Category Archives: ebooks

Ready Player One is an ode to geek culture

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: Review

Here’s the most important thing you need to know about Ready Player One: it’s a celebration of a geek culture. So if you know about video games and Star Trek and, yes, the Japanese live-action Spider-man show with the giant robot, this novel is for you.

It was the dawn of new era, one where most of the human race now spent all of their free time inside a videogame.

Welcome to the OASIS which is, in effect, what would happen if the Internet, World of Warcraft, and virtual reality all had a bizarre three-way love child. It’s a virtual video game where you can be whoever you want and do whatever you want. You buy virtual currency to travel, buy items, and you can even level up. The protagonist, Wade in the real world, Parzival in the OASIS, even goes to school there. And here’s the conceit: the creator of the OASIS has died and left control of his creation to whoever can solve his Easter egg hunt, resulting in a hunt that’s entrenched in 80s geek culture.

I was watching a collection of vintage ’80s cereal commercials when I paused to wonder why cereal manufacturers no longer included toy prizes inside every box. It was a tragedy, in my opinion. Another sign that civilization was going straight down the tubes.

The conceit means that Ready Player One would make an excellent drinking game, if such a game could be played whilst reading a novel. The number of games, books, films, TV shows and people named in this book is staggering, and they’re all written about with real love. Even things that get slated (Ladyhawke springs to mind) are done so with real love. Cline has squeezed in everything he loves and it’s nice to read a novel that loves the same things you do.

Being human totally sucks most of the time. Videogames are the only thing that make life bearable.

Unfortunately there’s a reason I used the word ‘conceit’. The truth is, the plot really is a conceit Cline uses to write about the things he loves and to vicariously do the things he’d love to do. And the story suffers. In fact, Ready Player One was, at times, downright disappointing. There’s no character development. No surprises. No twists, no turns. Just a straightforward normal-guy-becomes-a-hero-and-gets-everything-he-ever-wanted tale. Worse, because he overcomes his first obstacle so easily, it undermines every obstacle thereafter. I didn’t believe he wouldn’t clear any and all hurdles with ease. And I was right. Plans go without a hitch. Everything he hopes for comes true. It is, to be brutally honest, a boring story.

For a bunch of hairless apes, we’ve actually managed to invent some pretty incredible things.

But here’s the incredible truth. Despite the fact the story is boring (and it is), Ready Player One is compelling. Once I was finished I couldn’t put my finger on why, until I realised that the novel is as much an Easter egg hunt as it is about one. I loved picking up on the references big and small, the in-jokes, the little exaltations. For instance, I really enjoyed seeing Supaidaman get a reference. As Wade/Parzival goes hunting through geek culture, I found myself hunting along with him, looking for games and films and books I recognised.

But over the past few months, I’d come to see my rig for what it was: an elaborate contraption for deceiving my senses, to allow me to live in a world that didn’t exist. Each component of my rig was a bar in a cell where I had willingly imprisoned myself.

So can I recommend Ready Player One as a novel? No. But would I recommend it anyway? Yes. It suffers from the same problem as Austin Grossman’s You in that the headlong dive into its geeky world leaves behind things like solid plots and character development. But the dive is such an enjoyable experience, you’re willing to forgive.

Because sometimes we all need to sing a little ode to geek culture.

Cover to A Sorceror Slain by Dave Sivers

Review: A Sorcerer Slain by Dave Sivers

A Sorcerer Slain is a fantasy crime novel by Dave Sivers, the first in the Lowmar Dashiel series. I interviewed Dave back when he released the sequel and I must admit to making a terrible mistake: I didn’t read them sooner.

“I just happen to be a…” I clutched some appropriate-sounding words out of thin air, “- a Personal Inquisitor.”

And, just like that, I had embarked on a new career.

When I first heard that Sivers was writing fantasy crime, my first thought was that those genres were unusual bedfellows. But A Sorcerer Slain is proof they make an excellent match; it calls no attention itself, borrowing tropes from both fantasy and crime as it wills. So Lowmar Dashiel calls himself a Personal Inquisitor (a private investigator), he has a partner in the dwarf Grishen, and a poor relationship with true officers of the law. But the story takes place in the kingdom of Balimar, where magic is real and society resembles feudal England. At no point do these tropes clash and it was only when I was writing this review that I realised how good a job Sivers did in stitching together two genres with nary a seam.

I wanted to trust him – but I thought I’d better watch my back when I was around him. Just in case.

One of my favourite things about this novel is that Dashiel thinks like a real person. The crime committed is the murder of the Sorcerer Supreme (he would be the sorcerer slain), which threatens to topple the king and spark a civil war. With so many interested parties, no-one can be above suspicion. But I’ve seen too many crime stories where someone always is. There’s always someone the hero never suspects for a moment, and it’s always them that did it. Always. But Dashiel suspects nearly everyone at one point or another and I wanted to applaud every time.

“Good old Boxen,” I went on.  A little voice at the back of my head pointed out that my mouth was running away with my brain, but I was powerless to stop it. “How is his search going?”

“Search?” The militiaman eyed me suspiciously.

“For the ape that sired him.”

Dashiel is also a very likeable character. He’s a bit of a state at the beginning of A Sorcerer Slain; dishevelled, poor, hungover. His concern with this case is limited to his feelings for the main suspect. But he’s redeemed by an excellent sense of humour and the case changes him as the novel progresses. Instead of worrying about himself or the woman he longs for, he increasingly cares about the people he meets and the innocents who will suffer if he doesn’t solve the case. The change is actually quite dramatic yet gradual and it’s done very well.

You’re so busy looking at the so-called big picture, you can’t see the small one any more.

The only downside for me was the tangents. Dashiel is investigating a world-changing murder, with the potential to start a civil war and invasion from foreign states. Yet too many times Dashiel gets waylaid. Other investigations, attempts on his life, even a spot of epic fantasy battle. There’s always a good reason for each tangent, but after a while I started to wonder how Dashiel could let himself get so distracted with so much at stake.

I always say that highest praise I can give to a novel is that I would read the sequel. And this is an accolade I readily award to A Sorcerer Slain. The world and the characters Sivers has created are fun to read; I really enjoyed this novel and I can’t wait to read the sequel. If you like fantasy and crime, go and buy A Sorcerer Slain now. Trust me!

The incredible cover art to Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

2014: Year in Review

Is it me or years getting shorter and shorter? It doesn’t seem that long since I was last trying to remember what I’d read and which I should write about. For newcomers to the blog, I always jump on the “year in review” bandwagon, but I review my year. Everyone else is listing the best books released in 2014, I’m listing the most impressive books I read in 2014, regardless of when they were published.

The way I figure it, “the cutting edge” sounds painful and something to avoid; I prefer the comfortable middle.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

So good it garnered a review of its own, this was one of the few instances when a book lived up to its hype. The main character used to be a spaceship and the society she comes from has no concept of gender. Original, imaginative and engaging, I’ve not read a space opera like this for a long while and I can’t wait to read more.

Unbroken Ties by M. Latimer-Ridley

The sequel to Legend Unleashed, which I reviewed a couple of years ago. There’s a world, under the one we know, of magic and wizards and werewolves. The war between the latter deepens in this installment and it also explores the ramifications of what happened to wizard Alastair Byron and werewolf Halvard Wolfram in the last book. Although it felt a little rushed at times, it was great to see that the Byron/Wolfram arc wasn’t tied up in a neat little bow; things get complicated for a while, which is how I like my fiction.

Min by Lola Rayne

A raunchy contemporary romance, I should state that I am totally not the target demographic for this novel. I would never usually pick up a book like this, but Rayne has an excellent style that’s filthy and funny and makes me smile; she could probably write a treatise on farming tools of the 1300s and it’d still be an enjoyable read. So although this type of book isn’t my cup of tea, I still enjoyed it immensely, and you should definitely give it a try.

You by Austin Grossman

You was a strange reading experience. The tale of a successful guy who quits his job to work at a video game developer set up by his schoolmates, I don’t think it works well as a novel; elements of the story disappear unresolved, some events have no reason for being other than the writer wanted to write about them, and frankly it’s all a little contrived. But I enjoyed it nonetheless, largely because it was the first time I’d read a novel that dealt with video games as if they mattered. So if you’re a video game geek, you’ll probably enjoy it, but otherwise you should probably read something else.

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

If, like me, you thought The Da Vinci Code was a decent if over-hyped summer blockbuster book, do yourself a favour: don’t read The Lost Symbol. It appears to be a mere clone of its older brother. Langdon on the run from the authorities. A strange, unstoppable figure enmeshed in his faith, hunting Langdon. Even the same historical figures and books are recycled at times, and you can see the “twists” coming from the first page. I really wanted to like The Lost Symbol but I hear Inferno is a better read?

What books did you read this year? Leave a comment and tell me all about them; I’m always looking for more to read!

VAT regulations will mean ebooks prices increase.

VAT and Ebooks: Price Hikes on the Horizon?

Let’s get this out of the way: some time ago there was some brouhaha about big companies using loopholes to avoid paying tax to the countries in which they operate. I’m sure we can all agree that this is sneaky and naughty. The European Union agrees so, from 1st January, VAT (Value Added Tax) will be calculated based on the which country the sale took place in. Buy an ebook in the UK and the UK government gets 20% VAT. Great. But it also means ebooks are going to get more expensive.

Here’s the problem. Right now Amazon ask me how much I want to charge when I set up a new ebook. For example, right now The Fey Man is £1.83 for the UK. From that, Amazon deduct a 30% cut and a delivery fee of £0.07, leaving me an estimated royalty of £1.23. Until January 1st.

When the new EU regulations come into effect, Amazon will also deduct 20% UK VAT. So, based on the same list price, I’d be left with an estimated royalty of £0.95. Ouch.

Passing the cost along forces writers to make a choice: raise prices or lose royalties. Indie writers are lucky; we at least get to make that choice for ourselves. I suspect the big publishing houses will opt to raise prices and their writers won’t get much say in it.

But making that decision won’t be easy for the indie writer. No-one wants to make less money for the same work. But readers of ebooks are still very price-sensitive; will they balk at an extra 20%? Making it trickier, Amazon will be automatically hiking the price for us on January 1st; if we choose to keep prices static, we’ll have to manually lower them again. I imagine many won’t bother.

The take-away here? There’ll be no January sales for ebooks, so you’d better buy them now.

What do you think about the new VAT regulations? Are you willing to pay more for your ebooks? Leave a comment and let me know.

My Problem with Kindle Matchbook

Kindle Matchbook is a great idea: buy a paperback and get the ebook version at a discounted price (or even free). It’s a nice reward for a reader and it helps remove the format quandry (as ebooks are often cheaper but not as nice to own). There’s just one problem with Kindle Matchbook.

It’s not universal.

It’s not available in every country and, of course, you can’t make use of it if you have a non-Kindle ereader device or app. I enrolled The Fey Man in Matchbook but I’m painfully aware that my UK-based readers, for instance, can’t take advantage of it. And anyone reading their ebooks on a Kobo or iDevice are out in the cold too.

So here’s my solution: if you bought a copy of The Fey Man in paperback and you want a free copy of the ebook version, take a picture or yourself with it and post it to my Facebook Page or upload it to Twitter (be sure to mention me with @realjtk!) I’ll send you a copy of the ebook in your preferred format (and help you get it on your ereader as well).

(P.S. There’ll be no DRM in this ebook, either, so you’ll be free to share it with friends. Because I’m nice like that.)

The cover to Ann Leckie's fantastic Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – Review

Or is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative, that in ordinary circumstances never reveals itself as a fiction?

If you have an ear anywhere near the ground you might have already heard of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. It seems to have won every award under the sun and a lot of people are talking about it. With good reason: it’s a brilliant novel.

Thoughts that lead to action can be dangerous. Thoughts that do not, mean less than nothing.

Most of what I read about Ancillary Justice before I bought a copy was focused on the approach to gender. The main character, Breq, comes from a culture where gender isn’t very important and almost always uses the pronoun “she”. Because the novel is told from her viewpoint, it means it is always telling you everyone is female. It also admits that isn’t biologically feasible. So you know some of the characters are male. You just don’t know which ones. And while you could spend a lot of time trying to figure it out, I found it far more enjoyable to assume everyone was actually female. It removed the unpleasantness of gender stereotypes and, oddly, made the world feel more real and rounded.

To invade and take, what, half the adult population? And turn them into walking corpses, slaved to your ships’ AIs.

The approach to gender in Ancillary Justice means that Breq herself is also overlooked. That’s a shame because Leckie has created something wonderful in her. Once upon a time Breq was the AI of a ship. And that ship had ancillaries, human bodies that were connected and acted as extensions to that AI. Think of the AI as the queen and the ancillary bodies as mere worker ants. It’s a horrifying concept totally at odds with the notion of this culture being the harbingers of civilisation. Yet it is so casually accepted, even lauded at times, that it serves as a clever questioning of how civilised civilisation really is.

And then I fell to pieces.

It also means that Breq can be in many places at once and a number of scenes occur in different locations simulatenously. Such an ability runs the risk of confusing the reader, but Leckie pulls it off so artfully, so effortlessly, that I have to applaud her. I was never confused, never lost. Leckie managed to make the fragmented yet unified experience of many bodies feel intuitive without drawing attention to what she was doing. She also does a good job of using these many-bodies-many-Breqs to question ideas of identity without getting too lost in philosophy.

But I never paid attention to you, I’d never have asked if someone was One Esk’s favorite.

Ancillary Justice also has some of the best AI I’ve ever encountered. It seems most approaches to AI has them either as cold and emotionless machines or indistinguishable from humans. Breq is neither of those. She is meant to be completely reasonable, but her fall from grace comes directly from attachments. Breq-as-ship had her favourites; all AIs do. So, whilst Breq doesn’t weep or rage or laugh much, what emotion she does exhibit means all the more for its scarcity. Though Breq probably wouldn’t care either way, you end up liking her.

That said the central mystery wasn’t as compelling as I think Leckie wanted it to be; I kept reading because I was enjoying the experience rather than needing to know what happened. And while Leckie doesn’t spoon-feed the reader, sometimes she didn’t explain her world quite enough; there are a lot of new ideas the reader has to handle in the dark for chapters at a time.

But Ancillary Justice is still an excellent space opera, one of the best I’ve read in a very long time. A good story, a unique protagonist, and clever ideas. I can’t wait to read the second book, which is as high a recommendation as there is.

You can preorder The Fey Man from Amazon now

Why Preorders Matter to Indie Authors

Time for a controversial statement: preorders aren’t about sales; they’re about being seen.

It doesn’t matter if you build it; no-one will come if they don’t know about it. The average visitor to Amazon doesn’t know about the thousands of books on sale because they can’t possibly see them all. But they do see the top sellers; Amazon shows them off. Top ten thrillers. Top ten epic fantasy. Top ten murder mysteries with a hero called Jim. And so on.

Getting on those lists equals more sales. (Okay, I fibbed, it is ultimately about sales.) And selling a large number of books in a short time boosts you up the listings and increases your visibility. Here’s where preorders help: all sales from preorders are counted on release day. Get a lot of preorders? Get a leg-up those listings. [UPDATE: Unless it’s Amazon. This principle applies to Apple, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble, but Amazon do not count preorders as day one sales.]

And, hey, it doesn’t hurt that they’re a confidence booster too.

So hopefully you understand why I’m now going to ask you to preorder The Unquiet Sword. You’d be doing me a big favour and it would mean you don’t have to worry about remembering the release date; it’ll be delivered to your ereader as soon as it’s available!

Amazon UK | Amazon US | Kobo | Apple iBookstore | Barnes & Noble

And, as a thank you, the preorder price is just 0.99, but that’s only for preorders. So make sure you don’t miss out!

KDP Pricing Support can't help you price your ebook.

KDP Pricing Support Gets It Wrong

Amazon have unveiled a new tool for indie authors. KDP Pricing Support seeks to compare your ebook to similar offerings in the Amazon store and use that comparison to find the best price point for your book. The purpose behind KDP Pricing Support is to maximise author earnings, something most authors will appreciate. But I think it’s almost useless.

Let’s look at Amazon’s suggestions for my short story You Are Just A Guest, which comes in at just over 5,000 words. It’s priced at $0.99, which I think is pretty reasonable; (what I hope is) a solid and entertaining piece of writing costs the same as a single chocolate bar. But KDP Pricing Support thinks I should charge $2.99 for a short story.

Amazon isn’t alone in that opinion; Dean Wesley Smith concurs. And if we think about it, selling a 5,000 word story for $2.99 means I make $0.06 a word. Consider that, at the low end, Analog pays $0.07 a word and Asimov’s $0.08 a word and I’m doing pretty well for a new author! And the way Amazon’s royalty structure works, I’d have to sell six copies at $0.99 to make the same as just one copy at $2.99.

So this is a done deal, right? Time to hike the price! But hang on a moment. Don’t we need to consider what the reader is willing to pay?

Let’s consider Analog and Asimov magazines, which sell for circa $3.50 a copy and contain a lot more than a single story. Let’s consider that the best selling paperback on Amazon is just shy of $7.80. Let’s consider that, while you make $0.06 a word on a $2.99 sale price, most short stories tend to sell to a magazine just once. It is not reasonable to ask a reader to fork out $2.99 for a single short story.

But KDP Pricing Support can’t tell you that, because the best earning point is $2.99, where the sales and royalties are high enough to earn more than at $0.99. From a data perspective, it’s the best idea for my short story.

But I doubt readers would agree.

The Greatest Opening Lines in Fiction

I was recently directed to this story about the best opening lines in fiction. And they all sucked. Every single one. Well, except Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. And Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. And Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Okay, so it’s possible I was exaggerating slightly when I said they all sucked. But I wasn’t a fan of a lot of them. Don’t get me wrong, novels like Wuthering Heights, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Jane Eyre are all excellent. But “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” does not a great first line make.

So I rummaged through my library to dig out my own list of 15 fantastic examples of opening lines in fiction:

1. The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happen to say that it was the only cast he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.

2. Buddha Da, Anne Donovan

Ma Da’s a nutter.

3. The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks

I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped.

4. Madame Doubtfire, Anne Fine

All the way up the stairs, the children fought not to carry the envelope.

5. Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie

All children, except one, grow up.

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

7. Dune, Frank Herbert

In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.

8. Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.

9. State of Fear, Michael Crichton

In the darkness, he touched her arm and said, “Stay here.”

10. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.

11. Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk

Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.

12. Neuromancer, William Gibson

The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.

13. Singularity Sky, Charles Stross

The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies above Novy Petrograd.

14. I am Legend, Richard Matheson

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.

15. The Hobbit, J R R Tolkien

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Pretty good, aren’t they? Now I dare you to do better. Find a better opening line. I bet you can’t.

Free Stories for January

January’s a time for tightening belts. Literally and figuratively. While we’re trying to work off the Christmas pounds, we’re also staring at our bank balances and our credit card bills in disbelief. Time to start cutting back on a few luxuries. Like books. (Although I think books are necessities, I’m aware that some people don’t see it that way.)

January is a good time for freebies.

So anyone who subscribes to my newsletter gets two short stories for free. The first is You Are Just A Guest, a suburban horror told via social media about a young couple in a house that’s home to something else. The second is The Homeless Hero, a superhero tragedy about a man trying to help everyone but himself.

They’re available in MOBI, EPUB and PDF format so you can read them on a Kindle, iPad, Kobo, Nook or even your computer. There’s no DRM either so you can share them with your friends and family if you want.

And if you enjoy them, please review them on Amazon. Posting reviews is a great help to authors!

So let me treat you to a freebie and subscribe today!

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