Friday, July 31, 2015

REVIEW: CATCHING FIRE (THE HUNGER GAMES BOOK 2)

INTRODUCTION 
All too often, I find that sequels just don't provide a worthy follow up to the original or that sometimes the original story is just so incomplete that I hardly have  any desire to move forward for fear of never receiving a satisfying conclusion. For this reason, I often stay away from sequels and even series in general, at least in terms of books. I think this is part of the reason it took me so long to pick up Suzanne Collins' CATCHING FIRE (The Hunger Games Book 2) despite having read the original and seen both of the respective movies a long while ago. The CATCHING FIRE movie adaptation was one of the few movie sequels that I ever thought to be drastically better than the previous film in every way possible. That's not to say that it made me like the first any less, just that I felt it had improved in all aspects. And so I went into this book with timid excitement, hoping I would feel the same way.

HOW I CAME UPON IT 
As both a sequel to a book I've already read and reviewed here as well as book that is part of a nation-wide phenomenon, I think I'll just skip over this part and get into things...

HOW I RATED IT 

5/5 The book version of this story impressed me exactly as I hoped it would. It is an improvement on Collin's already fantastic narrative that feels fresh and more mature while also allowing readers to spend more time with her fantastic characters, world, and story.

CHARACTERS
Katniss and Peeta are back for another adventure. They've done the impossible together and now they have returned home, but things will never be the same. They are locked into a false romance where Peeta now realizes that his affections towards Katniss are only reciprocated when the pair are in front of a camera. He is made to feel even more alone than he did at the start of the games while Katniss deals with her own set of issues. Gale is now referred to as her cousin despite that being far from the truth. On one hand, this makes it easier for Katniss to be seen with him, but it also means they will never be together since it is ultimately her destiny to marry Peeta, whether her feelings for him are true or not. She and Gale come to the realization that there is something between them and Katniss realizes that Gale is another boy in her life that she has been hurting.

Then there's the fractured relationship between the Capitol and the Districts which she is also forced to acknowledge when President snow appears in her home and threatens her loved ones if she doesn't play along with what he wants. Despite her surviving the Hunger Games tournament, the "games" aren't really over at all. She's still fighting for her and Peeta's lives, but now she has the lives of her mother, Prim, Gale, Gale's family, Haymich, and probably Peeta's family to worry about. She may also very well be fighting for the lives of every District in Panem. President Snow's role is quite big here which is a nice change of pace since he remained largely unseen in the first book. Then there's Plutarch Heavensbee, the new head gamemaker who is a bit more removed, but what parts he is in are quite good. Katniss also meets up with a variety of previous victors like the flamboyantly handsome Finnick, the aggressive Joanna, the clever Beetee, and deranged Wirress. Those who have already seen the movie know what circumstances Katniss meets these other victors under, but I won't spoil that part of the story since it is far more of a surprise in the book. The only other thing that can really be said is that each of these new faces is a wonderful addition to the cast and that they all have a lot to add to the story as a whole.

WORLD/SETTING 
The world that Katniss returns to is not the same one that she left. She's a victor now which means she gets a fancy new home in a special section of District 12 and she must be part of the victory tour where the victor of the games visits each district and honors the fallen tributes before attending a lavish dinner party. It also means she will have to become a mentor to the future tributes of District 12. At least those are all of the things that would happen to a typical victor.

This year is different, this year there are two victors because of Katniss's defiance to the Capitol. Her refusal to play by their rules means that she has Peeta to go through all of this with, but it has also sets into motion events beyond what she would ever be able to predict. Uprisings have sprung up in several districts in the spirit of following Katniss's example. District 12 sees a stronger security presence which imposes brutal restrictions upon the citizen's way of life. Nothing Katniss does seems to be right and nothing she says can quell the anger that builds up against the Capitol. She finds herself in an impossible situation where the world of the games and the real world are now largely one in the same. Katniss never escaped the arena, only set it loose upon the world and now she is the symbol of a rebellion that threatens to bring end to Panem.

Although everything is different now, this book brings readers to a variety of places within Panem and introduces us to locations that were previously only mentioned. Collins paints each with simple, yet vibrant descriptions which will probably make you both happy and remorseful that they are on the brink of destruction. The destitution of 12 no longer seems as bad when other districts are portrayed as mammoth prisons where inmates are born into servitude of an unforgiving Capitol.

PLOT/TONE 
The overall content and tone of this narrative is a few shades darker than the previous installment which probably says a lot considering the first one explored a gladiatorial tournament in which children fought to the death. Minor details aside, things are a lot more serious now since the stakes are so much higher. Before, readers worried about the lives of twenty four young tributes, but now they are presented with an entire world whose continued existence seems highly in question. Katniss, our once empowered heroine somehow seems so small now that the conflict involves forces far beyond her control. To be fair, they are beyond anyone's control, but Katniss finds herself especially vulnerable since she is the catalyst for all the terrifying changes going on around her.

Katniss also can't just fake it till she makes it anymore. Peeta and her have to face the consequences of their lovers routine in the arena and try to come to an understanding, if not a salvaged friendship. Gale's involvement adds further complication for Katniss's already overwhelmed set of teenage emotions. All the other characters are also a bit worse off this time around which adds an additional layer of edginess to it all. Some characters are more in the dark than others about the events happening around them which leads readers into an ever-spinning web of secrets, lies, and manipulation. Even having already seen the film, I felt delightfully in suspense the entire way through this book, partially in thanks to being able to experience the events through Katniss's point of view which offers a fresh take on things. Again, there are a number of really wonderful surprises in store and if you haven't already seen this movie, then I won't spoil them for you here. If you're already familiar with this story, then I can promise that this ride won't be any less enjoyable a second time around.

As a kind of aside to all this, it is worth noting that this book felt far less like a true YA novel than the first one did. There is significantly more nudity, stronger language and sexual references, and the depictions of violence are far more graphic this time around. Even the overall language and writing style that Collins employs feels quite a bit more grown up than her last book. Not that this series has ever really been known as kid-friendly, but parents might want to know that this one definitely pushes the limits of what can/should go into a YA novel.

CONCLUSION 
I really do think this is a series that no reader should pass up on. If the first book didn't quite sell you, then I'd strongly urge you give this one a shot. If you loved the first, then it really only gets better here and I can honestly say that I am extremely excited to dive into the third and final book of this trilogy, though I may try and savor it a bit more whereas I kind of tore through CATCHING FIRE as though there was no tomorrow.

The plot is more serious, the writing style and content are more adult, the new characters are a win all around, and this is just a book that I will probably love forever.

CATCHING FIRE can be purchased in every book format under the sun right on Amazon.

NEWS: KINDLE COUNTDOWN DEAL FOR DIGITARUM

Digitarum is on sale for $0.99 for the next five days. This is the first time I have been able to experiment with a Countdown Deal so I will have to see how it all turns out. Sadly, you can't split up the days like you can on a free promotion, so I am using my maximum of seven days all at once.

It can be picked up at Amazon.com (U.S. only I do believe).

Friday, July 24, 2015

UPDATE: TBR CLEANUP

INTRODUCTION
This one will be a very special sort of update post because it is a bit of a different reading schedule.
Since setting up a Goodreads profile I have slowly been growing a collection of books I have read and reviewed and chipped away at my 2015 reading goal one book at a time. What I have also done is accumulated a somewhat unnerving list of books that are on my To Read shelf. This isn't necessarily a problem in itself, but if there is one trend I've noticed among other users its that a lot of people have excessively long To Read lists. I'm talking in the hundreds and even thousands. While this is totally their right to do, I feel like there's also no way that they have any intention of reading that many books in any reasonable amount of time. Mine has grown to 28 books that includes classics, indie published books, and popular releases. 27 isn't so bad, but it's also just frankly a few more than I intend to read in any reasonable amount of time so I think it could be cut down to size a bit.

There are several different reasons why they got onto my To Read list in the first place so I will be breaking it down by that criteria and thinning out from there.

BOOKS I ADDED BECAUSE OF GIVEAWAYS
There were a number of books I put on my To Read shelf that I really didn't know much about. I figured that if I won them, then I would read them for sure and if not, then I still wanted to check them out. These are as follows:
  1. Ultraexenopia by M.A. Phipps
  2. Echo 8 by Sharon Lynn  Fishe
  3. Fires of Invention by J. Scott Savage


BOOKS IN SERIES I HAVE ALREADY STARTED
These are all books that belong to series I have already begun. Because they are series I will like, I will most definitely be reading all of these:
  1. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  2. Kinslayer by Jay Kristoff
  3. Endsigner by Jay Kristoff
  4. Injustice Year Two Volume 1 by Tom Taylor
  5. Injustice Year Two Volume 2 by Tom Taylor
  6. Artificial Evolution by Joseph R. Lallo


BOOKS FROM THE BOOKTUBE AWARDS READALONGS
There are six books scheduled to be read each month from August through October until these BookTubers do their awards special. I haven't read a single one and want to catch up, but can probably only do one or two of them a month. There are four from August I have my eyes on and really need to decide quickly which I should pick.
  1. The Martian by Andy Weir
    • This is one I have heard a TON about and will definitely be doing a read-along for since I just picked up a paperback copy for myself!
  2. Half a King by Joe Abercrombie
    • I don't normally go for YA novels, but will give this one a look
  3. Rat Queens by 
    • A graphic work that collects a bunch of issues from a comic. It looks a little strange, but worth a look especially since I can probably get through it pretty easy and want to try getting a graphic volume in print.
  4. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
    • This one really doesn't sound like a SciFi or Fantasy novel, but I feel like I should check it out all the same.


BOOKS RECOMMENDED TO ME
I have had several books recommended to me by Philip Dodd who wrote Klubbe the Turkle and the Golden Star Coracle (we're friends on Goodreads). I've read one book on his recommendation and enjoyed it so I feel like I should check these out as well.
  1. Stardust by Neil Gaiman
    • Think I will probably be keeping this one on the list since I haven't really read any Gaiman
  2. The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington 
  3. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro


RANDOMLY ADDED
There are a whole bunch of titles I added for various reasons, but don't know much about many of them so I will have to figure out which of these I'm actually serious about reading.
  1. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft
    • A bunch of my friends love these stories and I feel like I should read at least a few of them.
  2. Watchmen by Alan Moore
    • Never watched the movie adaptation, but really do want to give this story a look first in the original graphic novel and then maybe the movie.
  3. The Maze Runner by James Dashner
    • Loved the movie for this, but am unsure if I'd like the book mostly because the female character was extremely weak despite her important role in the plot. This brings up some doubts about the author's writing that get added to my general tendency to steer clear of YA novels. I suppose it will all just come down to whether I can get into the author's style.
  4. The Written by Ben Galley
    • A super cool and very successful indie author. I watched a really great interview with him and am curious about his writing. Plus I love the cover since it heavily reminds me of the standalone Prince of Persia game that Ubisoft released. 
  5. Angel War by Philip Dodd
    • Loved this guy's other book and though this one looks a little more serious, I think I might like it.
  6. White Wind Rising by Dan Davis
    • Randomly found this guy on Goodreads and liked the book cover and description. Will probably try to sample the book and see if I am still intrigued. 
  7. Heather by A.J. Sendall
    • This author is in the Indie Book Booster Club and I was interested in the premise of the book. It's a long one though, so I want to make sure I can immerse myself in the writing before diving in.
  8. Barking Madness by Ryan Hill
    • Tentatively arranged to do a book swap with this author. I've kind of moved away from the formal swapping and we never really followed up on the arrangement so I will give it a look and if the writing doesn't grab me, I will just let it quietly drop.
  9. Infernal by T. Joseph Bowder
    • This is written by someone who actively supports his fellow indies and I think I might like to try out one of his books. They seem to be a little darker than I think I am normally into, but I might like it still. 
  10. Sung in Blood by Glen Coo
    • A short novel I picked up at a bookstore that seemed like I might like. I'll definitely read this eventually, I'm just not sure when.
  11. Ogden by Cory Abernathy
    • Cory wrote a review for Digitarum and I discovered that he was not only another indie author, but also a fellow Indie Book Booster Club member so I think I might give his book a look. 
This doesn't even count the books that I got for free on Kindle that I intend to possibly read, but I think this is a large enough list for now. Ideally, I'd like to cut this down to around fifteen books since I really only have a few more books to finish for my 2015 reading challenge goal and like I said, I really don't think I'll enjoy reading all of these so it would be nice to clean this list up.


Many of these are books I will probably want to sample either by using the Look Inside feature on Amazon or by downloading a Kindle sample. The covers and descriptions definitely piqued my interest, but ultimately what is going to determine whether I make a purchase is if the writing is something I like.

REVIEW: THE HUNGER GAMES

INTRODUCTION
It's not often that I go into a book KNOWING that I will love it. I've gone in confident I will love something, but even with sequels, there's never really any kind of surefire guarantee. That's all a bit different when I am re-reading something. Such is the case with Suzanne Collins' THE HUNGER GAMES. This is a book that I actually originally read for a class on popular fiction and I loved the book every bit as much as I loved the movie. Each new film that comes out, I promise myself I'll read the book first, but that has yet to happen so I have vowed to read through the trilogy before I go watch MOCKINGJAY PART 2 once it comes out. In doing so, it felt right that I should review all of them despite their widespread acclaim and to do that, I wanted to do a re-read of the first in this trilogy. Now that I am all brushed up on the details of this book, I am ready to do a review and to move forward with the other two books, both of which now sit on my shelf ready to be read.

HOW I CAME UPON IT
This really just goes without saying. Basically it is worth noting that I did watch the movie first and absolutely loved it. I think the book and the movie are really different, but I like that I can enjoy the same story from two different angles and I wouldn't necessarily say that one is better than the other, they're just different.

HOW I RATED IT

5/5 This is one of my all-time favorite books and there's really not much more to say about that. I generally don't enjoy YA novels. I feel like the younger language just doesn't appeal to me and while there is a distinctively YA feel to the book's writing quality, this is one of those rare cases where the story is just too good for me to even care that this isn't written at an adult level. I don't mean to put down this style of writing or anything like that, I've just personally never liked it, even when I was within the young adult age range. I think what does it for me with THE HUNGER GAMES is that there are such dark implications that come with the story. Panem is a dystopia through and through. I love dystopias, always have. I think they just speak to how we ourselves are kind of living in a dystopic world of sorts and there are some genuine fears of our own governments that are kind of expressed through this fictional space. I could just go on about this book for hours and hours, so without further ado, here's the rest of the review...

CHARACTERS
What is one of my major complaints about a lot of YA casts is that they just seem a little 1 or 2 dimensional. A lot of the time, I feel like they are supposed to represent an idea or maybe a type of person, but just fall too flat to really be taken as an actual character. This really isn't the case with the majority of the personalities that one will find in Collins' twisted world. Some are certainly more prominent and/or interesting than others, but the characters are so vibrant and diverse that I never felt like there was anything to be desired at this end.

 Katniss herself is just an absolutely fantastic character. She's innocent in some ways and flawed in others. She has a grim outlook on life, but rightfully so and I felt myself really connecting with some of the resentment and distrust that she holds in her heart. She's also not a super emotional character, but rather one that is a bit hardened and maybe a little distant. She can be soft and caring too though, which creates a contrast which feels genuine rather than forced. In short, Katniss feels like a real person.

Peeta is arguably a character that is not as interesting as others mostly because he's a bit naive. His pure heart feels starkly out of place in a world that enjoys throwing children into an arena to kill each other, but it works because for much of the book we aren't really sure about his true nature. While I watched the movie and knew what to expect from him, I found that he is written in such a way that he still felt like a threat to Katniss's survival. This is one area where the book definitely outshines the movie because here we have access to Katniss's inner thoughts and opinions of "the boy with the bread." I got to distrust him, I got to be scared of him, because his good boy routine feels a bit too good to be true. Once we get to know him better, we find that he is a highly emotional character whereas Katniss is far more practical. He's a lover and she's a survivor which is frankly one of the most interesting romantic setups I have ever seen in a book - primarily because it is largely one-sided.

Then there's Gale, the kinda-sorta-not really boyfriend from back home. I liked that him and Katniss were just really good friends, but then we are led to question if he isn't another boy in her life that she's been indifferent to despite possible affections on his end. The darling Prim is another character which nicely contrasts with Katniss. Then there is Haymich who really redefines what it means to be a train-wreck. Despite this cartoonish veneer, Collins smartly transforms our perceptions of him later in the story and shows us that there is a lot of pain beneath the clown that stumbles drunkenly about. The flamboyant Effie Trinket, the calm and cool Cinna, little Rue, and a whole host of well thought out characters are what help define Katniss as a person and are what make the world of Panem feel so alive and so important.

WORLD/SETTING
Panem, like I have mentioned, is a dystopia. There are bits of science fiction woven into it all which made for a really interesting and insanely unpredictable setting. It is a world where the wealthy few impose their will upon the poor masses who are herded into districts. All roads lead to the Roman-esque Capitol which is as horrifying as it is colorful. The disparity between the lavish life that the Capitol enjoys as opposed to the grungy struggle for survival that takes place in District 12 is enough to make any stomach churn, mostly because it feels so in line with human nature. Each section of the world feels like a totally different planet all together, all equally interesting. The main attraction here though, is the arena.

Every year, there is a new arena filled with hazards which threaten to kill contestants ("tributes") before they can kill off each other. A lot of time is spent inside of the forested arena of this particular year's Hunger Games. While it might not immediately seem like an especially interesting location, what readers and the tributes soon discover is that none of it is really all that real. It is a controlled environment where the Gamemakers manipulate the backdrop to liven things for the audience and drive tributes together. There are insidious traps, fierce creatures, and weather that seems designed to either kill the tributes or make them miserable trying.

PLOT/TONE
The narrative woven here is the real standout above all else. All of the pieces connect so seamlessly and it builds at a staggeringly perfect pace. The tension rises and falls with each new twist that emerges. Nothing is really as it seems in Panem. Despite Katniss being a very reliable narrator, readers find themselves surprised at every turn by just how dark this place can be. Collins really doesn't hold back any punches when it comes to the content of this book. While the language is distinctively YA, I felt like there was quite a bit of adult material to be found in here, from nudity to violence, not to mention substance abuse. At the heart of it all is really just human greed and wickedness.

Panem is a world used to death and destruction. It is a land torn apart by war and now under the lock and key of a ruthless dictatorship. Those in power will settle for nothing less than absolute control. What humanity seems to never be able to properly remember is that while mankind is born with a lust for power, it was never suited for ruling over others nor can it be oppressed without a resistance arising. The subjugation of a people and a subsequent rebellion is part of nearly every nation's history and is perhaps not far off in the future for some. THE HUNGER GAMES takes this idea and runs with it. It gives us wicked and/or people who we grow to hate, as well as earnest citizens who we can't help but route for. I mentioned before how vibrant this cast is, but it is worth noting that it is also quite sad. Each and every character is struck with different forms of hardship. Every soul that Katniss encounters bears the burdens of a life lived either in destitution or blissful ignorance. Sorrow hangs as thick in the air as suspense and I felt myself wishing I could swoop down and make everything suddenly better, but of course such a feat would not be possible. It is the struggle that define these characters and the sadness that shapes their world.

CONCLUSION
I think this is one of the few YA series I have ever been able to get into and probably the only one I would avidly recommend to pretty much anyone. The cast is beyond memorable, the world is compelling and disturbingly plausible, and the story is just too good to pass up on, The grammatical flow of this piece might be inescapably reminiscent of other YA works, but I can promise that the narrative is not. I can't wait to dive into the next two books now that I have refreshed myself on this one and really just can't say enough good things about this story.

This book is available in just about every format your heart could ever desire on Amazon.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

REVIEW: WHISPERS OF THE WORLD THAT WAS

INTRODUCTION 
I've already introduced this book in at least one or two previous posts so I will keep the first two sections relatively brief. Basically, I entered a whole bunch of Goodreads Giveaways for various science fiction and fantasy novels and actually won the drawing for E.S. Wynn's WHISPERS OF A WORLD THAT WAS. I entered the drawing because 1) The cover was pretty tight and 2) the synopsis kind of made this sound like MAD MAX meets Lovecraftian monsters. I was certainly a bit sketchy on the details and did note that this belongs to something called the Wraeththu Mythos, but had no idea what that meant and since this is a standalone title, I decided to give it a shot.

HOW I CAME UPON IT 
Like I said, I won the Giveaway and within about a week, this showed up in the mail. Being that this is the first thing I have ever won off of Goodreads, I was definitely pretty excited and decided to dive right in.

HOW I RATED IT 

4/5 This is going to be a somewhat hypocritical rating because as a general rule, I hated this world and was really weirded out by the concept in general. While I will get into that in just a little bit, the primary reason I give this such a high rating is because despite how uncomfortable and disturbed I was throughout the two hundred something pages is simply the fact that I had a hard time putting this book down. The author somehow manages to make this totally alien setting feel relateable (sort of), delivers a cast of compelling characters, and provides a narrative that is exceptionally well paced. Not to mention that this is a piece brimming with dramatic moments that feel satisfyingly cinematic.

BOOK CONSTRUCTION/FORMATTING
I've done a similar category to this one in the past, but I believe that was for an eBook. This work was read in print and while I don't normally pay a whole lot of attention to the construction of a book, this one is particularly well done. It sports what is known as a "soft touch" cover which looks like matte if you just sit it on a table and look at it, but once you pick it up, you will notice that it actually has this soft, almost rubbery feel to it. I thought this finish was really cool and it made the book feel really great to hold. What's more is the interior is exceptionally well done. The fonts look just right, the page size that was chosen felt appropriate, and the overall aesthetic of this piece really just stood out in a way that I feel like most books really don't. I don't mean to knock printed books, in fact they are my preference over eBooks, but since paper books take up space and cost more, I find myself being pickier and pickier about what I want to have a physical copy of versus what I'm content to just download to my Kindle app. This is the sort of book that is crafted well enough for you to really be missing out if you were to read it as an eBook, because the look and feel of the print edition is just so finely crafted.

CHARACTERS 
Beyond book aesthetics, the other component to this work that is really well constructed is the cast of diverse characters. There are a vast plethora of colorful characters that readers will meet along the journey. There are fatherly mayor figures, rowdy scavengers, hippie farmers, and a great many more. The people in this  book are survivors of an apocalyptic event which isn't particularly well explained, but I got enough to gather that it was some combination of war and disease (primarily disease) that led to the world's downfall. What's more is that these characters are all male...kind of.

The people that inhabit the story space aren't precisely human. They were once, but now they are a new species called hara. What is strikingly different about a hara is that they're not really male at all. Through a rather mortifying transfusion of blood, the humans that become hara loose their sex. Instead of male privates, they wind up with something else - something neutral which can change into the male or female part on a whim. This creates a real conundrum for these guys because mentally, they still associate themselves as guys, because before this transformation, they were indeed men - most of which were straight men. Dealing with their rather alien sexuality and their inexplicable attraction to each other is a major source of internal conflict for these characters that ultimately makes them feel a bit more relateable since they openly acknowledge that their current state feels uncomfortable and even unnatural. A good portion of the story's plot and surprises revolve around the nature of this species, so I won't really go too much farther into WHAT these people are since there are things about their evolution that are slowly unveiled as the story proceeds.

 The main character is named Tyse and we read the story through his perspective. His best friend Stoff, is a "man" who makes him feel like he did in the old days. He thinks of Stoff as a pal, a buddy, but they have a hara sort of attraction to each other that threatens to dissolve the only connection Tyse has to his past life. The story spends a lot of time on their relationship with one another. While that wasn't really anything I was into, it's also something that I will hold off on discussing until the section of this review. At the end of the day, I still felt myself routing for both of them to survive the events of this book especially since the author so freely kills off important characters without much warning.

WORLD/SETTING 
Tyse and Stoff live in a world that is as lethal as it is strange. In true post-apocalyptic fashion, no one is safe wandering the world alone and each day is a constant struggle to protect oneself against the predators that come in a variety of forms - human, hara, animal, and others. The true world of the mythos is much bigger than what we as readers get in this book. The setting of this particular adventure is really just E.S. Wynn's corner and while the stage is set well enough, I have already admitted that this aspect is my least favorite part so let me defend that position.

A number of authors have contributed to this mythos, but Storm Constantine is the primary author and inventor of this fiction. He writes a sort of beginners guide to the general concept which I found to be incredibly helpful to have at the start of the novel. Within this introduction, the creator defends himself on several points with a good deal of fervor. This first is that this is not really a story about homosexuality or bisexuality, but more of a hermaphrodite situation. That's kind of true, but it's also kind of not, given the nature of what hara actually are. He also defended against claims of sexism in that males seem to be the only real survivors of the cataclysmic pandemic that changes the world as we know it. While I definitely get that the interpersonal problems coming from being a hara would be severely lessened if the masculine hara could be with feminine hara, I'd definitely have to agree that it seems very unlikely that women would die off and men would live since our physiology isn't so different that one gender would be able to survive something that another could not. I am also admittedly in the camp of feeling like this is a world that is a tad sexist both in the way that characters view women and the way that they are biologically incapable of surviving the disease. Constantine does mention that there are female hara-ish people that appear at some point, but don't expect to see any of them here.

I certainly appreciate the idea of creating a sort of supernatural, science fiction horror world that no one has ever thought of before, but there is definitely a threshold for just how weird a writer can make something and expect that people will actually enjoy it. For me, this world extends well beyond that threshold. The creator's introduction did make mention of this mythos having a very faithful following, but I don't personally know of anyone that I would be able to recommend this world to. I think the bizarre sexuality is just too heavily focused on for most to find it an enjoyable situation. It certainly wouldn't appeal to heterosexual readers like myself since the characters are all have mannish exteriors, and I'm not even so sure the homosexual crowd would be into it since it's not really gay sex. There are also quite a few slurs toward gay men in the first half of the book when the two characters are still struggling with their new nature. It kind of boils down to this really uncomfortable alien intimacy where two dude-like people go at it with their mighty morphing private parts. Yes there is genuine romance that comes into play and a relationship that grows, but the sexual overtones are what really dominate the space of the relationship. I really just think this aspect is going to be too offensive to too many different crowds for this to be a truly enjoyable read for most.

There are also a lot of vaguely spiritual, new age ideas thrown around. While I know there's definitely an audience for that sort of thing, my main problem with it (aside from my not being within that audience) is that the pseudo religious aspects are never really explained in a way that felt satisfying, at least not in this particular story. I never quite got the spiritual transformation from hara to har that Constantine mentions nor did I really get the point or message there. Toward the end, I finally did understand why the transformation from human to hara had evolutionary value and this revelation did help explain SOME of the spiritual components, but it never really answered the question of WHY. Was this whole world just contrived to offer something different for the sake of being different? Or is there something in Constantine's vision that I'm not getting? Is this a forum to confront sexual insecurity or uncertainty? Is it just a fantasy where women can be totally removed from the equation? While the story of Stoff and Tyse is wrapped up well, the my fundamental issues with the world itself absolutely still remained by the time I turned over the final page. And though I place a lot of blame on Constantine for the foundational problems of the mythos, Wynn cannot be entirely let off the hook since my one and only exposure to this world is through his book - his contribution to the myhtos.

PLOT/TONE 
While a lot of the plot points that involve the hara have already been discussed there was fortunately a lot more to the plot than just a story about two hara coming to terms with themselves. The underlying narrative and tone are both really well done and part of what made this a read that I stuck with. At it's core, the story is about surviving in a land that becomes increasingly unforgiving and tremendously hazardous. Wynn has an absolutely superb grasp over how to build up a dramatic sequence and squeeze the maximum amount of impact from each climactic moment. The story is as violent as it is sexual and the gore is some of the most grotesque I have ever found in a book. Wynn's writing is described as "gritty and uncompromising" as per the book's synopsis. While I initially thought that was just marketing white noise, it's actually the only summary of Wynn's style that I find appropriate. Unfortunately, a lot of the plot's impact relies heavily on the element of surprise so I can't go much deeper than this, but I will say that it is a rather compelling marriage of mysticism and science fiction.

CONCLUSION 
Wynn's writing is ultimately the only thing that really got me through this book. It's starkly detailed, aggressive, and believable. It's a shame that I cannot say the same for the mythos itself. I also wish that I could have enjoyed the world a bit more since it was such an integral part of the plot yet just did not work for me. Don't get me wrong, the world of Wraeththu is definitely a trip like no other, but it's not something I will ever be revisiting. I'm very impressed that Wynn was able to make me care so much about the world and its people even if I didn't care for them on a fundamental level. I think it's a testament to good writing, but I do hope that he has work that lies outside of the Wraeththu  Mythos, preferably something a little more palatable for a larger portion of the population - if so I'll probably give that a shot. If you're already a fan of the mythos then this novel is an easy recommendation. I'm sure any current fans who read this review will be scoffing at how taken back by the sexual aspects I was since this is what marks the Wratheau continuity, but I think it's entirely fair to say that A LOT of people just aren't going to be that into it for one reason or another. This is probably going to be the only 4/5 rating I ever give where I just wouldn't recommend this to anyone I know. There is apparently a group that finds this sort of thing appealing and if you are among them, then you will be right at home. If you're like me and have never heard of this mythos before now, then I'm really not sure whether or not you'll like this. I have a feeling the ratings for this book are going to be all over the map and the only thing I can really promise is that Wynn truly is a fantastic writer even in a less than fantastic story space.

WHISPERS OF A WORLD THAT WAS is available in paperback and eBook editions on Amazon.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Book Booty!

Bloggers don't really do book hauls or anything like that, but recently I picked up two new short stories from author Cy Wyss and received the paperback copy of WHISPERS OF THE WORLD THAT WAS, which is the book I won in a Goodreads Giveaway. Since I am just about halfway through THE HUNGER GAMES and UNSTABLE PROTOTYPES, it will probably be a while before those two reviews are posted so these three titles will help keep the reviews flowing while I continue to indulge in my main reads.

The best part is that two out of the three were free since a giveaway is obviously free and Cy Wyss informed me that the first two Inspector Richter stories are alternately free on Fridays when I reached out about my having read and reviewed "Sinking" which came free with signing up for the monthly newsletter.
  

This weeks freebie was "Polygraph", which is the first Inspector Richter Mystery Short. I could have waited a week to get "The Bloodless Mask" (Inspector Richter Mystery Short # 2) for free as well, but it only costs $0.99 and I already know I like this author and the character so I just picked it up, plus I'm not that bad of a cheapskate.

The initial thought was to burn through both of these this weekend in order to have a couple more mini reviews since I really enjoyed doing that for Sinking, but then I had a rather happy interruption to those plans when my loot from the giveaway arrived in the mail. Since this is the first giveaway I have ever won, the excitement over getting this in made it absolutely irresistible not to give that book some attention immediately.



While I've shown the cover before in another post, I'm including here because I was pleasantly surprised to find that the cover which I assumed was matte is actually a soft touch material. Soft touch is pretty much identical to a matte finish, but it feels...well soft. It's got this semi-rubbery feel to it that I've actually never experienced before so needless to say, I spent a good long while just touching the stupid thing before I even opened it up - you know like normal people are supposed to do when they receive a new book. In any case, it's really cool to now own a book with that time of covering even if I become a five-year-old again every time I pick it up.

I was also so stoked for this to come in that I sent a thank you tweet to the author and he actually followed, favorited, and replied to it which I thought was pretty cool. I don't know if he's like mega-famous or anything, but he's written enough books where I didn't really expect any kind of reply and I thought it was cool that even though he's been in the business a while. he's still the kind of author that is engaging and responsive within the digital space. What's also very engaging is his writing! After taking a small peek at the first few chapters the night I got this, I then blasted through the better part of the first half in one more sitting the next evening. It's easily the most bizarre thing I have read all year, but also incredibly addicting in a way. I think whenever I next get the chance to sit down with it is when I will get around to finishing it since it is only about 200 pages and the type of book that is painful to put down once it is picked up.

There'll be a review for this probably in the near future and definitely before reviews on anything else are posted up. I think another Inspector Richter short will be reviewed between now and my planned reviews plus, I think I might have a couple of reveals coming up very soon on things I have worked on.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

GIVEAWAYS: YOU GIVE SOME, YOU WIN SOME!

INTRODUCTION:
Giveaways are a bit of a double edged sword in several ways. They are essential for authors, especially new ones, who want to get their name out on the market and generate buzz for new, upcoming, or existing publications. As readers, they're very fun to enter for and even more fun to win. They offer a chance to discover a new author and potentially sample their work, FO FREE! Word of mouth is a powerful thing and if the free book happens to be the first in a series, then that's one way to make sure that the future installments have an audience. Since I am both an avid writer AND reader I have a little experience with both so I figured I would share my most recent experiences with two different ways I made DIGITARUM available for free.

NOTE: While this post isn't directly tied into my WRITING INSIGHTS series of posts, there are certainly some thoughts on marketing from different perspectives to be found here. 

DIGITARUM: Free Promotional Days



When I first published my book through Kindle Direct Publishing, I knew I would be enrolling in the KDP Select program which demands that the book be a Kindle exclusive in exchange for some benefits. Before getting into that, it's worth noting that this exclusivity deal is only for the electronic edition of the book and that the paperback version (if one exists) can be sold through as many channels as desired. The Select program is also entirely optional, but I liked the benefits. 

Firstly here is a list of the perks of being in the Select program

  1. The book is put into the Kindle Unlimited Service where subscribers can read the book for free and authors will get royalties based on the Kindle Edition Normalized Pages that readers get through. 
  2. The book can be made free for up to five days during an enrollment period (90 days - does not have to be consecutive) OR...
  3. The book can make use of a Kindle Countdown Deal where the book is discounted for a predefined about of time and slowly comes back up to its normal price. You have to wait a while before doing this so I chose to go with the Free Promotion during my previous enrollment period and will experiment with this feature during my current one.

So, like I mentioned above, I went with the Free Promotion during my first enrollment period. This gave me five (5) days with which to make my book free. My first two (2) were used up during the week that my book was first published. I used social media to reach out to friends and family and invited them to help me celebrate my accomplishment by downloading a free Kindle copy. I also put a lot of work into submitting the promotion's details to as many places as I could through some channels that were free and others that you had to pay to advertise the promotion through (I stayed away from the expensive ones). The outcome was pretty successful, I had 70 + downloads over the Friday-Saturday span which made me pretty happy.

More recently, I realized I was nearing the end of my enrollment period and had three (3) days left for a free promotion. Since it's a use it or lose it type of deal, I just went ahead and a Thursday-Saturday promotion, this time with absolutely no effort in advertising it. I wasn't expecting a huge turnout despite the fact that DIGITARUM has some ratings/reviews now which helps with getting more downloads. I was shocked to find that I had 163 downloads across the three days with NO promotion whatsoever. What was more interesting was the curve I saw across those three days. Thursday alone saw 95 downloads which was more than the other two days combined.
A look at the aforementioned giveaway curve


While I initially thought it might be better to have this sort of thing over a weekend, I realized that EVERY other indie author probably feels the same and that my promotion probably had far more visibility on Thursday than it did on either of the other two days. This also makes me wonder how things might look if I did three weekdays. I'm far from a promotional guru, but I think I might be catching on to certain ways of promoting my work. Which leads into my next talking point...

DIGITARUM: Goodreads Giveaway
In addition to the free promotion I also listed a Goodreads Giveaway for the paperback edition of

DIGITARUM. I did a lot of research and gave a ton of thought to if/how I would do this. I had a lot to consider since all of this is out of my own pocket and while it's certainly worthwhile to me to have my book in the hands of readers, there's definitely a cost/payoff and risk/reward element that factors into things. Ultimately I decided to just go for it. 
I offered three (3) copies which isn't as many as some but with so many listings offering only one (1) or two (2) chances to win, I figured this would be enough to stand out. I also kept it restricted to the U.S. and Canada. While that's not generally advised, it's what I'm comfortable with at this time. I also had it posted for about three (3) weeks which, like the three (3) copies, falls somewhere in the middle of what is advisable versus what is not. 

Since it just ended, I cannot really say for sure if holding the giveaway will have a positive impact on my sales or not, but I did get 570 entries and 257 people that added the book as to-read. Like I said, it's still unclear if any of that actually means anything, but exposure is exposure and it's a nice feeling to simply know that so many people have now at least heard of me and my work. I'll just have to see where things go from here. My initial reaction to the results are quite positive and I'm certainly very grateful to all of those who expressed an interest in getting a free copy. I know there's a lot of choices out there even in free literature so it means the world to me when my book gets someone's notice. 

I'd also like to congratulate Courtney, Mai, and James who each won a copy. The orders have been placed and copies will be in their hands shortly so I hope they feel good about winning and enjoy their prize. On the note of winning, there is a little something that I happened to win in a giveaway that I entered!...

WHISPERS OF THE WORLD THAT WAS: Goodreads Giveaway (the "win some" part)



I have entered exactly ten (10) Goodreads Giveaways at different points and while one is still pending, I have only won one (1) of them. Those odds aren't really all that bad when you think about it, but it definitely drives home the concept that you can't be too selective if you hope to actually win anything. WHISPERS OF THE WORLD THAT WAS by E.S. Wynn was one that I entered last minute as sort of a whim because I dug the cover and the cryptic synopsis. I don't know that much about the book or the author so I'm definitely excited for this to arrive. 

Here's the first bit of the book synopsis:

A new Wraeththu Mythos novel.

Humanity’s time is done. Wraeththu’s time has begun.
Independent, isolationist and protected by the geography and legends surrounding the Rift of the Damned, the hara of the Gold Country live off what they can salvage from the sunken cities and abandoned towns. While hara of tribes elsewhere awaken to their newfound abilities, learn their bodies and discover new gods, the har-men of the Gold Country cling to the old, familiar ways of the human era


While still on the topic of giveaways as a reader, there are some interesting things worth noting about what you can expect. Goodreads is pretty upfront about stating that while it is not required, it is generally good etiquette to leave a review of some kind if you should be a winner of one of the many giveaways hosted. They also state that it betters your chances if you have already reviewed some books. This isn't entirely a requirement either though as one of the three people who won my DIGITARUM giveaway doesn't seem to have a lot on their profile at all so it's probably just some sort of background math calculation where your odds are superior if you have  more content attached to your Goodreads profile. Additionally there is A LOT of variety even if you filter by genre. The books listed will be from indie authors like myself, small presses, and even bigger publishers. Even when you filter by genre there will still be a broad selection that is perhaps a bit overwhelming at first glance. My favorite thing to do is to check out the first few pages of books (not book pages - pages of book listings) that are either ending soon or newly listed for a giveaway and pick and choose from that pool. It's not an exact science and I'd definitely be curious to know how other readers go about participating in these.

CONCLUSION:
Giveaways are as tricky to get right as a reader as they are an author, but they can be great fun. I'm no expert, but hopefully you've learned a thing or two about them by reading through this post. In the future I'll try to learn a bit more about free promotions, giveaways, and Kindle Countdown deals in my noble quest to promote my own book while greedily searching for free stuff.

Friday, July 3, 2015

MINI REVIEW: SINKING (An Inspector Richter Mystery Short)


INTRODUCTION 
It feels like forever since I've read a short story. I've read short novels and novels that I'd really consider novellas, but no short stories. I used to read them all the time, but ever since getting into writing and starting to read books again, I just haven't even really thought to pick up a short story in a while. I was inspired to change that when I got one for free.

HOW I CAME UPON IT 
Like I mentioned above, this story is free to anyone who wants to sign up for Cy Wyss's newsletter (I will leave the link at the end). Cy is an author of several indie books and this short story features a character named Inspector Richter who appears to have his own series of shorts, the first of which is already out and this one seems t be an advanced copy of one yet to be put up on amazon. I figured this would be a nice chance to sample the author's writing as well as meet a new character that I could potentially follow in a other work should I find him compelling in this story. What's better is that this is a fully packaged piece of work. It has it's own cover which sports a simple, yet pretty design and because you can get it in EPUB format, I was able to download it onto my tablet and read it through Google Books.

HOW I RATED IT 

4/5 This isn't one of the absolute best short stories I have ever read, but it is a fully functional, complete package, that manages to entertain with some fun modernized noir detective-work.

CHARACTERS
Despite this being a rather brief mystery, Cy Wyss manages to pack a pretty decent number of characters into this space. There's certainly not as many as say a Sherlock Holmes novel, but the cast size is probably pretty comparable to what you'd see during an hour-long television crime drama.

As one might imagine, many do not really get the chance to turn into a particularly compelling figure, but at the end of the day, it was really only ever about one of them... Inspector Richter himself. The other police detectives and the selection of civilians in the mix are all fine. They contribute to the plot and all have distinct physical traits as well as personalities, but Richter is the main attraction. On a superficial level, he's one of the most visually interesting characters I've ever seen as a main protagonist. He's a tad older than most and while handsome, he has scraggly facial hair and strangely colored eyes. His eyes are strange because they seem to be two different shades of blue and one of them looks slightly different depending on the light. Then there's the inspector's odd behavior, which isn't THAT odd considering other detective protagonists, but his aloof and observant nature is still interesting enough to keep him compelling. He's also rather humble about his work which IS a bit unique from other heroes in this genre and I liked this spin on the classic detective archetype.

WORLD/SETTING 
The world isn't anything inherently special since it's pretty much just modern day urban areas. That said, it is very well described and the story takes readers to a pretty generous selection of locations over the course of those precious thirty-ish pages. The modern setting is actually a bit more unique than I have let on though because tonally, this is very reminiscent of old-school crime mysteries and less so of what a lot of people are used to from shows like CSI and the like.

PLOT/TONE 
As mentioned above, this is a story that is a pretty interesting mix of old and new. The style and pacing feels classic, while the setting and format of the story feel quite a bit more contemporary. The plot itself is also a mix of cloak and dagger lies and trickery with a smattering of the more predictable plot-lines that detective dramas continue to churn out (because they are somehow enjoyable in spite of the recognizable patters). This contrast is what makes "Sinking" such a uniquely toned story. The writing and copy-editing is also quite good for the most part. I really only spotted one editing error and was mostly content with the way the author writes. Dialogue can be a little clunky as there are a lot of "he said" "she said" moments tacked on which gave the sense that it was a younger read than it actually turned out being. Other than this partially minor gripe, I found the composition of this piece to be quite solid.

As for the plot, there are a couple of downsides. First is that I kind of felt as though I knew what the final outcome would be before I was much further than halfway through. I tend to find this is the case for me with most "mysteries" and I didn't mind that much, but it is worth noting that I wasn't super shocked by the ending or anything like that. The second issue is simply that everything goes by very quickly. Nothing is really rushed, but the mystery simply isn't that complex nor does it contain too many twists. Mysteries are very difficult to cram into the real estate of a short story, even a longer short story, and I certainly commend the author for being able to deliver one that was coherent from start to finish within the allotted space. A lot of what helps create a sense of focus is how readers slowly get to learn more about Inspector Richter. This is definitely more of a story about how he solves mysteries rather than one that places emphasis on the mystery itself. This isn't a particular downside, it's just a creative choice that the author made. It also just makes more sense since what would sell this type of series of shorts is the main protagonist since he would be the primary constant within the world. On that note I do want to emphasize again that this IS a complete story. There's no lead in to something greater or any sense of there being loose ends still left by the conclusion. This just feels like an isolated episode that introduces readers to a character that they may not otherwise meet (though I believe this is technically the second in the series).

CONCLUSION 
This may not spin a web that is any more complex than the average weekly crime drama, but what do you really want out of a free short story? My answer: not much else and I probably wouldn't mind paying the $0.99 for this like the author's other shorts are posted for since the short bit of entertainment is certainly worth that entry fee. This isn't a story that wowed me in the way that some short stories have, but it was a really satisfying read that entertained from start to finish. It also introduced me to a new character that I will probably pick up as they come out (I believe there is one available already). I think in general, I may start looking into authors that write these type of shorts and sell them for really cheap. This one was good fun and satisfying to be able to read in single sitting so I could definitely spring for more of this sort of thing every now and then as a Friday evening read or whenever I have a free day without much else going on.

If you think you might like to pick this story up, head on over to Cy's website and sign up for the monthly newsletter. So far the monthly part has been pretty reliable so if you're worried about emails from the author more or less frequently than that, you really shouldn't worry - at least from what I have experienced so far. I'd do it sooner rather than later too since, as I mentioned, it will probably become a Kindle product at some point.