What have I been reading? (October 2020 edition)

Back when I was blogging much more consistently, I was posting a book review every Friday. That itself was a luxury to me because it wasn’t until I had ebooks that I could actually read a book a week. I think I’ve written about it before, but reading ebooks effectively tripled my reading throughput—not my speed, but total number of words read per week. But writing the reviews was something of a pain in the ass. Maybe I’ll get back to that eventually, but as of this particular Friday, it won’t be today.

Instead, I’m thinking of a new Friday blogging slot that will vary a bit over the course of the month. What have I been reading? What have I been watching? What have I been listening to? What am I looking forward to? So today it’s what I’ve been reading.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been rereading the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher in preparation for his double release this year of Peace Talks and Battle Ground. I had the schedule all worked out so that I was reading one per month and that it would wrap up just in time for Peace Talks. But I fell behind on reading in the first part of the pandemic because The World Is On Fire!! (literally in a lot of places) So even though Peace Talks and Battle Ground are now out, I’m still catching up. I recently finished Cold Days (book 14) and will be starting into Skin Game pretty soon. At about 50 books per years, I consider myself a fairly voracious reader, but deciding to reread a 15-book series is a big commitment, one I likely won’t do again. Butcher said something several years back that make me think the series is going to be about 21-24 books long.

In between Dresden Files books, I have been reading other things. At the moment, I’m reading Oathkeeper by Christopher Nuttall, which is book 20—talk about long series—of his Schooled in Magic series. He’s putting these out at about two per year. I don’t know if he thinks he’s getting close to finished or not. I started back when book 14 Graduation Day had just come out, so given the series title, I had assumed it was complete at that point. Nope.

I’ve also recently started reading graphic novels, comics sophisticated cousin. I was already aware of them, of course, and even owned several of the classics (Watchmen, Sandman, etc.), but I had always struggled to read them. I think by the time I first made the attempt, I was already suffering from presbyopia, that vision problem where old folks say, “My arms aren’t long enough.” In truth, I think it was hitting me as early as my mid-30s. Anyway, even with reading glasses, the small “hand drawn” fonts in these formats were very hard for me to read, so I just didn’t bother.

Recently, however, I bought a big tablet, and I’ve been reading these in the Comixology format on Kindle, particularly enjoying “panel view” or whatever it’s called, where it essentially does all the zooming work for me, taking me around each page in the right order to be able to read all the text while also still getting the full view to appreciate the artwork. So, I’ve been on something of a binge: The Old Guard, Sunstone, some Honor Harrington stuff, Rivers of London stuff, Once and Future, and a few others. Ironically, I still haven’t gotten around to those classics I’d already know about, but I’m sure I will eventually.

So that’s what I’ve been reading.

Review: Write Publish Repeat, by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant

If you are considering self-publishing, read this book. I cannot recommend it enough. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn close. No, really, stop reading this review and go buy it. Now.

You’re still here? OK, let me tell you why you should go read this book.

First of all, it lays bare some of the ugly truths about self-publishing. It is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s a lot of hard work. In the beginning, you won’t sell much of anything at all. Friends and family will look at you funny and talk in concerned whispers behind your back. Bills will pile up. You’ll fly in faith of the awful-sounding Yog’s Law. But for some us, it’s the best thing ever.

Their title pretty much sums up the recipe for success. Write. Keep writing. Never stop. Publish that writing. Get it in shape. Make it awesome. Put on a cover that does not look like it was made by your 3-year-old master de crayon. And then do it again, again, again, and once more… again.

The talk a little about productivity techniques, about how writing faster does not mean writing crud, and how a lot of time, it’s just about putting your butt in the chair and writing instead of being out and about talking about how someday soon, you’re going to write.

They also talk about doing the publishing side of. It’s not a step-by-step guide to filling out the forms on Amazon or Kobo. Rather, they talk about the things to look for, the things to watch out for, and how to think about your publishing goals. Ultimately, they encourage you to establish a direct connection to your readers to help you survive any disruption for any particular vendor.

And on the repeat side? It’s more than just a commandment to go at it again. They talk about why it’s important to build up a large collection of books to sell and how to best leverage that growing inventory into increased sales. They give ideas of how to cast a wide net and funnel those readers into successive purchases of your extra books, as well as how those extra books can help you those readers find you in the first place.

Mostly, the book is about strategies that should work for the next five, ten, heck, even twenty years. These are not the latest tricks for gaming the Amazon ranking algorithms. These are plans for the long haul of building a career.

I only have two quibbles, both relatively minor. They push Scrivener as though it’s a must have. It isn’t. It makes something easier. It makes other things harder – at least, for me. Find the tool that works best for you. Second, they are mostly geared towards writing shorter novellas linked into series, i.e. each “book” is about 20-30,000 words long. I find I can’t write that short. That does not invalidate any of their strategies, however. It just means it takes longer to implement them.

So yes, if you’re thinking about self-publishing, read this book.

Review: Libriomancer, by Jim C. Hines

This is the start of a new urban fantasy series that is based on perhaps the greatest fanfic idea in history: mages whose fundamental magic is to pull physical items out of books. Need a ray gun? A magical potion? Excalibur, the Sword of Kings? Just pop down to your local bookstore, flip to the right page, and pull it out.

Now, there are limits on this. Some of them have to do with the way the magic works, but others are put in place by the ruling society of mages. So, no sentient nanobots, no atomic weapons, and no One True Ring to rule them all. Still, you can be bitten by a vampire or werewolf if you stick your hands into the wrong book, and heaven help you if you spend too much time with the History of the Black Plague. But what happens when mages start going missing, impossible artifacts start appearing, and the folks who are supposed to stop all of this are asleep at the switch?

Here’s where we find Isaac Vainio, a would-be Libriomancer who got kicked out of the order, left with the menial task of checking the latest from sci-fi and fantasy for overpowered weapons and dangerous infections. He’s not merely a nobody. He’s a has-been nobody, forbidden from even using the limited powers he once wielded. But he’s the one who has to pick up the flaming spider and charge forth against the darkness. Yes, a flaming spider… I’m sure I read that somewhere…

Anyway, it starts with this ecstatic-fanboy premise and takes us on an amazing trip, showing us both how it all got started, how it can go terribly wrong, and the actions we have to take to keep us all from being plundered by the Uruk-hai or the battle-droids. This is the most fun I’ve had with urban fantasy in a long time.

Review: Starhawk, by Jack McDevitt

This is something of a prequel to The Engines of God where we see Priscilla Hutchins’ early days after getting pilots license for taking the big FTL interstellars out into the void. A lot of her early days are the frustration of not being able to get a steady job as a pilot, especially after she blew off one such job over an ethical issue. She still gets a little work here and there, but mostly she’s parked at a desk.

But it’s also the story of one of her instructors, Jake Loomis, and his flirtation with retirement. After a frightening brush with death, he decided he was done, but the business of interstellar flight was not quite done with him. So he kept getting pulled back in, “just for one more flight”. Ultimately the decision on whether or not he was going to retire was made by someone else.

While it was not as satisfying as a sequel to Cauldron would have been, it was fun to see Hutch back when she was still merely Priscilla, and to see how she earned her nickname in the first place. If you’re a fan of the Academy series, definitely check it out.

Review: WWW: Wonder, by Robert J. Sawyer

This was the final book in the WWW trilogy, showing the emergence of an intelligence within the framework of the internet, named Webmind. The first two books dealt with its creation and then its early forays into the public light. This last one deals with how it and humanity come to terms for peaceful coexistence.

With such examples as Hal and Skynet to prejudice us, it’s hardly surprising that Webmind was not received with open arms. Some want to kill it immediately. Others want to try to isolate it somewhere. But Webmind has its own priorities and shows itself to be a worthy opponent and a magnanimous winner. I don’t want to spoil it with specifics, but eventually Webmind proves itself to be a useful addition to humanity.

Meanwhile Caitlin, the blind teenage girl who discovered and nurtured Webmind, manages to ride out her celebrity status and move further into adulthood. There’s nothing particularly Sci-Fi about that part of the story, but it was sweet and kept Webmind’s increasingly high-stakes propositions tied to the realm of mere mortals.

All in all, it was a nice conclusion to the trilogy.

Review: First Lord’s Fury, by Jim Butcher

This is the culmination of the Codex Alera series, and it goes out with a bang. Tavi is coming back to Alera leading a most unusual army, only to find that his fellow Alerans are up against the wall with the merciless Vord crushing their greatest strongholds and killing their strongest furycrafting lords. At least by this point, Tavi is finally coming into his own furycrafting strength, but even he is no match for the might of the Vord. Then again, Tavi has always been smarter than he was strong, and he makes good use of that in this final war.

In addition to Tavi and his crew, we see some fine performances put in by the remaining furycrafters. Even Aquataine puts in a good show. But nothing compares to the rabbits Tavi’s uncle Bernard manages to pull out of his hat. Much of those particular tricks had their origins as wild ideas from Tavi years before, but Bernard has taken them to their most impressive ends. Perhaps the most world-shattering moment comes at the command of Bernard, as a hundred commoners throw down a demonstration of power that would completely spend a High Lord’s power… and then do it again the very next minute, and the next, and the next. It was one of those moments where even as the reader you stick her head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.

I won’t spoil the end, but I’ll just say that it was quite satisfying. Just about everyone got what they deserved, in one flavor or another. In particular, the epilogue was good, tying up a number of loose ends and giving some hint about what was to follow in the years and decades ahead. As one character said, the interesting times were definitely over, and yet it felt the new story of Alera was just beginning.

So, if you’re contemplating this series – particularly if you’re struggling through the slow first book, Furies of Calderon, give it a shot. The road to the payoff is long and fun, and the payoff is definitely worth it.

Review: Zoe’s Tale, by John Scalzi

This is another book in the Old Man’s War universe, and it takes place during the same time period as The Last Colony. In fact, it covers many of the same events as The Last Colony, but it does it from a different POV, specifically Zoe’s.

Zoe is the adopted daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan, both veterans of humanity’s ongoing war against an endless parade of alien species over galactic real estate. How the three of them came together in the first place is a spoiler-ific backstory, so I’ll merely direct you to Old Man’s War and Ghost Brigades. Suffice it to say, John and Jane kick ass, and Zoe became the most famous five-year old in the galaxy quite some time back. As a teenager, it’s starting to wear thin.

So, just as The Last Colony was, this is the story of the human colony of Roanoke. A large interspecies alliance has placed a ban on new colonies, and humanity has decided to thumb their noses at the ban. This puts the colonists of Roanoke in grave danger, but never fear – the Colonial Defense Forces have a plan. Unfortunately, that plan isn’t necessarily such a good idea in the long run for humanity, let alone the poor folks sitting down on Roanoke.

I have to admit, I had some worry when I started into this book, since I knew it was essentially retelling a story that I already knew. There were not a lot of grand revelations lurking behind the scenes – most everything had already been put out there in The Last Colony. However, it really comes down to the writing, and John Scalzi knocked this one out of the park. The book was filled with little moments that were merely off in the background of the first telling that were quite moving when seen up close. An early chapter about a jade elephant pendant brought me to tears.

But it’s not all poignant vignettes and cool POV twisting. One unknown had been left out there by the first telling in The Last Colony, and here we finally see what really happened with Zoe went off on her own. We had already known she had met with some degree of success, but now we finally see how she did it. Zoe kicked ass even better than her adopted parents do.

So, even if you think you already know the whole story from The Last Colony, this is definitely worth the read.

Review: White Trash Zombie Apocalypse, by Diana Rowland

This is the third in Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series, and it has kept up the brain-munching pace of the earlier books. Things with her kind-of boyfriend are still in the one-shamble-forward, two-shambles-back stage. Her alcoholic dad is struggling to reform. And zombie mafia and evil corporations are still using her as a pawn in their shadow war. Did I just say zombie mafia? Why yes… yes I did.

I really enjoyed this book because I felt that Angel, our eponymous White Trash Zombie, finally came into her own. In the first two tales, she was struggling to find her way between forces that would use her as a pawn, but I think this time she really established herself as a player to be reckoned with. And as always, Rowland hits this one out of the park with excellent writing and a great character voice.

However, I do have a mild complaint that she (and a couple of other folks) were not as wary as I think they should have been. When a dangerous character arrives briefly on the scene, they simply write it off as something to keep an eye out for. Meanwhile, I was screaming at them to load up, hunker down, and call in the cavalry. But apart from that, they were all fairly sharp, especially towards the end when the, um… brains hit the blender.

So, it’s a good installment. The denouement was long enough that I thought perhaps Rowland was wrapping up the series as a trilogy, but according to her FAQ, she has at least three more novels planned for Angel and her zombie friends. Look for the next one sometime in 2014.

Review: Cursed, by Benedict Jacka

This is the second in the Alex Verus series, an urban fantasy about a mage living in London. What makes this series particularly interesting is that you won’t see Alex slinging fireballs or lightning bolts. While there are plenty of those around, Alex isn’t that kind of mage. Instead, he’s a diviner, someone who has the ability to see into the many possible futures lying ahead of him. It’s great help in a maze, but not so obviously useful in a firefight.

In this second installment, Alex is asked to investigate some dark rituals for another mage, an employer he does not entirely trust. For starters, he’s a mage, and Alex has learned not to trust other mages, and second, when this mages other employee showed up at his door, a nasty attack by some third party arrived within seconds. Meanwhile, some ambitious mundane is trying to make off with Alex’s beautiful (but cursed) apprentice. And when Alex’s best friend is attacked… well, everything just falls apart.

I really enjoyed this one, and I’m starting to think of these books as great companion’s for the Dresden Files. While Harry often blasts his way in without thinking, Alex sneaks in because thinking is his only weapon. So, two thumbs up for this one, and as I say with all series, start at the beginning with Fated.

Review: Chronoliths, by Robert Charles Wilson

This was an odd time-travel story. The only thing that travelled back in time, really, was information, but it did so in an impressive way. Giant statues and monoliths began popping up in southeast Asia to commemorate some warlord’s victory… twenty-three years into the future. They result in political instability in the region as well as study in how such things are possible. This ends up being the ultimate in self-fulfilling prophecy: scientists figure out how to make these happen and the affected regions start falling apart, making them ripe targets for any warlord who wants to snatch up the mantle and declare himself to be the anonymous Kuin.

This was a pretty high-concept book, and the style was more literary than I’m used to seeing. In some cases, however, I felt it was more literary than it needed to be. Specifically, the author got into a habit of telling events out of order – not because of any time travel, but just because he felt like it. That got a little old, but it was not prevalent enough to make me stop reading.

So, all in all, it was okay. I liked the concepts involved, but the telling of it was not to my taste.