Summer Reading List 2022: third

Coming in under the wire this time, but I have my reasons. See yesterday’s post if you’re wondering about those.

Business

Title: The Phoenix Project
Author: Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, George Spafford
Genre: Business/Fiction
Year: 2013

This one was, in a way, assigned. My predecessor as CTO, who is now an investor and board member, suggested I read it as part of training for a position that I will freely admit I am still unprepared to hold. That said, it wasn’t all bad. I could justify reading it during working hours if I had downtime, so there’s that.

The premise of the book is that it’s a guide to implementing DevOps practices, but disguised as a novel. The story follows Bill, an IT manager at an automotive corporation, as he attempts to right the sinking ship his company has become. Their latest creation, the titular Phoenix Project, is long overdue and far beyond its initial budget, but the company is in such disarray that they can’t make any headway on it. Instead, management pushes them through a disastrous deployment, and our hero is left to clean up the mess.

Yeah, I get that. And I get how it relates to my own position. We’re pretty close to that rollout right now, so the advice is…timely, I suppose.

As non-novel novels go, it’s not too bad. Characterization is scant, dialog sometimes feels forced, but the story progresses in a relatively normal manner. It reads like a novel, not a manual, although the manual qualities come out a lot more often than in other attempts at the format. (Is there a Manga Guide to DevOps yet? There should be. That might actually get me interested in the art style!)

If the book has any major failing, it’s that far too much of the “story” revolves around the Mary Sue character of Erik. He isn’t there to create or resolve conflict; his only purpose is to recite MBA mantras cloaked in mystical thinking. As you probably know, I detest mystical thinking. It’s why I couldn’t continue CBT. It’s why I tried to reinvent humanism. When people start blathering about threefold paths and pretending their way is the only way, that’s when I tune out.

So it was here. For the business improvement aspects of The Phoenix Project, I would rather read a bulleted list than the monologue of an author insert. At least then the lack of criticism and skepticism surrounding it would make sense.

Despite that, I consider this a good read, but only because it has useful information. Forget the story part. That’s nothing to write home about. But the business advice, even presented in this form, does have merit. And that’s not a bad way to end the summer.

Summer Reading List 2022: second

This one took a lot longer than I anticipated, due to all the upheaval in my life. I’ll have to rush to finish the third before Labor Day, but I think I can pull it off.

Nonfiction

Title: I, Citizen
Author: Tony Woodlief
Genre: Political Science
Year: 2021

“A blueprint for reclaiming American self-governance,” reads this book’s subtitle. Knowing me, you’d wonder how I managed to miss it until a fediverse friend posted about it a few months back. I’m glad he did, because it was an interesting read. Not great, mind you, but interesting.

Woodlief introduces the problem that we already know, but in more detail than anyone would think to provide: America is divided, almost irreconcilably so. Our hyperpartisan country is tearing itself apart before our very eyes, and everything the so-called elites do only seems to make things worse. Of course, that’s by design, which he explains fairly well.

This isn’t how America is supposed to be. Our founding documents make no mention of parties—except for a denunciation of them in Federalist #10—or lockdowns, or social justice, or any of the other problems plaguing the United States of today. We have, at some point, turned our collective backs on the guiding principles of our nation, and only a return to that tradition would stop the coming calamity. All that is well and good. When he sticks to the topic, the author does a good job laying out the reasons for our fall and the things we need to do to avert it.

Unfortunately, Woodlief spends far too much of this book getting off topic, or making illogical leaps that only serve to paint him as just another Washington hack trying to make a quick buck. His “solutions” are only found in the final chapter, and he spends most of that trying to convince people to join his network of do-nothing think tanks. Yes, this push is prefaced with some sensible advice about love and community, two things sorely lacking in modern society, but his only guidance to build those boils down to, “Join a church.” For the growing numbers of us who find Christianity (or religion in general) distasteful, that’s no help.

It gets worse than that. The author’s true colors can be seen throughout the book, in fact. Often, he falls victim to the fallacy of false equivalence, painting both major parties as equally responsible for the decline in community. But only one “side” is censoring its opponents. Only one party is sending jackbooted thugs after its political rivals. Woodlief wants us to reach across party lines, but who would extend a hand in friendship to those who have spent the past two years wishing death on us? The truth is, some very vocal people in America want nothing more than to destroy America. Yes, he’s right when he says these make up the minority, but they wield power far beyond their numbers, and he’s wrong not to call that out.

Likewise, the final chapter makes mention of the dictatorial edicts of state governors during the so-called pandemic, as this book was written in 2021. But Woodlief only calls out the most heinous offenders: Whitmer and Cuomo. Never mind that 49 governors (all but Kristi Noem of South Dakota) are culpable in this destruction of basic human rights. The author is a traditional conservative, so Republicans like Bill Lee and Greg Abbott were…just following orders?

My last gripe is much more minor, but it illustrates the underlying hypocrisy of the book. In every case, Woodlief refers to the “Founders”. The correct term, as any student of history knows, is “Founding Fathers”. They were all men, and there is nothing wrong with that. To use the politically correct phrasing shows the same spinelessness that is part and parcel of any conservative call to action.

To be sure, this is an informative book. It’s a good book. But it’s not a blueprint for regaining our rights. Nowhere in it does the author talk about, for example, how to get Critical Race Theory out of schools, or how to reform police departments so they can be held accountable. His advice can be summarized quite simply as, “But if we talked to each other…”

Maybe that made sense in 2021. Now, though, we may very well be past the point of talking.

Summer Reading List 2022: The beginning

One down, two more to go. I had started a couple of nonfiction books, but they just haven’t been holding my attention. So let’s go with a novel instead.

Fiction

Title: Blood of Empire
Author: Brian McClellan
Genre: Fantasy
Year: 2019

This is the culmination of the second trilogy in the Powder Mage universe, one of my absolute favorite fantasy settings ever. And that includes the ones I’ve made. (To be perfectly honest, at least one of them came about because of the original Powder Mage series.)

I’m just going to say this right now: I loved this book. It took four days to read, longer than its 650 pages would indicate, but that’s because I read it before going to bed each night, and work means I can’t do the eight-hour marathon reads anymore. But every minute was worth it. Every page was worth it.

With what’s effectively the sixth and final book in a series, you would expect a lot of action. And you certainly get it. This being epic fantasy with guns, you’d expect something climactic and almost apocalyptic. You get that, too. At no point did I feel like there was a wasted chapter. Some scenes did drag a little, but the pacing was relentless almost the whole time.

If anything suffered, it was the characters. Vlora, one of the three protagonists throughout this series, seemed a little dull. Part of this was because of her story arc, which involved recuperating from a near-mortal injury at the end of the previous book; that’s forgivable, though it was odd that she became the character I was least interested in reading. Of the other two, Styke was good at the beginning and end, but otherwise felt…impotent; Michel (note: he and I do not share a name!) actually grew on me. The rest of the cast, however, struck me as lackluster. They were there because of the action, rather than being the causes of it. In other words, this is very much a plot-focused novel, not a character-focused one. But that’s epic fantasy for you.

It’s a small price to pay, if I’m honest. It was good to let go for a change, to turn my mind off and get lost in a world again. And what I read felt like the end of an era. The storylines were resolved, although McClellan did leave a tantalizing hook for a future sequel; that annoyed me at first, because it seemed like the perfect excuse for a set piece. We also got an almost literal deus ex machina and a country full of ginger ninjas. I don’t know whether to count those as points for or against.

Most importantly for today’s world, I feel, is that Brian McClellan was able to write without getting bogged down in external politics. Yes, half of the Adran generals are women. Quite a few of the men are, to put it in internet parlance, cucked. Yet that never causes a problem. There’s a very, very oblique reference to one of the enemy leaders possibly being a lesbian, but even that’s more of a footnote, rather than the blazing neon sign some other authors would use. Nobody is going on about trans rights or other nonsense. The racial issues are handled very well. That’s refreshing to see, and I think it helped my enjoyment of the novel.

Riflepunk, like any other subgenre of fantasy, isn’t for everyone. But if you’re interested in mixing magic with firearms, the Powder Mage series is one of the best introductions. Start with Promise of Blood. By the time you get to Blood of Empire, you’ll be as hooked as I am.

Summer reading list 2022

Hard as it is to believe, it’s Memorial Day again, and that means summer has unofficially started. Not only that, but the holiday marks the beginning of what has become an annual tradition for me: the Summer Reading List challenge. For the 7th year in a row, I hope to complete it, and I’d love to see anyone else join in. (This year, I didn’t forget until halfway through, so it should be a little easier!)

The rules haven’t changed. Really, they aren’t rules, but more like guidelines. This isn’t a competition. It’s a challenge. What’s important is that you’re honest with yourself.

  1. The goal is to read 3 new books between Memorial Day (May 30) and Labor Day (September 5) in the US, the traditional “unofficial” bounds of summer. (For those of you in the Southern Hemisphere reading this, it’s a winter reading list. If you’re in the tropics…I don’t know what to tell you.)

  2. A book is anything non-periodical, so no comics, graphic novels, or manga. Anything else works. If you’re not sure, just use common sense. Audiobooks are acceptable, but only if they’re books, not something like a podcast.

  3. One of the books should be of a genre you don’t normally read. For example, I’m big on fantasy and sci-fi, so I might read a romance, or a thriller, or something like that. Nonfiction, by the way, also works as a “new” genre, unless you do read it all the time.

  4. You can’t count books you wrote, because they obviously wouldn’t be new to you. (Yes, this rule exists solely to keep me from just rereading my books.)

As always, I’ll search for something new (at least to me!) and share it with you when I’ve finished reading it. I’ll post it over on the fediverse (@mikey@freespeechextremist.com is my main account there for the time being) and in more depth here at PPC, but feel free to discuss your own reading adventures wherever you like.

Have fun, and keep reading!

Summer Reading List 2021: Third and final

We come to the end of another summer, and with it another Summer Reading List challenge. With all the seriousness on here and in the world at large, I thought I’d lighten things up a bit to close out this year’s series. Well, I didn’t really plan that, but it turned out that way, and that’s sort of the same thing, right?

Fantasy (fiction)

Title: The Hobbit
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien
Genre: High fantasy
Year: 1937

I’m a serious Tolkien geek. I have been for 20 years. I’ve read Lord of the Rings at least a dozen times. I’ve read The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and most of the History of Middle-Earth series. Tolkien was one of the inspirations when I first started writing my own novels, and he’s the reason why my Otherworld saga focuses so much on the language of the natives. (Technically, making my own languages came before reading Tolkien, but let’s not quibble. Becoming an author was definitely after.)

Strangely enough, though, I’d never read The Hobbit, the story that started it all. Years ago, I found it too childish to bother with; I’d rather read “adult” fantasy, not some children’s bedtime story turned into a novel. But time and the wisdom of age, along with the nuisances of the world around me, have left me somewhat disillusioned.

So much modern fantasy exists solely to satisfy the author’s wishes or push a political agenda, and that’s just boring. I gave up on Anthony Ryan’s The Waking Fire, which felt too much like a rant against capitalism. I never even started Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, because I don’t think I can stand another assassin story. And Martin, of course, will gain enough weight to finish collapsing into a black hole before he ever writes another book, but I still wouldn’t bother reading The Winds of Winter if it ever did happen to exist.

I never thought I’d say this: fantasy has become boring.

So why not go back to the roots of fantasy? The Hobbit certainly isn’t a match for today’s epics, but then it was never intended to be. It’s a fairy tale. It’s a modern myth. It never tries to be anything more, apart from a few vague hints that the world of Middle-earth is larger than the confines of this little story and the perspective of its little protagonist. That’s very refreshing, in my opinion.

The writing is very…haphazard. Certainly, it’s not as polished as LOTR. You can attribute that to the intended audience or to it being Tolkien’s first foray into fiction intended for other people to read. Whatever the reasoning, it’s jarring. So is the narration, because The Hobbit, unlike modern fantasy, is indeed told by a narrator. He often speaks, sometimes offering foreshadowing, sometimes warning the reader away from digressions, occasionally making a little joke that readers not from prewar Britain just won’t get. (LOTR had those, too. Nobody alive today would understand the in-joke of Sam Gamgee hooking up with a woman whose last name was Cotton.)

Despite being written by the true master—indeed, the inventor—of worldbuilding, The Hobbit does seem to fall short in that department. Again, that’s because it wasn’t intended to be an introduction to Middle-earth. Myths, by their very nature, assume that you already know the context. Thus, you don’t get the backstory of the Necromancer, the king of Mirkwood, or Bard of Lake-town. Indeed, you don’t even get the names of the first two in that list! (You do in LOTR, of course.)

So we’re dealing with a book that’s light on characterization, light on worldbuilding, and heavy on songs. Does that make it bad? No. Does that make it bad fantasy? By modern standards, perhaps, but tastes change. Maybe today’s emphasis on epics will eventually end, the pendulum swinging back towards shorter fiction or serials. Something like Amazon’s Vella, for example, might do the trick. It’d certainly be better than their attempt at a Middle-earth TV series.

Speaking of which, I can’t end this post without mentioning the movies. I’ve only seen most of them; I still haven’t watched the first half of An Unexpected Journey. What I’ve seen is troubling, to say the least. There seems to be more content that was added by Peter Jackson than what was originally written by Tolkien. Granted, a lot of that is for monetary reasons, and I understand that. Hollywood is a corrupt empire. Still, this book in no way has 9 hours of film in it. It barely has enough for a single movie. And that, I think, is one of its charms.

Summer Reading List 2021: The second

Here we go again. I finished this one a couple of weeks ago, and it is by far the oldest and weirdest book I’ve ever read outside a classroom. I thought I was crazy when I tried The New Atlantis a few years back, but this one takes the cake. It did have a purpose, however.

Philosophy (non-fiction)

Title: Meditations Author: Marcus Aurelius (tr. Gregory Hays) Genre: Philosophy/Self-Help Year: c. 179 AD (translated edition 2003)

That year is not a typo. I actually read a book that’s over 1800 years old. As I don’t know Greek (I have only a rudimentary understanding of Latin; Greek would be my next target), I’m reading Meditations in the translation by Gregory Hays, which is a little unconventional compared to its predecessors. But it’s one of the newest and most accessible, so I gave it a shot.

Okay, so that explains the book itself, but not why I chose it. I’ve been interested in Stoicism for a couple of years, as I recall reading sometime in 2018 that some had found comfort in it, using the philosophy to alleviate their depression. Well, that didn’t work for me then, and reading what’s effectively one testament of the Stoic Bible didn’t help matters. I do think Stoicism has some merit, and there are a lot of good ideas in there, but…it’s not for me. It’s too fatalistic, in my opinion.

Considering I’m reading the words of a Roman emperor, you’d think I would have more good things to say. I really don’t, though. Marcus Aurelius wasn’t intending these words to be read, and that shows. Meditations consists of 12 books full of what look like “note to self” reminders. There’s little organization, a lot of repetition, and far too much emphasis on death. (This is a guy who assumes he’s about to die, after all.) Throughout the work, we see the same theme arising time and time again: do not fear death, because it is merely the end of your allotted time.

That fits with the Stoic tradition. Death, to them, is the end of life in the physical sense only. Which is essentially one of the defining statements of a religion, come to think of it. But theirs is a simple and almost banal religion, a worship of fate and rationality above all. I’m on board with the rational part, sure. Fate? Not for me. The way I see it, if everything in our lives was already determined, there would be no reason to live.

There was a reason to read this book, however. It does have a few gems buried in the dirt of the grave. I guess you could say Meditations is the oldest example of the self-help book, the kind that’s mostly full of author narrative and pithy maxims, but with the occasional nugget of true wisdom. And reading it makes you take a closer look at yourself.

In my case, I found something I didn’t like to see, and now I’m working on removing it.

Summer Reading List 2021: First one

Despite the two-week delay, I have been reading. Despite the new job, I have been reading. Despite the rocky road that is my relationship, I have been reading. So here we go.

Science (non-fiction)

Title: Caveman Chemistry
Author: Kevin M. Dunn
Genre: Popular science
Year: 2008

What originally gave me the seed of the idea that would become “After the After” was a book I read a few years ago: The Knowledge, by Lewis Dartnell. In fact, that book was also a huge influence on the reboot of Otherworld I did in 2015, and it’s the only work I’ve called out by name in the 30+ stories of that series. But The Knowledge was itself inspired. It has a very extensive bibliography, and one of the hardest entries to track down was this one, Caveman Chemistry.

I’m glad I finally did, because this book was worth every minute. Divided into 28 chapters, each focusing (more or less) on a single invention, Caveman Chemistry takes the reader through the entire history and prehistory of chemistry. Experiments throughout the book encourage you to get your hands dirty—I didn’t, but that’s a temporary state of affairs. Charcoal, soap, dyes, homebrewing…Dunn has done the world a great service just by compiling this text.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems. One, the writing style makes one think of mad scientists from ages past, and I have to wonder if the author had huffed a few too many fumes before he sat down at the computer. The text itself is loaded with quotations, including some from quack sources such as the Hermetic alchemy treatises. Introductions in each chapter are done by “figments” supposedly representing the four elements (or masters thereof), but more likely belonging to the individual voices in the head of a schizophrenic.

Two, though Dunn doesn’t shy away from giving the formulas and preparation methods for some very dangerous chemicals, he wimps out when the time comes to talk about gunpowder, cowardly disguising the proper ratios. (For reference, the simplest to remember is a 6:1:1 mix of saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur, respectively.) Making a batch of ethanol potentially tainted by poisonous methanol? Fine. Supporting the 2nd Amendment? Apparently that’s a no-go. Add in the constant remarks about “sexism” in older chemistry texts and stuffing women into what has historically been a masculine pursuit, and it’s clear where the author falls on the political spectrum.

Fortunately, that doesn’t detract from what is otherwise a very useful, very enlightening, and very fun book. Caveman Chemistry is not only worth a read, it’s worth trying for yourself. Even if you aren’t planning on creating a post-apocalyptic DIY video series.

Summer Reading List Challenge 2021: Late start

In all the bustle of actually having a job, I completely lost track of time, and I forgot about the Summer Reading List Challenge!

Here are the rules again, for those curious:

  1. The goal is to read 3 books between the US holidays of Memorial Day (May 31) and Labor Day (September 6). Yes, that’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere. I can’t change that.

  2. A “book” is anything non-periodical, with very wide latitude. Comics, graphic novels, and manga are out. Just about anything else is in. And, thanks to the socializing I’ve gotten from having a job, I know to add something else to this: audiobooks count for the challenge if they would be considered books in written form.

  3. One of the books needs to be a genre outside your normal reading habits. Nonfiction, horror, whatever. Anything different, because one of the object of the challenge is to expand your reading horizons.

  4. Books you wrote don’t count. Even if you’re reading them for fun.

Now, because of my late start (which I can’t apologize enough for), you get a little extra time this year: the deadline is extended to September 17 if you haven’t already started something new since Memorial Day.

I’ll be posting my progress here and on the fediverse, where you can follow @mikey@mhp.singleuser.club. Have fun, have a great summer, and keep reading!

Summer Reading List Challenge 2020: The also-rans

(I never did write this, even though I promised it two months ago. Here goes.)

Through the summer, I challenged myself to read three new books, including at least one in a genre I don’t normally read or write. You can see in my earlier posts (part one and part two) that I did complete this challenge. Humble Pi, Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom, and even Verity were all interesting works. I learned from all three, whether it was how to avoid common math errors, the history of a very interesting place to which I have a very slight ancestral connection, or just how to be a better author.

These were not, however, the only books I tried to read. As I stated in “Politics and the escape”, I attempted to read two others during the summer. These books I found interesting to start, but I was quickly turned off by the nuisance of politics—particularly politics I strongly oppose—shoved into otherwise decent works of nonfiction.

So here are my thoughts on those abandoned entries in the challenge.

A hopeless history

Title: Humankind: A Hopeful History
Author: Rutger Bregman
Genre: Sociology
Year: 2020

Bregman is, from what I gather, a bit of a media darling. He’s one of those random Euros who doesn’t really do much, but gets invited to TED talks and things like that because he says what some people like to hear. And the description of Humankind does sound inspiring. It’s supposed to be all about how humans have evolved to be fundamentally good and social, which is true.

What isn’t true, however, is the dichotomy the author paints. It’s a rotten foundation for a book that could have otherwise been great for everyone. But Bregman sets up the argument that society must choose between Rousseau’s “return to nature” and Hobbes’ Leviathan. Your choices are green socialism or authoritarian socialism.

This is a common theme in European politics, and it’s one of the fundamental disconnects between that entire continent and the United States. In the European view, individual liberties are always subservient to the nebulous idea of the public good. That’s why they have things like GDPR, burqa bans, and “hate speech” laws, while we in America have barred such measures in one of our founding documents.

But in Bregman’s world, there’s no room for libertarianism, or indeed liberty at all. In his view, people can only progress by working together under the strictures of a state. Because we’re too dumb to care for ourselves. No, really. He spends an entire chapter claiming evidence that humans have evolved to become stupid as well as social. We’ve “domesticated” ourselves, and mentally we’re no better than puppies. This, of course, ignores the individuals who have, because they were individuals, changed the world. Tell Einstein or Newton that they could have done more if they’d only made more friends.

I didn’t finish Humankind, as I was so disgusted with this unending statist screed that I had to put it aside. Supposedly, the last part of the book sketches a new vision for the future, centered around things like basic income and open borders. A restatement of another of the author’s books, and one I obviously can’t endorse. Not because I’m against such notions—I think a universal basic income system could work, for example, but only if done properly—but his version of utopia strikes me as very dystopian. In the great social future, there’s no room for individuality or personal growth or opportunity. It’s the extreme opposite end of Franklin’s famous quote: those who sign on to this vision are giving up all liberty in exchange for the safety of never having to make their own decisions.

Huh. I guess those people are like puppies.

Treason of thought

Title: The Contact Paradox
Author: Keith Cooper
Genre: Science/Astronomy
Year: 2019

This is another one I went in really wanting to like. I’m a space enthusiast, to put it mildly, and SETI has always fascinated me. So when I saw a book that claimed to challenge “our assumptions in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” I had to check it out.

Indeed, there’s a lot of good science in this text. It shows how our current SETI approaches ignore a vast search space. The reasons we do that, of course, are all financial, not from a lack of technology, knowledge, or will. And The Contact Paradox doesn’t really address that.

In fact, one section places the author squarely against increasing SETI spending. And, indeed, spending on any kind of science. A section on environmental matters, beyond preaching the usual global warming dogma, insults those of who choose to look at the evidence themselves, calling skeptics “traitors of humanity” whose opinions aren’t even worth arguing against.

I’ve had emotional reactions to books before. A few novels have made me cry. Some left me feeling a sense of enlightenment and inner peace. Nonfiction doesn’t normally inspire the same emotions, but it can; anybody who saw the 50+ pages of notes I took for my CBT workbook could detect the gamut of emotional responses. Never before, though, have I felt such a visceral anger at an author for the words he wrote. I immediately closed my reader app, and the only reason I didn’t delete the file was because I wanted to remember the name of it, in case I ran into it again and thought about reading it.

We skeptics are not the traitors. Far from it. We are the ones following the scientific method. The alarmists who claim the Earth will become uninhabitable within the decade unless we stop driving, stop using plastic, stop eating red meat, and essentially stop doing anything productive at all, those are the true traitors. They are the ones standing in the way of humanity’s progress. Without them and their cult-like mentality, their constant denigration of those they consider heretics and apostates, we could solve the actual problems facing us today.

It’s the opposite problem to what Bregman runs into, if you think about it. In Humankind, the stated assumption was that humans have become lesser. We’re not as smart, on the whole, as we should be. And his thesis is that this stunting of our mental growth means we need a strong state supporting us, because we’re just too dumb to be left alone.

Cooper, on the other hand, echoes the alarmists’ claims that we need to become lesser. That progress needs to come to a screeching halt, if not a total reversal to the nasty, brutish, and short lives of agrarian societies before the Industrial Revolution.

What both authors share is the anti-individual mentality that has seeped into every part of our modern culture. In this view of humanity, no man is an island, as the saying goes. Instead, we must all be chained to the mainland, never allowed to ask the question, “What’s beyond the horizon?” It’s a limiting view, but I posit that this is by design. By keeping us small and scared, these people believe they can keep us controlled.

No dreams of becoming better than we are. Those can’t be allowed. Creativity and imagination must only follow prescribed lines, as well. It’s cultural thought control on a level even Orwell couldn’t imagine. And authors such as Bregman and Cooper are supporting it. They’re enabling it.

When I write a novel, I do it to escape. I do it to imagine a world that isn’t necessarily better than ours, but one which is different enough to be interesting. Some of them include my vision of utopia, yes. Every author does that. What I don’t do is claim my vision is the only one allowed, that anyone who disagrees is not only wrong but heretical. That’s not the point. I’m not writing a persuasive essay or political tract. I’m telling a story.

And in my stories, the people who try to control others are rightly considered the villains.

Summer Reading List 2020: Finale

The past few weeks have been utterly miserable for me. What reading I’ve done has mostly come while I was eating, because that’s the only time I can keep my mind focused on something other than how awful I feel. That I managed to finish two more books despite the depression, the anxiety, and now the dissociation boggles my mind.

But enough about that. Let’s see the other two entries in the Summer Reading List Challenge for the worst year ever.

History (non-fiction)

Title: Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom Author: Paul Gething and Edoardo Albert Genre: History/archaeology Year: 2012

I’m an archaeology nut. Ever since I started writing my Otherworld series, I’ve found a passion for studying ages past. More recently, I became enamored with the series The Last Kingdom, first by reading the Bernard Cornwell book of the same name, then watching the show. It’s gritty, it’s fun, it’s epic, and I love the setting for multiple reasons.

Well, the protagonist of The Last Kingdom, Uhtred, hails from the English town now known as Bamburgh. Long ago (before the ninth century, when the series is set), Bamburgh, with its imposing castle overlooking the North Sea, stood as the seat of a kingdom: Northumbria. And the castle has offered up a wealth of archaeological findings that help us better understand life in Anglo-Saxon times. How the people there lived, what they ate, what they wore.

Gething and Albert explore the strange world of ancient Northumbria in this book. They call it a “lost” kingdom for many reasons. It’s obviously just one corner of England now. It was the first Saxon kingdom to fall to the Viking incursions. And we simply don’t know much about it. But now I know a lot more than I did, and I find myself even more interested in that long-gone world than before.

To be fair, there are problems with the book. At times, the authors come across as overly preachy. They do the usual politically correct dismissal of the term “Dark Ages”, which is entirely appropriate for a period of centuries with social and technological stagnation, if not regression. They’re always quick to go on about ethical concerns. On the whole, though, it’s not too obtrusive. The faults are minor, and they don’t distract from a lively, humorous, and above all informative journey through Anglo-Saxon times.

Suspense (fiction)

Title: Verity Author: Colleen Hoover Genre: Suspense/mystery Year: 2018

Rules are rules, and one of my self-imposed rules was to read something from a genre I don’t normally read or write. Fortunately, my partner had talked enthusiastically about a novel she read some months back. She’s big into mysteries and thrillers, neither of which normally tickle my fancy, so I thought right then and there that her suggestion would make the perfect addition to the Summer Reading List.

Verity was a short novel, but a hard read for me. Partly, that’s from parts hitting too close to home. The protagonist, Lowen, is an author. She’s had a lot of family troubles lately. She lacks self-esteem and pride in her work. She suffers from anxiety. The parallels are obvious, but they end pretty soon. Lowen actually has things I don’t: a publisher, an agent, a portfolio that gets her a job ghostwriting for the preeminent author in her genre, Verity Crawford, who has suffered a major accident that leaves her unable to continue writing. Thus begins the mystery, because something is up with the whole situation.

Without going too far into spoiler territory (it’s a mystery, people!), I’ll say that I was somewhat hooked. The way the story is told left me jarred, as it cuts between the first-person perspectives of Lowen and—through an autobiography manuscript Lowen finds—Verity herself. Even I couldn’t pull that off in Nocturne. Credit where credit is due, because Hoover managed it. The autobiography parts left me feeling unclean from the sheer depravity that sometimes came out, while the “main” narrative eventually veered into some quite explicit romance that made this red-blooded American male a bit uncomfortable.

I’m constantly comparing myself to “professional” authors of fiction. I can’t help it. Lately, in my preferred genres of fantasy and science fiction, I’ve judged my own efforts equal to, if not better than, the pros more and more often. As I’ve never written suspense or mystery stories, I’ll withhold judgment here, apart from a couple of nitpicks. Hoover’s prose is occasionally…off, in some way I find hard to explain. She repeats herself too often for my tastes, and I almost wonder if that was padding a word count for what was already a fairly short novel. The final twist also left a bad taste in my mouth. It doesn’t come completely out of nowhere, but it was definitely a blindside hit. In all honesty, I feel it’s the weakest part of what was otherwise a great, if unconventional, novel.

Conclusion

Another summer is in the books, but I’m not done. Later this week—assuming nothing else goes wrong—I want to look at a couple of my aborted attempts at the challenge. There’s a very good reason, one I’m not going to tell you just yet. Always leave them hanging, you know?

I hope you enjoyed the last three months more than I did. If you participated in the challenge, I can only thank you from the bottom of my heart. Win or lose, you’ve done a great job. If you’re just here to read about me, then I have two things to say. One, you probably need your head examined more than I do. And two, I did have fun with these books. Maybe they aren’t perfect, and they might not be to my exact tastes, but they were worth my time. I’d like to think I’m worth yours.

Thank you again, and remember to keep reading!