Category Archives: Books

Weekly reading post #1

I’m going to be posting one of these every Sunday. It’s a catalogue of what I’ve been reading recently, any new books I’ve acquired or been gifted, etc.

Recent Reading

A statistical estimate of what I’ve spent time reading this week (0.4 hours – i.e. 24 minutes – is the smallest unit of granularity for the estimator):

New books

I’ve had five(!) new books gifted to me from the wish list recently.

These are:

Thanks hugely to all of you, and especially to Thomas for getting me three books at once!

I think I failed to mention this before, but I’m putting these on a goodreads shelf and reviewing them as I read them. Of the above I’ve given up on Militant Anti-Fascism (it’s not at all what I was expecting, and not in a good way), but I really enjoyed Utopia for Realists and the final quarter of Boyd would have to take a serious turn for the weird and worse for me to not also be able to recommend that. The others I’ve not yet started on.

Book Triaging

I’ve done a big sort out of my book collection into books I am likely to reread (or have too much sentimental attachment to even if I don’t) and books that realistically in the unlikely event that I want to reread them I can just buy them again. The latter are available for give away. In person delivery only for now, but if I’m likely to see you and you’d like me to bring you a book from the list, let me know.

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Buy me books, redux

You remember when I asked Hypothesis users to buy me books?

Well, that turned out to be a great idea! I’ve got a bunch of books out of it. I’m reviewing them as they arrive over on goodreads.

But now I’ve decided to get greedy. I’m currently trying to read a ridiculous amount of nonfiction, so my Beeminder goal for nonfiction reading time is currently set to 8 hours a week. i.e. about 2-5 books a week (yeah, really: 900 words per minute * 60 * 8 = 432000. 100k is a medium to longish book. The lower limit is mostly because 900 wpm is really my sprinting speed and I read a bit slower on heavy non-fiction anyway).

It doesn’t have to be books. A lot of that comes from the web. But the easiest way of getting that much reading time in is books, and it’s also probably the most beneficial.

Which means I need  source of books to feed into my all consuming maw of information gobbling.

I can do this by buying books of course, but as per my recent post my finances are in a somewhat uncertain state right now. I’m not concerned about my finances, but I probaby shouldn’t be spending £100-£200 on books per month (I’m not, but I’d like to and I shouldn’t).

Which brings me to you, my loyal readers.

I figure if people are willing to buy me books as thanks for Hypothesis, some of you might be willing to buy me books as thanks for somewhere in the region of 10 years of ridiculously prolific blogging. I feed you nonfiction, you feed me nonfiction. Seems reasonable, right?

Obviously you don’t have to do this. Don’t even feel like you should do this.

But if you’d like to, either to say thanks for this blog or for something else, please do! Head over to my, now greatly expanded, Amazon wishlist and find something on it you think you’d like me to read.

Things to note:

  • Feel free to buy used copies. That’s a thing that you can absolutely do with the wishlist system, and as long as it is readable I am not fussy. Some of the books on this list are quite expensive and I don’t want people to buy me an £80 book when there’s a perfectly good second hand version going for £5.
  • Neither of us will see the other’s address by doing this.
  • I’m going to thank you publicly, so if you don’t want me to do that say so in the note!
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Some books I have enjoyed recently

My semi-regular “I’ve read a bunch of stuff. Here are the good bits”. In reverse chronological order:

Books you should read

These are books I’ve read and thought were excellent. If they sound at all like your thing I would strongly recommend checking them out.

The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher

T. Kingfisher is also known as Ursula Vernon, who wrote and drew Digger. If you haven’t read Digger you should read Digger.

But you should also read The Seventh Bride. It’s a really nice blending of classic fairy tales (I think it’s a blend of a few) and modern sensibilities, wrapped up in an interesting fantasy story.

My Real Children by Jo Walton

This book is both interesting and very emotionally powerful.

It’s an alternate history novel of sorts, but it presents two alternate histories. Our protagonist, Patricia Cowan, is in a nursing home suffering from dementia and is, as her carers put it, Very Confused. She can remember both of these histories, right back to the choice she made that divided them, but she’s not entirely sure which is real. It’s obvious that one of the histories she remembers is strictly better than the other, but unfortunately it’s not at all obvious which of the two that is.

I generally find loss of faculties stuff… hard to deal with (some 15-20 years after first reading it I’m still traumatised by Flowers for Algernon), and there are some bits of this book that were difficult for me in that regard, but it was mostly manageable.

Warning: The last 30 pages or so of this book had me sobbing like a baby, and they probably will for you too. Also the ending was 100% the best way it could possibly have ended but I still hate the author a little bit for it.

Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele

One of the few non-fiction books I’ve actually finished recently, and it’s definitely worth it. A book about stereotype threat from the man who discovered the concept (I actually had previously thought it had been discovered by a woman. Oops). Has a lot of interesting details that I’d previously had no idea about and some good new terminology for helping expressing some concepts I’d not previously had good words for. If you’re at all interested in this subject you should check it out.

Books you might want to read

These are books I’ve read and quite liked and if they’re the sort of thing you like you should probably check them out, but you don’t need to rush out and buy them right now or anything.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Plot concept: There are people who loop back on themselves in time. When they die they are reborn as young children with their adult memories.

I really like this trope in general, and normally when people write about this concept it tends to be only a handful of characters doing it, so it’s interesting to read a book where it’s much more common.

This book was good, but I wanted to enjoy it a lot more than I actually did. There were basically two things that caused me problems with it:

  1. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out a consistent semantics for the time travel in it. I don’t know why. It’s not actually very confusing, but somehow the way it was presented threw me.
  2. I had a major case of villain sympathy. I mean you could tell that the villain was the bad guy because he did Obvious Villain Things, and ultimately he did need to be stopped because what he was doing was destroying the world, but I pretty much felt that the reason he was destroying the world was mostly that the author decided it must be so. Put it this way: Were I one of these people, I’d be doing something a lot closer to what he does than what the protagonists do.

Those issues aside, I enjoyed it a fair bit. If you like this sort of concept it’s a good addition to the genre.

The Flight of the Silvers by Daniel Price

Gernsbackish universe, people from our own universe get thrown into it when the world is destroyed and discover they now have exciting new powers that they’re not really clear on how to control. Hijinks tragedy ensues.

Not sure where to place this. I liked it, but I feel like I mostly liked it because it has a lot of tropes I enjoy. On the other hand it got really good reviews too so maybe it’s just actually good.

The Great Way trilogy by Harry Connolly

Harry Connolly previously wrote the twenty palaces wizard cop criminal series. I liked it, and it definitely has some enthusiastic fans, but unfortunately it doesn’t have a lot of enthusiastic fans and was something of a commercial failure. This is what he did next. It’s a more classically high fantasy series about the fall of a great empire.

By which I mean it’s a zombie apocalypse series.

Oh, sure, there aren’t any actual zombies, but the structure of the series is very much that of a zombie apocalypse series and not of your classic high fantasy.

I enjoyed it a lot. I felt the ending was a bit rushed – not bad, it just felt like the series could have comfortably been four books instead of three. Recommended.

The details are very different, but this reminded me a lot of the Codex Alera books. If you liked those you should definitely read these.

The Pyramid Waltz and sequels by Barbara Ann Wright

Amazon recommendations are… frustrating. I read the first book of this series ages ago and enjoyed it and rated it as such. Amazon subsequently failed to inform me of the existence of any of the sequels. Fortunately I eventually found out myself.

It’s basically good high fantasy with good representation at the same time.

The Goblin Wood books and the Shield, Sword and Crown trilogy by Hilari Bell

Honestly basically everything Hilari Bell has written is in this category. Nothing she’s written is blow me away amazing, but everything she has written is solidly enjoyable fantasy with likeable characters and interesting plots. Basically if you’ve liked other stuff Hilari Bell has written you will like this series, and if you haven’t read other stuff Hilari Bell has written and you like fantasy then… I don’t know. Pick any of them really. The Goblin Wood books are probably a pretty good starting point though.

The Paper Magician series by Charlie N Holmberg

I like interesting magic systems and well thought out modernish worlds where magic has been properly integrated into them, so this series would have to be pretty bad for me not to like it.

And it’s not. It’s actually rather good. It very obviously fits a certain mould of young adult books, but it’s a good instance of that.

City of stairs by Robert Jackson Bennet

I’d previously read American Elsewhere by the same author, but I hadn’t actually made the connection. I’m glad I hadn’t because I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book if I had (American Elsewhere was a concept which I thought had a lot of potential but didn’t really live up to it).

This is approximately a book about religion and colonialism. A generation ago a slave nation rose up, overthrew their oppressors, killed their gods (this is not a metaphor) and are in charge now. They’re honestly not dealing much better with power than they did when the shoe was on the other foot. The protagonist is a descendent of the man who was responsible for killing the gods, acting as a spy for her government, and she has to deal with finding out that maybe the gods aren’t quite as dead as might have been supposed.

Somewhere between spy thriller and high fantasy novel. A few rough edges but generally rather good.

Thief’s Magic by Trudi Canavan

Basically, Trudi Canavan has a new book. If you like Trudi Canavan you’ll like this one. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Fool’s assassin by Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb has a new Fitz book out! Yay!

Fitz continues to make bad life choices and fail to see the obvious when it’s in front of him. Seems to have swapped places as Robin Hobb’s chew toy with the Fool, but still manages to end the book with the traditional being dumped on from a great height.

I feel like we might have reached peak Fitz and the Fool by now (the latest series is even called “Fitz and the Fool” just to drive that home – I’m not sure she’s trying any more), but despite that it’s a good read and a nice addition to the continuity. I’ll certainly keep reading the series.

Books you could read

These are books that I’ve read and enjoyed but would only weakly recommend. A lot of them fall into the category of “not actually very good, but rather fun”. They’re pretty good – there’s certainly nothing wrong with them or they wouldn’t be on this list at all – but they didn’t blow me away. If they sound like your thing then maybe check out the kindle sample first (note: You can do this entirely through the web reader now. You need an Amazon account but that’s it).

The Girl With All The Gifts by M. R. Carey

This one actually is a zombie apocalypse novel. It’s got a somewhat unusual twist, but at this point every zombie apocalypse novel has a somewhat unusual twist. Pretty good though, and everything was tied up very neatly at the end.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

A rare non SF fiction entry. This is a story about someone who grew up in a bit of an unusual situation and as a result sometimes has to figure out quite how to do this being human thing. It’s also a story about animal welfare.

Some other reviews apparently found the narrator’s tone quite annoying, but I thought it worked well for the story. It is definitely on the preachy side though.

Afterparty by Daryl Gregory

A book about designer drugs and religious experiences. Interesting in that it’s a rare-ish entry into the “protagonist who is kinda an asshole seeks revenge on those who have wronged them” where the protagonist in question isn’t a straight white man (she’s a white lesbian). Her guardian angel (literally) is also kinda an asshole, but more of the self-righteous kind.

In a slightly hard to pin down way this feels a bit like Peter Watts lite in its handling of protagonists with weird brain things going on.

It’s pretty good. It’s borderline as to whether this should be in the previous category, but it failed to make quite enough of an impression – it took me several tries to remember enough to write about it.

Wilful Child by Steven Erikson

You know… I honestly don’t like star trek parodies. In general I’m not big on parody fiction (I really hated early Discworld when it was a paper thin parody of the genre, even though I love later Discworld).

But when I discover that an author I like mostly for his military high fantasy has done a 180 and written a star trek parody, I kinda had to check it out. I expected to check out the kindle sample, shrug, and move on, but I ended up buying and reading the whole thing.

It turns out to be basically a heavy handed critique of modern society wrapped up in a paper thin veneer of star trek parody. The protagonist can’t seem to decide whether he’s an being an asshole as a political point or whether he’s just an asshole.

But, you know, somehow I still liked it. It’s pretty well put together and it’s just so blatant that you can’t help but grudgingly like it.

Pennyroyal Academy by M.A. Larson

A girl raised by an… unconventional family goes to an academy to learn to to be a princess so she can fight witches. It turns out that they’re not too keen on her family either there.

A cute, enjoyable, light read.

Bound to the Abyss by James Vernon

Protagonist-man has a special power for summoning demons. The first demon he summons seems to fit more into the category of wise cracking talking animal side-kick than really evil. The second one is rather more evil but is generally persuaded to be on side.

The general religious sentiment of the world is still less than a fan of the whole summoning demons thing mind you. Also there’s a bit of a hint that this whole thing might be something of a ticket to destroying the world.

This and its sequel were quite fun, if somewhat cliched in places.

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So you want to read some Fantasy

This is a slightly cleaned up post from my tumblr. AKA I’m phoning this one in because I don’t have any good ideas and I’m about to derail on my Beeminder goal for blogging.

So you like sci-fi and want to try some fantasy books but are kinda allergic to elves and Tolkien. Where to start?

Well, here are some things you could try. It’s a list of books I selected roughly for covering a wide spectrum while being enjoyable reads with solid world building and a relative paucity of the standard fantasy tropes (all guaranteed 100% elf free). It’s very much not intended to be a selection of great literature, though some of them are pretty good.

The Chalion series by Lois McMaster Bujold

“The Curse of Chalion” and “The Paladin of Souls”. I actually don’t remember this series all that well, but it’s good (Bujold is generally excellent), fairly political fantasy with a modest amount of magic (magic is a major plot point, but there’s a shortage of people throwing fireballs around) and absolutely zero elves.

The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson

Action heavy save-the-world-from-the-dark-overlord fantasy. Probably the closest to a Tolkien derivative on the list, but closer to a deconstruction than a derivative. Very well thought out world building (it’s one of Brandon Sanderson’s strength) and lots of violence.

The PC Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch

Now in the other end of fantasy – urban fantasy. Meet PC Peter Grant. He’s a cop! But he’s also a wizard! Crime solving and a modern genre savvy character who has been introduced to magic once he was an adult and spends a lot of his time (when not solving crimes) trying to figure out how the fuck it actually works. Steeped in lots of lovely detail about London (only some of it fictional).

The Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews

Post-apocalyptic urban fantasy. Vampires and Werewolves (the former non-traditional, the latter pretty standard). Another action heavy recommendation. Interesting collection of sometimes deeply flawed characters. A great deal of violence, often dealt out by the very large sword the protagonist (Kate Daniels) wields.

The Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger

Super adorable steampunk. Also contains vampires and werewolves. The protagonist suffers from several disadvantages in polite society – she’s half-italian, far too strong minded for her gender, and unfortunately finds herself lacking a soul. She rarely lets these stop her.

Everyone I’ve recommended these to has gone from “Oh god are you serious?” to “THESE ARE AMAZING”.

Chronicles of an Age of Darkness by Hugh Cook

There’s nothing else like this series. It’s also out of print so may be hard to find. Vast sprawling multiple viewpoint hybrid sci-fi and fantasy. Well worth reading.

The Farsala trilogy by Hilari Bell

The evil empire is invading, and a hero must rise to defend against it.

Only… the hero in question doesn’t actually exist, and the evil empire turns out to be really a lot less bad than some of our allies.

Very enjoyable little series deconstructing how myths get made. Manages to include lots of shades of grey while avoiding everything being grimdark and terrible.

The Farseer series by Robin Hobb

Our protagonist, Fitz, is a royal bastard who gets trained up as an assassin.

He’s also the author’s chew toy. Honestly by the end of the series you just want to wrap him up in a blanket and give him a big hug. Sure, a lot of it is his own damn fault, but the poor guy just can’t catch a break.

Contains dragons, and may contain trace quantities of elf if you squint hard but they’re all very dead.

The Legends of Ethshar series by Lawrence Watt Evans

Probably the most obscure recommendation on this list.

A series of shortish novels set in an interesting and well constructed world. They’re none too deep, but they’re all enjoyable reads. They cover a bunch of fantasy tropes while managing to avoid either being cliched or going full blown deconstruction.

Contains dragons and extinct elves.

The Steerswoman Series by Rosemary Kirstein

OK, this one is a cheat. It’s totally not fantasy, but is in fact science fiction.

This is despite the fact that it is mostly a sword and sorcery series about evil manipulative wizards.

However I include it here because a) It’s really good and b) Its very nature might make it a good gateway fantasy novel.

The Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

This is not the Jim Butcher series that everyone will recommend you read (that would be “The Dresden Files”, but I consider the Kate Daniels books a much better intro to that class of fantasy).

Roman derived culture with magic. A certain amount of political intrigue. Quite a lot of war. An alien invasion to fight off.

The Magister Trilogy by Celia Friedman

Celia Friedman’s general schtick is deals with the devil (generally not literally the devil, though in one other series it comes pretty close) to save the world.

In this world magic is done by literally draining your life – magic users tend not to last very long, dying of old age in their late 30s if they push themselves too hard. There is however one group called the magisters who can somehow do magic without.

By complete coincidence there is also this mysterious wasting disease that affects some of the population.

The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone

Magic as a metaphor for economics. This is really more a collection of same world novels than a series per se. The first book is basically a law procedural with necromancers.

The Guards books by Terry Pratchett

Discworld in general is good, but I regard the Guards books (Starting with “Guards! Guards!”) as some of the best of them, and generally a very good intro to how Pratchett’s use of fantasy for social commentary.

And the rest

This is just a fairly random cross section of fantasy books I like that I think make good intros and cover a good segment of fantasy while escaping Tolkien almost entirely. There are plenty of others, though I’d probably say that if you don’t like any of these fantasy might not be your genre (and that’s fine).

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More book recommendations

I was recommending some reading material for a friend and it occurred to me that I should just turn it into another book recommendations blog post. So, here you go. Some books I have read recently and enjoyed.

Note: If you care, I am using affiliate links in this post. Feel free to bypass them if you object. It’s mostly by way of an interesting experiment, and doesn’t influence my recommendations at all. I expect to make all of like 50p out of it.

Non-fiction

My non-fiction reading continues to be lighter than I’d like. Two recommendations from it though:

Sexuality in medieval Europe: Doing unto others

This is exactly what it sounds like: An account of sexuality in medieval Europe. It’s interesting both in and of itself, but also in terms of how it highlights the difficulties of using a modern world view / system of categorisation when talking about the behaviour of historical societies.

I confess I’ve stalled about a third of the way into it, but I do intend to pick it up again. It’s not a problem with the book so much as a thing that usually happens when I read non-fiction books outside my area.

Mathematical methods in the theory of queuing

This is a lovely short little monograph about the basics of queuing theory. It’s only about 100 pages long, and contains a nice overview of most of the elementary results in the subject. I picked this up browsing around in Foyles and decided it would be an interesting thing to learn. It’s been about half refreshing my knowledge of Markov processes and probability and half learning the applications to queuing. If that’s a thing that interests you, I recommend this.

It could unfortunately have used a bit more proof-reading. The actual prose is fine, but some of the equations are slightly confused. I haven’t found this a major problem for understanding though, it just requires staying slightly on your toes while reading it.

Fiction

The Martian

This is a remarkably enjoyable book given how much of it is iterations on the theme of “Oh god I’m going to die. Wait. MATHS. OK maybe I’ve got a shot at this”.

Basic premise: Astronaut gets accidentally left behind on Mars with equipment designed for a 31 day mission. Has to figure out how to survive to get rescued, which involves waiting a lot longer than 31 days. It’s mostly a story about engineering and ingenuity.

On utilitarian grounds I rather think NASA should have just left him there to die, mostly because I’m a cold-hearted bastard, but it’s still a really enjoyable book.

Things of Interest

Things of Interest isn’t a book, it’s just some guy’s site. He writes good fiction though. Principle amongst it:

  • The Ed Stories (also available for free on the site if you prefer). These start out as pretty light-hearted “college guy builds giant robots in his basement” stories which take a turn for the serious later. They’re mostly mind candy, but they’re tasty mind candy.
  • Fine Structure – I’ve got to be honest, I’ve read Fine Structure twice and I’m still not exactly sure what it’s about. But the basic premise is that a being sufficiently advanced that we might as well call it a god turns our universe into a prison for its enemy. In order to do this, it regularly edits the source code of physics in order to prevent advanced technology that would allow it to escape from being developed. Interesting and worth reading.
  • Ra – Magic as science. Or possibly science as magic. It’s an ongoing story, and the big reveal is in the process of happening as I write.

Brood of Bones

(also in this series: Fox’s BrideGravity’s Revenge, Dream Storm Sea).

Hiresha suffers from Narcolepsy. This is bad for obvious reasons, but in the fantasy world she happens to live in does come with at least one compensation: Enchantment can only be performed whilst you are asleep. Thus spending a lot of time asleep causes one to accrue a lot of power. Power she can hopefully use to cure herself of her disease. In the mean-time however there are all these other people who need her help.

Interesting, if not exactly ground-breaking. I thoroughly enjoyed these. If you like adventure fantasy these are worth a read.

The best of all possible worlds

I don’t really know how to describe this book other than that it’s remarkably charming for a book about the aftermath of a world being destroyed. It’s set in a galactic civilization where all the different races are more-or-less human despite coming from different worlds. They’ve clearly been watching earth and occasionally importing humans from it (there’s a lot of reference to earth culture, and people being of Terran descent), but we appear to be mostly ignorant of this fact.

Which is mostly beside the point of the story. The premise of the story is that the homeworld of one of the human races, Sadiri, has recently been destroyed, and the survivors are trying to rebuild their civilization. Some of them come to Cygnus Beta, which is a world with an incredibly mixed background, looking for people and cultures of Sadiri descent there. Grace Delarua, a civil servant there, acts as their guide in doing so.

Half exploration story, half love story. Not really the book I expected given the premise, but definitely worth a read.

Ancillary Justice

This is a story about a woman (probably. She’s a little confused about gender and refers to everyone as “she”) who used to be a spaceship seeking revenge on the people responsible for killing her.

It’s both a very good sci-fi novel and an interesting exploration of identity. You should go read it if any of that sounds remotely appealing.

The Coldest War (The Milkweed Triptych)

Alternate history and magical Nazis. Quite good if you like that sort of thing. Fairly dark, with very few unambiguously good characters.

Among Others

Somewhere between inverted Harry Potter (a witch gets sent to a boarding school for normals), a collection of Jo Walton recommending her favourite sci-fi and fantasy novels, and magical realism.

Again, charming. I totally recommend this one if you like sci-fi and fantasy at all, even if you don’t think it sounds like you would enjoy this one.

Three Parts Dead

(also Two Serpents Rise in the same sequence)

I’ve got to be honest, between reading this interview in which the author discusses why one of his characters is a gay skeleton (answer is basically “some people are gay, some people are skeletons. These two can intersect. Get over it”) and the tagline “A God has died, and it’s up to Tara, first-year associate in the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to bring Him back to life before His city falls apart” there was no way I wasn’t going to read this series. I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s basically magic as a metaphor for economics and contract law, with gods as a metaphor for corporations. Even if you ignore that they’re well written and enjoyable stories. Strong recommendation.

I think that’s it for now from recent reading. I still need to mine a whole bunch of older stuff I’ve read for recommendations. That might happen at some point.

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