The TBR Mountain: Paper edition

So, I mean, why even tease myself? I’m not reading anything right now because the INVICTUS revision is taking longer than I thought it would and I want to get through it asap. And who knows when (if) I will ever choose anything from the physical shelves when I have a million (rough estimate) ebooks sitting her?

On the other hand, writing a post like this might provide just the push I need to actually read something on this list. You know what, let’s start by just listing the titles on the physical shelves, because why not? Might be interesting. These books have been on those shelves anywhere from less than a year to literally over a decade, but I haven’t actually gotten rid of them in one of my intermittent “read a sample and discard” purges.

So, forthwith, the TBR Mountain, a reasonably complete list, starting with nonfiction. I didn’t count these, so however many, here they are. I also didn’t look at the stacks on the floor because I think I’ve probably read most of those and just haven’t got around to putting them back on the shelves or giving them away, whichever. I used to sort of know what was in those piles, but the kittens have disarranged them, so now I pretty much don’t. Anyway, these are actually on the three shelves devoted to unread books:

Gold and Spices: The Rise of Commerce in the Middle Ages, Favier

Servants of the Dynasty: Palace Women in World History, Weatherall

The Invention of Nature, Wulf

Everyday Things in Premodern Japan, Hanley

Ingenious Pursuits, Jardine

The Price of Everything, Roberts

The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors, Petroski

Alien Skies, Plait

Wilkin’s Tooth, DWJ

The Diamond in the Window, Langdon

The Coloured Lands, Chesterton

Bright Smoke, Cold Fire, Hodge

The Ruin of Kings, Lyons

Dragon in Chains, Fox

An Instance of the Fingerposts, Pears

The Tiger’s Daughter, Rivera

Yarrow, deLint

Name of a Shadow, Maxwell

Sword of the Rightful King, Yolen

Sailing to Sarantium, Kay

The Something of Deliverance Dane, Howe

The Garden of Iden, Baker

Summerland, Beagle

Count to a Trillion, Wright

Lifelode, Walton

The Night of the Miraj, Farraris

Evil Genius, Jinks

The Last Boggle, Jinks

The Plum-Rain Scroll, Manley

The Hanging Tree, Aaronovitch

Regenesis, Eckklar

Cold Hillside, Baker

The Goddess Abides, Buck

Bloodline Rising, Moran

The Wolfe Widow, Abbott

The True Meaning of Smekday, Rex

Traitor’s Gate, Elliott

Red Rising, Brown

A Thread of Grace, Russell

Somewhere to Be Flying, deLint

When You Reach Me, Stead

This is Shyness, Hall

Durienna’s Harp, McKenzie

Magonia, Headley

All Fall Down, Carter

The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School, Newman

Blue Moon Rising, Green

Heartstone, White

Journey Across the Hidden Islands, Durst

The Moon and the Sun, McIntyre

California Bones, van Eekhout

Little, Big, Crowley

The Master of All Desires, Riley

The Deadseekers, Hendee

Everland, Spinale

Eifelheim, Flynn

The Lightning Queen, Resau

Breath of Earth, Cato

Everran’s Bane, Kelso

The Secrets of Jin-Shei, Alexander

Some of those I picked up on a recommendation, some I picked up at one convention or another, some I snagged at a library sale or something like that, a few I picked up because I met the author and wanted to try something of theirs, whatever. Let’s take a look at ten or so, chosen not quite at random.

1. California Bones, Greg van Eekhout

I met the author several times, I tried one of his MG stories – which turned out to be too young for me to really like it – so I picked this one up, and adult fantasy, the year it was published. When was that? Oh, 2014. Okay, ten years. I did say some of these books have been on the TBR shelves a decade, and here we are. I’ve always had kind of a good feeling about it, but I’ve never quite got around to reading it. Let’s take a look at the opening:

Daniel Blackland’s clearest memory of his father was from the day before his sixth birthday, when they walked hand in hand down Santa Monica Beach. That was the day Daniel found the kraken spine in the sand.

It was a slate-gray morning and Daniel shivered without a jacket, but he wouldn’t complain. The soggy air carried roller coaster screams from the pier, and Daniel hoped for a ride. Maybe he and his father would even drive the bumper cars, teaming up to bash other kids and their parents. But then he spotted the bone splinter in the foam of the receding surf, a silvery fragment the length of a knitting needle, rising from the sand like an antenna. Years later, he would wonder if his father had planted it there for him to find, but on this day, he hadn’t yet learned that level of suspicion.

Oh, yes, I remember why I haven’t read this book. This beginning plus the dark cover plus the description makes me suspect the story has a horror vibe; at the very least, it looks like fairly dark fantasy. I have to be in the right mood to want to read dark fantasy or horror, and I’d rather read something by an author with whose work I’m more familiar, like T Kingfisher, say, or Dean Koontz. Also, a lot of dark fantasy and horror has a certain layer of grit over everything, Not that I always find gritty fantasy unreadable, but on the whole, I generally tend to avoid that.


2.  An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears

This one was recommended by someone at a convention. Maybe it was Jo Walton, I’m not sure. I just remember that the recommendation was made in such glowing terms that I picked up a copy. It’s a really long book, which isn’t necessarily off-putting. It was a NYT bestseller, which frankly is a bit off-putting. Published in 1998, which is getting to be a while ago, I guess. It’s got a laudatory quote from the Boston Globe on the front: “May well be the best ‘historical mystery’ ever written.” That sounds fine. Historical mystery is in quotes, which seems strange. Does the Boston Globe not believe that historical mystery is really a thing or what? It sounds complicated. “Little is as it seems in this gripping novel, which dramatizes the ways in which witnesses can see the same events yet remember them falsely. Each of four narrators … fingers a different culprit.”

I wonder if we find out the real truth at the end?

Anyway, here’s how it opens:

Marco da Cola, gentleman of Venice, respectfully presents his greetings. I wish to recount the journey which I made to England in the year 1663, the events which I witnessed and the people I met, these being, I hope, of some interest to those concerned with curiosity. Equally, I intend my account to expose the lies told by those whom I once numbered, wrongly, amongst my friends. I do not intend to pen a lengthy self-justification, or tell in detail how I was deceived and cheated out of renown which should rightfully be mine. My recital, I believe will speak for itself.

Yes, now I see why I set this is aside as well. This sounds like it’s going to start with unfortunate events or with an unreliable narrator who’s probably something of a jerk, or maybe both. The prose may be good, but this sounds like it’s going to be intellectually interesting, not emotionally engaging. Not my first choice, as a rule.

3. The Secrets of Jin-Shei by Alma Alexander.

I have no idea who might have recommended this book to me or whether I picked it up at a used bookstore or what. Here’s how it opens:

It had been the hottest summer in living memory. The letters that came to the Summer Palace from those left behind to swelter in the Imperial Court in Lihn-an were full of complaints about the heavy, sultry heat that wrapped and stifled them until they gasped for breath, the clouds that built up huge and purple every day against the bleached white sky but never brought anything except dry lightning and a distant threatening rumble of thunder. And it was barely the middle of the month in Chanain. Summer had only just begun.

But there were few left in Lihn-an. At the Summer Palace in the mountains  although it was still hot enough for servants with enormous peacock feather fans to take up posts beside the royal women’s beds until they fell asleep at night, one could raise one’s eyes to the distant white-capped peaks and be comforted with the dream of coolness.

Very nice prose, in an opening that’s a lot more appealing to me than the one by Ian Pears. Also, we’re having weather that’s JUST LIKE THIS, except with huge thunderstorms practically every day. We had the dire drought of 2023 in May and June. The drought lasted exactly long enough for various of my less tolerant shrubs and trees to die because this year I wasn’t watering them, and also for the deer to run out of other things to eat and therefore bite the tops off flowers they usually leave alone, such as butterfly weed. THEN it started raining, and while I’m glad to have rain, let me just note that huge thunderstorms when I’m trying to get the dogs to go out are not convenient, and after the first ten inches of rain, one does wonder if moderation might not be possible.

ANYWAY, the above book is a good example of opening with setting. The first character shows up in the third long paragraph. Without reading further, this is so far WAY more appealing to me than the first two.

Somewhat reluctantly moving on:

4. The Master of All Desires by Judith Merkle Riley

Now, this one I got because I really loved a different series of hers. I know I got this a long time ago! I can’t believe I’ve never read it. There’s a prologue, brief, which I’m skipping for now; and a letter or something – oh an extract from the “Lost Journals of Nostradamus” – I’m skipping that too for the moment. Here’s the opening of chapter one:

“You,” said the stranger in the foreign doctor’s gown and square hat, eyeing me up and down, “you write bad poetry.” He had an annoying eye, and one of those long gray beards that catches crumbs. I did not deem him worthy of an answer. It was not clear to me how he had gained knowledge of my little effusions of the spirit, but I would never think to entertain conversation with such a rude personage in a public place. “You tinkle at the lute, write banal etudes for the virginals, and irritating essays on Nature,” he went on. “A dabbler at everything, who can’t resist prying into other people’s affairs.”

“We have not been introduced,” I said in my most cutting voice.

Ha ha ha! I don’t know that I like the protagonist particularly, but this is certainly a funny opening, and an interesting contrast to the historical mystery by Pears.

5. Journey Across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth Durst

Durst is one of those authors who’s a bit hit or miss for me, for reasons which are entirely inexplicable. That is, I didn’t really like Queen of Blood, slogged through it, started the second book, didn’t get that far, put it aside, and never went back to it. Why? What was the problem? No idea. I liked the protagonist, I liked a lot of secondary characters, I thought the world was intriguing, the writing itself was good … the pacing may have been a touch slow, but that’s almost never a problem for me … and I’m left with a shrug. I don’t know. I’ve liked plenty of her other books, including The Lost and Drink Slay Love and I don’t know what all. So, Journey Across the Hidden Lands. It’s MG. The description begins Seika and Ji-Lin always knew that one day a flying lion would deliver them to the dragon of the Hidden Islands, and I mean who doesn’t love that idea? Here’s the opening:

Don’t fall, don’t fall, oh no, I’m going to fall … crouching, Ji-Li raised her sword over her head. She counted to thirty and then straightened to standing, without falling. Slowly, she lifted one foot to her knee. Her other bare foot was planted on the top of a pole, on the roof of the Temple of the Sun, at the top of a mountain.

Sweat tickled the back of her neck, under her braid. She was supposed to be calm, like a bird on a breeze or a leaf in summer or some other very calm nature image she could never quite remember. But she felt jittery, as if all her muscles were vibrating.

A charming opening. I should leave this book upstairs on the coffee table, as a nice MG fantasy may be just right when I want to read something new. Except, I don’t know, kittens. Maybe I better not leave nice-looking hardcovers, which this is, on a table that kittens can get to. The dogs are all aware they shouldn’t touch books on the coffee table, but I have definitely had kittens not quite realize that from time to time.

Okay, let’s see …

6.  Little, Big by John Crowley.

This is another very big, fat book, and yes, sure, I love long novels, but even so, I keep not quite wanting to start this one. It’s supposed to be super impressive, with beautiful prose, and I don’t know if I want to pay that much attention. Here’s how it opens:

On a certain day in June, 19–, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited. His name was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one of the conditions placed on his coming there at all.

Though he had left his City room early in the morning, it was nearly noon before he had crossed the huge bridge on a little-used walkway and come out into the named but boundaryless towns on the north side of the river. Through the afternoon he negotiated those Indian-named places, usually unable to take the straight route commanded by the imperious and constant flow of traffic; he went neighborhood to neighborhood, looking down alleys and into stores. He saw few walkers, even indigenous, though there were kids on bikes; he wondered about their lives in these places, which to him seemed gloomily peripheral, though the kids were cheerful enough.

This strikes me as mildly engaging and interesting, but not all that catchy. I think this is the first time I’ve ever looked at the opening. I like it, but I have no immediate urge to go on.

Let me see … how about another one that is also supposed to be poetic:

7.  Someplace to Be Flying by Charles de Lint

I’ve actually never read anything by de Lint. Various people have assured me that this is a ridiculous failure, so I picked up several of his, but I still haven’t actually read any.

The streets were still wet but the storm clouds had moved on as Hank drove south on Yoors waiting for a fare. Inhabited tenements were on his right, the derelict blight of the Tombs on his left, Miles Davis’s muted trumpet snaking around Wayne Shorter’s sax on the tape deck. The old Chev four-door didn’t look like much; painted a flat gray, it blended into the shadows like the ghost car it was.

It wasn’t the kind of cab you flagged down. There was no roof light on top, no meter built into the dash, no license displayed, but if you needed something moved and you had the number of the cell phone, you could do business. Safe business. The windows were bulletproof glass and under the body’s flaking pain and dents, there was so much steel it would take a tank to do it any serious damage. Fast business, too. The rebuilt V-8 under the hood, purring like a contented cat, cold lunge to one hundred miles per hour in seconds. The car didn’t offer much in the way of comfort, but the kinds of fares that used a gypsy cab weren’t exactly hiring it for its comfort.

For some reason, this is more engaging to me than the opening of Little, Big. I wonder why? Just the threat of danger in this one? I don’t know; maybe that’s it. I think the back cover description is interesting; maybe that’s it.

Here’s one I’m picking out because I like the cover:

8. Breath of Earth by Beth Cato

I’ve never read anything by Cato. I’m sure I picked this book up at a convention, maybe World Fantasy, maybe WorldCon, but one convention or another. In 2016, apparently. Alternate history: “In an alternate 1906, the US and Japan have forged a powerful confederation – the United Pacific – in an attempt to dominate the world. Their first target is a vulnerable China.” Well, this sounds interesting, if not very plausible. Assassins, earthquakes, a world trembling on the edge of devastating war … sounds pretty high tension!

Ingrid hated her shoes with the same unholy passion she hated corsets, chewing tobacco, and men who clipped their fingernails in public. It wasn’t that her shoes were ugly or didn’t fit; no, it was the fact she had to wear them at all.

In the meeting chambers of the Earth Wardens Cordilleran Auxiliary, she was the only woman, and the only one in shoes.

Yeah, well, sounds interesting, but not like something I’m likely to read any time soon. It’s only been on the TBR shelves seven years; no need to rush into it.

9. The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School by Kim Newman

I remember browsing shelves at an actual bookstore with a friend … I don’t know how long ago … and we both thought this one sounded fun and each bought a copy. I expect she’s read hers; looks like this one came out in 2015.

A week after Mother found her sleeping on the ceiling, Amy Thomsett was delivered to her new school. Like a parcel.

When the down train departed from Exeter St Davids, it was crowded with ruddy-faced farmers, tweedy spinsters, and wiry commercial travelers. Nearer the end of the line, Amy had a compartment all to herself.

She first saw Drearcliff Grange through the train’s smuts-spotted windows. Shifting from seat to seat, she kept the school in sight as long as possible.

Amy had hoped the name was misleading. It wasn’t.

I like this, and I like the back cover description, and I’m feeling like I might actually want to read this soon. Another one to leave upstairs rather than putting back downstairs!

Okay, one more. Hmm. How about this one, another school story:

10.  Evil Genius by Jinks

Sounds cute and fun and not very serious. Cadel Piggott’s parents thought he was brilliant … and dangerous. His therapist thought he could rule the world. They were right. That’s from the back cover. Here’s how it opens:

Cadel Piggott was just seven years old when he first met Thaddeus Roth.

Dr. Roth worked in a row house near Sydney Harbor. The house was three stories high, its garden shrouded by a great many damp, dark trees. There was moss growing on its sandstone window ledges. Curtains drawn across all its windows gave it a secretive air. Its front fence was made of iron, with a spike on top of each post; beside the creaking gate was a brass sing bearing Dr. Roth’s name and qualifications.

“That’s it,” said Mrs Piggott. “Number twenty-nine.”

I expect it gets more fun shortly, but right now this seems … a little … boring, maybe. Not very interested at the moment. Lots of great reviews. I’m assuming this is a fun book. All right, skimming ahead … yes, I do think the therapist’s waiting room adds some interest.

Okay! What do you think? Any of these jump out for you? If you’ve read any of them, what did you think?

For that matter, if you’ve got strong opinions about something else on the long list, jump right in! Thumbs up or thumbs down on whatever it is!

Please Feel Free to Share:


14 thoughts on “The TBR Mountain: Paper edition”

  1. I was going to say, Someplace to Be Flying is a really good starting place for de Lint. Highly recommend.

    Evil Genius was cute, but meh.

    On your list, these are the others I like enough to reread :

    The True Meaning of Smekday, Rex – one of my all time favorite books, love it to bits, really funny

    Someplace to be Flying

    When You Reach Me, Stead

    The Moon and the Sun, McIntyre

  2. I got bored with de Lint’s work years ago, so won’t opine on that one, which I haven’t read.

    It may have been me who recommended Secrets of Jin-Shei. I quite like it. I’ll be interested in your take. I’ve read Little Big to see what the fuss was about. I remember very little of it. I think Crowley just doesn’t really work for me.

  3. Out of the long list, I’ve read Wilkins’ Tooth (I own it under the title Witch’s Business, which is the US title) and it’s pretty fun, it’s DWJ. It didn’t stand out to me, there are plenty of books by her I like more.

    I’ve also read Red Rising and found it meh, I did not continue with the series. The protagonist took himself far too seriously and there wasn’t much humor. I’m tired of YA dystopia where someone from the dregs of some sort of highly structured society with a lot of Nouns starts a revolution and overturns the society. I thought The Hunger Games series was done well and had a bunch of nuance, but I don’t like the sub-genre it sparked.

  4. Charles de Lint is way too creepy for me.
    I acquired Little, Big very long ago for a class I wound up not taking, and IIRC it took me awhile to get around to reading it, but then I loved it. Loved. But it’s the only thing of Crowley’s that I ever got into; his other books just never rang my bells.

  5. The only book on your list that I have read is Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gabriel Kay. I do recommend it. I like the setting, it’s a fantasy version of Italy and Byzantium during the reign of Justinian, and I think he does a good job of catching the mood and breadth of life during that time. The fantasy elements are not strong. I have reread a few times, and continue to enjoy it. Be aware that the book is long, and it doesn’t really end. The sequel “Lord of Emperors” is just as long, and is required to tie up the story. The ending is a bit ambiguous, not as tragic as “Lions of Al Rassan”, but not leaving everything about the world in a better place either. It works for me.

  6. I second Sarahz’s recommendation for The True Meaning of Smekday: screamingly funny (as in, don’t read it in public because you will be snorting and gasping with laughter) and also quite brilliant.

    When You Reach Me is the other book on your list I’ve read, and it was very good—cool fantasy premise well-executed. (Not very long, either, as I recall)

    I’ll be interested to hear what you think of the Durst; that’s a very engaging opening. I too am hit and miss when it comes to her books, but the ones I like I really, really like. The Girl Who Could Not Dream is one of my favourites.

    The House With Sixteen Handmade Doors sounded like a great title for a fantasy novel, but I see it’s non-fiction by an architect. Could still be interesting but my briefly spiked enthusiasm dropped back to resting levels!

  7. Instance of the Fingerpost was the only Whodunit that I’ve read where by the time I got to the end (over 1,000 pages) I no longer /cared/ who had done it.
    IIRC, there were four unreliable narrators, all pointing fingers at the others and telling the reader not to trust them.

  8. The Favier is very interesting on economics, coinage and stuff.

    Wilkin’s Tooth is DW Jones. An early one, but still – DWJ.

    The Diamond in the Window is weirdly cold and newage-y although not new age exactly. Lots of Thoreau worship.

    Chesterton I prefer as an essayist.

    I read something by Pears, and it was a slog. The only reason I finished it was I was on jury duty and ebooks weren’t invented yet.

    Sarantium – GGK – like the DWJ above – if you like the author’s work, you’ll like this. Set in the same world, IIRC as LIONS and the Saxon one.

    JC wright, like Chesterton, I prefer as an essayist.

    Lifelode by Walton. Walton is an excellent writer. But this book didn’t do much for me.

    Plum Rain Scroll is part of a set of Japanese myth/fairytale novelizations. IIRC.

    I haven’t liked anything by Mary Russell.

    I think you meant Drujienna’s Harp by McKenzie, and I have no idea if you’ll like it. I do. The Teen does. Except for the librarian who put it in my local library (the author was a local) and the bookstore person who stocked it where I bought the one copy they had, I think it’s completely unknown. It’s a story of a person who gets dropped into the middle of the on-going story (portal fantasy). It’s possibly the most unique world-setting I’ve run across. The land seems to be laid out in layers, and there’s no sun, but a ‘hephara’ which changes colors. And you don’t want to be out from cover at the ‘very black of the high purple’. And the Know-Nothings, and Eshone, and Grit… it’s interesting, and not quite like anything else. The poetry sticks in ones’ head.

    Didn’t finish the sample of Magonia

    Blue Moon Rising – husband really likes it.

  9. Sailing to Sarantium is a good read; I prefer Bearkeeper’s Daughter by Gillian Bradshaw for that era though. The Kate Elliott book is the last in the Spirit Gate Trilogy which is a great read, although not one I’d go back to reread. I guess it’s not a comfort series (I read Jaran maybe once a year). Ally Carter just brought out a new book ‘the Blonde Identity’ and her books are all similar, YA spy stuff, if you are in the mood for that. I loved Red Rising and hated the rest of the series- dnf. I’m pretty sure I either started Magonia or read it all but don’t remember any of it, which is not a great recommendation. I don’t read DeLint. I think I’ve tried in the past but don’t care for the voice. Some of the books you list are not available on ebook!!! But thank you for the list.

  10. Alison, I have to admit I resent Kate Elliot’s newer series somewhat because she didn’t finish Jaran – I wanted to know where she was going with all of it.

    Funny to think of de Lint as creepy, it never read that way to me. I’ll admit I’m not as avid a reader of his as I was as a teen, but I still really like how he mixes mythologies, his characters, and his focus on found families.

    Magonia really annoyed me – the main character was too stupid.

  11. I like Aaronovitch, and Diana Wynne Jones, and Ann Maxwell so those books would not last long on my Mount TBR! As for the Van Eekhout, I’m not into dark stuff so I wouldn’t have bothered reading this one if it was really grim. But from what I recall, I liked this book/trilogy. So I don’t think it was actually that dark. For what that’s worth.

  12. I know the Elliott one is a series novel, not the first book in the series, and that’s a big, big reason I’ve never read it. I must have picked it up at a used bookstore, but since I don’t have the first book in the series, who knows when or if I’ll pick it up. I liked Jaran A LOT, but I agree with SarahZ — I’m peeved Kate Elliott never finished the series. I hated some things she did in later books, so I would most particularly have liked to know if she could make me change my mind. And I would sure like to know where she was going!

    Other people here have said negative things about Magonia, so it’s drifted way down to the bottom of the stack. Maybe someday.

    Jeanine, it’s worth a lot for people here to say “not that dark,” so thanks for your comment regarding California Bones! This is an example of a time when a publisher should maybe not have made the cover so dark, as I think that’s contributing to the overall impression that the story might be darker than I really want.

  13. I adored Diamond in the Window as a kid, read it multiple times, even reading it aloud to my brother. I had the poem memorized. I’ve read it to all my kids… The chapters tend to alternate between the brother and sister’s real lives and worries about saving their house from being foreclosed and their dream treasure hunt for both jewels and a pair of long-lost children. It was of the course the magic and the dreams that I truly loved.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top