Monday, October 28, 2013

Review: Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig

Sometimes dystopia can introduce itself with a poetic picture. Imagine endless fields of corn, a blue sky with a warm sun. A hovering "ship" sails through the crop. On it are a few youngsters racing against another team. Seems idyllic, doesn't it? But the illusion is soon dispelled.


Currently i have the trend to run/read into trilogies. This is an unfinished (or at least not completely published) one. To my sorrow, the second part is not even announced yet.

So i will have to wait a bit till i can read more (which i will) about Caen and the world he lives in. The novel does a good job of introducing both.

Agriculture is the backbone of his world, but is bereft even of the little romanticism our industry-like version still has. The work is hard and unhealthy. The only way to escape seems to the scavenging which Caen, the lead character, wants to pursue.

But he soon has to find out, that more than the odds are against him. Not only shapes the corn the land unpleasantly; the elite has found has literally found a way to rise up above the peasants. They leave collaborators behind, who, for the price of scraps, keep the others in place. But the real stranglehold turns out to be something else.

Add to this the danger of losing his love to two mutual exclusive threats, he has no other option than to start resisting. So he does and discovers, that he is not the first to follow this path.

The book reminds me of Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games". It is written in a similar, young adult style. The world building is better, more consistent. Therefor it reads even more easily and gave me some pleasant hours. Again, i have to thank John Scalzi for introducing me to a new author.

You find this novel at Amazon,




Thursday, October 24, 2013

Review: The Veiled Isles Trilogy by Paula Brandon

Paula Brandon is a pseudonym of Paula Volsky, one of my favorite fantasy authors. She entered my life in the form of a birthday present from Kris nearly two decades ago. Once i read it (a few years later), i started to soak up every book she wrote. Some of them were really hard to get by, but luckily at that time some obscure web site for books (this one) started to pop up and with it a good source for works out of print. But 2000, every available book was read and i began to wait for new release. I waited. I waited some more. I inquired publishers and even (then already out of style) UseNet groups. Finally, i  2008 i learned from a friend of her, that new books (Hurrah: a trilogy) was coming up. There were three more years to wait, but then the trilogy was published. Thankfully there were only small gaps in the release dates. But the books were well worth waiting for.

One great strength of Paula Volsky is character depiction. She manages to give them more than depth but life. They show strength and weakness, ingenuity and stupidity, empathy and utter disregard for others all within a few pages. It is what one really pulls into her books. 

She is capable of summoning pity for the arch-villain and disgust with the hero. In her books, good and bad are not as clear cut as it is tradition in fantasy. And the lines are even more blurred in this trilogy than in her earlier books.

While the first book is creating the setup for the series, it is a well rounded story by itself: An occupied country is struggling with oppression, collaborators and a weird magic leaking into the world. Only a few can read the signs while others are busy with settling scores on account of personal grudges or national rivalries.

It takes some time to dive into the book. The start is quite slow due to the rather high number of major characters. Perhaps the only weakness of the books is the time it takes for them to pick up some pace. I am afraid that readers not knowing Paula may drop out early. But those who stay will be truly rewarded.


If the trilogy was a film, one would surely call it a road movie. Most characters are most of the time either travelling or fleeing. The differentiation between those two is somewhat smaller than it seems at first. 

The ever growing darkness within the novels is only slightly mitigated by occasional romance. While the covers seem to imply differently, these books are no romantic fantasy. Piling on top of the already-not-too-cheery scenario are cruelty and viciousness by the characters themselves. Even under extreme external pressure, some barely manage to hold a truce. Only a few of them do not engage in the quarrels and those a prone to suffer from it instead. 

But even when everything is desperate and gloomy (at least for the world and everyone in it), Paula Volsky manages to insert her humor into the characters. They show an remarkable resilience and you start to like them (sometimes against your will) for it.


Only a few science fiction and fantasy authors (e.g. Patrick Rothfuss) can rival the authors language skills. Beyond story and characters, the text alone has a hypnotic quality that i (at times) find hard to escape. 

But even though, these are not books to be fast-read. I required some breaks while i progressed through them. Taking time and reading in a relaxed state is highly recommended.  Otherwise you are prone to miss something critical. Several times i went back re-read parts i passed through too quickly. 

While one can only can admire the complexity and entanglement of story and characters, it sometimes puts up a challenge for the reader. If you haven't read other books from her, you may want to start with her earlier novels first before starting with these ones. You may have to resort to buying used books. Several of these gems are out of print and not available as ebook.

Those who already like her, should get this series. If you manage to climb the first incline, one will be rewarded by a fantastic story in the best sense of the word.

These books are (of course) available at Amazon.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Gadget: The new Kindle Paperwhite (2013)

How do you do binge reading without a proper eBook reader? You just don't. Paper based binge reading would (unless you own an English 19th century manor with a library stretching for a complete wing or something like that) fill up your shelf space really quick Trust me, i tried. So i consider eBook readers to be an essential part of the trade. Since the first Kindle Paperwhite ended up with my SO, i used the release of the new edition to switch from my Kindle Touch to the new version.

This photo is made under a very, very bright light (120W LED at my desk at home). So it constitutes the conditions where the old Kindle Touch is most competitive against the new Paperwhite. Even here the background is significantly brighter (setting is cranked to max). 

The readability is better though the contrast does not improve because the black becomes brighter as well. The lighting is definitely an improvement (as it was with the old Kindle Paperwhite).

But not everyone has such a bright light available all the time.



This photo is taken while the room is illuminated "only" by a 240W halogen light. 

The appearance is misleading, the old Kindle Touch is still very good readable. But the new Kindle Paperwhite outshines it by so much, the camera makes it look like a candle lit room.

Usually i would (in such light) turn down the background a bit (but only a bit). The intensity can be adjusted quickly and in small steps.

But even in complete darkness i would no go below the 8th of 24 levels. Below that, the text becomes unreadable in complete darkness and with any other light, the background is nor noticeable brighter. There is no sensor, all adjustment has do be done manually.

Amazon eliminated the unequal distribution of light at the bottom of the screen completely. The resolution is upgraded to 212 PI (from 167 PPI for the Kindle Touch). This most noticeable when you use small fonts. Binge reader prefers small fonts since the page turn time is a significant delay and has not improved with the new version.

There are no fundamental changes beyond that: 

  • The software continues to improve, the useful X-Ray feature has already been discussed in the past. I just mention it because i like it so much.
  • It lost some weight compared to the old Paperwhite (7g), but this is not noticeable. Compared to the Kindle Touch it is still noticeable heavier (36g).
  • The flash memory is still only 2GB. This is a disappointment since the cost for flash memory is negligible and i cannot put a full load-out into it.
  • The background light has a significant impact on battery lifetime, no matter what the advertisement says. But as long as you have daily or bi-daily access to charging station, it doesn't matter.
  • The faster CPU is only noticeable when you use the menu a lot. Page turn rate has not improved.

Pro:

  • Higher PPI allows smaller fonts
  • Very uniform background light

Con:

  • Still only 2GB of flash memory
  • No auto-adjustment of brightness

Overall i am happy with those changes. As member of Amazon Prime  i only paid 99,- Euro. This is above the U.S. price but contains a 19% sales tax (they cannot cheat on that as they do with eBooks since it's a physical good). 

If you still own a non-paperwhite Kindle, the only reasons not to upgrade are if the battery life is really critical (e.g. for your survival manuals during a trip in the Himalaya, in which case the 36g more would also matter) or you need a lot of storage space.

Me, i am a satisfied customer.

Update 19. October 2013

Attached are two images of the new Paperwhite Kindle (right) compared to the old Paperwhite Kindle (middle) and the Kindle Touch (left).

At normal light:
















And at a very bright light:


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Review: Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan

This is the first part of the Powder Mage Trilogy, the other parts are still unpublished. So, since i expect the average reader of my blog to like this book, better be prepared for some yearning. But don't be afraid, the next part will be out in February 2014 and two short stories are available to cope with the worst withdrawal symptoms.


The title "Powder Mages" seems a bit of a contradiction. Usually gun powder is anathema to magic. Though still a game changer, here the powder enables a new kind of disruptive magic. It is literally addictive and not well liked by the more conventional mages which have been the true power behind the throne till now.

But the times are changing... violently and heads are starting to roll. New players rise and with them their grudges. Some see opportunities while others just get caught in the events. The later spinning out of control rather quickly as change is not appreciated by everyone.

Put ill omens on top, bake it in fire and serve it with foreign powers and the recipe is complete and well tasting.

The author skilfully blends things together in this novel: revolution, detective work, classic magic, father&son, battles and much more. 

One of the most pleasant surprises is, how well the mix works. I had a hard time to put the book away for short breaks during the day i read it. Going through nearly 600 pages in a single day is a praise itself, even by my binge reading standards.

Finding this book took little effort since John Scalzi featured it in "The Big Idea" section of his blog some months back. He had me when mentioning Richard Sharpe.

You can find this book on Amazon.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Review: This Town by Mark Leibovich

The full title "This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America's Gilded Capital" seems a bit long, but the parties and funerals are an essential part of it while valet parking is somewhat underrepresented. Nevermind!

I stumbled upon this book by random chance. I was reading a review in the German newspaper "Die Welt". Neither is that the usual place for me to look for new literature nor is U.S. politics my favorite reading stuff. But serendipity was working hard and overtime that day.

If you want to understand why Washington is headed for self destruction and confirm or exceed all your prejudices about politicians, their always-busy staff, reporter and lobbyists (there are some problems distinguishing those groups), this is the book to read. If it weren't written with such a large amount of self-deprecating humor, i guess it would become completely unreadable for the U.S. electorate due to the pain felt.

But when using your Kindle to read through it, you will be tempted to mark every second sentence of the first chapters  for further quotation.
You may even find quotes about quoting since the later has been elevated to an art form in This Town.

Leibovich is an insider, he is part of the system he dissects. Running full disclosure, he points out all his friends he mentions in his book. "Friends" seems to be a Washingtonian slang for "Someone i like sufficiently that even though i would ruin his current career in heartbeat if it were to my advantage, i would later still visit his funeral."

Career finishing is not as bad as it sounds. It happens a lot in This Town. But thanks to the invention of the revolving door and the skillful discovery of ones newfound faith in god, you get over it fast. In fact, one may profit so much financially from a downfall, that the urge to leak ones own dirt may become overwhelming.

In the end, you will come to understand and even to sympathize with the contempt the Tea Party has for the Washington system and their desire to burn it down. But by reading you will also recognize the futility of their attempts. They will not become part of the system they are fighting, they already are. They step through the same revolving doors as all the other, visit the same parties and on their funerals their death will be mourned by "friends" (see definition above).

If you are, as i did, reading this book as a foreigner and feel some Schadenfreude coming up, i recommend to choke it immediately. Much too soon you will recognize the drain our own politics are looking longingly to go down through.

The book is available on Amazon.

About this blog

A few weeks back, i decided that i will write up some pieces about the books i read lately. At first i planned to put them on Google+. But i was not very happy about what i could do there in terms of formatting, overview or references to other reviews. So i decided to start this blog, but i am not sure if the setup is correct yet.

Do comments work? How do i get G+ comments included here? Still some way to go...

I will use the blog to happily provide my point of view on books, games, movies, some gadgets and the occasional other stuff. Criticism of my criticism is welcome.

Don't expect the blog to be real-time and show reviews when or before a book is officially released. I'll do the thing (reading, blogging) when i feel like it. Be aware that a lot of my binge reading actually happens on vacation or during long travels.

Some may wonder why i write in English. As a native German living and working in Germany, this is not the intuitive choice.
  •  About 99% of the books i read are originally written in English. Translation is usually something, a book does not profit from. Then there is the aspect of time. When i read books, most are not yet translated (which caused the switch when i was hooked up on David Webers Harrington series) and some may never will. So if i read them in English, i should criticize them in that language as well. 
  • Also a significant part of my circles on Google+ are non-Germans and English is the current lingua franca
  • And not the least, just because i want to. It find it quite some challenge. While a significant portion of my conversations on the job are in English, i rarely write more than a few lines there.
P.S. I will update this blog article regularly. While other entries will mostly receive corrections only, this one will be extended over time.