2015 was a pretty rough year here at Blankbaby Manor which impacted my reading. I try to read at least 52 books a year, and I did't quite make it but I got close!
In 2015 I read 51 books (though if you follow me on Goodreads it appears as though I read 49 books. I read an omnibus edition of 3 novels in one, so I counted that as 3. Goodreads counts it as 1).
For some historical perspective, here's my book numbers since 2011:
Not my worst year, but very far from my best (I have no idea why I was able to read so much in 2013!).
I did read a number of very good books, and here are the ones I would recommend you read (note, these are Amazon affiliate links. You can probably find most of these books in your local library too, but then I don't get any money):
Ken Liu is a very talented short story writer (and translator), but I wasn't sure if that would translate into being a great novelist. Well, "The Grace of Kings" didn't disappoint me. I will admit that I'm fascinated by fantasty/scifi books which are roots in non-western traditions so if that isn't your thing this book isn't for you.
Having this book grounded in traditions that aren't familiar to me gave it an added level of otherworldliness (which mostly speaks to my lack of knowledge about eastern traditions).
This book features two men who overthrow an empire and then struggle with what to do with the results. There are mechanical sea monsters, airships and more. Plus it is all written with Ken Liu's lyrical prose.
When I'm not reading science fiction or fantasy I'm usually reading a mystery and "Girl Waits with Gun" is a great one. I mean, it is kind of a mystery but mostly it is a retelling of a crazy true story.
The main characters are the Kopp sisters are unique believable characters who border on ridiculous but never stray past the line.
The novel starts with a carriage being sideswiped by a car and goes from there. Lots of fun, and an interesting snapshot of a particular time in American history when technology and society were at a tipping point.
I love the idea of parallel universes with select people being able to move between them, and that's at the center of this novel. There are several versions of London and the main character is one of a few how can travel back and forth.
People aren't supposed to bring things back and forth with them, but it happens with unforeseen circumstances. A great read, and quick too!
If superheroes are more your cup of tea check out Vicious by the same author. I liked it very much (though not as much as this one).
This was probably my favorite fantasy book that I read in 2015. Now, it isn't for everyone because it is pretty brutal. The ending isn't satisfying if you're hoping for a good ending, but Baru is a great character and I thought the world building was very well done.
It reminded me very much of K.J. Parker, and that's a big compliment!
Aurora is fantastic, and I'm pretty sure it'll be nominated for the Hugo. A clever tale of a generation ship falling apart with an interesting conceit. You should read it. Plus, this time around the main character isn't totally awful (until 2312, which I liked but can see how others might not).
I imagine somewhere the pitch for this book (which is soon to be a TV series) was something like, "Imagine the Game of Thrones only on the Mooooon!"
That gives you the flavor of the book, kind of, but undersells it. McDonald has been writing YA novels for a few years and I've read them. But I'm glad to have him back writing "adult fiction." This book is the start of a series and I look forward to reading the rest with great gusto.
Also, the opening scene of this book is just perfect.
Generally, I don't re-read things but I suggested we discuss The Foundation Trilogy on The Incomparable and other folks agreed (listen to the podcast).
I was a little worried that I wouldn't like the Foundation Trilogy anymore. I read it when I was in high school and it is pretty much responsible for my love of science fiction. Good news! I still love these three books, and if you haven't read them you should. Now. Go. Read them! Every library in the world probably has copies (not to mention used bookstores).
Kevin Hearne, author of the Iron Druid books, wrote a great post listing some underrated series of books for adults. He wrote this in reaction to having his own series of books listed on this Buzzfeed list of underrated YA series (which lists a bunch of stuff that isn't YA).
I love this idea, and it has inspired me to create my own list of underrated series, one of which appears on Kevin's list (he has good taste!).
The Iron Druid Chronicles
I'll start off listing Kevin's series: The Iron Druid Chronicles. I'm not generally a fan of Urban Fantasy, it isn't my bag. However, Atticus O'Sullivan, the ancient Druid who is the last of his kind, is a lot of fun to read about. And his dog is fantastic (this makes sense if you read the books).
Ok, these books aren't literary gems but they aren't meant to be. They are fast, fun reads. All I can say is that I read one in a couple of hours and then bought every single available novel right afterwards and devoured them all.
Jane Austin with a touch of magic is how I describe Mary Robinette Kowal's The Glamourist Histories. That's true of the first book, though the later entries in the series have a heck of a lot more action than you'll find in an Austin book.
Jane and Vincent, the main characters, are glamourists (they can create illusions, and do so for installation in manor houses and the like) who are very much in love and end up in many interesting situations. These situations include everything from encountering Napoleon's army to being fleeced in Venice.
Sadly, the final installment of this series is coming out this month. I'll read it and look forward to what else Mary Robinette Kowal has in store for us.
I'm a sucker for a period mysteries series, and Gary Corby's The Athenian Mysteries fit the bill. Set in ancient Greece, the books follows Nicolaos who has a knack for solving mysteries but has trouble making a living out of it. Pericles is sort of his sponsor, though they have a fragile relationship. Oh, and did I mention Nicolaos has a young brother by the name of Socrates? Yeah, that Socrates.
Once again, these books are fun, light, quick reads that always entertain.
Rachel Aaron, writing as Rachel Bach, wrote a damn fine trilogy of scifi books called The Paradox Trilogy. Devi, the main character, has some sweet power armor and dreams of serving her King. Those dreams don't work out as she had hoped, but she does get to encounter some "monsters" and fall in love.
I enjoy the fact that these books feature a strong female protagonist who falls in love, but isn't super happy about it (it is very complicated, as you'll find out when you read it). Also, did I mention the sweet power armor? It is pretty sweet.
Since it is the holidays here in the good US of A (and elsewhere I presume, but I don't concern myself with the goings on outside of our fine borders) I thought it only appropriate to share some of the best books I've read this year. Along with affiliate links and a plea for you to buy them for friends, loved ones, or enemies.
The Golem and the Jinni
Hard to believe I read this book in 2014, but I did (finished it on Jan. 25th, 2014). This is a great book, as discussed on this episode of The Incomparable. And at the moment it is only $2.99 in ebook format. Why haven't you purchased it already?
Ok, so you want to hear a little bit of what this book is about. A golem is shipped to NYC, as you do, and he master dies. She's left to fend for herself and ends up meeting a Jinni. It is great.
I love Jo Walton. Well, I love her writing (I'm sure she's a lovely person though). After reading her Small Change series I decided that I would just buy whatever her next novel is without question. That's why I preordered My Real Children and read it as soon as it appeared on my Kindle.
This book is science fiction, but with a light touch. The main character is an old lady who is in a old folks home and remembers living two lifetimes. Is she crazy? Nope, she is just remembering two different timelines of her own life.
Fantastic. And there are moon-bases, so: science fiction.
David Mitchell knows how to write a book I tells ya. The Bone Clocks is definitely science fiction, but since Mitchell wrote it people you'll find it shelved in the "Fiction" section of the bookstore (serious writers don't do science fiction, you see. Even though the Cloud Atlas was also SciFi).
This book pings around the world and history following the story of Holly Sykes who ends up involved in a war that she knows nothing about. I devoured this book (after I got through the first 30 pages or so).
I'd never heard of Emily St. John Mandel before (but what a name), however, this book is crazy good. It is a post-apocalypse book, but it isn't apocalypse porn. Most of the action happens a good while after the fall of society, when new rules and societies have been formed and life is somewhat stable (though nothing like we know it).
A traveling band of Shakespearean actors are the main vehicle of the plot with characters connecting threads across time before, during and after the pandemic.
There are two other books that I quite enjoyed this year, but it is difficult to recommend them since they are both a part of a larger series.
The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi blew my mind with the bizarre stuff that it contains. This is a science fiction lovers science fiction book (though if you don't like rather baroque writing, this might not be your cup of tea).
Last year Ancillary Justice was my favorite book, and this year the sequel (Ancillary Sword) is on my best of list. You should read the first one though, and then pick up the second.
Hey, I wrote another book! This one, as you might suspect from the title, is all about the Amazon Fire Phone.
The phone didn't get rave reviews from the tech press, but I think it is a pretty nifty device (I may be biased). It has a bunch of neat features, the OS is pretty clear and easy to use, and it makes getting your Amazon content (books, movies, and music) very simple. Also, can I tell you how much I love browsing the Kindle book store in a native app? Because I do (you can't do that on the iPhone because Amazon won't give Apple the 30% that they charge for in app purchasing).
Anyway, buy my book if you have a Fire Phone. Or if you want a Fire Phone. Or if you want to support my writing career. Or if you're bored. You know, just buy the dang book!
Note: Some people will wonder why I wrote a book about the Fire when my every day phone is an iPhone (a 6 plus to be precise). I wrote about why I really can't switch from an iPhone before but it boils down to: unlimited data and iMessages.
As in past years, Jason Snell is forcing me to read all the Hugo nominated novels (ok, he isn't forcing me but we have entered into a strange pact wherein we both read all of them and talk about them on the Incomparable with others who generally lack the fortitude to read all the works. Listen to 2013, 2012, and 2011. Also, I can't believe this will be the fourth time we're doing this!).
This year is an odd year for the Hugos (my friend Barry points out that I say that every year, but this year I mean it). Since the Hugo nominations are open to anyone with a WorldCon membership, wacky things can get nominated given an author's popularity.
Now, I should say that given this is how the Hugos are set up I have nothing against any author for rallying the troops and getting themselves on the ballot. Kudos to them, I say! However, it doesn't mean I'm going to read everything that's nominated (more on that in a moment).
The other oddity this year is the nomination of an entire series as best novel. That's wacky, and I won't be reading all 14,000 Wheel of Times books.
Here are the nominated novels, some thoughts about them and if I am going to actually read them:
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie - Not only did I read this book already, but I was one of the people who nominated it. Given that this is the only book on the list I've read thus far I can't say I will definitely vote for it, but I'm probably going to vote for it. I spoke about it on an episode of the Incomparable if you'd like to hear some learned opinions about the book from my fellow panelists.
Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross - Mr. Stross is an author whose books I've purchased but I don't think I've ever actually read. I didn't even know this book existed, so I don't have an opinion about it. I am glad to see I was wrong in thinking it is a sequel. It seems as though it is a standalone book in a loose series, so I'll be reading it and probably voting for Ancillary Justice.
Parasite by Mira Grant - Oh, Mira Grant. I actually figured that this book would be nominated because Grant's audience REALLY likes her work. I REALLY disliked her Newsflesh series but hope springs eternal. I might like this version of her one voiced characters facing zombies better. But if someone drinks a Coke and pokes something with a stick I might just stop reading and walk away.
Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles by Larry Correia - This is a controversial nomination because Larry posted a list of works on his website and suggested that his readers vote for them. I have nothing against that tactic given what the Hugos are, though I do find it a bit ingenious that Larry spins it as an experiment to see if the voting was rigged to keep politically conservative authors off the ballot. Anyway, I don't really care about that but I do care that this book is the 3rd in a series and I haven't read book 1 or 2. I am probably going to skip reading this book because of that (and not because of the so called controversy surrounding it, I have no trouble separating the author from the work).
The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson - If I were a betting man I'd put my money on this series to win. That being said I attempted to read the first book in this series long ago and couldn't get through it. It won't get my vote, and I have no plans on attempting to read it.
There you have it, since absolutely no one asked me about the Hugos but NOW YOU KNOW!
I like to read, though I seem to acquire books at a far faster rate than I can ever hope to read. The Kindle hasn't helped this at all, though now the books take up less space (I still buy physical books too, though).
Anyway, here is a list of the last 15 books I've purchased for my Kindle. I'll include a quick thought about the book if I have read it:
Once in a Blue Moon by Simon R. Green - This book was longer than it needed to be, but as with most Green it was fun (though not especially well written).
Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald - I really like Ian McDonald's "adult" novels. This is the 3rd in his YA series. I thought it was the concluding volume, but it wasn't so I was disappointed. However, it is the best in the series so far (not a great starting point for new readers).
I'm a big fan of Amazon's Kindle (as you all know). I'm less of a fan of Amazon's management tools for said Kindle, all found at Manage Your Kindle.
If case you haven't used Manage Your Kindle before (and I'm willing to bet most Kindle users haven't) it allows you to delete ebooks, send them to particular Kindles and even download a book to your computer and transfer it to your Kindle via USB.
Here's what it used to look like (and still does in Chrome for me):
The design isn't very exciting, but that's not my main issue with the old MYK site. You couldn't perform actions on multiple books, so if you wanted to delete 3 books from your library you had to click on the drop down for each and then click delete. I don't have time for 6 clicks!
The new version makes that a thing of the past, and looks much nicer (at the moment I'm only seeing this in Safari):
A lovely gird of your book covers is displayed by default. Click on a book and it gets a little green check mark. Click on another one, and another check mark appears. Then you can click on one of the action buttons and have that action apply to all the selected items. Magic:
Amazon has also made it easier to find details about your Kindles by displaying all of your them along the top of the page. Clicking on one Kindle allows you to deregister it (if you want to have someone else use it with their Amazon account), your Kindle's email address (you did know you can email documents to your Kindle, right?), and the type and serial number.
It is also now much easier to turn off Special Offers (i.e. ads) on your Kindles that sport them, just by clicking a link and paying a few bucks:
Yesterday, along with the rest of Philadelphia's populace, I was out doing some last minute holiday shopping. I went to several stores, as you do, and found some great presents for my loved ones.
Somehow, I found myself in a used bookstore (this one, if you're curious) browsing through the science fiction novels. Now, when I'm in a bookstore, or generally any place, I'm not looking to interact with other people. I'm just there to look at books, dude.
As I was looking at the books a guy walked up, and started checking out the same shelf of books. This is a common occurrence, so I did what you do: stepped back so the gentleman could have more books in his field of vision. We stood side by side in silence, as is my preference. But I sensed this guy wanted to talk to me.
"Are you looking for a good science fiction book," random dude asked me.
Since I was in a bookstore looking at the science fiction section this was a pretty safe bet.
"Sure," I said though I have been taught never to talk to strangers.
"Have you read anything by Greg Bear? Eon is really good. He got some stuff wrong about the future since it's one of those books where the future he was writing about is our present, but he did predict iPads. Didn't see the fall of the Soviet Union, though."
Book wisdom dispensed he walked off into the mystery section and proceeded to talk to himself loudly. At least I assume he was talking to himself, though as I type this now it seems at least possible that he was continuing to talk to me since we were only separated by a bookshelf. I didn't talk back though, since he couldn't see me which I consider a clear signal that a conversation is over (if I ever close my eyes while you're talking to me in person now you know why).
Long story short, I bought Eon because why the heck not? Plus it sounded pretty interesting and it only cost $3.
I just ordered a physical book from Amazon (this one, if you must know) and above you'll see the clever thing Amazon did. Since they have the Kindle version of the book, Amazon appeals to my impatience and offers a one click way to download the free sample to my Kindle.
io9 is a blog that confuses me. The tag line is "We come from the future," which is open enough to allow them to post whatever they like (and who am I to tell them how to live their lives?) but to me I think of it as a science fiction/fantasy blog.
They do, in fact, post lots of SSF stuff, which is why I subscribe, but they also post random crap which I skip. No biggie, but it does confuse me.
Grant is the author of the amazing zombie journalism series, Newsflesh — and now, she's back with a new series about a biotech dystopia. In the near future, everybody is free of disease thanks to genetically modified tapeworms that live in our guts. Unfortunately, it turns out that these little creatures have an agenda of their own.
I haven't read Parasite, since it isn't out and all, and it might be great. I have read the Newsflesh series (here, here, and here) and I can tell you one thing it is not: amazing. Unless, of course, Annalee meant "amazingly terrible."
Some mistake my love of Kindles for a rejection of traditional books. This is foolish. I love reading and therefore I love anything that allows me to read books: Kindles, printed books, libraries, bookstores, and so on.
When you couple my love of books with my slightly obsessive compulsive personality (BUY! ALL! THE! BOOKS!) you get shelves groaning with unread books.
All these unread books don't stop me from buying more books (mostly used, some Kindle books) and adding them to the shelves. It also doesn't stop me from taking out 2-3 books each time I visit the Free Library.
I guess what I'm saying is that I like to read.
Marisa, in reaction to this behavior of ours (she's also a bookworm, though since she's a fancy pants food blogger she also tends to get 3-4 cookbooks in the mail a week from publishers hoping that she'll write about them), has declared this month "Read What We Already Own" month.
The idea is simple: this month we'll only read books we own. No new books, no library books. Just books from the apartment.
Good thing we have hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of books to choose from so it won't be a hardship.
This year not only have I read all the Hugo nominated novels, novelettes, novellas, and short stories I even ponied up the dough so I could actually vote on which will win.
I won't let this AWESOME power go to my head. I promise. Not even a little.
Anyway, only three short stories were nominated this year which makes me a little sad. I'm certain that two more stories out there could have made the cut, but they didn't. This also makes me thing that I really need to start writing some short stories.
Random Scott Writing Aside
When Ray Bradbury died I started watching/reading about him. I'd read some of his stuff, and I knew he was a great writer but I didn't really know much about him. Someone once asked him how he became such a master at writing short stories. His answer, paraphrased, was to write a short story a week for a year. At the end of the year you'll have 52 stories and one of them is bound to be good!
This inspired me to start a file in Evernote with ideas about short stories, none of which I have yet written because I'm a horrible person.
/Random Scott Writing Aside
Since there are only three stories nominated (and one of those stories is very, very short) why not read them all? Here they are, freely available for your eyeball pleasure:
I'm not going to tell you which gets my vote just yet, since I spilled the beans about that on a not yet released episode of The Incomparable. Once that episode is posted I'll have a post with all my picks and the reasoning behind them (as if anyone cares).
Ever since I started a concerted effort to read all the Hugo nominated novels (check out the Incomparable episodes: 2011 and 2012) I've been disappointed with the awards in general for two reasons: my own misconceptions and Mira Grant. Oddly enough, they are related to one another.
In my mind the Hugo award nominees represent the finest, most creative and interesting writing done in science fiction novels during the previous year. While this is true for some nominees that's not what the Hugos are. The Hugos are voted on by the readers, which means that at the basest level the Hugos are a popularity contest.
Which explains why every novel in the Newsflesh series by Mira Grant has been nominated. I'm sure Ms. Grant is a lovely woman, and clearly there are people who enjoy her work. Kudos to her! But do her novels represent the best that science fiction has to offer? No, they do not. However, lots of people like her and her books are very easy to read and are fun if you don't mind overly repetitious prose, blunt force world building, borderline incest, cardboard villains, and rudimentary plotting.
I will be reading all of the nominated novels for the Incomparable yet again. Luckily I've already read 3 out of 5. Here's the list:
2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit): One of two I haven't read yet. I was going to read it when it first came out but my good old pal Glenn Fleishman said it was crap, so I passed. Looks like I'll have a chance to form my own opinion.
Blackout, Mira Grant (Orbit): Savvy readers might guess this is the other novel I haven't read yet. I'll go into it with an open mind, promise!
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen): Bujold is a great writer, though this isn't a great book. It is fun, but I don't think it is award winning. You don't have to take my word on it, listen to the Incomparable book club wherein we discuss the book in detail.
Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, John Scalzi (Tor): Another fun book that isn't really a good book. Scalzi isn't shy about the fact that his aim isn't high literature but rather readable works that lots of people will buy. He did it in spades with this book, and I think his big old royalty checks are award enough. We also did an episode of the Incomparable on this book.
Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (DAW): I was surprised, in a good way, to see this book on the list. Out of the 3 I've read, this would be the one I would vote for. Sure, it reads like an awesome D&D adventure, but I really liked the setting and the characters.
Nine books that should have been nominated
It is all well and good to complain about the books that got nominated, but a real critic should provide some alternatives. Looking over what I read last year that were Hugo eligible, I've come up with nine books that should have been on the list:
The Dog Stars, Peter Heller: I didn't declare this book the best book I read in January 2013 for nothing, folks! Sure, it isn't as good as the Road but is far better written than some of the nominated novels. "But, Scott," you say, "This isn't science fiction!" Umm, yes it is, dude. The post-apocalypse thing is totally science fiction. Word.
Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson: I'm actually surprised this one wasn't nominated (though perhaps it wasn't in the running for some reason). Set in the immediate future, this story tells the tale of a hacker who gets into a mess of trouble. Wonderfully written, though I suppose some might argue the "science fiction" distinction here.
The Islanders, Christopher Priest: I love me some unreliable narrators, and this book is like a delicate cloud of unreliability. Billed as a guide to a series of islands, this book is so much more. Inventive and, dare I say, brilliant? Also, it isn't obviously science fiction but come on people, the genre is flexible!
Three Parts Dead, Max Gladstone: A legal thriller with magic and dead gods? What's not to like?
The Fractal Prince, Hannu Rajaniemi: When I think about people pushing the boundaries of science fiction I think of Rajaniemi. This book is fantastic, cerebral, and unlike anything I've read (well, other than the first book in the series).
Sharps, K.J. Parker: OK, so Parker will never be nominated for a Hugo for best novel (I'm willing to bet) which just makes me sad. Sure, he (or she) writes brutal stories with characters that you really don't like but they are so well done. Sharps isn't Parker's best but even at 75% of his/her best it is better than most of the nominated novels I've read.
The Mirage Matt Ruff: An alternate reality book which imagines what would happen is the Middle East had developed into the world's dominant culture and western terrorists crashed into the Middle Eastern World Trade Center. Thought provoking, well written, and worthy of an award.
Glamour in Glass, Mary Robinette Kowal: I've read all three of the currently available Glamourist History books and I've really enjoyed them. The first book, Shades of Milk and Honey, was something of a small, quiet story. The second volume builds on that story and makes it much bigger and adds in a dash of action. Don't let the YA covers scare you off from these books, they are smart reads for discerning readers.
There you have it, add my voice to the chorus bellyaching about the Hugos. Of course, say what you will be the awards but at least they get people talking about, and writing about, science fiction. That can't be a bad thing, right?
I've long had illusions that I'd write a review of every book I read, however, since I read over 70 books last year and wrote a review for one or two of them that goal seems unrealistic.
Therefore, a new feature of Blankbaby is born: the best book of the month! Hurrah!
Last month (January 2013) I read a total of 10 books, all fiction. There were a number of good books in the running, but the best book I read that month was: The Dog Stars.
The Dog Stars is set in a world ravaged by a pandemic (an out of control super flu) which killed off lots and lots of the world's population. The story follows Hig whose wife and child died of the flu. Now he's holed up with Bangley who seems to have waited his entire life for something like this to happen. Hig isn't happy, but he's making a go of it with his trusty dog at his side and frequent trips in a small airplane to scout for dangers, and other survivors.
I won't recap the story since there are some surprising bits, but it is well written and worth your time. I will say, however, that while I thought it was a good book it is unfortunate that it contains some echoes of The Road. Why is this bad? The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is a brilliant literary achievement next to which most books would pale in comparison. Add in similar story lines and The Dog Stars just can't hold a candle to The Road.
That being said, The Dog Stars is good it just isn't great.
As a reader, and a person, I tend to fixate on things. I have spent days listening to the same song over and over again (one inexplicable example: A View to a Kill by Duran Duran), and countless hours watching episode after episode of TV shows.
When I stumble upon a new author (well, new to me) and find that I love his work I go a little wild. I read about the author, I follow them on Twitter, and I subscribe to their blog. Oh, and I read a bunch of their books too.
Thanks to my involvement with the Incomparable (a fine podcast filled with geeky delights) I've been reading all the Hugo nominated novels for the last couple of years (2011, 2012). Sometimes this makes me happy, and sometimes not so much.
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald was nominated for a Hugo in 2011, and so I knew I was going to read it. For some reason I thought it was a sequel to River of Gods, an earlier novel by the same author, so I picked that up from the library.
Wow. It was a great book, and it really set my expectations high for the Dervish House (which I found out had nothing to do with River of Gods). After reading the Dervish House I knew two things to be true:
I would read whatever McDonald publishes in the future.
The Dervish House would win the Hugo hands down.
I was only right about one of those things (Connie Willis won the Hugo for Blackout/All Clear which were the only nominees that year I hadn't read), but McDonald was certainly upgraded to an author whose books I buy no matter what they are about.
The YA problem
McDonald's novels are complex stories intricately plotted featuring characters in non-Western cultures (generally speaking). The neat thing about setting his novels of the near future in cultures that I am not super familair with is that it transforms me, as the reader, into "the other." I'm the one that is sort of an alien, as opposed to the characters I'm reading about in this science fiction novel.
Narrative complexity like this appeals to me, which is why I loathe Young Adult novels (YA, for those in the know). Since they're written for a younger audience a more straightforward story is needed, which leave out all the interlocking stories that seemingly have nothing to do with each other until that beautiful moment when it all clicks into place (at least in a well written novel).
When I heard McDonald was going to start writing a YA book I was nervous because I knew I had to read it, and that my bias against the genre wouldn't make it easy for me to like it.
That book was Planesrunner, the first in the Everness Series following the adventures of a teenage boy (what else?) as he tracks down his father through the multiverse. To sum up my thoughts of Planesrunner I offer you one word: disappointment.
Gone were the interweaving plots. Good bye to the myriad of characters. Hello straightforward story, typical YA hero, and fairly well trod scifi tropes.
The book read like a very well written episode of Sliders with a main character who is just like normal kids except he's a math genius who can cook (which is admittedly a nice touch).
I wasn't thrilled with it, but it was a solid book overall (though if it hadn't been written by McDonald I never would have picked it up in the first place).
Now the second book in the series, Be My Enemy, is out and I've just finished reading it the other day (I finish reading series that I begin, damn it!).
Happily, Be My Enemy is a much better book than Planesrunner. I'm not sure if that is a result of my lowered expectations (as set by Planesrunner) or if this book is just better. I tend to lean towards the latter since McDonald seems to be playing with some of the very ideas that made the first book a bit cliche in interesting ways.
At one point a character says something long the lines of, "This is an alternate universe, of course there are airships." That made me laugh out loud (LOL as the kids say).
The central premise of the series remains unchanged: our 14 year old hero Everett Singh must track down his father who has been shot into a random universe by mysterious agents of the Plenitude embodied by the main villianess Charlotte Villiers (who gives me shades of Marisa Coulter). There are 10 Earths that have discovered one another by inventing Heisenberg Gates which allow them to jump from one Universe to the next. In some universes this is a known fact, in others it is a secret.
The first book see Everett teaming up with an airship crew, and he is still with the same crew in the second book.
While the setup isn't all that orignal (special kid goes on quest, fights adults) the concept of Alters (introduced in the first book) is explored during the course of this book to great effect.
Given there are multiple universes it stands to reason that there are multiple versions of people too. The other versions of you in other universes are known as Alters. Everett is confronted with his own Alter who has been altered (see what I did there?) by a colony of aliens who, in the Alter's universe, live on the moon (the aliens are kind of neat, but I won't spoil them for you). Pressed into service by Villiers and her male Alter, the Alter Everett is made into a weapon to track down Everett and get the map of the multiverse.
Alter Everett is placed on Earth 10 (our Earth) to replace real Everett at school. Everett then decides he's going to rescue his family (well, mom and kid sister) before continuing to look for his dad. That doesn't go well, but we get to see Alter Everett power up his internal weapon systems and blast some stuff only to be outsmarted by real Everett (just before this fight Villiers reminds Alter Everett that he is just a tool, the real Everett is the important one).
After that battle a good chunk of the action happens on Earth 1 which has been quarantined for mysterious reasons. No one can jump into the world, with the exception of Everett and his airship buddies (who have his map of the multiverse that he figured out based on his father's work, and which the villains want) and his Alter (who gets there thanks to the moon aliens). The mystery of why this Earth was quarantined is pretty easily solved by a frequent science fiction reader, though McDonald does offer an interesting twist of a modern scifi chestnut (I'm really trying to avoid spoilers). On Earth 1 there's some chase scenes, characters trying to figure out the obvious, and a couple of twists that I didn't see coming.
The Alter Everett makes a critical deal towards the end of the book which will have a great impact on the third (and final?) volume in the series. I must admit I had a hard time accepting that anyone would make the deal he did (once again, avoiding spoilers) but he is a 14 year old who is being manipulated by people… so I bought it.
The writing is solid, with some glimpses of McDonald's true talent (I get the feeling that he was holding back since this is a YA book, though one could argue he is just stretching other writerly muscles with this series). There are a couple of false notes when McDonald tries very hard to write like a 14 year old would think/talk, like this: "His body felt out the different slopes and structures an slipperinesses of the roofs. Just like a real-life version of the Assassin's Creed video game." But those are few and far between (thank goodness).
At this point I'm surprised to say I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series. The first book left me cold, but my interest in McDonald's work convinced me to stick with it, and I feel like the pay off is going to be worth it.
A few words about the Kindle edition
I read the Kindle version of Be My Enemy, which is my preferred version of a new book that I don't have any real reason to own as a keepsake (some books are just better as physical artifacts, and older books tend to be way cheaper when you buy a used copy vs. a digital copy). For some reason Pyr, McDonald's publisher, delayed the reason of the Kindle book for 2 weeks. I have no idea why, but it was very annoying to me.
Furthermore, if you're going to delay the Kindle book you really need to make sure the ebook formatting is spot on. I was more than 3/4 of the way through the book before I realized the chapters were numbered. The chapter number graphic was so faint as to be nigh on impossible to read on my eInk Kindle's screen (and I have the fancy new Paperwhite).
If I’m to be completely honest, Be My Enemy didn’t blow me away as completely as Planesrunner did. That’s partly because it’s, well, a sequel. A sequel to an outstanding novel, granted, but still, some familiarity sets in. The surprise factor wears off, ever so slightly.
In softer hands these books could become a "monster of the week" series but here there are consequences, none more so than when Everett is punched in the stomach by an authority figure. This basic, personal violence is a reminder that this is not a game and that even a genius can't get through unscathed. I can't wait to see what happens next.
In Enemy, there's a lot more of what made Planesrunner great -- tremendous action scenes, cunning escapes, genius attacks on the ways that multidimensional travel might be weaponized, horrific glimpses of shadowy powers and sinister technologies.
I was off on vacation with Marisa for Labor Day weekend (we padded it by taking Friday and Tuesday off because we are awesome). Say Marisa likes to say we take "old people" vacations: we rent a cabin and read for awhile, go to thrift stores, and eat dinner early.
Marisa and I had to go to a wedding yesterday. Now, I'm not the most social person in the world (shocker) and I'm even worse when I don't know many people I am supposed to socially interact with. At this wedding there would be almost no one I knew, other than Marisa, but being the good husband I was happy to accompany my lovely wife. She sweetened the pot, however, by promising me a visit to the Plymouth Meeting Mall during the 2 hour break between the ceremony and the reception.
A trip to some random mall generally wouldn't result in a placated Scott but this mall is home to an outlet of Ukazoo Books which sells both new and used books. I figured I would give myself a limit of $10 and see what treasures I could find (a favorite past time of mine).
We had no idea how fortuitous our timing was because it would seem that the Plymouth Meeting Ukazoo location is closing, and they were having a big clearance sale. Of course I'm sad to see any independent bookstore close, but that is balanced out by my insatiable desire for MORE BOOKS. I was struck, as we entered the store, by a certain melancholy which I last felt visiting the Borders that used to be in Center City Philadelphia during its last days of operation. The shelves are pretty bare, the staff is milling about trying to figure out what to do next with their lives, and I'm there looking for some cheap books like some sort of readerly vulture.
Anyway, not only were they closing (sad face), but we were visiting on the last day they were open (happy face). My plan to spend only $10 was thwarted by the particulars of their clearance sale: $5 for as many books as you can stuff into a brown paper bag (they provided the bag).
Let me tell you, when you're paying $5 for a bag of books your selectivity takes a hit. Marisa and I managed to find 35 books that piqued our interest, and crammed them all into one bag. 14 cents a book? Why not!
Out of the 35 I take credit for snagging the following 12 books:
Just the other day I listed my recent book purchases and it is already out of date. On Sunday I headed down to Washington, D.C. to assist Marisa with a canning demo at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market. The demo lasted for a couple hours, and while I enjoy supporting my lovely wife she didn't need me lurking about the entire time.
Luckily, there were bookstores to checkout in the very near vicinity.
It would seem that Kramersbooks is an institution in DC, and one that I had been hoping to visit for some time. A while back I happened to be in DC for a week attending some training. During the evening I would rush back to my hotel and work on a book I was writing at the time, but I plotted taking some time off to explore this lovely bookstore. Finally, the day I had decide to visit Kramerbooks was upon me. I had finished my training for the day, and stopped by my hotel to unload some stuff. Just as I was putting my bag down a terrific downpour started and lasted the entire evening. Needless to say I stayed in, and the bookstore had to wait until last weekend.
Over the course of the last few weeks I've found myself in a variety of situations in which I had the opportunity to purchase some books. If you know me I rarely turned down the offer to buy myself a book or two (in any format that I can get my grubby little hands on), so I thought I would share a list of books I've recently added to the Blankbaby Manor Library and from whence they came.
Raven Used Books
Marisa and I spent a few days visiting with our friends Becky and Eric in Northampton, MA. I always enjoy our visits because Becky and Eric are good people… and Northampton is home to a few very nice bookstores. Raven Used Books has a great selection of used books at reasonable prices, though I only ended up purchasing one book this time around (plus a t-shirt):
This Alien Shore: I read the Coldfire Trilogy and quite liked it (years and years ago though so I have no idea what they were about) so I thought I would give this book a try.
Broadside Books, just down the street from Raven Used Books, is a fantastic independent bookstore. I know there are differing opinions about whether one is obligated to support independent bookstores or not but I feel like I should buy a book or two whilst I'm there. Now, I'll only buy a book from the store if they have something I want (obviously) and if I feel like the store is worth supporting. Broadside certainly is, so I picked up a book there:
Marisa is a published author now (buy her book) and she's put together her very own book tour (I've found that few people care to meet the geek behind their favorite tech books, so no tours for me). One of the first stops on the tour, and the secondary reason for our visit to Northampton, was at the Odyssey Bookshop. Marisa's demo and signing was a huge success (they sold out of her book!) but sadly my shopping wasn't as successful.
The bookshop has two levels. Marisa's demo was on the second floor so as we walked in I scoped out what looked like a pretty good science fiction section. However, I was there to help with the demo and take pictures and not browse the wares. By the time the demo was over the store was closed, so I had to limit my purchases to a few books I saw on the second floor:
Maisie Dobbs: I'd never heard of the Maisie Dobbs series but the description hooked me.
A People's Guide to the Federal Budget: Becky, who hosted us in Northampton, helped write this book and I like to support my friends whenever I can (yes, friends, this is a passive aggressive reminder that you should feel free to purchase my books!). Plus it is probably a good idea to know how the Federal budget works and stuff.
I work at Penn (specifically the Wharton School) and I really enjoy it. I tried the whole corporate thing at Comcast and I just wasn't cut out for it (I totally told them it was me not them… but I think it was a tiny bit them too). There are many benefits to working at a University: lots of time off, being surrounded by smart people, and a lovely setting. Also, the students leave every summer and in their wake are many nice possessions that they've cast off. Penn, being home to many smart people, realized that instead of having the students throw away all the crap they don't want to haul home with them why not collect it all and sell it, and give the proceeds to GoodWill? Thus PennMOVES was born, and thus why I was awake at 7am on a Saturday and in a rather industrial building at 8:30am wading through a thicket of people.
The PennMOVES price list mentioned that all books were a dollar a pop, which excited me. I made a beeline to the books room only to fine that many professional book resellers had beaten me there. How did I know they were book resellers? They all had iPhones with scanners attached to them and were scanning every book they could find. The ones with high resale value were tossed into bags and the low resale books were tossed back onto the pile.
I wasn't interested in the high value books (i.e. textbooks) I just wanted some cheap novels, however, I worried that there wouldn't be much overlap between my reading interests and those of the average Penn student. I rummaged around the books for 30 minutes or so and managed to find a very good haul (and it only cost me $12):
On Writing: Stephen King's classic take on writing. Marisa already had a copy but for a buck why not?
The King's Peace: I am generally over fantasy but Jo Walton is one of those authors whose books I buy even if I am not interested in the genre (plus the price worked in the book's favor).
Cosm: It would seem that many Penn students who leave books behind aren't into science fiction, so I felt the need to buy whatever scifi books I found. Benford won out on this one (though he'll not make a cent off this transaction).
The City and the Stars: I haven't read all that much Clarke (2001 and some of the Rama books about cover it), and this seemed like an interesting book (and it was written at a time when a short novel was ok. Now everyone needs to write at least 400 pages).
Tastes of Paradise: This seemed like something Marisa would like, and since she was off looking at other tidbits in the sale I picked it up for her.
The Iron Lady: Having recently watched the movie of the same name I was intrigued by the book.
Murder for Christmas: I'm trying to educate myself in the mystery genre so why not read some stories by a master?
Yes, I realize how ironic it is to list all these books from rummage sales and independent bookstores and link to Amazon, but I also buy my fair share of books at Amazon. In fact, for some reason Amazon sent me a $37 gift certificate which I blew on the following Kindle books:
I'm a New Yorker at heart, even though I haven't lived in New York for several years. When I conjure up an image of a public library the image I see is the New York Public Library's main branch with the iconic lion statues out front.
That's why I enjoyed reading Charles Petersen's two part (part 1, part 2) story about how the NYPL is attempting to transform itself to meet the new needs of their patrons. It is such a huge organization, and many people assume the library is dedicated to one thing: books. Nope. Any library you visit isn't just a collection of books, but rather a repository of information staffed with people who make it their life's work to help you sort through it all.
Anyway, you shouldn't be wasting time reading this when the first part of Charles' great article is waiting for you.
People pirating books piss me off, but I love the library (in fact I was just at the Free Library of Philadelphia yesterday (proof) where I checked out three books). Sometimes I do wonder, though, if I should buy a book to support an author I like instead of making use of the library. The problem is, if no one goes to the library then in these days of budget cuts the library closes (heck, even though library usage is up some libraries are closed!).
It really, really, really helps me to be in libraries. Not all traditionally-published books get that privilege; most self-published books certainly don’t. So if you’re feeling at all guilty over checking my stuff out from your local library — don’t. Consider: you’re helping to keep me on their “buy” lists, especially in these days of rampant budget cuts, which means several hundred (if not thousand) additional sales for me.