Category Archives: Books

On 2017, Part 3: Books

I read a lot of books last year. Part of the reason is because this was the year I finally embraced audio books. Last year I started getting into them more than usual, and I’m still picky about the ones I listen to, but in 2017 I finally started finding ones I enjoyed. I still don’t like audio books where the narrator reads in a different cadence than I would, but in cases where they’re read by the author or the narrator really fits a role well, I’ve found I can really enjoy them. A full 8 of the 21 books I “read” in 2017 were audio versions, so more than a third. I already have a stack of new ones I’m excited to get to, and hopefully this will be a way to read even more in 2018. These were my favorites of last year.

10. Mort(e) (War with No Name #1) by Robert Repino (2014)

Mort(e)This is one I might not have even heard about if not for the book club I’m in. It tells the story of The War With No Name, when animals suddenly become intelligent and grow in size and strength, then take over the world from their human owners. The premise itself is interesting, but the way the story is told makes it even more so. Mort(e) is a former house cat who goes looking for his best friend in the aftermath of the initial revolution, who happens to be a dog. He gets dragged into the war by joining a kind of mercenary team of felines and discovering he’s actually an excellent soldier, despite his domesticated background. Surprisingly quickly, time passes and Mort(e) becomes a war veteran trying to deal with the emotional and physical scars of battle as he takes up residence in his former home and continues his search for his canine friend. The book is told from Mort(e)’s perspective and reads like a war novel. It’s a fresh perspective that kept me interested, especially once the plot takes a turn for the religious. Themes of theology, racism, and loyalty were things I was not expecting. By the end of the book I was pretty taken aback with the state of things, and while I wasn’t comfortable with some aspects of it, I greatly appreciated reading it. In a way it kind of reminded me of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, in that it presents old situations from a perspective I hadn’t seen before and made me think in ways I wasn’t ready for when I started. This is definitely in the category of books that aren’t my favorite, but am grateful for having read.

9. Stardust by Neil Gaiman (1998)

StardustI didn’t truly begin to appreciate Neil Gaiman’s works until I heard his audio books. Most of the stories I’ve read of his are a bit too out there fantasy-wise for my tastes, but that completely changed once I heard them narrated by the author himself. Gaiman’s voice and inflections for each of his characters are absolutely perfect for the kind of stories he writes, and audio books have allowed me to appreciate them in a way I simply wasn’t able to previously. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I’d guess Gaiman was a benevolent fantasy character himself, gifting our less fortunate realm with his stories and presence.

Stardust is at its heart a love story. A boy promises to retrieve a falling star for the girl of his dreams, and being young and fanciful herself, she agrees to marry him if he should succeed. So off he goes on an adventure into strange, untold lands, meeting eccentric characters and making new friends along the way. The general structure is nothing new, but the adventures and characters contained within, conveyed by Gaiman’s dulcet, whimsical style, are where the fruits of this tale truly lie. This is a clear case of the journey being its own reward.

8. Storm Front (The Dresden Files #1) by Jim Butcher (2000)

Storm FrontI’ve been meaning to read The Dresden Files series for a long time. I’m not sure why it took me so long; they’re not especially long books, and the subject matter is right up my alley. Audio books to the rescue!

Harry Dresden is a modern day wizard. As a private detective, he takes on paranormal investigations from regular citizens as well as the local PD. Most people think he’s a joke, so it’s no surprise he struggles to find work. Suddenly he gets a case from a random woman who walks into his office, and his PD contact has a huge case for him as well. Of course, the cases turn out to be related, and light and dark magic must go head to head.

Dresden’s tale is told in a very noir style, and the audio narrator fits that cadence to a T. The dry, flat delivery instantly makes me think of Dresden sitting behind a ratty old desk in a trenchcoat, with the lighting in the room low enough that you can barely see anything but outlines of his facial features, the furniture in the room, and the light wisp of cigarette smoke from the ashtray. I have complaints about Dresden’s character and the way he fails to stick up for himself when talking to his PD contact, especially considering his own inner monologue seems like he has sufficient amounts of self-respect. It’s disappointing that my one issue is so paramount to the character, but that said, I’m looking forward to listening to more of Dresden’s wizarding cases.

7. Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (2017)

Six WakesThis one hooked me right off the bat. Six people wake up in a spaceship that looks like it had very recently been the setting a brutal massacre. Before long, we learn that this is a future where people’s consciousnesses can be transferred to body copies after death, allowing theoretical immortality. Once in a new body, one should remember everything that happened to them since their last memory dump, but these six crew members remember nothing for the last handful of years, leaving them to solve the mystery of what the hell happened between then and now, how their previous selves got murdered, and who the culprit is. Not only was this immediately intriguing to me, but the book takes a slow burn approach to filling in the back stories of each character, as well as the legal and moral complications that come with being able to download a person’s mind and making copies of them. I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff, and couldn’t put Six Wakes down. As it turns out, each of the passengers have dark pasts and aren’t necessarily good people. I couldn’t wait to find out more of the story, and the more I learned, the more the tension built between the crew.

In the end, the finale didn’t quite stick the landing as well as I was hoping, but I felt everything leading up to that point was strong enough that it left an impression on me.

6. The Dispatcher by John Scalzi (2016)

The DispatcherThis lovely little novella presents an idea I’ve literally never heard before, and uses it to turn a simple kidnapping story into something much more interesting. For some reason, it becomes nearly impossible to kill someone. Any time someone is intentionally killed, that person immediately wakes up back in their bed at home. It’s never explained how or why this is the case, and none of the characters in this story seem to know either. Just that alone is a fascinating thought experiment. If no one can be killed, that changes war, crime, interrogation, and a million other things about society.

Tony Valdez is a licensed dispatcher; someone who is authorized to intentionally kill someone who would otherwise die of accidental causes, humanely putting them down so they can wake up at home and have another chance. When Tony’s friend and fellow-dispatcher is kidnapped, the hunt begins to track down the who and why of it. As I mentioned earlier, the kidnapping story isn’t especially notable, but the premise it’s wrapped around gives the plot a unique twist. Even though people can’t be killed in this world, a human body can endure quite a lot before it expires, and even then, the “resurrection” process is still a traumatic and potentially painful experience. This is one of the most thought-provoking novellas I’ve read in a long time.

5. The X-Files: Cold Cases by Joe Harris (2017)

Cold CasesAnyone who knows me knows how much I adore The X-Files. I’ve shied away from audio versions of X-Files books written over the years because I simply cannot cope with the thought of listening to Mulder and Scully being voiced by anyone other than David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Thankfully, Cold Cases (and its direct sequel, Stolen Lives) is voiced by a full cast including Duchovny, Anderson, and series favorites William B. Davis and Mitch Pileggi, reprising their roles as the Cigarette-Smoking Man and Assistant Director Walter Skinner, respectively. They even bring back the actors behind the Lone Gunman for their parts. Agents John Doggett and Monica Reyes make cameo appearances as well, but Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish sadly didn’t return to voice their characters. Oh well, I can deal with those omissions in light of all the others who did come back.

Cold Cases is a bit of a strange release in 2017. It had creative direction from series creator Chris Carter, but it’s apparently based off an existing X-Files graphic novel written by Joe Harris. This wouldn’t be all that odd if not for the fact that the continuation of the conspiracy canon Cold Cases presents is actually really good, and is in my opinion much better than what Carter decided to go with when the show came back for its Season 10 “event series” two years ago. That event series essentially retcons the conspiracy story told here, so I’m a little confused why they decided to release this at all.

That puzzling decision aside, I’m still glad they did. Cold Cases is presented as 4 or 5 separate episodes of the show, complete with the X-Files theme music being used to intro and outro each chapter. And while some of them continue the alien black oil story fans know and love, others are stand-alone creature feature episodes. One of these is a direct sequel to one of the show’s most popular early stand-alone stories. I won’t spoil it here, but I was completely unprepared for such a blast from the past, and it made the whole collection feel like it belonged alongside the rest of the series in a way that gave me all kinds of warm, happy, I-Want-To-Believe vibes. If you’re a fan of the show, this is without a doubt worth your time.

4. Redshirts by John Scalzi (2012)

RedshirtsRedshirts was my introduction to the work of John Scalzi. It’s an easy entry into his stories and is a lot of fun. It tells the story of a handful of new recruits as they join the crew of a space-fairing capital ship in the year 2456. It all goes well until they start noticing things about the crew, land missions, and the outcomes of these situations that don’t add up. I’m not even sure how to describe where the story goes without describing its style. Scalzi uses a lot of humor in his writing, and he uses that in the case of Redshirts to not only set a light, genuinely funny tone for the whole thing, but to present everything as a spoof of many media and scifi conventions. The story pokes fun at Star Trek, sensationalism, and a few other things that I can’t reveal without spoiling where the story goes. I will say that as soon as the main twist is revealed and you think the most bizarre thing is over, it proceeds to get even more absurd for the finale. It kind of reminds me of Starship Troopers in the way it mixes serious and goofy, and with Scalzi’s writing skill and tactful sense of humor, it all works wonderfully. Scalzi is another author I’ve been meaning to dive into for some time, and Redshirts is a great way to dip into his literary mind, as well as get excited for reading the rest of his stuff. Is there really anything greater than finding a whole new author you enjoy?

3. Alien: River of Pain by Christopher Golden (2014)

River of PainLike its predeccesor, Alien: Out of the Shadows, River of Pain is an audio book in the Alien universe that not only is considered canon, but is read by a full voice cast, and even includes sound effects. The Alien world is one that’s rife with opportunity, and this format fits it rather well. Out of the Shadows filled in the story between Alien and Aliens, highlighting an adventure Ripley had during her extended hypersleep. It seems she didn’t stay asleep the whole 57 years as we all thought. It was a very cool story and took the franchise back to its most popular time, but it had a couple issues that are difficult for me to describe without spoilers.

Thankfully, River of Pain negates my biggest issue simply by being set in a different time and location. Again drawing from the franchise’s early days, this is the story of the downfall of the settler colony on LV-426. If anyone remembers the additional scene of the colony from the director’s cut of Aliens, you’ll know where this tale begins. Right from the start it’s obvious things aren’t great in the colony. Between the arrival of Weyland-Utani executives who throw their weight around and prioritize discovery over colonist safety, and a new chief military commander who butts head with the aforementioned executives pretty eary and has a history with Newt’s mother, things get interesting very quickly. The main story beats are pretty predictable; Newt’s parents bring back an alien facehugger, aliens happen, people die. But the writing and voice acting are well done, and I enjoyed having this part of the mythology fleshed out. We find out what Newt’s family was like, and what she was like as a typical little girl before the traumatizing events of Aliens. River of Pain is a short read/listen, but one that’s a lot of fun if you’re a fan of the series.

2. Leviathan Wakes (Expanse #1) by James S.A. Corey (2011)

Leviathan WakesYeah, I know, I’m way late into this series. I was super late into Harry Potter too. There’s really not much I need to say about Leviathan Wakes, as I’m one of the last to check it out, but I loved it. Excellent writing, characters I cared about, a fascinating plot, fantastic world building, lots of intrigue, and even more moral ambiguity. I’m definitely going to continue reading this series. It’s not an exaggeration to say I haven’t enjoyed space opera this much since Star Wars. Although, I should add the caveat that I haven’t played the Mass Effect games. Again, always late to the party, I am.

1. The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth #1) by N.K. Jemisin (2015)

Fifth SeasonIf there was a category for best book I never would have discovered if not for my book club, The Fifth Season would take the award, hands down. I went back and forth between this and Leviathan Wakes for my top slot for a while. In the end, it came down to the fact that Jemisin has created a world and a magic system that felt incredibly unique to me. It felt like both scifi and fantasy at the same time, with a post-apocalyptic setting that felt alien but familiar, and a geology-based magic system that’s equally familiar yet refreshing. Jemisin is an incredible writer who I consider to be in the same league as Patrick Rothfuss, and her three-tiered approach to the story was perfectly paced and kept me interested the whole way through. It’s not easy to write characters who are interesting in the day-to-day, make you want to learn more about their backstory, and care about, while also obfuscating or minimalizing the central goal, but somehow Jemisin pulls it off. I started to pick up on the connection between the three main characters’ storylines about halfway through, and was able to figure out the big picture shortly before the book told me, but it was no less impressive. Also, while this book is relatively self-contained, it closes with lots of unanswered questions, and the main goal still nowhere in sight. Thankfully, there’s a hook at the end to get the reader excited for the next installment. The Broken Earth trilogy concluded with the release of the final book last summer, and it’s won lots of awards. It’s awesome seeing yet another fantastic literary world come from a black female, and even more so to see her get recognized for the achievement. The Fifth Season is a prime example of reward awaiting those who aren’t afraid to read stories from authors who wouldn’t normally catch their interest. And if that weren’t enough, Jemisin likes to play video games on Twitch in her spare time, and she’s actually really fun, so for the gamers out there that’s just icing on the cake.

 

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Top 10 Reads of 2016

Update: 12/20/17 Man, I’m really bad with these. Another year, another top 10 list abandoned. 

Super late but I read a lot last year and want to remember the best of them.

11. 1984 by George Orwell (1949)

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10. The Rook by Daniel O’Malley (2012)

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9. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013)

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8. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab (2015)

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7. Alien: Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon (2013)

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6. The Crystal Spheres by David Brin (1984)

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5. Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman (2015)

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4. Dawn by Octavia E. Butler (1997)

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3. The Three-Body Problem by Lin Cixin (2014)

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2. The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher (2015)

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1. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (2015)

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Top 10 Reads of 2015

Update: 12/20/17 Like My 2015 games list, I started this and didn’t finish it. So I might as well get it out now.

10. Crooked by Austin Grossman (2015)

Crooked coverA historical fiction starring Richard “I Am Not A Crook” Nixon isn’t something I’d normally be interested in. When it was selected as our October 2015 book club suggestion and I read the book sleeve’s description however, I was pretty into the premise. It describes a story of Nixon collaborating with Russian spies and battling supernatural forces. As we discussed in our book club podcast for the it however, this was hardly what Crooked turned out to be.

Nixon is painted pretty early on as a bumbling, aloof snake who gets by not on wits and strength, but by lying, cheating, and using whatever unscrupulous tactics he can. Early on, it’s easy to buy into as he pursues a supposed Communist who it’s revealed has connections to the supernatural. I was totally on board until that sub-plot came to fruition. Unfortunately, rather than Nixon having a revelation and beginning to come into his own as a demon-hunting spy, he continues to fumble around and pretend to know what he’s doing, even though it’s pretty clear he still has no idea what’s going on or what to do about it. The more I learned about the forces of evil from other characters, the more annoying it became that Nixon wasn’t growing one bit as a character and had very little to do with the plans being put in place to deal with the situation. To top it off, the conclusion was completely nonsensical and unsatisfying.

In the end, there was enough in Crooked to keep me reading to the end, but very little I found enjoyable that would make me want to recommend it. It’s all the more disappointing given the subject matter and book sleeve’s description. If Grossman had focused things more and paid off some of the promises made by the description, it could’ve been really great. As it is though, Crooked reeks of nothing but untapped potential.

9. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)

Christmas Carol coverAs many times as I’ve seen this wonderful movie of the spirit of Christmas, I’d never actually read the book. I’m glad I finally changed that.

There’s not really much I can say about A Christmas Carol that hasn’t already been said. You know the story, the characters, and how it turns out. Given the time period in which it was written and published, some of the language gets a bit obtuse, but the story at the heart of Mr. Scrooge’s run-ins with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come remains as powerful as it’s ever been.

Very few things get the spirit of Christmas flowing in me than this. As someone who has never attached any religious meaning to the holiday, A Christmas Story really hits home. Being thankful for friends and family, spending time with the people you love, not taking what you have for granted, and taking time to think of those less fortunate than yourself have always been the crux of what Christmas means to me, and Dickens’ classic tale embodies this more than any other work written since.

8. The Nerdist Way: How to Reach the Next Level by Chris Hardwick (2011)

Nerdist Way coverI’ve never been much for self-help books. Not that I think I’m above receiving advice from those more knowledgeable than myself, it’s just that they don’t usually hold my interest long enough to get much out of. The Nerdist Way was a lot easier for me to get into, coming from someone I have a lot of respect for both as a creator and promoter of geeky things in general, and as someone who completely turned his life around. Chris Hardwick isn’t that much older than me, and while I’m coming from a completely different background and set of past circumstances than he, many of the things he discusses in this book are things I’ve thought about.

Getting away from bad habits, creating healthier ones, not being afraid to put yourself out there and try new things, motivating yourself to get healthy and exercise, and other topics are discussed with delightfully geeky references and techniques, such as creating your own personal D&D-like character sheet to chart your real life strengths, weaknesses, and improvement. Hardwick is lovably nerdy, and his path to success is a fascinating one, worthy of reflection for anyone looking for help in any number of aspects of their lives.

7. Annihilation (Southern Reach trilogy #1) by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)

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6. Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig (2015)

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5. You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day (2015)

YNWOTI coverIf there’s any celebrity representative of nerd culture I love as much as Chris Hardwick, it’s Felicia Day. More than just a cute face, her endlessly charming sense of humor, creativity, and awkwardness have managed to make her pretty much the most adorable person in the history of everything.

Anyone who grew up feeling weird for not liking sports and instead found comfort in D&D, video games, and friendships cultivated from behind a computer monitor will easily identify with Felicia’s tale of growing up and trying to find her way in life. More than her dorkiness however, her passion and drive to create has been extremely successful for her and has made her a role model for those looking to do similarly great things.

To top it off, as a woman in the age of the Internet’s mass-market proliferation, Day has had to endure some of the worst Internet bile out there. It’s inspiring to read not just of her successes, but of her failures and insecurities in dealing with everything that entails. If you’ve ever felt like a fish out of water or felt weird for identifying more with paper and pencil characters than real-life citizens of the realm of Earth, definitely give this one a read.

4. All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka (2004)

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3. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996)

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2. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)

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1. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (2015)

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Biggest disappointment: Armada by Ernest Cline (2015)

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My Top 10 Reads of 2014

Now that I’ve finished this list and am looking back on it, I’m realizing two things. First, I read a lot of books this year with a longer scope than what I’m used to. More than half of the books below take place over several years. This isn’t a good or bad thing, just interesting. Maybe it’s a sign I’m expanding my horizons and am more willing now to put in the time to read things with more scale. I’m ok with this.

The other thing is that I continue to start series way more often than I finish them. 2014 brought me to no less than nine series I’ve started, with another eight to ten that I haven’t started yet but that I’d like to. I’m hoping to make some headway on some of the ones I’m into and am going to try to contain myself to only one or two new ones this year. What is it with genre fiction authors these days that every damn story they write has to be a trilogy?? Talk about first world problems. So many great books, not enough time! Anyway, here are my favorite books I read last year. Enjoy!

10. The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day 1) by Patrick Rothfuss (2007)

The Name of the Wind

The first volume in Patrick Rothfuss’ epic fantasy tale came to me highly recommended in the genre fiction scene I follow. That said, it took longer for me to get into and finish The Name of the Wind than most books I read these days. It’s a story that follows one man, Kvothe, as he goes from a sheltered but uncannily talented young boy who loses everything he knows and loves, to a promising magician on a quest for revenge, with all sorts of adventures in between. It’s a long book that requires patience and trust in its author to pay off the carrots he dangles in front of the reader, as it’s blatantly clear from the start this is only the first part of a much larger narrative. If you’re too impatient for the slow burn nature of the storytelling and aren’t willing to put in the time to see the series through (the second book, The Wise Man’s Fear, came out in 2011 and the third doesn’t even have a final title, let alone a release date), you may want to pass this one by. But if you’re the type who eats this kind of tome up, there’s an undeniable amount of stuff in here to keep one interested. It’s told by Kvothe himself, years later as he tries to convey his verbal biography to The Chronicler in an effort to record the truth in spite of the rumors that have plagued his legend. Kvothe’s adventures in his youth are interesting in their own right, but Rothfuss never lets us forget the overarching purpose behind his learning, and even when we occasionally return to the quiet bar/inn he now runs as he tries to stay under the radar, it becomes apparent the story is not over for him even in his older years. It’s no quick read, but there’s enough unanswered questions and well-told adventure here to give me faith that the time I put into The Kingkiller Chronicle will be rewarded.

9. Bitter Seeds (Milkweed Triptych #1) by Ian Tregillis (2010)

Bitter Seeds

From the first time I heard of Ian Tregillis’ Milkweek Triptych I knew I had to read it. It’s 1939 and war is imminent in Britain. With the USSR not yet under threat and the US actively staying out of the kurfuffle, Hitler’s Nazi army is growing day by day, getting ever closer to tearing the country, and all of Europe, apart. Germany’s armies are bolstered by supersoldiers they’ve successfully begun engineering after years of human trial-and-error experimentation. These bio-enhanced individuals effectively give the Germans a striketeam of X-Men, with powers ranging from clairvoyance, to invisibility, to super strength, speed, and the ability to throw fireballs.

With no one else to turn to for help against the impending war, the British secret service start a covert operation with the intention of seeking out the country’s long lost guardians of an ancient knowledge. The country’s last remaining warlocks are brought together to conjure and negotiate with extra-dimensional beings called Eidolons for help. The Eidolons are all powerful, and are willing to offer their aid, but their assistance does not come cheap.

If this all sounds like a popcorn flick, you’d be right in thinking that. It totally sounds like fanfic. But the way in which Tregillis tells this tale specifically grounds things and gives the events realism and gravity. The brutal nature of the Nazi experiments on children and adults is not graphic, or even described in detail, but is implied effectively enough that it still made me cringe. The “science” behind giving human beings the powers of supermen by connecting wires and battery packs to their brains and drawing from their own innate abilities is equal parts believable and creepy. The Eidolons are mercurial and unpredictable in form as well as motivation. Their increasing human toll on the British very clearly is meant to convey that they’re messing with the forces of nature, and are only willing to do so as long as they’re benefitting. As negotiations get more unstable and the cost of defending themselves grows to horrendous levels, it brings into question at what point does the cost become too high.

The storytelling itself is a bit uneven. Taking place across the first few years of World War II, Bitter Seeds speeds up and slows down seemingly randomly, but the quiet moments allow us to glimpse the humanity behind the warlocks and supersoldiers. They have their own inner turmoil to struggle with apart from Hitler’s greater ambitions. Going in, I expected Bitter Seeds to be more comic book than it turned out to be, but I was still very pleased with what I found once I set my expectations aside. It’s a supernatural, but still very human, struggle between good and evil, with touches of steampunk and Lovecraft. All in all, it’s simply a great work of historical fiction.

8. Sphere by Michael Crichton (1987)

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I miss Michael Crichton. I can’t think of another author with as much talent. Already a medical doctor before he even became a popular writer, he went on to find success in movies and TV in addition to continuing to write before he passed away. My only consolation is that I still haven’t read all of his work.

Sphere follows a group of scientists who are brought in by the military to investigate a spherical spaceship submerged deep in the Pacific ocean. What they find within tests not only what they think they know about extraterrestrials but also about their own psyches. It’s classic Crichton, with just enough future tech balanced with actual science to make it extremely believable. However, that science runs rampant throughout its pages but at the end of the day only exists to set a cool stage for a story about humanity and how we behave. To say much more about the story or what the ship ultimately contains would ruin the mystery and sense of discovery. Instead, I’ll just say that if you’re like me and love a lot of other Crichton novels, or just like a great psychological thriller laced with realistic-sounding pseudoscience, Sphere is well worth your time. And if you’ve written it off because you saw that crappy movie adaptation from 1998, come on, you should know better.

7. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes (2014)

As You Wish

You like The Princess Bride, don’t you? Of course you do. It’s astonishing that for a movie that was as much of a struggle to get green-lit as it was, it managed to be so funny, loving, adventurous, and beloved that it went on to overshadow its written counterpart so completely. It still resonates deeply with audiences over 27 years later, and in my personal opinion is better than the book in most every way. As You Wish is a closer, more complete look into the film’s creation than we’ve ever gotten before, told by Westley himself, Cary Elwes. It’s a nostalgic look back at how the cast was put together, how he and Mandy Patinkin trained endlessly for “the greatest sword fight of all time,” anecdotes of the cast’s friendship when they weren’t filming, and more. There’s even lots of little inserts and insights from other cast and crew members as well, so we get to hear multiple takes on many aspects of the movie. Like most everyone I know, I adore The Princess Bride, so it’s really no surprise I enjoyed reading this. It gave me warm fuzzies all over again, although the parts about Andre the Giant were super sad as they describe what a happy, friendly person he was despite being in constant pain as a result of his large stature and wrestling career. If you have any love for this movie whatsoever, don’t think, just read.

6. Wool (Silo #1) by Hugh Howey (2012)

Wool Omnibus

The post-apocalyptic, future dystopia genre is pretty crowded these days. It could be argued that Wool’s initial popularity had as much to do with how it was released as it did with its quality as a story, and I can understand that argument. Hugh Howey was one of, if not the, first success stories to come out of Amazon self-publishing, and it was with this very book. Wool is the first chapter in the Silo trilogy, but it was released in five consecutive parts through Amazon in digital-only format. After it got popular, it started selling in full volume and physical formats, and was followed by its prequel, Shift, and sequel, Dust. But for a first-time, unproven author, breaking Wool out into small, cheap, bite-sized chunks gave it an incredibly shallow barrier to entry, and it paid off.

Despite its piecemeal release, Wool still sucked me in with a mysterious premise that runs with the best of them. It’s some point in the distant future. Humanity has been wiped out, and for all the people in the silo know, they’re the only ones left. The silo they call home stands hundreds of floors deep in the desert sands. With socio-economic hierarchies, governmental authorities, and strict rules for population and resource control, they’ve lived this way for generations, and most are perfectly happy with that. However, every once in a while, someone is chosen to go out into the barren, toxic, wasteland above to clean off the cameras that offer a glimpse of the outside. Almost no one questions this tradition, but the ones who do are exiled to the task themselves, and no one who goes out to do this duty ever comes back.

I’m a sucker for big-brother, gears-turning-behind-the-scenes stories. So not only was the premise intriguing to me right off the bat, once small holes in the supposed utopia power structure started emerging, revealing peeks of what was really going on and the possibility of venturing out of the silo to discover more pieces to the puzzle, I was hooked. Wool is self-contained enough that you could read it on its own and totally ignore Shift and Dust, but with what I’ve seen I won’t be able to resist learning all I can about how this world came to be, who’s running it, and why.

5. The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (2012)

The Long Earth

Pratchett and Baxter are both revered authors in their respective genres of fantasy and hard scifi. The Long Earth doesn’t exactly meet in the middle; it’s more on the scifi side than the fantasy. But as someone who’s not a huge Discworld fanatic (*hands in nerd card*) and for whom Baxter’s books are usually too abstract, this book hooked me a lot more than one might expect.

In 2015, someone discovers a curiously simple device, quietly invented and released on the internet by a man who’s no longer around, that allows people to “step” into the oft-hypothesized parallel worlds in the next dimension over. If you’re not familiar with the theory of multiverses, or parallel universes, that’s ok. The story isn’t about the science. The idea is explained clearly and then doesn’t get in the way. The Long Earth is about how this discovery changes human life forever in almost every imaginable way; geography, economy, business, politics, even psychology. In the years following the discovery of these parallel Earths, humanity’s attempts to colonize them with abandon wreck havoc with global society as the powers that be back home try to maintain some semblance of structure on what becomes known as “Datum Earth.” In the midst of it all, an artificial intelligence named Lobsang tracks down one man who is able to step without the aid of a stepper and recruits him for a journey to step farther than anyone has gone before.

Everything about this book grabbed me and didn’t let go. I was fascinated not only at how this expansion would affect human life as we know it, but also to discover how many other Earths are out there (if there even is a finite amount) and what sorts of alternate evolutionary developments might have resulted in them. The ending got weird in a way that I should’ve expected out of Stephen Baxter, and I’m told the next book in the series gets away from the hook that brought me in, but I still enjoyed every bit of The Long Earth and look forward to reading the next in the series, The Long War.

4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)

The Night Circus

The Night Circus a wondrous debut novel about mystery, magic and love, creating a setting so intriguing and mystical that I wanted to visit it myself. Le Cirque des Reves simply appears one night, with no warning or advertising. Filled with unique sights and sounds the likes of which no one has ever seen, the patrons pack in from all over to witness its treasures. Little do they know, the entire circus is merely a live stage for an ongoing duel of showmanship between Celia and Marco, two magicians who’ve been raised since childhood to confront each other for the amusement of their parents. Inevitably, groaningly, Celia and Marco end up in love and dance around this forbidden affection for most of their adult lives.

I have major problems with the love story in The Night Circus. It’s not because I’m an unfeeling robot (but if anyone tells you I’m not, they’re lying), it’s because it’s unrealistic. They barely spend sufficient time together to let even a school-kid crush develop, let alone a full-on obsession, sometimes going years without spending time in each other’s company. Neither one of them has much of a social life and the idea of love at first sight has always struck me as pretty absurd in general. That said, the romance is surprisingly, refreshingly, understated. And as implausibly as it develops, their mutual situations – controlled by their father figures, forced into a contest they neither understand nor have a say in, inescapably bound to the fate of the circus and its performers – make it seem less unlikely than I initially gave it credit for. It ends up being just enough to justify itself, as for better or for worse, neither the climax of this tale nor the fate of Le Cirque des Reves would be possible without their devotion to each other.

My initial misgivings about Celia and Marco aside, everything Morgenstern builds up around their attraction is interestingly crafted and done in such a way that is equal parts believable and surreal. The group that meets in secret to create the circus and go on to run and perform in it are eccentric and likeable. I wanted to learn more of their backstories and who made them the individuals they were. Le Cirque’s most dedicated fans, who call themselves reveurs and travel to each new stop as often as they are able, speak to its powerful allure and are easily relatable in today’s obsessive fan-based culture. The descriptions of the various tents and spectacles, and of Celia and Marco’s abilities, walked the line between reality and impossible fantasy perfectly. They filled me with delight and easily allowed me to imagine it all, but with an eerie, dreamlike slant. Every image I conjured was in black and white and faded away into shadow at the edges. I am not a creative or imaginative person, and it’s rare for a book to draw me into its world so fully, but The Night Circus did exactly that.

3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (1999)

HP Prisoner of Azkaban

I won’t go into much detail with this one, as I’m probably one of the last people on the planet who hasn’t read these books yet. Harry’s first two years at Hogwart’s were great, memorable stories, but they were still very much children’s books. Prisoner of Azkaban is still firmly in that realm, but it’s a bit longer, a bit darker, and digs a little deeper into the backstory, to the point where we’re just starting to see that things are going to get real for Harry and his friends. To clarify, I’ve seen all of the movies so I already know the full picture, but I’m enjoying going back and reading the extra detail and expanded narrative of the books. This is my favorite Potter book so far. Rowling does a great job in making the entire arc of the series fit together naturally and I really enjoyed learning more of the intricacies of these characters, their motivations, and how their relationships are changing and uncovering. I’m looking forward to continuing with the rest of the books and seeing how it all plays out and fits together in its original written form.

2. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)

Ender's Game

I’ll admit that, like the HP books, I committed the cardinal sin with Ender’s Game and didn’t read it until I’d seen the movie. In my defense, after reading the book, I thought the movie was very well done compared to most book-to-movie adaptations. The story of Ender, an outcast by the very nature of his birth and raised expressly for the purpose of saving the human race, is just as engrossing now as it must have been when it was first written almost thirty years ago.

Any sympathy you might feel for Ender and his troubled youth quickly goes away as he learns to cope with those who would do him harm by returning their hostility in kind. As he gets shipped off to Battle School to train for the inexorable battle with the buggers that attacked Earth so many years earlier, he shatters every record and becomes the best leader in history. As much as I liked Ender and congratulated his accomplishments, my sympathy returned as the morality of his situation crept into the story. When all you know is war and the reason you’re so good at being a commander is because you hit your enemy back so hard they’ll never want to mess with you again, what kind of a childhood does that leave you, and what kind of person do you grow into? It’s a bittersweet story that only gets heavier when the true nature of Ender’s training and the irreversible consequences it brings about are revealed. I loved Ender’s Game, but it left me in a not-entirely-comfortable place, and I want to read the rest of the series, if only to see Ender’s adventures lead to a more satisfying and fulfilling closure.

1. The Martian by Andy Weir (2014)

The MartianAnother first-time author, Andy Weir has written a space geek’s dream novel. It’s science fiction, but takes place in present day and is the most believable, riveting struggle between man and science I’ve read since Jurassic Park. NASA astronaut Mark Watney is a botanist on a voyage to Mars with his fellow crewmates. While there, a severe dust storm forces them to evacuate the mission. In the chaos, he’s swept away and believed to have died, while his shipmates barely escape after an attempt to locate him. Finding himself alive but alone and stranded on Mars, he’s left to fend for himself and figure out how to survive until his presence is discovered and a rescue attempt can be made. Thus begins a months-long struggle to use his knowledge of biology and botany, along with the life-support equipment his crew brought with them that was never intended for long-term use, to live on another planet.

Weir is on record as wanting to be as accurate as possible in his depiction of how one might survive on Mars, and it’s very clear he’s done his homework. As Watney keeps logs of his trials and tribulations, he goes into meticulous detail about how he’s harvesting nutrients out of the few plants he has and working his tools to serve sometimes very different purposes from which they were intended. It’s utterly gripping, not just from a survivalist perspective, but from a technological perspective as well. Some of the descriptions get a little tedious at times, but in the end they only serve to make the story more believable, and they’re balanced by Weir’s, or Watney’s rather, writing style. Watney has a great sense of humor, and is just as cynical as I am. His journals are filled with sarcasm, jokes, and other nuances that make him extremely likable and relatable as a character. As an example, the first sentence of the book is literally, “I’m pretty much fucked.” He’s extremely smart (you’d have to be to figure out how to live on Mars) but he’s also a regular Joe. He’s an extreme underdog given his situation and you want to root for him. As well as he does, he also can’t seem to catch a break, and his wits and survival instincts are tested to their limits more than a few times. In order to get off Mars and rejoin the rest of his fellow humans, he has to do more than even he expects. The Martian is a tense, exciting story of triumph that never lets up, told with a fun, realistic flair and so much captivating technical detail that it would make any NASA or science junkie salivate. It’s one of the quickest reads I’ve had in a long time, not because it’s short, but because I simply couldn’t put it down.

My Summer Book Shelf

I have tons of books on the docket this summer and beyond. Some I’m reading to broaden my horizons, some because my girlfriend has suggested them to me, and some just because I want to. Here goes:

Slaughter-House Five, and
Cat’s Cradle, both by Kurt Vonnegut – These were requested reads given to me by my girlfriend since he is her favorite author. I’m about 1/4 of the way through Slaughter-House Five at the moment and its holding my interest well. Writing style is a bit random but they are short books and once you make it past the first chapter it gets easier.

Fragile Things, and
Stardust, both by Neil Gaiman – Another author that I have been introduced to by my gf and a couple other nerdy friends of mine. Usually I don’t go for the more fantasy style stories but a few of Gaiman’s books seem pretty interesting so I’m trying to see what he’s all about.

Odd Hours by Dean Koontz – He’s my favorite author hands down. Liking this one far better than the slow, tedious 3rd entry in the Odd Thomas series. I’ll get back to it eventually.

      Keeping My Head Above Water by Karen Jones – About 1/3 through this one, its the autobiography of my twitter friend Karen. Geared more towards a female audience.

Splinter Cell: Conviction, and
Splinter Cell: Endgame, both by Tom Clancy (David Michaels [someone else]) – These are really the only “Tom Clancy” books I am really enthusiastic about. They’re thin and about spies and spy technology more than dense political drudgery.

Feed by Mira Grant – Read a Kindle sample of this one and really enjoyed it. A cool futuristic, internet blogosphere take on the decades-old zombie story. Can’t wait to get into the meat of it.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by you know who – I wrote these books off long ago as kid-like and didn’t really give them or the movies a chance. I have since learned that the books and films get darker and more mature as they go on, so I’m giving the franchise another chance. So far I’m into it more than I expected.

Otherland by Tad Williams – Normally this kind of massive, way futuristic sci-fi tome would be too much for me. But I’ve been meaning to check this one out for some years now. I’m just now starting to chip away at it. It will probably take me years to read. And then there are 3 more books in the series, just as thick as the first (close to 800 pages each)….yeeeaaaahhhhh. Prolly will never finish even the first.

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf – Discovered this one when I went to PAX East in March. Its really about geek culture and goes in depth into all kinds of geekdom and explores the people that embrace it.

Scott Pilgrim Comics by Bryan Lee O’Malley – The movie trailers for this look awesome, and this is the 6-part graphic novel series that the film is based on. Need I say more?

That’s a shit ton of books. I haven’t read this much in literally years. But I am enjoying it. I love to read and used to read a lot when I was younger. Sadly, adult responsibility, having committed relationships, and the resurgence of my video game dork self in recent years have conspired to severely cut into my reading time. I hope to finish at least a fraction of these, but most likely will not.