10 Great Books I Haven’t Read

I have a weakness for listopia and list challenges. I’ve always been a sucker for lists. I really love to see various people’s books-you-should-read sort of lists. I will admit that part of it is vanity. As a life-long bookworm, I have usually read a fair number of the “most important” books on any given list. The BBC believes the average reader has read only six of these books. I’ve read 38. I know, plenty of people have read more, but still I beat the average by a lot. When it comes to my favorite genres, like science fiction and fantasy, I’ve often read the majority. On Listopia I’ve read a solid fifty of the Best Science Fiction books of all time.

But I thought it might be interesting to approach this from the opposite angle. There are books that show up time and time again on “must read” lists that I haven’t read. Some I might get to in time, others probably not. So here is my top ten books I haven’t read and why.

1. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

For those that don’t know, Card is a homophobe. Not simply someone who disagrees with homosexuality, nor even some who is quietly uncomfortable with it. He’s an outspoken critic of pretty much any legislation or social movement that might give LGBT people equal protection under the law or say, a chance at life. He’s spent the money he’s made as a writer fighting long political battles against marriage equality. A short essay about his politics can be found here.

True fans will tell you that we should overlook his personal flaws because he is a great writer. Sorry, that’s not going to happen. Partly this is because he’s still alive and I don’t want to put money in his pocket, but there is more.

H. P. Lovecraft was a racist bigot. I’ve come to terms with this. I read his work with this in mind. I look at this with the same morbid fascination of a nurse looking at a pus filled wound. “Wow, that’s a personal flaw deeply revealed.” But I would never suggest a person of color set aside their personal feelings to read Lovecraft. And for the record I agree with The World Fantasy’s decision to drop Lovecraft as the image for their award.

Card might be an incredible writer. His works might have nothing to do with his personal views. But there are hundreds of incredible writers and most of them aren’t trying to squash my civil rights. Personally I prefer to avoid the whole nuanced “he’s a great writer but…” by simply not reading Card.

Note: I won’t attack anyone for being a fan of Card. In return I ask that fans not try to guilt me into overlooking my personal views of him, or “give him a try.” Thanks in advance.

2. Jayne Eyre by Emily Bronte

There are three reoccurring themes throughout this list. Political controversy, the reason I haven’t read Card, is one. The reason I haven’t Jayne Eyre is the second common theme, I’ve read other Bronte works. Or I should say I’ve choked down Wuthering Heights, because that’s how it felt to me. I know, lots of people love both books but there is something about her writing style that I can’t hack. Wuthering Heights left me with no desire to read more Bronte.

True fans will no doubt protest that I just haven’t read the right Bronte, or I didn’t understand it, or whatever. The list of reasons why I should like some great writer is long, but since I’m not a professor of literature I see no reason to agree. I don’t have to read anyone I don’t want.

3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Let’s jump straight into the third reoccurring theme, availability and/or the greed of publishers. In this case, it’s almost pure greed.

For a long time To Kill a Mockingbird has been on my I-should-get-to-this-someday list. I planned on reading it. Who knows, I still might.

Since the release of Go Set a Watchman and Lee’s passing, her estate has jacked up the price on To Kill a Mockingbird, even killing the mass-market edition to force schools to buy more expensive editions. This pisses me off. The whole agency pricing and traditional publishers jacking up ebook prices to save their print sales, pisses me off. I read a lot. I understand that there are costs to producing a print book and I will pay more for one. But more than ten books for an ebook? I don’t get it.

I know, it’s a dumb reason to not read a book. I know, libraries, used book stores, used books on Amazon, yada yada.

You know what else is dumb? Trying to prop up one sector of an industry at the expense of another. Expecting me to pay premium dollars for your book because it’s got some publisher’s stamp of approval on it when there are literally millions of other books I could easily read. I know so many struggling new writers who are selling ebooks at 2.99 or 3.99. Why should I be willing to give Lee’s attorney three times that to read her client? Screw that.

4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

For the record, I do like literature. I just don’t like all literature and I refuse to like something because “everybody” insists someone is a great writer. Like Emily Bronte, I’ve read a smattering of Jane Austen, notably Sense and Sensibility. It was better than Wuthering Heights and that is faint praise indeed. She’s just not the writer for me.

5. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Stephenson is one of my favorite writers of all time. Snow Crash and the Cryptonomicon are two of my all time favorite books. He’s unfortunately fallen into the same trap that many established traditionally published authors have. 17.99 for an ebook? Outrageous.

(It looks like since writing this, the price has dropped to eleven bucks. Still higher than I like for an ebook, but I might pay it for Stephenson.)

6. The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan

No big controversy here. I haven’t heard terrible thing about Mr. Jordan. His books are mostly under ten dollars in ebook form. I haven’t read anything by him and I don’t have any bias for or against this series.

It’s just long and I’ve read so many long series that I am leery of starting yet another one. In my youth I read the lord of the ring, including the Similarillion. I read fourteen or fifteen of the Xanth books before out growing that series. I read each Harry Potter book as it came out. I’ve read almost every of the twenty some discworld books. I am a veteran of long series.

But it’s a huge commitment. I have limited reading time and I need choose wisely which series I want to start. I held off on the Songs of Fire and Ice for a long time for the same reason. I’ve read that and I may very well read the Wheel of Time eventually.

7. Virgin Suicides By Jeffrey Eugenides

I’ve read Middlesex, or as much of it as I could plow through. Eugenides is a great writer when he’s on. Which is about every other chapter as far as I can tell. The alternate chapters he’s long winded, vague and his editor is on break. Seriously I would read one scene and love it. The next scene I would read three times and still wasn’t sure what he was saying. Maybe his other works are better, but I’m not inclined to find out.

8. Anything by Nicholas Sparks

I read The Bridges of Madison County by Robert Waller, otherwise his name might make this list as well. Jonathan Franzen is another name to put under this list. My issue with these writers has less to do with them then with society as a whole. When women write about romance it’s just that, a romance novel. It’s dismissed as a lesser genre. When men write romance, it’s serious literature. Jodi Picoult has weighed in on this better than I ever could.

I love a good romance now and then. I refuse to give into the conceit that puts these male authors above their female counterparts in the field. For the record I am not saying he isn’t a good writer in his own write, or that I would never read him. I just don’t see why I should put him on the “must read” list when there are so many good female romance writers I have yet to explore.

9. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Gravity’s Rainbow gets a double whammy of haven’t read. On it’s own Gravity’s Rainbow gets kicked to the back of my to-be-read pile again because even it’s fans, the people who love the book, describe it with words like daunting, dense and a difficult read. I’ve been known to take a perverse pride in having read long, dense books. But as I grow older I see this more and more as pride rather than accomplishment. So you read Gravity’s Rainbow and got it. Bully for you. I read for enjoyment and you aren’t convincing me that I will enjoy the book.

The second whammy comes from the publisher, who are currently pricing it at 15.99 on Amazon. You want me to blow that much money on a book that even fans admit is a “love it or hate it” book that is hard to read. Got better things to do with my time and money, thank you very much.

10. The Anu-Naki wars by R. J. Eliason

Me,

Me, getting back to writing

The voices in my head say it’s a really cool book. But I haven’t written it yet, so I don’t know. Which is my quirky way of saying that blogging is fun but writing pays the bills, so I had better get back to writing.

A final note on the greed of publishers: When I first started reading ebooks one of my big problems was the time and technology gap. Older writers, whose works were in the public domain, were easy to find. Newer writers were mostly online and available.

But many of the great classics were not available. Publishers still held rights and they were slow to jump on the ebook bandwagon, especially for older books. I had more than a dozen books I wanted to read but I read almost exclusively on a device these days and certain books just weren’t available.

Recently they’ve started to come around and realize that their backlist is valuable. They’ve released ebooks for most of their backlist now. That’s the good news. They’ve mysteriously decided to publish older works at new, print book prices, often ten to twelve dollars. So you can add about a hundred books to the “I will read someday when I can find a good copy for less than ten bucks” list.

What about you? Are there books that you have been told are great and “must read” that you haven’t read and don’t plan to? Let me know in the comments.

My Year in Reading: Fifteen Favorites

I read a lot and 2015 was no exception. I read almost exclusive on a device these days, most often through the Kindle app on my ipad mini. As a retrospective, I went through my Amazon account and made a list of my favorite books I read this year.

Note, these are not all new books published this year. Nor are they my favorite books of all time or the books I would most recommend. They are simply books I read this year that I really enjoyed.

Fiction:

10. Summer Confessions

Summer Confessions shows how broad my reading interest are. I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, but I love a good lesbian romance once in awhile. Summer Confessions is that, but more.

Growing up in a small conservative town, Macy Diaz doesn’t intend to come out of the closet until she leaves for college. But when she falls for Rachel, all bets are off. Their budding relationship is threatened by Rachel’s sister, who has a jealous crush on Macy.

9. Ancillary Justice

By Anne Leckie, who was one of our guests of honor at ICON this year, Ancillary Justice has won a ton of awards including a hugo.

Ancillary Justice is a classic sci-fi tale set in a distant world where the Radchai systematically invade and “civilized” new worlds. Told from the point of a sentient AI, the book twists and turns itself from plot twist to plot twist.

8. Widdershins

Who can resist a gay paranormal romance with a steampunk feel? Not me, that’s for sure. Widdershins is the first novel in a series set in the town of that name. Bookish young man meets dashing private detective and save the world from destruction by things from beyond. Good stuff. Good stuff.

7. Deadland Rising

Rachel Aukes finished her Deadland trilogy this year and it was a good strong finish. The zombie apocalypse has decimated mankind, but the few survivors struggle to hold on to humanity, especially after the discover a plot to sacrifice most of humanity in an effort to wipe out the remaining horde. It’s a great saga all around.

6. The Handmaid’s Tale

I love the Handmaid’s Tale. It’s so tight, so crisp in it’s reading. It sucks you into the world of the narrator. The dystopian world of the Handmaid’s Tale is so frighteningly believable, you could almost feel like we are living out the prequel to that story today.

The Handmaid’s Tale would probably be higher on this list, but this isn’t the first time I’ve read it, so I decided to push it down a bit. It’s still one of my all time favorites and it does hold up well for rereading.

5. Lucifer’s Hammer

I picked this up early in the year, as an antidote to one too many YA dystopians. Lucifer’s Hammer, a classic and far more adult dystopia did not disappoint in the slightest. When a comet strikes the earth, everyone’s life is upended. Told through multiple points of view, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle tell a riveting tale of survival against the odds.

4. No Haven Beckons.

I picked up volume one We Feared to Fly on bargain sale this year. I’ve now read book two and plan to pick up the rest of the series, once I get my tbr pile under some sort of control. The series retells the tale of the Musketeers. It’s familiar, in parts, but the author adds wonderful layers of grittiness and historical realism to a fun, intriguing tale. The black death, which ravage France during that time period grounds the reader in why the political intrigue is going on and what motivates many of the characters. D’Artagnan is a flagellant, and his self abuse, it’s psychological and religious reasons are all explained remarkably well.

3. There is No Lovely End

I met Patty Templeton and picked up her novel There is No Lovely End at ICON this year. It’s an incredible read, a fast paced novel set in the eighteen hundreds and retelling the story of Sarah Winchester.

Hester Garlan, psychic medium and all around scoundrel and her illegitimate and quickly abandoned son, Nathan Garlan have become a couple of my favorite characters ever. A dark super natural tale, There is No Lovely End is fast paced and fun to read.

2. Game of Thrones

I am grouping the entire series together because I read them all back to back and frankly, I can’t remember which book was which. It’s a long engrossing tale worthy of the time it takes to plow through. Great world building, lots of intrigue and plot twists, all the things that fantasy readers demand in a good series.

1. The Parable of the Sower

I’ve read and loved a number of Octavia Butler books over the years. I am not sure how I missed the Parable of the Sower before now, but it’s my favorite so far. Like the Handmaid’s Tale, its a dark dystopian world, but one that seems frighteningly possible. The economy and the environment are both in a free fall. Those with jobs and money live behind walls in armored communities. Street people fight and die for survival every day. And endless stream of refugees are on the road, looking for anywhere that’s better than here. Here is California.

Despite it’s darkness, the Parable of the Sower is about hope. God is change, or so Lauren Olamina decides. Resisting change is pointless. Instead we must be willing to let it change us, transform us into what we need to become to survive. When her enclave is over ran, Lauren must take the survivors, and her new ideas on religion, on the road.

Octavia Butler is one of those writers I wish more people knew about. And this is one of her best works by far.

Non-fiction

I didn’t read nearly as much nonfiction this year, so I will list only the top five. Most of them pertain to my passion, writing.

5. Your first 1,000 copies.

Is an indispensable guide to being an indie author. I recommend it highly.

4. Love Plots

Gave me the courage to try writing a romance novel. It’s still in beta stages, but I think I might have a new genre to write.

3. Think like a Publisher

When it comes to writing Dean Wesley Smith has cred oozing out everywhere. He was a successful traditionally published author for years, ran a small publishing house, returned to writing and recently made the transition to indie. He’s seen it all and he’s happy to dish what he knows.

2. For Love or Money

Susan Kaye Quinn teaches how to balance writing for the love of it, and writing for money in a seamless sort of way. She shares her insights in this book. Projects written for the love of it, and those written for money need to be approached differently. There is no judgement in this book either, you can do either or both. There is no shame in writing in a popular genre to earn a living, or in writing something you love that you know will never lead to financial success. The trick is to make peace with whichever path you choose.

1. Sacred Herbal and Healing Beers

I re-read this book as research for a nonfiction book I am working on. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. It’s about brewing, but its written in such a marvelous way that it’s about a hundred other things, too. Stephen Buhner knows his stuff. He’s studied brewing in traditional cultures around the world, herbal medicine and science. He blends it all together in amazing ways. Each chapter covers an herb used in brewing, telling the story of its history and use, but also folklore surrounding it, modern medical discoveries and much more. I don’t think I’ve ever found myself so entertained by what, in the hand of other writers, should be a dry topic.

A huge honorable mention goes out to the Des Moines Writers Workshop. I’ve been working with this critique group for more than three years now. It’s been an amazing experience. My one big complaint is this, there are so many great stories that should be on this list, and will be, once they get published.

Aliens are Coming!

The aliens are coming!

Well, they’re sort of aliens and they are sort of coming…

To my Wattpad page.

My next Wattpad project is going to be the first season of The Galactic Consortium.

The Galactic Consortium

This is a sci-fi serial about first contact with an alien race, except they are not truly alien, rather Simian — from the same genetic line as humans. They arrive in space above us in the present day, announcing that they terraformed our planet, sent settlers (us presumably) and now they are back, ready to begin the exploration of our galaxy. What happened in the last forty thousand years, why we don’t know any of this, is a mystery.

The Girl in the Tank

My Working Cover*

My Working Cover*

Less than five months ago, lights appeared in the sky. Days later the ships started to arrive. They call themselves the Consortium. They are human, or at least Simian, descending from the same genetic line as humans. They terraformed this planet centuries ago, sent settlers a mere forty thousand years ago. Now they are back, ready to begin the exploration of this galaxy.

For Cheyenne Walker, Chief Petty Officer aboard the Cambridge, a USS destroyer, the arrival of the Consortium is just one more obstacle to finishing her final tour of duty and getting home to her kids. The political upheaval forces the US into an uneasy alliance with the Consortium against China, and puts the Cambridge on the edge of a nuclear blast.

Cheyenne wakes to find herself aboard the Corelean, a Consortium Medical Evacuation ship. Floating in a medi-tank, she wonders if they really can’t repair the wreck of her body, whether these newcomers are friends or foes and most importantly, will she ever make it back to children?

I will be posting on Sunday, Wednesday and Fridays. There are eight episodes, ranging from 12,000 words to 25,000 words. Each episode has it’s own storyline but they build on each other. Eventually this serial will be published on Amazon and elsewhere, but for now the only place to read it is on Wattpad. Enjoy this exclusive sneak peek.

*The above cover is a working cover. When I go to press I hope to have the funds to hire the wonderfully talented Aidana Willowraven.

What Makes a Great Sci-fi/Fantasy Story?

I have been thinking lately about what makes a great science fiction or fantasy novel great. What elements do I look for in a book or series?

I’ve distilled it down to three main elements and I strive to include them in my own writing as well. Those elements are lush world building, mythic storytelling and the ability to challenge our assumptions.

Lush World Building

I love novels that transport you into the world the writer is creating. I don’t want to read a story, I want to become enmeshed in it. I want to escape this world and live in that one, at least for an hour or two.

I think this is something that sets science fiction and fantasy apart from other genres. A romance novel needs strong believable characters. We need a great storyline. If we have those, we can forgive a flat poorly developed setting. We can all envision real world settings well enough to give literary writers a pass if their characters meet at a generic coffee shop.

In science fiction and fantasy the world itself is as important as the characters and story. We need to create that world. That can include physical descriptions, an understanding of the physical and cultural rules and a feel for the setting. A science fiction or fantasy novel with a flat setting is like a B movie with poor special effects. We just don’t buy into it. And that makes us not buy the story either.

Mythic Storytelling

An editor once told me that the greatest stories are about those times when the character realizes something that changes them forever. If the main characters are not left forever changed by the story, your reader won’t be either.

To put it another way, stories need to be a mythic journey. Even if its only a story about a kid standing up to schoolyard bullies, he is the Hero. Even if the great revelation is simply that we don’t understand the whole world, our character is the Sage. We must see their growth, feel their revelations in our bones.

I read recently that the real power of literature is that it allows us to experience many lives in the space of one. With every story I ask myself, is this a life worth experiencing? Will I grow somehow by exploring this life? What about my readers?

Challenging Assumptions

What if has always been one of the most popular questions for science fiction or fantasy writers. The what ifs can be big or small. We can wonder what if werewolves were real, or if magic was real. What if aliens came to our planet. There are a million possible what ifs.

There is more to these sorts of questions than simple curiosity. Science fiction and fantasy allows us to challenge some very basic assumptions about our world. We can do this in a way that gets past the critical mind and lets us really explore the ideas.

Is it any surprise that the television series that has had more impact on society than any other was Star Trek. From the now ubiquitous automatic door to cell phones to tablet computers, our society has outstripped so much of Star Treks technology, as an entire generation took Star Treks “what if” and turned it into “why not?”

Star Treks’ what if went beyond technical innovations. The original series featured a racially diverse crew in a time period when desegregation was still controversial. It almost doesn’t register in modern American culture, but in 1966 we were still embroiled in the cold war, but a Russian set at the controls of the Starship Enterprise. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of an egalitarian society has motivated generations.

On the surface of things, Gene Roddenberry has set the bar high. But if you scratch the surface of any great science fiction or fantasy novel you will find they too challenge your assumptions.

Underneath the swords and sorcery of Lord of the Rings it is the peace loving Hobbits that save the day and challenge our assumptions about power. Dystopian novels like The Handmaid’s Tale challenge our sense of right and wrong. Stranger in a Strange Land challenges our sense of what is possible. The Mists of Avalon challenges both the Arthurian legends and the role of women in history.

It’s gotten so that if I read a science fiction or fantasy novel and don’t come away thinking differently about our world, I feel cheated. I think about that when I write. Does this story challenge my readers assumptions? Will it broaden their world in some way? If the answer is no, I pass on those stories.

 

Those are three elements that I think set a great science fiction or fantasy read from a mediocre one. What about you? What do you value about the sci-fi/fantasy genre? Let me know in the comments.

 

Is the Kindle Good for the Environment?

I posted this on my other site a long time back, and thought it was good enough to repost here.

The Kindle and Kindle Paperwhite.

The Kindle and Kindle Paperwhite.

Having just picked up my third Kindle, I started to wonder what was the environmental impact of this device. Was I helping mother nature by saving trees, or costing her in some other way?

I decided this should an easy enough question to put to rest. What are the environmental impact of producing a paper book? What are the environmental impact of the electronics that go into a kindle?

A short internet search shows its not really that cut and dried. Luckily for me plenty of other people have wondered the same thing and done a lot of footwork on this one. There are a number of environmental costs we would have to look at for both styles of reading and they don’t always overlap in ways that make comparison easy.

When it comes to production, the cost we hear about most is carbon footprint. The carbon footprint is how much CO2, a harmful greenhouse gas, is produced in the production of the product. High tech industry is heavy on the CO2 consumption and the Kindle weighs in at approximately 370 lbs of CO2. (infographic here.)

Paperbacks produce CO2 as well, mostly because they are made of paper and paper production = loss of trees. Since trees help convert CO2 to oxygen, they are an important piece of the greenhouse effect and possibly our greatest hope of stopping it. The average print book costs about 17 pounds of CO2.

Before the old fashioned book lovers start to gloat, remember these are production costs. Once produced that’s it. One Kindle equals approximately 22 books in terms of environmental production costs.

Once the Kindle is produced, there are shipping costs.There are energy costs to run the device. Amazon’s servers suck a lot of juice and require a lot of environmental costs to operate. There is a huge infrastructure of electronics maintaining the wifi networks that the ebook zip down to your device. All of that has to be weighed against the Kindle’s environmental scorecard.

A paperbook too has it’s distribution and maintenance costs, however. They have to be shipped around the country to warehouses and then retailers. The trucks that haul them require diesel or gasoline. The warehouses have to be heated and cooled. Brick and mortar stores are not without their energy and environmental consumption.

These are the costs that are tricky to compare. After all Amazon sells paper books as well as ebooks. How much server space is taken up with tracking physical inventory and how much with ebooks? How do we divide up those costs? Storing ebooks on a server has a cost, but so does running a huge warehouse of physical books.

In the end though one thing is clear, the long game goes to the Kindle. Every paper book produced has a relatively stable environmental cost. Ebooks on the other hand, have a diminishing cost.

The cost of maintaining a server has to be divided by the number of books on it and the number of other uses that server has. Ebooks are really nothing more than text files, so many novels only take up a few kilobytes of space on a server. The more books on a server the lower the cost per book, and they can store thousands of titles in virtually no space. Increasingly, ebooks are only a fraction of what Amazon does. They have video services, they sell print books and many other items. The cost of maintaining the wifi and distribution network is similarly shared over all users and uses.

The same logic applies to the device itself. Once produced and in the consumer’s hand, the environmental cost of a Kindle is a fraction of the initial cost of the device. The cost per book depends on how many books are on the device, and even the most basic devices are capable of holding thousands of ebooks on them.

The most important factors, then, are personal. How many books do you read? How often do you upgrade your devices? The more you read, eventually the cost per book tips in favor of the Kindle. It’s really just a matter of when.

Like most electronics, the Kindle will eventually break down but there’s no real easy answer to how long one will last. There are still first generation devices that are running fine. My first generation Kindle broke. It was an accident, but accidents happen. A very rough ballpark would say the average consumer will be able to get two to three years out of a kindle easily.

My first kindle. Broken now but still loved.

My first kindle. Broken now but still loved.

Even though he is leery of anyone trying to present hard numbers or a glib one kindle = x number of books, environmental journalist Daniel Goleman did go on record with this ballpark figure, it takes over a hundred ebooks to make the kindle an environmentally friendly choice. Will you read more than a hundred books in the next two to three years? If so the Kindle is the most environmentally friendly way to do so. If not paper might be a better choice.

Goleman offers this figure critically. However, looking at my kindle I have 97 books on it currently, 70 more in my archive and a second owner in mind, so for me it’s clearly a good choice. The relatively low cost of ebooks, ease of purchasing and the relative ease and size of most ereaders mean that on average those who own ereaders will buy more books and read more often. That makes me think that for most avid readers an ereader is a good choice.