2021 Reading Challenges: October Progress Update

A little more progress has been made on the reading challenges I undertook at the start of the year, which were supposed to be happy-fun-times that were easily achievable and are now becoming a tiny bit more fraught as the end of the year approaches. Read on to find out why, and which challenges I’ve met since my last update for the Hodderscape 2021 Reading Challenge and the Spells and Spaceships badge collectathon!

Despite only needing to read four more books to finish both challenges, things are not as straightforward as you might expect. November will be taken up by reading exclusively science fiction (big change there, I know), owing to the fact that it’s SciFi Month. Hosted by imyril of There’s Always Room For One More and Lisa at Dear Geek Place, this is my personal highlight of the blogging calendar, a month-long extravaganza celebrating all things science fictional, be it books, films, games or whatever else this most mind-expanding of genres throws up. Put simply, there’s no way I’m reading anything but science fiction all this month, which will not meet any of the remaining challenges, as they’re all for fantasy books. Well, except the Collector badge for the Spells and Spaceship challenge, which can be any SFF book, but seeing as I’ve decided I can’t earn that one until I have all the others, it looks like I have to read a few fantasy titles in a row – unheard of for me. December will no doubt be bookended by swords and sorcery. Anyway, that’s enough talk, onto the books!

Look at it. It’s beautiful.

Firstly, a controversial one. I earned the Debut badge for reading Mary Doria Russell’s revered 1996 classic, the Arthur C. Clarke Award winning The Sparrow. When a distant planet which might harbour intelligent life is discovered, a Jesuit mission is quickly mounted to make contact, with Father Emilio Sandoz the driving force of the voyage. As is established in the novel’s opening, the voyage meets with misfortune, the story taking the form of interviews with Sandoz and his flashbacks to the mission. Despite loving the premise, I really didn’t get on with The Sparrow, and this is what I meant when I mentioned controversy. I’d heard so much about how great The Sparrow was, how it would emotionally destroy me and I wasn’t ready for it, but honestly, I hated most of the characters on the mission. In fact, some of them I found so irritating I couldn’t wait for unpleasant things to happen to them. As soon as anyone describes themselves and their partner as “A couple of old farts” it just has some kind of blood boiling effect on me anyway, but setting that aside, the forced bonhomie between the crewmates got extremely grating very quickly – before they’d even boarded in fact – and there were elements of some of the plot that I felt required the odd leap of logic. Had I been really enjoying everything else, I could have overlooked these, but as it was, they just compounded my feelings. I’m glad I read The Sparrow to satisfy my own curiosity, and certainly there were elements I did enjoy, but I won’t be reading the sequel (Children of God).

Next, I earned the At Sea badge for reading a book set at sea, or with a long voyage. I went for Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days by Alastair Reynolds here, a collected work of two novellas set in the Revelation Space universe. Diamond Dogs is a spin on the classic puzzle room scenario (even referencing underrated ‘97 cult classic Cube, amongst others) and was great fun, but it’s Turquoise Days which interests us here. It takes place on a Pattern Juggler world, meaning the planet is like famed Icelandic tourist destination the Blue Lagoon, except for your brain and personality rather than your skin. Kinda. Anyway, I’m counting it for the sea setting badge, even if the whole physical book isn’t set at sea, as it’s a standalone story. This was a great read, shedding more light on what it means to swim with the Pattern Jugglers and what the process entails, whilst Diamond Dogs, as a bonus, was an absolute blast, featuring characters who show up elsewhere in the Revelation Space universe too, thus making it essential reading for anyone who wants the whole story.

Now it’s onto the Hodderscape challenges, and first up it’s Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer, which met the requirements for the parallel universes challenge. I think. It’s a bit hard to tell what’s going on in this one to be completely frank. It feels like VanderMeer took pages from many of his previous books, shuffled them together, then rolled them round something extremely strong and smoked it whilst he wrote. I knew it was experimental going into it, but this was out-there even for him, and very different to the book it’s a semi-sequel to, my beloved Borne (review at the link). I don’t mind a bit of experimental literature, such as Max Porter or Jeff Noon, but maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind for this one. Whilst it doesn’t mention the word multiverse specifically at any point, it does refer to multiple Earths and realities, which I’m considering the same thing because I don’t want to read The Space Between Worlds again so soon after reading it and because I don’t want to carry on with The Long Earth books because – and I say this as an avowed Pratchett fan – the first just wasn’t very good.

Finally, it’s the turn of one of the books I bought for myself after my successful job interview to work in a bookshop, which I did as both a show of intent and because I just, you know, wanted some books. That book was Anno Dracula by Kim Newman, which I’ve wanted to read for quite some time as I used to love his Video Dungeon column in Empire magazine and he seemed like a really nice guy when he appeared on the Christmas special of University Challenge. Anyway, it met the challenge for including vampires, witches or werewolves, as there’s an absolute ton of everybody’s favourite creatures of the night in it. For those who don’t know, Newman presents us with a sort of alternate history, taking the end of the original Dracula as a true account and getting a lot of mileage out of giving it an alternative ending – specifically, Van Helsing fails to defeat Dracula. The legendary villain ends up marrying Queen Victoria, making vampirism something that’s no longer kept to the shadows – both literally and figuratively – as the government fills up with bloodsuckers (nice bit of satire there Kim, like it). Meanwhile, there’s a killer abroad in Whitechapel, hunting down vampire women and gutting them mercilessly. I enjoyed Anno Dracula, although it did feel like I was missing a lot of references not just to the original novel (which I couldn’t remember that well) but also to other Victorian works of fiction. Helpfully, Newman compiles a lot of these references and nods at the end of the novel, at least in the version I had, which made for some interesting skimming. I might well continue with the series, as the next one – The Bloody Red Baron – sounds like lots of fun.

That wraps it up for this progress update. Well done if you made it this far; it feels like these entries get longer when I’ve finished less challenges somehow, but maybe it’s just that I had a lot to say about these particular ones. The next update will most likely be the last, with the big reveal of whether or not I’ve actually managed to complete both challenges. Stay tuned!

10 thoughts on “2021 Reading Challenges: October Progress Update

  1. You took on some challenging books this month! Dead Astronauts was a DNF for me, it was all just words on the page and I couldn’t make heads or tails of the story. Too bad because Borne is one of my very favorite books😁

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    1. Yeah, definitely agree about Borne, there are whole chapters later on where it’s just the same sentence repeated over and over and it’s a bit much! Same for me with Borne too. And yeah, there were a few chunky titles and some difficult ones to plow through!

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  2. Have you read Nophek Gloss? I had a similar reaction to that as you had with The Sparrow re the forced bonhomie. Not that it was always cheerful per se but there was such a forced found family thing going and it just annoyed me that the author was clearly playing up to a popular, feel-good trope and it fell flat on its arse.

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    1. I haven’t got to it yet, no, though it is on my shelf to read. That kind of dialogue is why I stopped with the Old Man’s War series too actually, the third one was just stuffed full of it and I really couldn’t stand it. It just felt unnatural.

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      1. That’s John Scalzi right? I’ve not read any of his stuff based purely on being annoyed by his vibes lol. I get ‘Chuck Wendig soy face’ vibes off him and, given that I had to mute Wendig for being the most irritating man on Twitter, that doesn’t bode well 😆

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      2. I actually tried to read a bit of Wanderers because everyone was talking about it, but very quickly decided it wasn’t for me. It didn’t seem awful, but I couldn’t see myself gripped by that writing for 900 odd pages. And yeah, they’re John Scalzi. It’s a shame as I really quite liked the second one, but my relationship with them was a bit weird from the start. I hated the first half of the first book, to the extent where I almost abandoned it, then it pivoted massively and became fun. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything else that’s done that, it was very odd. I still have Redshirts to read, but it’s not high up the pile.

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      3. I actually have Wanderers on my Kindle but have been less interested in reading it since the whole Internet Archive thing and becoming aware of how Wendig is basically an attack dog for corporate PR departments. I’ll do my best to give it a fair hearing if I ever get round to reading his fiction but I find the guy unbearable on so many levels that it could prove difficult.

        I forgot Scalzi wrote Redshirts, that one does sound entertaining as a concept. I do plan on reading it at some point but, like you, it’s not high on my list.

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