continuing the series!
  12. Gilded Cage, by Vic James: Class warfare takes on new meaning when one class can use magic and the other can’t. This book is a little like if the Death Eaters had won in Harry Potter and had used their powers to take over all of Muggle Britain… but if they’d done that a few hundred years ago, and so now everyone just perceived their dominance as “normal”. James has written a dark and captivating tale with strong characters and a fascinating central struggle. I’m looking forward to seeing how the chess pieces play out.
  13. Heroine Complex, by Sarah Kuhn: Imaginative and exciting! If you love the pop culture references and quippy snark of the MCU, you’re going to love the tone of Heroine Complex. This book has fantastic wit, and it’s wit particularly tuned for the Millennial ear. There’s a lot of good heart in here, too, with an emotional journey that feels very real. I recommend this whole series for the full effect.
  14. The Waking Land, by Callie Bates: The Waking Land immerses the reader in a lush and intricate fantasy world. Elanna is a heroine to really — dare I say it? — root for! Both the world-building and Elanna’s emotional journey are gorgeously crafted, and Bates has magnificent dexterity with words. The stakes are high and compelling, and you’ll find yourself desperately invested in both Elanna and her nation.
  15. Catullus’s Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet, by Daisy Dunn: Catullus is my favorite ancient poet, and this is an ambitious exploration of his life — about which we, really, know quite little. I’m always a bit skeptical of attempting to reconstruct a poet’s life from their work, because it requires an assumption of autobiographical writing that is not necessarily accurate, but nothing here seemed wildly off-course. It gives a good view not only of Catullus and his poetry, but of the world he lived in — the decade or so before Julius Caesar’s most famous years. Dunn’s translations are also lively and engaging, and I’d be interested to read more of them.
  16. The Lost Queen, by Signe Pike: I’ve seen this book described as a mix between Mists of Avalon and Philippa Gregory, and to be honest, I would say it’s much more “Philippa Gregory but for someone even most history nerds have never heard of”. It lacks the epic scope and moral complexity of MoA. That’s not a bad thing in of itself! But I don’t think the MoA comparisons do the book any favors. This book has strong characters and a very clear, straightforward story. Pike renders her world in magnificent detail, and Langoureth’s story is engaging. I look forward to the next installment.
  17. Cinder, by Marissa Meyer: There are a lot of fairy tale retellings out there, but the Lunar Chronicles series has, for my money, the most inventive and compelling reworking of familiar themes. I love the whole series, and really, Cress is my favorite, but since I’m recommending these books for blog followers, you really do have to start at the beginning with Cinder. In Meyer’s version, Cinderella is a cyborg. And a mechanic. Her glass slipper is a cybernetic foot. Her best friend and faithful helper is an android. Her prince is the Emperor of the Eastern Commonwealth, a pan-Asian conglomerate that forms part of the Eastern Union. And while evading her stepmother is part of her story, a lot more of it has to do with a plague ravaging the Commonwealth and with the sinister Lunar Queen. Meyer has done incredible work creating a believable sci-fi world for her fairy tale heroines to inhabit, and Cinder is a magnificent heroine.
  18. Dealing with Dragons, by Patricia Wrede: This is my number one middle grade fantasy recommendation. You want a heroine with agency? One who stands up for herself and refuses to let others direct the course of her life? Meet Cimorene. Great for kids who’ve run through things like Percy Jackson, Land of Stories, Warriors, etc.
  19. It’s Your Universe, by Ashley Eckstein: I wish I’d had this book as a baby geeklet. That would have been impossible, though, since Ashley Eckstein & I are close in age, so I’ll settle for doing what I can to put it in the hands of every bb geek I can manage. Eckstein’s story is inspirational, but it’s really her can-do attitude that shines through in this book. Like any true Disney princess, she imbues others with the power to believe in themselves and their dreams.
  20. Labyrinth Lost, by Zoraida Córdova: An enchanting, amazing adventure. Labyrinth Lost gives readers of the modern age a true hero’s journey — with a Latina heroine who just happens to be a bruja. Córdova has created an elaborate world to enchant any reader, and Alex is a complex and wonderful heroine. I love that she’s allowed to make mistakes and not always have a perfect attitude. Her emotions are raw and real. I so enjoyed walking beside her on her katabasis.
  21. Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard: An excellent treatise. Beard has a powerful way with words, and this manifesto, drawn from two of her lectures (which I would kill to attend), should be stapled to the head of anyone who’s ever mansplained. Beard ties the modern attempts to silence women who speak out to millennia of misogyny. I’d love to see her tackle this subject more long-form someday.
  22. The One Hundred Nights of Hero, by Isabel Greenberg: A beautiful tapestry of a story and a magnificent graphic novel. This put me in mind of Cat Valente’s Orphan’s Tales, an intricately woven story with women’s strength and voices at its core. As someone who glories in the written word and the power of storytelling, this book sank hooks into my heart in so many ways.
  23. The Storm before the Storm, by Mike Duncan: I listened to The History of Rome podcast for years and loved it. What Duncan has done here is answer a question he gets asked all the time: Is America collapsing like the Roman Empire? And his answer is, if we’re at any parallel to Rome’s history, we’re in the decades before the collapse of the Republic. As it happens, they’re some of my favorite decades in Roman history. Duncan has, as anyone who’s listened to his podcast knows, a deft hand at explaining complex situations. I enjoyed getting to experience him in a less episodic form, where he had a bit more freedom to build upon themes and investigate a central thesis. I highly recommend this not only to history fans, but to folk looking for a bit of perspective on our current political morass.
  24. The Six-Gun Tarot, by R. S. Belcher: This book is so strange in such an amazingly good way. It’s Weird West, with all that entails — eldritch creatures, steampunk curiosities, and a cast of rough-around-the-edges misfits with secrets to hide. I wasn’t sure about this book when I first picked it up, but I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. The story and characters alike drew me in and took me on an entertaining journey.
  25. The Glass Town Game, by Catherynne Valente: Somewhere between Wonderland, Narnia, and Fairyland, you’ll find Glass Town. This book has a lot of the whimsical feel of Valente’s Fairyland novels, with an added literary edge. Highly recommend this flight of fancy!
  26. You’re Never Weird on the Internet, by Felicia Day: I utterly adored this memoir, not least because it made me feel as though Felicia Day and I have a lot in common and could be friends. So many of her experiences as a young geek, a growing geek, and an adult geek resonated with me, as did her struggle with anxiety and depression. Day is candid and raw, but the entire memoir is suffused with wit and optimism nonetheless. (This is another one I did on audio, as Day reads it herself, and I feel like that added an awesome extra quality. It’s one I can happily return to when I feel like I need a boost).
  27. Rules to Catch a Devilish Duke, by Suzanne Enoch: This has been one of my favorite romance novels of the past several years, and it’s one I happily re-read, especially to warm me up during the winter. Sophia is exactly the sort of heroine I have been yearning for: cheerfully independent, even in the face of difficulties; not a virgin and not ashamed about it; knows what she wants sexually and isn’t afraid of her passions; good-natured and forgiving but not a pushover; decisive and undeterred from pursuing what she wants out of life. The most excellent thing about this book is that the hero and heroine are so beautifully well-suited for each other. Their interactions while they’re alone at his estate are just gorgeous — warm and funny, passionate and teasing, thoughtful and challenging — everything that a marriage should be. Their romance is magnificent.
  28. Longbourn, by Jo Baker: I really enjoyed this, not least because if you’ve ever worked in the service industry, parts of Sarah’s experience will resonate, despite 200 years worth of removal from her era. Longbourn retains clear affection for its source material even as it pulls at the threads that hold Austen’s society together. The view from belowstairs is well worth examining, and Baker gives it a compelling treatment.
  29. Secondborn, by Amy A. Bartol: An exciting and engaging story. With some Hunger Games-esque notes, Bartol has created a fascinating world and populated it with interesting, multi-faceted characters, including an active and tenacious heroine. The action whips along, making for a compelling read.
  30. Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, by Ben Blatt: As bad as I am at math, I really enjoy statistical analysis. Pair that with wordsmithing, and you get a book designed to appeal to the nerdiest parts of my personality. Blatt dives deep into how authors use words — how they favor some over others, how their use changes over time, how well they adhere or don’t to well-known maxims of writing (even when they’re the one who laid those maxims out). I appreciated that he didn’t only look at ~literary classics~, but included a number of genre books in his analysis as well. This book was geeky good fun!

What makes you choose a book?

With less than three months til From Unseen Fire‘s release, on a scale from “high-strung” to “nervous breakdown”, I’m currently approaching “basketcase” and accelerating. From Unseen Fire is starting to actually be read by other human beings. It’s up on NetGalley. There’s a Goodreads Giveaway going on. My publicity team is reaching out to reviewers and bloggers. And while they’re doing this, I’m working on page proofs and finding all of these teeny tiny errors that other people will see. Every error, I’m sure, will result in some hugely influential reviewer utterly trashing me because we didn’t catch that misplaced comma earlier in the process.

20180122_235507544_iOSMy fellow debuts are spinning in these same whirlpools of anxiety and shaken confidence. Those who came before me all warned me that page proofs would make me doubt that I’m even a native English speaker, and wow, they were not kidding. We’re all glued to Twitter and Instagram, seizing any opportunity to promotion. We’re Googling ourselves and our titles obsessively. Those who have reviews coming in on Goodreads and Amazon know better than to look at them but have difficulty prying their eyes away, convinced that a single one-star will forever incinerate their careers. Are we posting about our books enough? Too often? Are we engaging enough? Do we have enough “to-reads” on Goodreads? Are enough bloggers talking about us? Will we get a review from Kirkus or PW? If we do, what if it sucks? If we don’t, does that mean no one will ever know our names? Do our publishers still care about us? Are we asking them too many questions? Or not enough? We’re not supposed to compare ourselves to other authors and we know that, but why does her promo have more RTs??? Every single thing seems life-or-death, and we’re all flailing at each other for comfort, even though it doesn’t so much provide a balm as a momentary distraction from the feeling of impending doom.

And then a thought occurred to me that was oddly calming:

Writers are not normal people.

We’re just not. We do not live in a normal person’s world. Our heads are so deep in the industry that we no longer view books the way normal people do, the way that readers view them. The minutiae sending us into tailspins are possibly not things that a reader will ever be aware of. We freak out because it perhaps gives us a sense of control over an inchoate and unknowable process, but it leads to obsessing over what may turn out to be relative trivialities.

And so, I’m genuinely curious, and truly not for my own selfish promotional reasons, but rather to re-center myself and remind myself of what really matters —

What makes you, Dear Reader, pick up a book? An eye-catching cover? A recommendation from a friend? A good review? Where do you find out about new books and what convinces you to invest both time and money in them?

I will see a division

Reading “SFF in Conversation: Women Write SFF” by guest blogger Andrea K Höst over at The Book Smugglers kicked me in the pants to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while — actually tally up all of my books and see what the male-female ratio is.

So. My shelves as they currently stand contain 302 books by female authors, 219 by male.

It breaks down thusly:

Fantasy: Female – 47, Male – 58
Historical: Female – 108, Male – 67
Romance: Female – 96, Male – 0
Thriller: Female – 3, Male – 22
Spiritual: Female – 11, Male -3
Academic (Shakespeare): Female – 12, Male – 21
SciFi/Speculative: Female – 23, Male – 31
SciFi Reference (Star Wars): Female – 2, Male – 17

Some further notes on all of that —

This tally does not actually include all the books that I own, just those currently out on my shelves. There are three boxes of “miscellaneous” that have remained in boxes since I moved a year and a half ago, and I was not quite dedicated enough to this little whim project to unpack them. (Yes, I know I own a ridiculous number of books and should probably downsize).

The fantasy shelf would be almost equal if it weren’t for Terry Pratchett, since I own about half of his Discworld series. Neil Gaiman accounts for a large chunk of the rest. But, in fairness, a good chunk of the female novels on those shelves are due to Mercedes Lackey.

The historical shelf is not divided between fiction and nonfiction. I didn’t tally this up, but I can tell at a glance that most of the “hard” histories — primary sources like Suetonius or Boccacio, or nonfiction secondary sources — are by male authors, most of the “soft” historical fiction novels are by female authors like Jean Plaidy, Michele Moran, etc.

It is perhaps no surprise that my entire extensive collection of romances (primarily Regency, some Victorian, a very few Georgian, a very few contemporary) has been written by female authors. It is interesting that if you take out this category, my books are otherwise almost equally represented.

The thriller shelf is dominated by the fact that I own everything Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have ever written. (I counted them as one person, so that number almost doubles if you count them individually).

My spiritual books are all pagan in nature, another realm often dominated by female authors.

The disparity on the academic shelf is saddening but not surprising. Women are making considerable strides in that field but haven’t closed the gap yet.

Sci-Fi/Speculative, though, was the big shocker to me. Those numbers were actually almost even until I got to my Star Wars shelf, thanks to a variety of authors like Gail Carriger, Suzanne Collins, and Veronica Roth. And then, when I hit my nostalgic SW shelf, the women disappear almost entirely, which is why I actually separated out the reference books — because, yes, I still have and proudly display my Star Wars encyclopedia, role-playing handbooks, and the guides to droids/weapons/planets/characters/aliens/etc. And the disparity there is breathtaking. In this tally, I only included the top listed name for each book, usually the editor or project director. But things like the roleplaying handbooks had dozens of contributors. The one I opened and counted up had nearly 40 male contributors and 2 female. Just. Astonishing. That franchise needs some female voices in it, fast.

So — I don’t know that I have any grand point about this, but it was a curiosity I had and felt the need to sate.