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
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
Count to a Trillion, Wright
The Night of the Miraj, Farraris
Evil Genius, Jinks
The Last Boggle, Jinks
The Plum-Rain Scroll, Manley
The Hanging Tree, Aaronovitch
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
All Fall Down, Carter
The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School, Newman
Blue Moon Rising, Green
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
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!