Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top Reads of 2013

The time has come to look back at the year that was. 2013 was a pretty good year as far as reading went, although near the end I struggled with a severe case of reviewer's block (it's like writer's block just entirely different). I took notes while reading, so hopefully once it passes I can get some reviews up, even if they are just quick thoughts on each book.

I managed to read 67 books (31,500 pages) in total, which is pretty good. Not as great as my personal best of 122 books a year, but after the great reading slump of 2012 where I managed only 40 I'm pretty happy with 67. My goal was 50 books and I easily surpassed that. I'd count that as a huge success.

Selecting my top reads of 2013 is tough. I had so many books I wanted to read and just didn't get to. Most of them were 2013 releases, so I really don't feel well-read enough to crown the top books of 2013. Instead I'll highlight 3 of the most memorable books amongst the 2013 releases I did manage to read.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

If I was forced to pick the best book I read this year then The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes would be at the top of the list.  It’s a brilliant mix between a thriller and horror novel with a dash of time travel thrown in. The brutal depiction of violence and creepy glimpse into the mind of a serial killer hits you where it hurts. The ending is mind-boggling in its implications and the story will haunt you for days afterward. Heck, I still find myself speculating on how the House works...

The Lowest Heaven edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin

Short stories often get overlooked in the hunt for that next big science fiction novel, which is a huge pity since science fiction in short form often has the most profound impact. The Lowest Heaven is a stunning anthology of astronomy themed SF short stories that span the entire spectrum of the genre and brings together a formidable line-up of authors. It's also a thing of beauty with a gorgeous Joey Hi-Fi cover and carefully selected pictures and illustrations tied to each story.  If you read only one SF anthology, make it this one.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

The Shining got me hooked on Stephen King's work. Since I read it for the first time, almost 12 years ago, Danny has haunted my imagination. I've always wondered what happened to that little boy after he survived such unspeakable horrors. What kind of man would he turn out to be? With Doctor Sleep I finally got to discover the answers to those questions and it was well worth the wait. While it doesn't have the same sense of claustrophobic terror The Shining had Doctor Sleep is a very fitting continuation of Danny's story. The best part is that Danny finally finds redemption, making peace with himself and his past. I couldn't ask for a better ending.

With that out of the way it's time for some stats.

This was the first year I've bought more ebooks than physical books. In total I bought 85 ebooks (135 if you count omnibus and collected editions as separate titles) and only 19 physical books. This is mostly due to some insane ebook deals from Kobo that were far too good to resist.

In total I read 67 books, 41 were paperbacks, 21 ebooks and 5 in hardcover. The split between genres were quite similar for science fiction (37%) and fantasy (39%) with a dash of horror (16%) and a bit of thrillers (5%) thrown in.

So that's 2013 all wrapped up. All that's left is to wish you all a Happy New Year! Let's hope 2014 brings many more splendid books.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Amazon or Kobo?

I'm struggling with reviewer's block. An extremely severe case. My best efforts at writing any new reviews come down to me scribbling "Is good" in crayon over my notes, and I can barely even manage that. So I'm taking a bit of a break, playing with new toys (I just got a Kobo Glo) and buying all the books.

The arrival of the Kobo Glo sparked an idea. I've compared Kobo and Amazon's ebook prices in the past, but that was based on a random sample of ebooks and might not have been all that indicative of general usage, especially since it didn't take Kobo's discount coupons into account. Armed with the list of 78 ebooks I've purchased during the year from Kobo (excluding those not available on both platforms) I've decided to revisit that comparison.

The list of ebooks would be too long to repeat here so I'm just going to post the totals from each retailer and the total of my actual purchases using Kobo's discount coupons. Amazon charges in USD, so prices where converted to ZAR using an exchange rate of R10.41.

Amazon:R 10465.59
Kobo (retail)R 9533.17
Kobo (with coupons)R 1831.58

While Amazon offered the cheapest prices for 18 of the 78 (23%) titles purchased, they turned out to be the most expensive overall. Based on the retail prices Kobo was still 9.87% cheaper than Amazon, but the most remarkable difference come into play when you take the Kobo discount coupons into account. Over the year I've used lots of discount coupons ranging from 35% to 95% off, and the end result shows what a huge saving their cumulative effect can have. With the coupons taken into account Amazon is 571.57% more expensive than Kobo!

When deciding on which ereader to choose you have to pay attention to the hardware device itself, but a far more important consideration is the actual content store the device is tied to. In South Africa the Kindle is still the first thing people think about when they hear ereaders mentioned, but Kobo is slowly gaining ground.

Personally I prefer Kobo since they charge in Rand, their ereaders are much cheaper than Kindles and, as clearly demonstrated, their coupons offer amazing value for money. You'd be silly not to keep that in mind when you have to decide on which ereader to get.

Viva Kobo, viva! Your discount coupons play havoc with my budget and my Olympus Mons of a TBR-pile, but I love you for it!

This has been written from a South African perspective. Publishers in different regions might not allow for discount coupons to be used on their titles, so the difference the coupons make will vary according to your region and whether your favorite publishers allow them or not.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Blind Date with Science Fiction: Answers revealed

Science fiction month has come to a close and it's finally time to reveal the answers for our blind date with science fiction challenge. If you haven't tried it yet, see how well you fare before looking at the answers. The clues tormented me for days and it took me more than a week to decipher most of them, and even then I required some help.

The time of torment is now finally at an end. Without further ado, here are the answers.

1. Apps for the Human Body/Corporate Politics/Antihero
Infoquake by David Louis Edelman
Natch is a master of bio/logics, the programming of the human body. He's clawed and scraped his way to the top of the market using little more than his wits. Now his notoriety has brought him to the attention of Margaret Surina, the owner of a mysterious technology called Multireal. Only by enlisting Natch's devious mind can mulitreal be kept out of the hands of High Executive Len Borda and his ruthless armies.

To fend off the intricate net of enemies closing in around him, Natch and his apprentices must accomplish the impossible: to understand this strange technology, run through the product development cycle, and prepare MultiReal for release to the public - all in three days. Meanwhile, hanging over everything is the spectre of the infoquake, a lethal burst of energy that's disrupting the bio/logic networks and threatening to send the world crashing back into the Dark Ages.

2. Melted Arctic Icecap/ New Wild Frontier/Airship Pilot
Arctic Rising by Tobias S. Buckell
The Arctic Ice Cap has all but melted, and the international community is racing to claim the massive amounts of oil beneath the newly accessible ocean. Enter the Gaia Corporation. Its two founders plan to terraform Earth to save it from itself—but in doing so, they may have created a superweapon the likes of which the world has never seen. Anika Duncan, a pilot for the United Nations Polar Guard, finds herself caught up in a plot by military agencies and corporations who want the Gaia Corporation stopped. But when Gaia loses control of its superweapon, it will be Anika who has to decide the future of the world.

3. Ambiguous Utopia/a World without Government/Brilliant Physicist
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
Shevek, a brilliant physicist, decides to take action. he will seek answers, question the unquestionable, and attempt to tear down the walls of hatred that have isolated his planet of anarchists from the rest of the civilized universe. To do this dangerous task will mean giving up his family and possibly his life. Shevek must make the unprecedented journey to the utopian mother planet, Anarres, to challenge the complex structures of life and living, and ignite the fires of change.

4. Bored Genius/Cruel Empire/Incredible Complex Game
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
The Culture - a humanoid/machine symbiotic society - has thrown up many great Game Players. One of the best is Jernau Morat Gurgeh, Player of Games, master of every board, computer & strategy. Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel and incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game, a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game and with it the challenge of his life and very possibly his death.

5. Dystopia/Prison Experiments/Poetry
Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch
Louis Sacchetti is a poet and pacifist imprisoned for refusing to enlist in the war against Third World guerillas. Sacchetti and the other inmates are used in perverse scientific experiments, and Sacchetti is infected with a germ that raises intelligence to incredible heights while causing decay and death.

6. Near Future/Virtual Worlds/Orcs robbing a Bank
Halting State by Charles Stross
In the year 2018, Sergeant Sue Smith of the Edinburgh constabulary is called in on a special case. A daring bank robbery has taken place at Hayek Associates, a dot-com startup company that's just been floated on the London stock exchange. The suspects are a band of marauding orcs, with a dragon in tow for fire support, and the bank is located within the virtual reality land of Avalon Four. For Smith, the investigation seems pointless. But she soon realizes that the virtual world may have a devastating effect in the real one-and that someone is about to launch an attack upon both...

7. Near Future/Augmented Reality/Alzheimer
Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
Robert Gu is a recovering Alzheimer's patient. The world that he remembers was much as we know it today. Now, as he regains his faculties through a cure developed during the years of his near-fatal decline, he discovers that the world has changed and so has his place in it. He was a world-renowned poet. Now he is seventy-five years old, though by a medical miracle he looks much younger, and he’s starting over, for the first time unsure of his poetic gifts. Living with his son’s family, he has no choice but to learn how to cope with a new information age in which the virtual and the real are a seamless continuum, layers of reality built on digital views seen by a single person or millions, depending on your choice. But the consensus reality of the digital world is available only if, like his thirteen-year-old granddaughter Miri, you know how to wear your wireless access—through nodes designed into smart clothes—and to see the digital context—through smart contact lenses.

With knowledge comes risk. When Robert begins to re-train at Fairmont High, learning with other older people what is second nature to Miri and other teens at school, he unwittingly becomes part of a wide-ranging conspiracy to use technology as a tool for world domination.

8. Planet Spanning Shield/Earth is Doomed/Teleological Engineering
Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
One night in October when he was ten years old, Tyler Dupree stood in his back yard and watched the stars go out. They all flared into brilliance at once, then disappeared, replaced by a flat, empty black barrier. He and his best friends, Jason and Diane Lawton, had seen what became known as the Big Blackout. It would shape their lives. The effect is worldwide. The sun is now a featureless disk--a heat source, rather than an astronomical object. The moon is gone, but tides remain. Not only have the world's artificial satellites fallen out of orbit, their recovered remains are pitted and aged, as though they'd been in space far longer than their known lifespans.

As Tyler, Jason, and Diane grow up, a space probe reveals a bizarre truth: The barrier is artificial, generated by huge alien artifacts. Time is passing faster outside the barrier than inside--more than a hundred million years per year on Earth. At this rate, the death throes of the sun are only about forty years in our future. Jason, now a promising young scientist, devotes his life to working against this slow-moving apocalypse. Diane throws herself into hedonism, marrying a sinister cult leader who's forged a new religion out of the fears of the masses. Earth sends terraforming machines to Mars to let the onrush of time do its work, turning the planet green. Next they send humans...and immediately get back an emissary with thousands of years of stories to tell about the settling of Mars. Then Earth's probes reveal that an identical barrier has appeared around Mars. Jason, desperate, seeds near space with self-replicating machines that will scatter copies of themselves outward from the sun--and report back on what they find. Life on Earth is about to get much, much stranger.

9. Corporate Dystopia/Dr. Easy/Simulated Self is Watching You
The Red Men by Matthew De Abaitua
Nelson used to be a radical journalist, but now he works for Monad, one of the world's leading corporations. Monad makes the Red Men-tireless, intelligent, creative, and entirely virtual corporate workers-and it's looking to expand the program.

Nelson finds himself at the helm of a grand project whose goals appear increasingly authoritarian and potentially catastrophic. As the boundaries between Redtown and the real world become ever more brittle, Nelson finds himself forced to choose sides: the corporation or the community, the real or the virtual.

10. Fantasy & SF/Reality Show/ Alternate Dimension/Antihero is the Star
Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover
Renowned throughout the land of Ankhana as the Blade of Tyshalle, Caine has killed his share of monarchs and commoners, villains and heroes. He is relentless, unstoppable, simply the best there is at what he does.

At home on Earth, Caine is Hari Michaelson, a superstar whose adventures in Ankhana command an audience of billions. Yet he is shackled by a rigid caste society, bound to ignore the grim fact that he kills men on a far-off world for the entertainment of his own planet--and bound to keep his rage in check.

But now Michaelson has crossed the line. His estranged wife, Pallas Rill, has mysteriously disappeared in the slums of Ankhana. To save her, he must confront the greatest challenge of his life: a lethal game of cat and mouse with the most treacherous rulers of two worlds . .

11. Classic war novel/Time Dilation/Future Shock
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
The Earth's leaders have drawn a line in the interstellar sand—despite the fact that the fierce alien enemy that they would oppose is inscrutable, unconquerable, and very far away. A reluctant conscript drafted into an elite Military unit, Private William Mandella has been propelled through space and time to fight in the distant thousand-year conflict; to perform his duties without rancor and even rise up through military ranks. Pvt. Mandella is willing to do whatever it takes to survive the ordeal and return home. But "home" may be even more terrifying than battle, because, thanks to the time dilation caused by space travel, Mandella is aging months while the Earth he left behind is aging centuries.

12. First Contact/Jesuit Mission/Mutilated Hands
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Emilio Sandoz, a brilliant Jesuit priest, seems like the perfect leader for the first expedition to an extraterrestrial culture. However, when Sandoz returns to Earth 20 years later as the mission's sole survivor, he is accused of unspeakable violence and depravity. Why?

13. Colonization mission/Body adapted to Mars/Penis Removal = Trauma
Man Plus by Frederik Pohl
In the not-too-distant future, a desperate war for natural resources threatens to bring civilization to a crashing halt. Nuclear warships from around the globe begin positioning themselves as the American government works feverishly to complete a massive project to colonize Mars. Former astronaut Roger Torraway has agreed to be transformed by the latest advances in biological and cybernetic science into something new, a being that can survive the rigors of Mars before it is terraformed. Becoming Man Plus will allow him to be the linchpin in opening the new Martian frontier…but not without challenging his humanity as no man has ever been challenged before.

14. Visitation Zones/Alien Artefacts/Last, Tragic Foray
Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky
Red Schuhart is a stalker, one of those young rebels who are compelled, in spite of extreme danger, to venture illegally into the Zone to collect the mysterious artifacts that the alien visitors left scattered around. His life is dominated by the place and the thriving black market in the alien products. But when he and his friend Kirill go into the Zone together to pick up a "full empty," something goes wrong. And the news he gets from his girlfriend upon his return makes it inevitable that he'll keep going back to the Zone, again and again, until he finds the answer to all his problems.

15. Modified Humans/End of Slavery?/Scientific Report
Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter
For years the human race suffered from a deadly Syndrome, but when a cure was found - in the form of genetically engineered human beings, gems - the line between survival and ethics was radically altered. Now the gems are fighting for their freedom, from the oppression of the companies that created them, and against the norms who see them as slaves. And a conference at which Dr Eli Walker has been commissioned to present his findings on the gems is the key to that freedom. But with the gemtech companies fighting to keep the gems enslaved, and the horrifying godgangs determined to rid the earth of these 'unholy' creations, the gems are up against forces that may just be too powerful to oppose.

16. Unique Language/Protagonist is a Simile/Upset Equilibrium
Embassytown by China Miéville
Embassytown: a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe. Avice is an immerser, a traveller on the immer, the sea of space and time below the everyday, now returned to her birth planet. Here on Arieka, humans are not the only intelligent life, and Avice has a rare bond with the natives, the enigmatic Hosts - who cannot lie. Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes. Catastrophe looms. Avice knows the only hope is for her to speak directly to the alien Hosts. And that is impossible. (See review)

17. Asteroid Colony/ Water is Running Out/ Reputation Economy
Up Against It by M.J. Locke
Geoff and his friends live in Phocaea, a distant asteroid colony on the Solar System's frontier. They're your basic high-spirited young adults, enjoying such pastimes as hacking matter compilers to produce dancing skeletons that prance through the low-gee communal areas, using their rocket-bikes to salvage methane ice shrapnel that flies away when the colony brings in a big (and vital) rock of the stuff, and figuring out how to avoid the ubiquitous surveillance motes that are the million eyes of 'Stroiders, a reality-TV show whose Earthside producers have paid handsomely for the privilege of spying on every detail of the Phocaeans' lives.

Life isn’t as good as it seems, though. A mysterious act of sabotage kills Geoff's brother Carl and puts the entire colony at risk. And in short order, we discover that the whole thing may have been cooked up by the Martian mafia, as a means of executing a coup and turning Phocaea into a client-state. As if that wasn't bad enough, there's a rogue AI that was spawned during the industrial emergency and slipped through the distracted safeguards, and a giant x-factor in the form of the Viridians, a transhumanist cult that lives in Phocaea's bowels.

In addition to Geoff, our story revolves around Jane, the colony's resource manager -- a bureaucrat engineer in charge of keeping the plumbing running on an artificial island of humanity poised on the knife-edge of hard vacuum and unforgiving space. She's more than a century old, and good at her job, but she is torn between the technical demands of the colony and the political realities of her situation, in which the fishbowl effect of 'Stroiders is compounded by a reputation economy that turns every person into a beauty contest competitor. Her manoeuverings to keep politics and engineering in harmony are the heart of the book.

18. Self-Awareness was a Fluke/Freak Ambassadors/Chinese Room
Blindsight by Peter Watts
Two months have past since a myriad of alien objects clenched about the Earth, screaming as they burned. The heavens have been silent since until a derelict space probe hears whispers from a distant comet. Something talks out there: but not to us.Who should we send to meet the alien, when the alien doesn't want to meet?Send a linguist with multiple - personality disorder and a biologist so spliced with machinery that he can't feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood. Send them to edge of the solar system, praying you can trust such freaks and monsters with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they've been sent to find - but you'd give anything for that to be true, if you knew what was waiting for them...

19. Middle Eastern Security State/Young Arab-Indian Hacker/Book of the Jinn
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the state’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fianc√© is the "Hand of God," as they call the head of state security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground. When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen.

20. Crowded Earth/ Extrapolation of Trends/Synthesist undercover spy
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Norman Niblock House is a rising executive at General Technics, one of a few all-powerful corporations. His work is leading General Technics to the forefront of global domination, both in the marketplace and politically - it's about to take over a country in Africa. Donald Hogan is his roommate, a seemingly sheepish bookworm. But Hogan is a spy, and he's about to discover a breakthrough in genetic engineering that will change the world... and kill him.

21. Maker Culture/ New Work/ 3D Printers
Makers by Cory Doctorow
Perry and Lester invent things. All sorts of things. Seashell robots that make toast, Boogie Woogie Elmo dolls that drive cars. They also invent an entirely new economic system. 'New Work' is a New Deal for the technological era. Soon barefoot bankers are criss-crossing the nation, microinvesting in high-tech communal start-ups like Perry and Lester's. Together they transform a country, and journalist Suzanne Church is there to document it. But a new economic system requires a whole new belief system -- and there are plenty of non-believers out there. The New Work bust puts the dot.com-bomb to shame and soon Perry and Lester are out of funds and out of business. Down but not out, they go back to what they do best - making stuff. But when a rogue Disney executive grows jealous of their once more soaring popularity and convinces the police that their amazing 3-D printers are being used to run off AK-47s, things get very dark very quickly!

I had loads of fun with the challenge. In the end I managed to identify all of them (14 by myself, 5 with some Googling and 2 with help from Twitter). How did you do?

Huge thanks to Tiemen Zwaan for compiling such a challenging list. You are a devious mastermind!

I hope at least some of the titles pique your interest enough to make it to your TBR-piles. I know I discovered quite a few books I want to read. Hopefully we can do another challenge next year...