Thirty Firsts TBR Reading Challenge: Final Results – Twenty-Two Must Read Series Found

This year I decided to tackle my TBR pile by reading thirty books from it that are the first in a series and assess my eagerness to read the rest of the series in terms of Yes / Probably / Maybe / No.

As I got into the task, I found that I was reading a lot for First in a Series books that weren’t on my original list so I tracked them as well and I narrowed the choices to Yes, Probably or No.

I closed the challenge this week, having read fifty-five First In A Series books since January.

I found twenty-two series that I am keen to read more of: nine Science Fiction series, ten crime series and eight fantasy series. I can see that 2020 is going to be a rich reading year.

Nine Great Science Fiction Series

“Annihilation” is a deeply disturbing exploration of the truly alien. It’s a difficult book, not because it’s hard to read but because it’s hard to stop, no matter how uncomfortable reading on becomes.

From the very beginning, this story is a quiet nightmare that won’t let you wake up. It’s a vivid hallucination with a pervasive sense of threat, a compulsion to continue and a heightened awareness of your own helplessness. 

The writing is vivid, the narrator fundamentally unreliable and the nature of the narrative is literally mind-bending.

Gareth Powell’s “Embers Of War” is a perfectly excuted Space Opera on an epic scale.

It’s gritty and fast and has a colourful cast of characters: the AI of a Carnivore warship who has developed a conscience and gone into the rescue business, two spies on opposite sides of a crappy war who end up working together, a war criminal turned poet, an aging captain who is not sure she can live up to her grandmother’s reputation as a pioneer in saving lives and a puzzle at the centre of a planet that has been carved into the shape of a brain that may change everything.

I’ve already read the second book in the trilogy, “Fleet Of Knives” and I’m waiting for the final volume, “Light Of Impossible Stars” to come out in February.

“Leviathan Wakes” turned me into an instant “Expanse” fan. The nineteen hours of the audiobook sped by, keeping me completely engaged and leaving me truly hungry for more.

I’ve read “Caliban’s War” and was pleased to see that the quality stayed high. The Expanse will be a staple for me in 2020.

“The Fifth Season” is Science Fiction at its best. It manages to tackle big themes: the evil of slavery, the ruthlessness of empires, the hunger for freedom and the persistence of hope, while keeping the focus on people rather than philosophical discussion, geopolitics or technology.

These are real people, not always likeable, deeply fallible, cruelly twisted by the world they live in, who nevertheless persist. They continue. They strive. They take love where they can find it. They expect little and they hope less but they cannot bring themselves to give up.

“Shards Of Honour” is Science Fiction at its best, using the conflict between two cultures and the attraction between two strong, independent, action-oriented leaders both to tell an exciting tale and to spark insights into the nature of power, honour, personal courage, leadership and personal and institutional evil.

It doesn’t have a particularly strong plot. The story is linear and mostly unsurprising. On the surface, this seems to be a love-on-the-battlefield meets culture clash between a hierarchical male-dominated militaristic culture and a less obviously hierarchical, more sexually egalitarian, science and commerce based culture.

Two things lift “Shards of Honour” beyond level of cheesy romantic space romp and make it into science fiction that continues to be relevant and challenging: how richly drawn the two main characters are and the depth of political and moral thought in the novel

Mira Grant has done something wonderful in “Into The Drowning Deep”.

She’s written a speculative fiction thriller that gives me all the things I liked most in the best Michael Crichton books: edgy but plausible science, a growing sense of doom, a big cast of characters to put in peril, really scary creatures and lots of tension-cranking, page-turning, how-will-they-get-out-of-that action.

Then she’s surpassed Crichton by giving the leading roles to a diverse set of credibly written women who do what needs to be done without becoming super-soldiers in a dress.

“The Steerswoman” has been around for a long time but is new to me.

I was taken by its ability to present a robust sword and sorcery adventure that acts as a vehicle for exploring how science works as a way of seeing the world and the choices that those who curate knowledge have on whom to share it with and why.

The next book, “The Outskirter’s Secret” is in my TBR pile.

“Cinder” was a lot more exciting than I expected it to be. I mean, it’s a retelling of Cinderella, so I expected it to swing between the bloody revenge in the Grimm version to the cute “what a nice fairy godmother” of the Disney version- . an affirmation of the Patriarchy. Handsome Prince rescues poor but worthy girl. How exciting could that be?

Except this re-imagining changes the dynamic. Cinder isn’t waiting to be rescued. The Prince IS charming in a cute but charismatic and self-deprecatingly egalitarian way. Then there’s the evil Queen – far more evil than any stepmother, And there’s the plague and the death it brings and the cyborg stigma and some actual science and and and.

“The Diabolic” was a delight, a Young Adult Science Fiction book that demonstrated that YA has something valuable to add to SF.

It was intense, sophisticated Science Fiction that gripped my imagination, engaged my emotions and kept surprising me.

It is dark and violent and filled with deception and yet manages to explore difficult moral challenges without preaching solutions or exploiting problems. The second book in the series is in my TBR pile.

Ten Great Crime Series

Some books just click into a slot in my imagination and light it up. “The Cold Dish” is one of them. From the first chapter, I knew that all I wanted to do was settle down and listen to anything Walt Longmire, long-time Sheriff of a small Wyoming town, had to tell me about anything at all. The writing is a delight and the people are intriguing.

I’ve read four more of the books so far, “Death Without Company”, “Kindness Goes Unpunished”, “Another Nan’s Moccasins” and “The Dark Horse”. The more I read, the more of a fan I become.

“Blood On The Tracks” is a well-plotted murder story that introduces a strong but guilt-ridden ex-army Railroad Cop and her service dog, tracking a killer who seems to be a Vet suffering from PTSD.

It takes a murder investigation and weaves in knowledge of two specialist communities, the US Army (in this case the Morturary Affairs – the part of the Army responsible for recovering, bagging and tagging the dead – to deliver a charater-driven mystery with a unique flavour.

“An Accidental Death” is one of the best British police crime novels I’ve read in a long time.

D C Smith, the main character in this character-driven novel, is a wonderful invention: cliché-free and deeply imagined. In this first novel, he constantly surprised me, yet each new thing that I learned about him added to a picture that was as credible as it was intriguing. I liked his quietly unconventional, more than slightly subversive way of dealing with power and threat. The people around Smith are also much more than plot devices. 

The writing is assured, delivering the story at a pace that feels unrushed but never drags. “An Accidental Death” feels very real and very English. The police procedural elements are strongly grounded in the climate created by the crippling cuts to the Police service that Theresa May, as Home Secretary, had already begun inflicting when this book was published

The plot is structured to provide as much insight into D C Smith as it does to the causes and execution of the crimes being investigated while still managing to cover contemporary topics from school briefings on drugs through to international terrorism. 

I’ve read the second book in the series, “But For The Grace” which provides a thoughtful and often surprising look at death amongst the old.

“The Darkness” the first book in the “Hidden Iceland” series is original, compelling, unforgiving and completely believable. This is Scandi-Noir at its best.

The main character is complex, easy to believe in and empathise with but with some serious flaws and deep scars that make her intriguing to discover. The plot is dark and credible.

The storytelling, which moves skillfully along multiple timelines and from multiple, initially unnamed, points of view is perfectly structured to feed tension, curiosity and empathy with each chapter so that, by the end, we have a rich and textured understanding of the lives of the four women who are the main focus of the book.

One of the things that makes this first-in-a-series book original is that the main character, Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir is sixty-four years old and about to retire, rather reluctantly, after a successful career in the Icelandic police which has included some high profile cases and a collision with the glass ceiling.

I liked the realism built into Hulda’s response to being confronted with retirement, the physical realities of getting older and the challenges of building a future when your career is over and you live alone. There’s no “golden years” gloss here, just a review of the possible and the inevitable.

Hulda is the main mystery of the book. She has a complicated history which is slowly and cleverly revealed as the plot unfolds. The name Hulda means hidden, muffled or concealed. It is a name chosen with care. Nothing about Hulda is what it seems. Discovering the truth about Hulda changes everything in the novel. Hulda’s daughter plays a key role in the story. Her name is Dimma which translates as darkness. Dimma is also the title of the novel in Icelandic. The story really is one of slowly spreading darkness.

“The Island”, the second book in the series, which takes place earlier in Hulda’s career, is equally as good.

“The Awkward Squad” is an entertaining, original, humorous, well-plotted story of a new squad of outcasts in the Paris Police coming together to solve two murders.

The book has a premise that I think is a peculiarly French mix of the logical, the absurd and unacknowledgeable but well-understood reality. The Paris police have set up a new Squad, led by a previously promising but now disgraced Commisar, into which they’ve dumped forty or so failed but unsackable police officers and a collection of unsolved cases. There’s no expectation that the squad members will turn up never mind solve a case. The declared purpose of the Squad is to make the stats of the other Squads better by concentrating all the failure in one place.

This is a great set up or dry humour, eccentric characters and a bit of suspense. To my surprise, it also turned out to include complex investigations into a couple of murders.

What makes “The Awkward Squad” different from Anglo versions of the same kind of story of outcasts working cold cases is the stoicism of the officers who have been branded as not wanted. They don’t throw angry tantrums. They accept where they are and hope that things might get better. They discover that by learning to trust and support each other, they can win back their self-respect.

“An Expert In Murder” is a well-written, rigorously-plotted, character-driven mystery novel, with a perfect period feel and which I loved most for its empathy and compassion.

The selling point of this mystery series it that spins its mysteries around a fictionalised version of the life of Josephine Tey – in effect, a mystery writer, wrapped in a mystery, set in period costume.

“An Expert In Murder” is set in London in the 1930s and revolves around deaths associated with a production of Josephine Tey’s most successful play.

The plot is complicated and surprising and has evil at its heart. There is a suspect-rich environment with many people keeping secrets. The characters are strong and their relationships and moods shift in realistic ways.

While the plot poses an interesting puzzle, what called to me about the novel that it told a deeply compassionate story about the damage done to men by the war, the vulnerability of women and how the theatre could help them achieve independence and the small ways in which we all fail ourselves and each other.

“Elementary, She Read” is a fun cosy mystery that pressed lots of my MUST READ buttons. It’s set in a bookshop, a Sherlock Holmes bookshop, in Cape Cod that is linked to Mrs Hudson’s Tearooms. The main character is a difficult Brit with a likeable, pretty American best friend and business partner. There’s an adorable bookshop cat called Moriarty who likes everyone except Gemma, our main character and Gemma’s soft love-me-feed-me pet dog.

What rescues the book from collapsing under the weight of its own cuteness is that, in Gemma, Vicky Delaney has created a wonderful, complex character.

Gemma is very bright, very observant but completely unable to see the world as anything but a frankly-not-that-challenging puzzle, constantly causes offence and conflict through inappropriate remarks and behaviour.

Gemma’s lack of social skills and her assumption that it will be obvious to anyone with even half a brain that’s she’s right, at least, it will once she’s taken the time to explain it to them slowly so they can keep up, land her as the prime suspect in the murder. Watching her dig that hole deeper without realising she’s doing it was a lot of fun.

“The Thousand Dollar Tanline” is a Veronica Mars novel. I’ve never read of novel-of-the-show before. I was surprised at how well it worked. Of course, that might be because I’m filling in all the blanks in the text with memories of the show but mostly I think it’s because the writing is smooth and fast and carried me along.

In this story, the now grown-up Veronica is investigating the disappearance of a young girl spending Spring Break at Neptune.

The start of the story is high-grade neo-noir. Then it gets personal.

The main difference with grown-up Veronica (and perhaps with the novel format) is how clearly Veronica sees the girl who has gone missing and the effect of her disappearance on others. It snapped me out of slick, witty, neo-noir and into something much more human.

“Ragged Alice” is a smooth blend of police procedural and supernatural thriller with an authentic Welsh setting and lyrical descriptions.

I consumed the 202 pages in a single sitting, partly because I needed to know where Gareth Powell would take the story and partly because I was beguiled by the language.

The book is listed as the first in a series but Gareth Powell has been focusing on finishing his “Embers Of War” Science Fiction trilogy so it may be a long wait for the next book in the “Ragged Alice” series.

“The Murder At The Vicarage” is the first Miss Marple book. I’ve seen her in films and TV series but I’ve never read the novels. I was delighted with this book and immediately became a fan

“The Murder At The Vicarage” is a sparkling virtual locked room mystery, filled with benevolent humour and illuminated by the first appearance of the formidable Miss Marple..

For me, what made the book a classic was the way in Agatha Christie structured her novel. Where another author might have been satisfied with weaving sturdy broadcloth from the interaction of characters and circumstance to set up a mystery, Christie creates an intricate piece of lace from the first page, filled with patterns and motifs and fine detail carefully arranged

Eight Great Fantasy Series

Cry Wolf” is a fun Urban Fantasy with a lot of strengths and few flaws that is a Must Read for me primarily because of the crossover with the Mercy Thompson series.

The magic used in the story, especially the concept of the Omega and the novel way the Pack Bond is exploited as a weakness, is original and well thought through. The centuries-long backstories of both The Marroc and The Moor are used well- The rogue wolf character is well drawn. The winter conditions in the Cabinet Mountains seem realistic except for the final drive out. The fight/conflict scenes are tense and the ways used to try to thwart mind-control are novel.

A few things got in the way for me. I felt I never really got inside Anna’s head, even when the story was being described from her point of view.

I found the speed and ease with which Anna recovered from her experience of years of being brutalised unconvincing to the point where it seemed the brutalisation itself was being treated as less of a big deal than it should have been. 2al

I think it was a mistake on the publishers part not to include, “Alpha and Omega” the novella that really kicks off this series as at least a preface to this novel.

I didn’t want to read “Iron and Magic”. I mean, what would be the point? Hugh d’Ambray, Preceptor of the Iron Dogs, Warlord of the Builder of Towers is a violent, amoral, narcissistic killer who, in the previous Kate Daniels books, I’d have happily seen cleaved by Kate’s sword or dangling in pieces from Curren’s claws. Why would I want to read a book about a man like that?

But, I’d heard it was good, so I tried it and Ilona Andrews gave me a lesson in:

How to turn a figure of hate into a (sort of) hero in three easy steps:

  1. Make him guilty and damaged
  2. Give him something to protect from something worse than him
  3. See him through the eyes of another monster

I still don’t like Hugh but the book worked so well that I’m keen to read the next book in the series.

“Kill The Queen” is an intrigue-filled, action-packed romp, set in a classic fairy-tale setting, with castles and princesses, except that some of these princesses hold lightning in one hand and sword in the other.

In this world, ruthless, magic-wielding royals rule, gladiators fight to the death to entertain the crowds and creatures that morph into beasts, dragons and ogres attend royal courts. This is not a happy ever after kind of place. Here the poisonous politics have deadly consequences and the blood and guts spilt by blade weapons are vividly described.

This is the best thing I’ve read from Jennifer Estep. I’ve already bought the next book, “Protect The Prince”.

“Minimum Wage Magic” was a huge smile of a book: clever and original plot, engaging main character and wonderfully narrated. It took me back to the Detroit Free Zone (DFZ) that I first read about in “Nice Dragons Come Last” but with fresh characters and challenges. This time it’s a tale of magic users scratching a living at the margins of the DFZ, which I found much more engaging.

This is a fun, neo-gothic book that includes just about every Victorian fantasy figure that you’ve ever heard of and twists them together into a splendid adventure.

That would have been enough to persuade me to read it but what makes me keen to read more are the innovative things Theodora Goss has done with the novel. All the main characters are women or at least female creatures and the book is mainly about their relationship with each other rather than their relationship with men.

The storytelling technique is one in which all of the characters in the book are involved in the process of writing the book as we read it, speaking to us through the fouth wall. This gives the book a very collaborative feel, avoids a linear narrative and gives a great non-patriarchial way of presenting events.

I admired the way the book was done. I admired even more that it was done with enough skill to add to the fun rather than limit it.

“Changeling” is a Young Adult story, set in an alternative England, ruled by “Guardian” families with magical abilities who, shortly after the start of the Industrial Revolution, seized power across the world in a coordinated coup called the Restoration. Over the generations that followed, the non-magical population, know as snipes (presumably from Guttersnipe), has been turned into a servant/serf class in a feudal system in which they are each owned by a Guardian Family.

Against this background, we follow the adventure of Sarah Smith, a fourteen-year-old snipe girl, as she discovers she has powers that should only be available to those with a Guardian bloodline, is taken away from her family, is renamed Cassandra Reed and sent to the elite school Miss Castwell’s Institute for the Magical Instruction of Young Ladies.

What follows is a wonderful bubble of Young Adult escapism dealing with all the usual conflicts between adolescents girls at school but amplified by Cassandra’s need to keep her Sarah Smith identity secret, by the dark secrets that sit behind how the Guardian families maintain power and by a whole world of magic.

This is a feel-good book with a serious background. The characters have enough to depth to them to make them real rather than just plot devices. Sarah’s Guardian sponsor, Mrs Winter, is fierce and resourceful. Sarah and her friends are likeable. The bad-but-popular girl is a bit a cypher but that makes it all the easier to hiss at her like a pantomime villain.

The second book in the series “Fledgling” is now out and takes the series in an interesting direction that left me keen to read more.

“A Curious Beginning” is a splendid late-Victorian romp introducing the indomitable Veronica Speedwell: adventuress, lepidopterist and reader of crime mysteries.

“A Curious Beginning” is a boys-own-adventure where the adventurer is a young woman with a self-confidence and a knowledge of the world that would make Holmes look shy and make Watson blush. This simple inversion, combined with a cute-meet involving taxidermy, a hero who provides eye-candy as well as competence and a few set pieces where our heroine bedazzles the soon-to-be-but-not-quite-yet hero with her knowledge, wit and sheet impertinence make this very entertaining.

What really excited me about the book was its freshness. Sam Goldwyn is alleged to have said, “What we need now is some fresh clichés”. Deanna Raybourn does a good job in providing them.

Veronica Speedwell is a fiercely independent, widely travelled woman who makes her living capturing and selling exotic butterflies. She is a woman of strong passions and deep intellect with a talent for science, a hunger for adventure and firm rules about never taking Englishmen as lovers.

She is also, for reasons she does not yet understand, at the centre of a complex plot by shady characters who seek to abduct or kill her. The plot, when it is revealed, has the advantage of being truly bold in scope and (just about) plausible. The threats to her lead to her taking refuge with Stoker, an eccentric, irascible but pleasant to look at almost-hero who hides her first amongst the members of a circus/freakshow and then amongst the equally strange members of the English aristocracy.

I was deeply impressed by Raybourn’s ability to sustain a playfully humorous tone while still developing her main characters into real(ish) people and unrolling the plot of the mystery at an effective pace. It’s really quite masterful. The result was a refreshing and entertaining read, which I was much in need of.

“The Devil’s Revolver” was an exciting Weird West adventure that sarted at 100mph and didn’t let up.  Two chapters in, I was already hooked.

There’re enough things here that are familiar from Westerns that you slide into the world easy but enough that’s different or unknown that your curiosity stirs itself, sniffs the air and says “Feed me.”

The protagonist, Hettie Alabama is an easy to like seventeen-year-old girl with grit and a tomboy attitude. The baddies deserve to die. And there’s a shadow of menace that I could feel from the start. 

I’ll be back for the rest of this Wild-West-With-Magic series.

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