5 great books I’ve read lately

It’s been a good while since I’ve done a book report, so here are five pretty great books that I’ve read lately:

(1) Knight’s Shadow by Sebastien De Castell

The second of the Greatcoats series is — if anything — better than the stellar first entry. This is a fantasy remix of the Three Muskateers set in a land ripped apart by political divisions and war. Every chapter kept adding on more surprises, twists, and cool plot developments as the three Greatcoats go on a mission to try to secure the throne for a very young queen. There were at least two moments in the novel that had me literally standing up and cheering, they were that good.

(2) The Liar’s Key by Mark Lawrence

This is the second book of the Red Queen’s War, which is in turn the follow-up to the Thorns trilogy. I’m not sure if I like this series better than Jorg, but it’s heartening that the journey of slippery Jalen and stout Viking Snorri continues, even if the point of the trip seems a little flimsier than the last time. Lawrence seems to love protagonists who aren’t good guys but have moments of redemption, and I will say that there were a couple of moments here that surprised even me.

(3) How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Fee and Stuart

I’m on a big hermeneutics kick lately and have fallen in love with this textbook that aims to clearly explain how to read, understand, and properly interpret scripture. It’s more of a high-level overview than a weighty, in-depth tome, but there’s a lot here that I’m even learning, years after seminary. I’m also looking forward to perusing the follow-up, How to Read the Bible Book by Book, at some point.

(4) Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Holy carp, this novel bowled me over with how incredible it is. A girl gets ripped away from her village life to spend several years in the service of a grumpy wizard who is waging a one-man war against a malevolent forest nearby. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book — apart from The Ruins — that made me genuinely disturbed and afraid of plants the way this does, and I was entranced by how much character development and plot there is. Seriously, this is like three or four books crammed into one. Cannot wait for the sequel.

(5) The Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley

Wow, seems like I’m reading a lot of second books here! This is the second part of the Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne, a fantasy saga about three children of an assassinated emperor who is — supposedly — using them from beyond the grave to save the kingdom from destruction. Each of the children (the monk, the fighter, the leader) have really interesting stories this time around, and this massive book went by in the blink of an eye.

6 reasons why I’m an unapologetic Kindle convert

Kindle_Vs_paperbackAll of my life I’ve been a voracious reader.  I practically lived in libraries and used book stores, and once I found out that I could order books shipped to my door, my wallet took a significant hit.  But it was the advent of e-readers — specifically the Kindle — that revolutionized reading for me.  The amount of reading I’ve done in my post-Kindle era is, year for year, at least double than before, even though I have less free time than ever before.

I continue to be so head-over-heels with the convenience of Kindle that I sit in dumbfounded silence whenever I get into a conversation with people (including my wife) about books and they go into the, “Yeah, physical books are still so much better” line.  Are they really?  No, they are not.  Here are six reasons why I’m an e-book convert for life:

1. It’s helped me to streamline my physical library

When I lived alone, I had well over four bookshelves stuffed with my collection, and that wasn’t even counting those left in boxes.  Then I got married to another reader, whose collection doubled mine, and our house simply couldn’t hold enough bookshelves after a while.  Seriously, it got way out of control, especially when we found out that our local library had a “$5 for as many books as you can stuff in this bag” promo for their used bookstore addition.

Nowadays, we have ONE bookshelf that holds books, and half of that are kids storybooks and the other half are my wife’s.  I’ve long since packed up all of the physical books that I want to keep for some reason or another and then got rid of the bookshelves cluttering our living room.  Yes, I’ve had to re-buy some of my books on Kindle, but I’m more than okay with that, especially when I find them on sale.

2. It is always on me in one form or another

I can’t tell you just how much of a blessing it is that I’m never apart from my reading library.  I keep my Kindle on my desk for daily reading, but also have access to it with my phone and tablet — and it all syncs up between the three.  That means that whether I’m lying down to sleep, standing in line waiting for my kids to get done with school, or have a few minutes here and there, the option to read is always present.

Long gone are the days when I had to tote around a book on the chance that I’d need a diversion.  As a plus, reading on my iPhone makes me look like any other person who’s fiddling about with their smartphone, so I sidestep weird looks that opening up a physical novel in public would sometimes get me.

3. Physical books are a pain in the butt to handle

I do love the smell of books and the texture of the pages and whatnot, but let’s be honest: Books have never been ergonomic in the least.  Either they’re small paperbacks that require constant finger strength to keep open (or tie up both hands), or bigger books that are wearying to hold.

For Christmas, I got a 775-page book on graphic adventures that now haunts my bathroom (toilet reading!).  And while it’s an interesting subject, the book itself is so cumbersome to use, especially when I’m toward the beginning or end of the tome.  My Kindle, on the other hand, is so light and portable and contains no danger of paper cuts that I hardly notice its weight when using it.

4. I can organize my to-read collection

My old to-read system was to dedicate a few shelves of a specific bookshelf to titles I had yet to read.  My new one is to tag an e-book as part of my To Read list and not worry about it any more.

This is actually a huge boon when I don’t finish a book (for various reasons) but do want to revisit it and come back later on.  I used to feel very guilty about this with physical books, but with e-books I can rest assured that the master list won’t let it fall into oblivion.

5. I can get new books anywhere, any time

I suppose that part of our culture now is entertainment on demand, and so books have joined that.  We don’t have to go out shopping for them or wait a couple of days for a parcel to arrive; we can just flip through a list, make a selection, and watch in seconds as a book is downloaded to a device.  I get a little thrill out of seeing a book downloaded, I have to say.  Love that zippy progress bar.

On a recent trip I was a little worried that I might run out of things to read, which I then realized was kind of silly since if that even happened, getting more wouldn’t be an issue.

6. So. Many. Free.  Books.

Even when I’ve run out of spending allowance for the month, I’m never lacking more options to read.  Amazon has so many options to get free books, starting with the fact that you can simply search for free novels in each category (and some of these are actually former full-price titles that are made free to suck people into a series).  Then there’s the lender’s program and the Amazon Prime one-free-book-a-month thing.  And I haven’t even tapped into the public library system, which also is radically transforming to make e-books widely available to “borrow.”

Five great books I’ve read lately

traitorIt’s been a long, long time since I’ve done a book post here on Bio Break, although I’ve been reading rather voraciously over the past few months.  So let’s cut to the chase and I’ll give you five recommendations for books that I’ve really enjoyed:

1. Traitor’s Blade

Several fellow bloggers strongly recommended this book and man, am I glad I got to it.  It was a page-turner of the highest order, a kind of fantasy retelling of the Three Muskateers (but not strictly speaking) with characters that have these super-awesome “greatcoats” as armor.  Great plot twists, hilarious writing, cool action sequences, and a few quotes that were so darn epic that it made me want to punch the air.  I’m hoping for a sequel.

2. The Crimson Campaign

The Powder Mage trilogy started a little slow, but once it got going it was like a freight train of awesomeness.  This second book flashes between four principle characters, each with their own gripping storylines, such as an army incursion behind enemy lines, a quest to save a family, and a character coming to grips with newfound powers.  I just genuinely like these books.

3. What If?  Serious Scientifice Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

The XKCD guy penned a long series of scientific essays dealing with funny hypotheticals, such as what would happen if the earth suddenly stopped spinning or if you could make a jet pack that rides on machine guns firing.  The answers are pretty revealing and the doodles he does are entertaining.

4. Bird Box

Here’s a post-apocalyptic tale that has a fresh approach: *Something* spread across the globe that causes people to go insane and become homicidal and suicidal if they catch but one glimpse at it.  We see how civilization slowly collapses as everyone withdraws into their homes and learns to cope without seeing — and not being able to see, to know, is actually incredibly terrifying.  A quick, good read.

5. World of Trouble

The final Last Policeman book traces the last days of the earth as the meteor is about to hit — but the policeman is desperate to solve the mystery of what happened to his sister, a quest that parallels nicely with the apocalypse.  It’s a sad book full of finality and excellent questions, such as “Does any of this even matter?”  I think it does.  Finishing it made me want to re-read the entire trilogy again.

Monday Book Report: What I’ve been reading

bloodsongIt’s been a good long while since I’ve shared the novels I’ve been reading, so I thought I’d do a quick post to catch up!

  • The Far Shores (Zachary Rawlins): Part 3 of the Central series, this is kind of a weird blend between the Matrix, Harry Potter, and brutal contemporary in-fighting between fictional cartels.  I’m in the middle of this right now, it’s OK even though the main protagonist is a ninny.
  • Blood Song (Anthony Ryan): One of my new favorite novels, despite the tepid title.  A gripping coming-of-age tale of a military legend that’s just well-crafted with excellent characters, an interesting world, and a few good twists.  Couldn’t put it down.
  • The Night Market (Zachary Rawlins): A so-so fantasy novel set in Rawlins edge-of-the-world vision about a girl who goes on a long journey to save her brother.  I saw some connections between this and the Central series, interestingly enough.
  • Poor Man’s Fight (Elliott Kay): I’m a sucker for military scifi that follows a recruit through training and into war — been there plenty of times, but this was a well-done entry that had great action and actually kicked off a series.
  • Hollow World (Michael J. Sullivan): A very interesting time-travel tale about a dying guy who jumps forward a few centuries and gets involved in a murder mystery plot with this odd new world.
  • 14 (Peter Clines): This is all about the most mysterious apartment building ever and the residents who try to uncover the many truths about it.  At times the characters and backstory are a little too geeky for their own good, but it was a fun read.
  • Harry Potter series (JK Rowling): I purchased all of the ebooks as a Christmas present to myself to read, for the first time, back-to-back.  I still genuinely liked them, although I discovered that Goblet of Fire is probably my least favorite of the bunch.
  • Three Parts Dead/Two Serpents Rise (Max Gladstone): Gladstone’s bizarre fantasy series about a somewhat contemporary world (that’s not earth) where gods have been overthrown and a destructive magic has taken root.  I’m really impressed with the craftmanship of this series and am looking forward to book three.
  • Midnight Riot (Peter Graves): I really didn’t like this book, forcing myself to slog through to the end.  Nothing outright terrible about it, an urban fantasy story set in London, but nothing that grabbed my attention either.
  • Miriam Black series (Chuck Wendig): Few books have divided my opinion as much as these three about a very disturbed lady who can see how people are going to die.  They’re kind of the anti-Odd Thomas books in a way, with her being a mostly unlikable, crass character in an ugly world (while Thomas is a virtuous soul in an ugly world).  At times I felt bad just reading them but at other times it had enough interesting ideas to keep me going forward.

Best of Bio Break 2013: Books

bestThe Best of Bio Break 2013 is a series of “end of the year” lists that talk about various forms of entertainment that I enjoyed this year.  They’re not awards, but they are ranked.  Each entry doesn’t have to be something that came out this year, but merely something I encountered this year.

oddSo let’s talk about my favorite novels!  I think my reading in 2013 was down compared to 2012, although my “to read” list keeps growing.  I’ve been trying to accumulate suggestions of best scifi/fantasy novels to check out, and I liked these the best.

1. The Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz

I was a bit late to this party, mostly because I’ve never been a reader of Koontz, but on a recommendation I picked up the first book of this supernatural/sci-fi/horror/thriller/comedy/romance saga and then quickly devoured the rest over vacation.  A hero that can see and talk to the dead seems pretty cliche, but the path this series takes as Odd becomes a beacon of light in a very dark world is really captivating.  I kind of want to read them all over again.

2. Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Lawrence’s ultimate anti-hero, King Jorg, took me on an incredible ride for this final installment of this fantasy trilogy.  Jorg isn’t a nice guy by any stretch of the imagination, but he is captivating, cunning, and occasionally sympathetic — and that is a great combination to make one want to turn pages.  It’s mostly fantasy although there’s a slight sci-fi bent, as it takes place in our future after a pretty scary apocalypse happens.  I really liked how the series ended and that Lawrence had the strength to just end it instead of milking it for more.

3. The Last Policeman series by Ben Winters

The Last Policeman and Countdown City are the first two parts of a trilogy about a detective who clings to his job while the world counts down the days until it is destroyed by an asteroid.  Seeing the world fall down around him as he doggedly pursues his quarry makes you wonder what you would do in a similar situation, and there are times that I admire and find myself exasperated with the main character’s approach.  Can’t wait for the third.

4. Third Shift: Pact / Dust by Hugh Howey

I read the final two books of Howey’s awesome Wool series this year, and while the ending lacked some of the great punches that the books provided along the way, it still did the job.  So what are these about?  Uh… without spoilers (and really, start with Wool) it’s about a giant silo where a contained civilization of people live after the world above ends.  Although not everything is as it seems and there are secrets abounding.

5. The Thousand Names by Django Wexler

Lots of recommendations forced me to check this one out, and I couldn’t put it down once I started.  It’s about a military campaign in a fantasy land, except that it’s more in the Revolutionary War/Civil War era of military technology so there’s a lot of muskets, bayonets, and cannons instead of swords and spells.  I found the two main characters pretty riveting and the pace snappy.  Good action, too.

6. The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

A good, solid third entry to the Gentlemen Bastards series about the adventures of a group of highly trained thieves as they seek fortune and revenge.  Each book has a different focus, with this one being a battle of wits between competing thieves while flashing back to an earlier tale of romance and theatrics.  I liked it a lot and it definitely made me want to go back and re-read the first book now that some facets are revealed.

7. Heroes Die by Matthew Stover

Speaking of anti-heroes (it’s a theme!), Heroes Die has a great one with Caine, a man who lives in a dystopian sci-fi future but who also travels to a parallel fantasy world where he goes on adventures that are recorded for the crowds back home.  The book is about him trying to save his wife while facing threats from both worlds, and while it’s at times a little eye-rolling with the portrayal of its growly lead character, it does the job and then some.

8. Abbadon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey

Pretty cool third part of this space opera series, more concerned this time with exploring the unknown (in this case, a ring that sends spaceships to a very scary pocket of the universe).  I really liked its hard sci-fi approach to how ships and their crew would function, with a special emphasis on disasters and recovery so very far from home.

9. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Yay for another Gaiman novel (man, it’s been a while!) although boo for a short tale that was more like a short story than a proper book.  It’s just over too soon with too little substance too it, and that was that.  There’s a clever approach to urban fantasy, however, that I appreciated.

10. Pines/Wayward by Blake Crouch

Pines was a gripping and gut-churning sci-fi thriller that put Crouch on my radar, and I guess it got enough of a response for him to turn it into the first part of a trilogy.  Wayward is the middle episode, taking us back to Wayward Pines, a Stepford-like town in Iowa where the citizens are all being watched, where disobeying the rules gets you mob-murdered, and where the real terror lies beyond the electric fence that rings the town.  Fewer big reveals this time and little doubt what the main character was going to do.

Reading Railroad

vorpWith so many projects going on in my life, I’m finding it increasingly helpful to make lists and schedules, even if I don’t strictly stick to them.  One of those areas, oddly enough, was reading.  I’ve started to feel like my approach to reading was getting scattered.  I have a lot of half-finished books that I really should wrap up, and I kept thrashing around for new book ideas without any sort of plan.

So I took an hour the other day to dig through several book recommendation lists and create a list of about 20 novels that I’m going to try to read this year.  Since many of those are the first books in series, that could end up being a lot more than 20 books if all goes well.  So I’ve got my reading list lined up, and my new rule is that for every new book I read, I’m going to finish up one of those half-read ones.

Anyway, if you care for a few recommendations, here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

  • Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold — I was really excited to finally read a new book in the Vorkosigan universe, although it was a bit disappointing that Ivan, not Miles, is center-stage in this one.  It’s still a pretty entertaining read that actually comes in the timeline before Cryoburn (which was the previous book released in the series).
  • Devil’s Lair by David Wisehart — An interesting revisit of Dante’s Inferno as a group of Dante’s contemporaries journey to Hell to recover the Holy Grail.
  • Spirit’s End by Rachel Aaron — A solid end to the Eli Monpress series.  I highly recommend these books: the characters are quite engaging and the fantasy world is definitely different than the norm.
  • Red Country by Joe Abercrombie — The latest book in his First Law universe, Red Country is more of a Western than anything else.  It’s still pretty brutal, but actually not as dark as his previous books.  It’s also not as good, in my opinion, but I still enjoyed reading it.
  • Prince/King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence — Now talk about dark, here you have a series where the main character is as anti-hero as you get.  He’s a prince-turned-assassin who travels with murderers and is hell-bent on revenge.  And yet, he’s a guy you end up rooting for, because there is something about him that is redeemable.  And as an added bonus, the fantasy series takes place in a far-future earth, so there’s a bit of post-apocalyptic vibe going on.
  • The Blinding Knife by Brent Weeks — I love Weeks’ stuff, and this second book in his color-magic series picks up steam from the first.  It’s still a weird magic system and world, but I’m kind of on board with the concept.  The prison escape sequences were my favorite.

As always, I’m up for more recommendations from you guys!

Guest Post: Professor Beej’s Birthright

Some of you probably know MMO/geek blogger Professor Beej. He’s a good friend of Bio Break, and when he asked to do a guest post about his upcoming novel, Birthright.  Beej is attempting to self-publish using Kickstarter to fund it, and he’s hoping you can help him out.

When World of Warcraft was first being developed, I didn’t care one iota about Blizzard’s soon-to-be megatitle. I was content with Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Star Wars Galaxies.

In fact, I was a little irked when I read about this new and revolutionary technology Blizzard was going to be using for WoW’s dungeon content. It was called “instancing,” and for an old-school, open-worlder like me, it sounded like blasphemy.

Why did every group need its own private copy of a dungeon? Bah! Bah, I said! Sure, you were locked away from kill-stealers and other griefers, but at what cost?

WoW launched in 2004, and instances were a major hit. People loved not waiting on spawns or worrying about griefers. No more camping lines and social etiquette; no more post-midnight alarms from your guild leader telling you that Korfok the Unintelligible had respawned.

Outside of quality-of-life changes like cross-server groups, party-size limits, and automatic dungeon finders, instancing has been pretty consistent across MMOs for the better part of a decade. Anyone familiar with modern MMOs should be familiar with the technology.
So when I started worldbuilding the Technomage Archive (my upcoming trilogy, which begins with the novel Birthright), I took the old adage to “write what you know” and ran with it. What I know are MMOs, and I wanted my novels to somehow represent my fourteen years of experience with online gaming and communities.

Which means that instancing could–and should–make an appearance.

Luckily, Birthright is hybrid-genre SF/F–think Ender’s Game meets The Lord of the Rings. That in itself presents more than a few worldbuilding challenges; however, it also opens up just as many possibilities. As an author, I’m not limited to a single genre’s narrative conventions anymore.

Since The Technomage Archive is a fantasy series that wears the shiny, technological veneer of science-fiction, there is no magic. Everything is based on technology or science in some way, shape, or form.

Instances, then, are pocket universes that fall within the control of the titular Technomage Archive. People can move between Instances through various portals that exist at fixed points in the world, and part of the conflict in Birthright arises from the loss of control of these Instances.

Before, the technomages could control the growth and evolution of the Instances, these synthetic universes. They could be as large as a planet or galaxy, or as small as a library. The Archive used them for such mundane tasks as adding wings onto school campuses, or for more specialized tasks like sequestering and isolating a prison of dangerous criminals.

Now, though, new universes are spontaneously and naturally being created, which should be impossible. Even the controlled, synthetic universes aren’t obeying the laws and rules built into them.

And unlike Star Trek and Star Wars-style, galactic-level conflict, this fundamental breaking down of the laws of physics is literally happening right on top of everyone.

They just don’t know it.

While Instances in MMOs are limited by the technology and gameplay mechanics of the games themselves, the idea behind the technology is what intrigued me. Creating multiple versions of the same reality has so much storytelling potential, I couldn’t resist exploring it.
I mean, in WoW, each expansion has its own storyline where certain NPCs kill the big bads, with the “merry band of adventurers” helping. Each Instance in the game is just as valid as any other. We’re all the hero. We all win.

But in Birthright, that isn’t the case. When these gameplay mechanics are excluded, there isn’t a single common ending for all realities. There are any number of realities stacked on top of one another, some created and some natural, and throughout the Technomage Archive, they’re all coming to a head.

I want to explore the real-world implications (if you’ll forgive me the use of that term) of this kind of God-playing–not just the creation artificial intelligence like in I, Robot or virtual reality like in Neuromancer, but full-on synthetic universes made of real-as-you-and-me organic matter. I want to explore the question that when the very foundation of your reality is both real and created, is there even a distinction anymore?

And if I hadn’t been an MMO gamer for the last fourteen years, I never would have had the chance.