Holiday Reading

Just a short one this week, due to being on holiday recently. A week in the sun, lounging about by a pool‌—‌ideal reading time. Some of what I read wasn’t too impressive, but I thought I’d let you know about the best three.

GreatPack_ChrisFoxThe Great Pack‌—‌Chris Fox

In self-publishing circles, Chris Fox is known for his openness in talking about what he’s doing, as well as his data-driven approach to writing. He produced a book on how to write 5000 words per hour (through planning, then using dictation software), detailed his ‘write to market’ strategy (basically, looking at what kinds of books are popular, and writing to please the audience), and is currently doing a ‘trilogy in thirty days’ thing.

I’ve read a lot of his books, and while his Space Opera stuff is enjoyable (that’s the ‘written to market’ stuff), I much prefer his first Deathless series. Somehow, they combine vampires, werewolves, zombies, sci-fi and Egyptian mythology without being disjointed. They’re fast, fun and inventive.

It seems that Fox likes these books, too, because he’s now brought out the fourth in the series, The Great Pack. It takes off where the original three ended, but includes a ‘previously’ section that is helpful on getting up to speed.

And then we’re off. The book is faster than the others, and without the ‘previously’ section I’d have been lost. It twists Fox’s ideas even further, and I really enjoyed it.

Thankfully, he has toned down the action scenes a fraction (if I have one complaint about the previous books, it’s that the fight scenes started to sound like stage directions, and with practically immortal beings, who can survive limbs being ripped off and so on, they soon became pretty ridiculous).

The book almost moves too fast for its own good, though. I noticed this in Fox’s Void Wraith space opera books‌—‌description and emotion are pushed way down, and plot takes over. Personally, I’d prefer something that eases up on occasions (and it’s not like The Great Pack is a short book).

But that’s a minor point. The story’s fun, and while it’s not quite as good at the previous Deathless books, it’s a good read. If you like the others, you’ll enjoy The Great Pack. And if you haven’t read the series so far, check out the first one, Vampires Don’t Sparkle, and see what you think.

Quiet_SusanCainQuiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking‌—‌Susan Cain

I first heard of this book through J Thorn’s Intronaut podcast, where he talks about being an introvert and how that has played out in his life. Quiet appeared as a Kindle Daily Deal recently, so I snapped it up. The more I read and hear about introversion, the more things in my own life make sense. I don’t know if I’m a ‘proper’ introvert (and there are tests to determine this), but I’m definitely towards that end of the introvert-extrovert spectrum.

As the title suggests, it’s about introversion, which is far more than just ‘being shy’ or ‘being quiet’. Cain’s spent years researching for this book, and has interviewed many people around the world, both introverts and extroverts (and everyone is in one of these camps to some degree). But she can also write, and the book reads like an exploration rather than a dry, academic tone.

There are some surprising facts in this book. Introversion is linked not only to societal pressures, but also to genetics. It is easy to see how western culture seems to favour the extrovert, but introverts, in certain circumstances, make more effective leaders. In the financial chaos over recent years, the traders who have come out on top tend to be more introverted in nature.

But the book also explores how to cope with introversion, and how to fake being an extrovert. There is a whole section on raising introverted children in ways that will help them cope with life. And there are also sections on different cultures, especially how eastern societies tend to favour introversion‌—‌think about how somewhere like Japan holds respect in high regard, whereas America is all about making oneself bigger and better in order to get ahead. There are interviews with eastern students studying at western colleges, and the struggles they face.

So, a very interesting book, and well written. As something thought-provoking, it was a great contrast to the rest of my lighter holiday reading. If you’re at all interested in how people think and function, it’s well worth a look.

SongOfTheSpaceSiren_BarryJHutchinsonSong Of The Space Siren‌—‌Barry J Hutchinson

This is the fourth Space Team book, and from what I understand, there are two more to come before the end of the year. Hutchinson seems to bring one out every couple of months, and I recently discovered that there is very little editing involved in his writing process, which makes the quality of these books even more impressive.

Comedy is hard to do well. Pratchett managed it fantastically with his Discworld books. Douglas Adams was great, but the comedy and the bizarre ideas took over, pushing the story to second place. Hutchinson avoids this problem, and he describes his books as space adventure stories with humour, rather than comedy books. The humour comes from the character interactions. It helps, of course, that his main character tends to react to stressful situations by making fun of them.

After reading the first book, I downloaded the rest, but I did wonder if Hutchinson could keep up the high standards of the original Space Team. So far, I’ve been impressed, and I think that rounding the series off at six books will keep things from getting too stretched. As it is, there were a few things in Song Of The Space Siren that didn’t quite work for me (to avoid spoilers, I won’t say what they are), and the growing relationship between a couple of the characters didn’t quite ring true. But these are minor points. The book is still great fun, and I’d recommend it (and the whole series) to anyone who is looking for a space opera adventure with a good dose of humour. I’m already looking forward to early June, when book five comes out.

A few book recommendations

There are so many good books out there. I’m reading more now than I ever was, and my to-be-read pile keeps on growing. Loads of these books are by new authors, too‌—‌people who are publishing independently, without the backing of big-name publishers, and many of them deserve far more recognition. Every time I finish a great book, I tell myself I should review it. It’s a way of spreading the word, and of doing what I can to help these fantastic authors.

Problem is, by that time I’m already onto the next book. And when I turn on my computer, I’m distracted (if that’s the right word) by stories I’m working on, or finding things to write about on this site. Somehow, I never get around to these reviews.

But I intend to. And, as a start, I’m going to let you know about books that have impressed me. Every couple of months, I’ll pick a few great reads and write about them.
So here goes.


spaceteam_barryjhutchinsonSpace Team (Barry J Hutchinson)

Comedy books are hard to pull off. It’s tempting to simply run from one joke to the next, leaving the plot to fend for itself. Yes, Douglas Adams got away with this in his earlier stuff, but his writing could carry it. Other authors who use comedy, like Terry Pratchett, work just as hard (harder?) on the things that make a story great‌—‌plot and characters. The comedy comes out of the situations and how the characters react.

Barry J Hutchinson does this with Space Team. It tells the story of Cal, a wise-cracking petty criminal who is imprisoned in a cell with a cannibal. And things get worse when he’s abducted by aliens and forced to join a gang of reprobates on a mission to save the galaxy. And, of course, things don’t run smoothly.

It could have been a mediocre story, but there are enough turns to keep things interesting, as well as a feeling that things are not quite what they seem. The start promises intrigue, and it is clear that there is more to this simple mission than meets the eye. See, Hutchinson has a plot that could work for a serious book. The humour just adds an extra layer.

The fact that he has a main character who reverts to insults and comedy as a defence mechanism helps. So too does the way Hutchinson doesn’t over-explain things. Just like Pratchett, much of the comedy lies in what isn’t on the page. He also uses running gags, but again, by putting them in the mouth of a character who is trying to wind others up, they don’t become annoying.

I really enjoyed this book, and bought the next two in the series as soon as I’d finished it. I hope they carry on the same high standards.


Mr Ruins (Michael John Grist)mrruins_michaeljohngrist

I’ll start by saying that this book isn’t for everyone. Looking at reviews on Amazon, a couple mention that it is confusing, and I can see this. From the very first page, we’re thrust into an incredibly strange world, where the main character goes diving in the minds of others, and little is explained outright (in fact, much is left unexplained throughout the book). The main character (Ritry Goligh) is being chased, or something, but then there is a secondary story, with a group of marines (possibly) battling across this world that feels like something out of Lewis Carroll, only with deadlier intentions. Who these marines actually are, and how they connect to Ritry’s story, is left hanging for much of the book.

But there are hints, and I think I picked up on these fairly quickly. And the strange terms that are thrown in with no explanation, such as ‘lag’‌—‌it is possible to understand them in context. Besides, I’d far rather read a book like this than one that slows down with paragraphs of exposition every few pages. The fact that there is no explanation shows how confident Grist is in his writing, and because of this, as a reader I trust him. I might not quite get what’s happening, but I’ll follow, because I trust he’ll deliver in the end.

Another facet of this book that many will find off-putting is the tense‌—‌it’s written in first person present (so we have things like ‘I walk into the room’ rather than ‘I walked into the room’). That did jar with me initially, but I soon grew accustomed to it, and I can see how it works in the book’s favour. It makes things seem both more intimate and more distant (and I’ve no idea how Michael John Grist pulls this off), which suits the character perfectly. Add the lack of explanations, and it does feel like you’re in Ritry’s head (or maybe someone else’s).

Mr Ruins himself is a shadowy character, and at the end I was a little disappointed‌—‌I felt he wasn’t developed as well as he could have been. And I’m still not sure I totally understand what happened to him (even after reading the second book‌—‌hopefully the final part of the trilogy will help me there). But that’s only a small negative. With this book I enjoyed the ride (even if, like a decent roller coaster, it sometimes felt like I couldn’t follow what was happening), and as with Space Team, I bought the rest of the trilogy immediately I’d finished it.

So, not for everyone, but if you’re looking for a mind-bender, and are prepared to try something difference, check it out.


shellcollector_hughhoweyThe Shell Collector (Hugh Howey)

I’ve come to Hugh Howey a bit late. I read Beacon 23 last year, but I still haven’t got round to reading Wool. I really should, though.

Judging from reviews, this book is different to the rest of Howey’s work. That’s mainly down to it being a romance. And before you switch off, let me say that this isn’t a genre I’m familiar with, or one that particularly appeals. I’ve read a few, and I’ve been unimpressed.

But The Shell Collector is different.

To start with, the prologue is one of the best pieces of writing I have read in a long time. It would stand up as a short story on its own, and I was almost tempted to stop when I reached the end, as I couldn’t imagine how Howey could top it. There is so much emotion and back-story conveyed in a short time, and it’s a fine indication of how good a writer he is.

But I carried on, and the book became intriguing. I didn’t know I was reading a romance, because the build-up to the relationship is slow, and evolves around a mystery, as journalist Maya Walsh gets an invitation to interview Ness Wilde, one of those responsible for the destruction of the oceans (at least, as she sees it). The story’s set in the near future, and shows the effects of environmental change without resorting to ‘end of the world’ catastrophes, and without beating us over the head with ‘look after the planet’ stuff. Instead, the world is what it is, and Maya (and the other characters) just have to cope with it. It’s like a real-world dystopia, if that makes sense.

The characters are very believable, as are their interactions. And the mystery element really keeps things moving, as Maya finds out more about the real Ness Wilde (and his grandfather). I don’t know if I totally like either character, but they are interesting and real enough that I wanted to find out more, especially about Ness’ secret.

And this was one let-down in the book. When this secret is finally revealed at the end, it felt rushed. Maybe Howey thought that giving it more time would have impacted on the romance, or maybe it was never supposed to be the driving force of the book. I don’t know. But I would have preferred a little more meat to the mystery side of the story.

But it’s still a very good book, written by someone who definitely deserves the success he’s enjoyed since Wool got so much interest. Where Beacon 23 hides its seriousness behind a playful exterior, The Shell Collector is earnest throughout. It shows how Howey can change his writing to suit the story he’s telling. It’s a fine example of character-driven story. I’ll definitely be reading more of his books.


So, three books that have impressed me over the last month or so. I know they won’t appeal to everyone (a comedy, a book that seems to purposely make reading difficult, and a romance), but the writing itself is great in all of them, and I’d recommend all three.

And now I’ve got more books to read. Some promise to be cracking stories, others are things I’m not sure about but I’ll give them a go anyway. Some will leave me unimpressed. But others will blow me away.

I’ll let you know which ones do that for me in a couple of months.

If I Wanted Facts, I’d Read A Textbook

I recently bought a collection called Star Heroes: 9 Novels of Space Exploration, Aliens, and Adventure‌—‌9 novels for a ridiculously low price. As with anything that seems like too good a deal, I was initially dubious of the quality, but so far I have been pleasantly surprised.

starnomad_lindsayburokerThe first novel in the collection is Star Nomad, a sci-fi adventure by Lindsay Buroker, and it is a very enjoyable read‌—‌lots of action, a fast-moving story, and an interesting cast of characters. I’ve already bought the next book in the series.

When I’d finished it, I popped onto Amazon and read some of the reviews. The vast majority were positive, but, as with any book, there were a few one-stars. Although I personally didn’t agree with these, one of the complaints against the book got me thinking. A couple of reviewers took Buroker to task over the weak science in the book, with one especially complaining about her apparent lack of understanding of how craft would move in space.

That comment made me think of another book I read recently, Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves‌—‌800 pages, with about half of them explaining the science behind what is happening. In this book, manoeuvring in space is a precise, drawn-out procedure that can take hours, days, or even longer. Everything moves at a slow pace, because that is more scientifically accurate.

I enjoyed that book, and it was clear that Stephenson had done a great deal of research. There is no way I can vouch for the technical details, but even if Stephenson invented parts of it, it reads like fact.

seveneves_nealstephensonBut it is a very different read to Buroker’s book. Where Stephenson starts with a premise (what would happen if the moon exploded?) and uses science to plot his story, Buroker is more interested in the action and adventure, and putting her characters in different situations to see how they cope. Where Seveneves is serious (most of the time), Star Nomad is escapism.

But I’m also reminded of Arthur C Clarke’s statement that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. Today, we can do things with technology that would astound someone from a century ago. We can hold an entire library on a small, hand-held device, or we can travel the globe in a matter of hours. We can control computers with our eyes, and cars can drive themselves. So, in books set in the far future, or in alternative universes or dimensions, who’s to say what can be done with science? Just because something is impossible today doesn’t mean it will always be so.

Both books are science-fiction, but there are two parts to that description. Stephenson is driven by the former, and Buroker is more concerned with the latter. Yet it should be remembered that these books are both fiction. They are invented stories, not factual accounts, and to fully appreciate them we have to buy into the implausibilities. Yes, the way Buroker’s heroine throws her craft around cannot be explained by science as we understand it, but so what? It’s a fun read. It’s entertainment. And it doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

When we read (or watch) fiction, we have to give ourselves that freedom to accept the ridiculous. It’s how we can enjoy James Bond films without concerning ourselves over the seemingly indestructible nature of Bond himself (how many lucky escapes can one man have?) It’s how cosy-mystery fans can ignore the implausibility of a Jessica Fletcher character who stumbles across, and solves, more murders over a series than many police officers would deal with in their whole careers. It’s how we can accept, for a couple of hours, that a hero can survive and win, despite being beaten so much that he should be in intensive care (see just about any action film for examples of this‌—‌most fights should be short and brutal, with both combatants soon out of breath or incapacitated from their injuries, not long drawn-out affairs with breaks for witty comments).

So were the negative reviews of Buroker’s book wrong? No. Reviews are personal opinions, not facts. And there is validity in the claim that her book is light on actual science. This clearly bothered some readers, and they would probably prefer something like Seveneves.

And that is fine. There are so, so many books out there. Even a specific genre like science-fiction contains a vast spectrum of books, including Stephenson’s hard sci-fi and Buroker’s sci-fi adventures. Not every book will appeal to every reader.

My opinion‌—‌and that is all it is‌—‌is that Star Nomad is a fun read, and gave me a few hours of solid entertainment. Which is exactly what I was looking for.

If I wanted to understand the science of space, I’d read a textbook.

Wayward Pines, Star Wars and the Structure of a Series

 

I’ve just finished reading the Wayward Pines trilogy by Blake Crouch (okay, so it sometimes takes me a long time to get round to books), and I really enjoyed it. I loved the way Crouch evoked the feeling that something wasn’t quite right, and when the truth behind the town of Wayward Pines was revealed, it was not at all what I was expecting. The trilogy was well-paced, and although I read them fast, they didn’t feel rushed. But there was one thing in particular that I kept on thinking about, and that was how well the series was structured.

In fact, the series structure reminded me a lot of the original Star Wars films. I’ll explain this in more detail as I go on.

The first book, Pines, starts off like an amnesia thriller (with a main character coming to after an accident and not understanding exactly what’s going on around him), and for the first half things get stranger and stranger. When the ending does come, it works well, bringing the book to a satisfying close while still leaving enough open for a sequel.

This is one thing that struck me — although the book is part of a series, it is also complete in itself. If I had not gone on to read others, or if Crouch had not written them, this book would still work. It’s like that first Star Wars film (IV, not I) — the story ends, yet there is so much more that could be explored in the story universe.

Wayward, the second book, picks things up a short while after the first finishes, and it has a different feel. Where the first book is more of a mystery, as the main character uncovers the truth of the town, the second looks at what he will do now that he knows this truth. And it’s good that it feels different — it’s not like a big-budget film sequel, where the story is basically the same, but the explosions are bigger and the body count is higher. Instead, it takes the original idea and expands on it.

Where the first book comes to a definite close, things are different at the close of the second book. Although the main story arc is brought to a conclusion, there is a huge cliffhanger. The hero manages to win, but the final chapter stars to show the dire consequences of this, and it’s clear that he’s not out of danger yet — in fact, the worst is yet to come.

Back to the Star Wars trilogy, and The Empire Strikes Back. In that film, Luke has survived his duel with Darth Vader, but he’s lost a hand, and Han Solo’s frozen in carbonite. We know, as viewers, that the story is not yet over.

With Wayward Pines, if this had been the ending of the first book, I would have felt annoyed. I’m not a big fan of cliffhangers. Unless a book makes it pretty clear that there will be a cliffhanger ending (for instance, if it is clearly part of a serial), I expect some sort of complete story, and if the story is left hanging I feel tricked. Even if the story is good enough that I want to find out what happens next, a big part of me resents paying out for this. I’ve read too many continuing stories where, a few books in, it feels like the author has run out of steam, and I’m left reading something that fizzles out to nothing.

Yet I didn’t have a problem with this ending in Wayward. I think there’s two reasons for this. First, there was a full story, despite the cliffhanger. Second, it was the second book in the series, not the first. I’d read enough to know I was enjoying the ride, and I was invested in the series. I went on to get the third because I genuinely wanted to, and not because I needed to know what happened next.

So on to the third book, The Last Town. It starts off exactly where the second ends, and the initial third is pretty much non-stop action. Initially this concerned me — I wondered if the action was being used to disguise a weak plot — but the story is solid when it kicks in. And, again, it was not simply a rehash of what had gone before.

The ending of the book works well, and also brings the complete trilogy to a solid conclusion. There is a single-line epilogue that leaves scope for more books, and there are plenty of aspects of the story-world that could be developed, but the trilogy feels like a whole. Although I’d happily buy more Wayward Pines books, I don’t need them in order to feel that I’ve had a great reading experience.

Again, this is like that original Star Wars trilogy. Yes, there are all the other stories, either films or books, and more are planned. But the original three films work on their own. I can explore more of this universe, but I don’t have to in order to understand the originals.

The way the Wayward Pines trilogy is structured gives me something else — confidence that Crouch won’t write a follow-on simply because ‘it will sell’. If there are more books, I would imagine they will be thought-out, and will expand on rather than retread ideas.

So as a summary, what have I learnt about the structure of a series from these books? This is personal, and you might not agree with this, but for me, there are three main things:

  • I don’t like to feel tricked into buying more books, so for me a complete story, with sequel potential, works well (especially as the first book in a series).
  • If there is a cliffhanger ending, the book still needs an overall story arc that is satisfying.
  • Second and third books should not simply be ‘more of the same’, but should push into other areas.

I’ll probably write more at some point on what I think makes a good or bad series (or serial), but I’ll leave it for now.

(See what I’ve done there? I’ve come to the conclusion of this post, but I’ve left it open for a sequel. Maybe the next time I write about this topic, I’ll have to make it a two-parter.)