September 2, 2014

The Magician Trilogy

Lev Grossman's "The Magician's Land" was recently released. I really enjoyed the first two books in the trilogy, The Magicians, and The Magician King. I was looking forward to the conclusion of the trilogy quite a bit, and in preparation I re-read the entire series. It is rare for me to go back and re-read books, and this was my first re-read of the Magicians books. I feel like I understood what was happening a lot better and came away with a better holistic understanding of the story. The re-read helps a lot; the books are rife with references to previous characters and events. There are lots of references all over the place actually, to pop and nerd culture. I had to look up a lot of words as well - I really appreciate the dictionary feature of the kindle, which was one added bonus over the paper version that I read the first time.

Actually, last summer I read a short story in this universe from the "Unfettered" anthology. That was really a lot of fun to read at the time - it really brought back the impact of the series and was a nice short story to tide me over for the release. I was a bit disappointed because it turns out that the short story from Unfettered was in fact a good portion of one of the chapters from The Magician's Land. I wonder if the short story (starring Plum, a character from The Magician's Land) in the "Dangerous Women" anthology is also a part of the book. I'm interested in picking up that anthology, but the price is a bit high now; I'll wait for the mass market paperback edition to force down the Kindle pricing a bit before picking that up.

So, a quick post on some books. If you haven't read the Magicians, and are looking for a smart take on Hogwarts style stuff for adults, check it out. The characters are (intentionally I believe) fairly unlikeable and it takes some work to get through, but it is a really fun series. I really look forward to more in that universe, and might check out Lev Grossman's other work as well.

June 10, 2012

The Galactic Mage and "Book Trailers"

I recently read The Galactic Mage by John Daulton. I had never heard of him before. I had never heard of the book before. But Amazon recommended it to me, and the kindle version is only $3.99. It has good reviews, so I picked it up (months ago!) and only just now got around to reading it. I have a few more cheap Kindle books that I haven't read yet, and I hope they all are as interesting as this book.

There is an embedded book "trailer" on the left. Book trailers are a relatively new phenomenon to me, but apparently they have been around for a while. I know that I saw something about a Spanish trailer for Patrick Rothfuss' Wise Man's Fear, but that was the first I had heard of them. Since then, I've seen one or two youtube trailers for books. I like the idea. It still seems a bit strange, but it is a good idea.

The Galactic Mage has a few properties that I really like in fantasy books: it has a consistent seeming set of rules for its magic, and in this case the author really follows through with them. His main character applies a kind of scientific method to magic, and we get to see magic applied in interesting ways in the world. Most interestingly, the juxtaposition of high tech and magic is explored a little bit. I really like the consistency and the logical process used in the book. The characters are for the most part interesting (it seems like some of them are exaggerated for the purposes of the story, but that is fine by me) and the story itself is very involving. I really wonder why I haven't seen the idea of space exploration in any fantasy books before, and this one does it very well.

I kind of see this book as another side of the coin to Rick Cook's Wizardry series (first two books are available from the Baen Free Library - they are very good, and it is worth buying the others!) That series has a computer programmer transported into a land of magic. This series has a wizard out there somewhere in the universe (how magic works and why is never explained, but the usage seems to have good rules and limitations) that just happens to also be a universe where (not too far away) technology has developed to an advanced level as well.

I really enjoyed this book, and if you have a kindle can wholeheartedly recommend it for the great price it is currently at!

June 9, 2012

Jordan Mechner's The Making of Prince of Persia

The online version of the book

GDC 2011 Classic Game Postmortem Price of Persia

GDC 2011 Vault Search for Classic Game Postmortem, there are a whole bunch of good ones!

Prince of Persia on the Glorius Apple //!

A long time ago, when I was still a young kid, my dad bought an Apple //e (or maybe a //+, but eventually we ended up with a //e.) That event likely changed my life, and definitely set me on the path that ended up being my passion and career: a software developer. Before I got anywhere near programming though, I spent a lot of time doing all sorts of things on that computer. What I enjoyed most were computer games, and one of the most amazing games I had seen at an early age was Karateka.

Karateka was amazing because it had large characters that were animated very well. They were as close to lifelike as we got back then. It was written by someone called Jordan Mechner, who of course I had no idea who he was. The name stuck in my head though. A few years after Karateka, he came out with a game called Prince of Persia, which much later became a video game franchise and a movie. Back in the past when I was a kid, I played this game. It was a great game. It was hard. I never finished it. I also never actually bought the game, I illegally copied it from someone.

Well, recently Jordan Mechner released the source code to Prince of Persia, the original game! With that announcement, I spent of a bit of time on his website, and found that he also had written a book, the Making of Prince of Persia. I've got a link on the left to the Amazon version, I suggest the Kindle book because it is pretty cheap, like $8. I bought it because I was feeling a bit guilty about not paying for the games I had played. Karateka, which I did finish, and from which I learned one important bit of information: never run straight up to a princess if you have the opportunity to meet a princess. Walk slowly and respectfully towards her. I never did get very far on Prince of Persia - it was hard! - but I did enjoy playing. I think that even without the time limit Prince of Persia would have been hard for me back then. It would probably remain hard for me today, since there is a lot of mapping that you have to do, and I don't know if I have the patience for it now.

I highly recommend watching the GDC Postmortem (linked on the left) of Prince of Persia, and buying the book. It isn't really a technical programming book, it is really more of a diary about a young man trying to find a career for himself. I didn't know that Jordan Mechner wanted to be a screenwriter, but that plays a large role in the book as well. I had a hard time putting the book down, and really enjoyed reading through the book, partly as nostalgia, and partly as an interesting look at a young man trying to find his way in life.

In fact, I've been really struck recently by how young people really can make a large difference and make a big impact. The most important thing is not experience (that helps, but can also just prevent you from doing something because you know how hard it can be to actually accomplish difficult tasks) but is just the idea of doing something. If you have an idea, don't let people stop you, don't let your idea of what you need to be to accomplish something, just get started and get out there and do it. I'm looking at all these amazing people who accomplish amazing things before the age of 30 - John Lennon, Steve Jobs, Anne Frank, Mozart, Shawn Fanning (well …)

It makes me excited to see what my young son will do when he is young. I'm proud of the things that I accomplished, but I haven't changed the world. What is amazing to me is that you can change the world, even if it is only in the way of creating an amazing game that inspires others.

June 4, 2012

Joe Abercrombie's The First Law Trilogy

Another post about books. I heard about The Blade Itself a while back, probably from one of the author blogs that I follow. I don't know which one; it could very well be any one of John Scalzi's blog, Joseph Mallozzi's blog, or Patrick Rothfuss. Or possibly even I don't know; I just heard that this guy Joe Abercrombie wrote a good yarn.

I think I found "The Blade Itself" on sale on the kindle store at some point for like $5 or something. The normal price seems to be around $7, which is reasonable to me. I like the idea of not having to lug around a physical book, and I certainly can't store books in my tiny Tokyo apartment, so a virtual good is actually worth money to me, although I do balk at paying more than what a physical book would cost.

At any rate, I read through the first book at a quick clip. It has very memorable characters, a well-constructed world, a believable and interesting magic system (perhaps even three or four, depending on how you count) and an interesting story.

I'll probably verge a bit into spoiler territory, so if you are interested in hearing my thoughts, click the readmore link below.

read more (331 words)

April 28, 2012

Books by Shamus Young

I've linked to Shamus Young's Twenty Sided blog before. He puts a lot of time into his blog and what he writes there, often explaining technical concepts in plain, easy-to-understand language. He has run a great series on procedurally generating a nighttime city and a 3d terrain engine.

I was happy to hear that he was working on writing a fiction novel, The Witch Watch. He's actually written two novel type things before, one of them the freely available "Free Radical", which is loosely based on the old First Person Shoot "System Shock". I never played System Shock, I actually never really got into first person shooters. I did play Bungie's Marathon (look it up kids, also now freely available as Aleph One) but never got too far. I kept getting lost and confused, and people were shooting at me. It was too much pressure.

I did actually, come to think of it, complete one "first person Shooter", Portal. But that was more because it was a great game and allowed me to take my time to think about things without getting shot up all the time. Or lost as much.

Anyway, I didn't know anything about System Shock, but I have read a lot of cyberpunk and I do know a lot about computers. So I was really happy to read Shamus' take on the genre, and also thought he did a great job of writing about Cyberpunk and computers without making all the dumb mistakes about computers that people who don't know about programming make. You can get a kindle version for free at the link to the left, and I highly recommend it. You won't beat it for the price (free!) so you can't lose much by taking a chance on it.

More recently, Shamus wrote an autoblogography, and then turned that into a book (linked to the left.) Shamus didn't enjoy school much and homeschools his own children. While I never really fit in at high school, I don't think I had a bad experience. I made some great friends, worked hard, learned a lot, and had some fun. I'm not sure that I would have described it as such at the time, but that is probably more just about being that age with others kids in a social situation. At any rate, you can read Shamus' take on his education process in the book "How I learned." It is also full of funny stories and is a run read itself. You can read through it on his blog as well, so give it a try.

Once you are done with all of that content I linked, you can then decide if you want to buy his book "The Witch Watch." I really enjoyed this book. It is completely worth the price - I think he has dropped the price all the way down to $5, which is my impulse purchase price for books now. I've been reading a lot more with the Kindle, and taking chances on books with lower prices and finding some really good stuff. For $5 though, The Witch Watch is a steal. It is well written, has a very well-thought-out magic system, and has interesting characters, as well as a strong female lead. The only knock I have on her is that she is a bit too appealing as a smart, confident, skilled, and attractive character that seems like a dream come true for geeks, but that isn't really too hard of a flaw to overlook. Better than the default of assuming that a woman couldn't be all those things at any rate!

I highly recommend the Witch Watch! If you liked Brandon Sanderson's Elantris then you will like the Witch Watch. And if you haven't read Elantris, I recommend that one too!

February 27, 2011

A bunch of fantasy books on the kindle

For the past few months (about four) I've had a Kindle. Of course, I get some free content, from places like Project Gutenberg, or Amazon's own list of free book sources. I also have some old ebooks that I bought over the years that are not DRM'd, so I can convert them using Calibre or the like into a format that the Kindle can use (Mobi, in case you are interested.)

I love reading on the Kindle. It is small, fits in a coat pocket, looks beautiful, doesn't strain my eyes (unless I read too much) and is way too easy to acquire new books. In fact, even though I want to try to spend less on books, and I have major problems with ebooks costing about the same as hardcover books when I naturally feel like they should have a lower price structure due to cutting out printing and transportation costs (note that the majority of the overhead probably lies in editing, layout, design, and above all else advertising.) So I have been trying to restrain myself to older titles. But when started a poll on best books of the decade, I noticed a few books there that looked interesting.

So I bought The Lies of Locke Lamora. And I read it. Then I bought the next book in the series, Red Seas Under a Red Sky. I really enjoyed the Lies of Locke Lamora, a fun sort of mystery or reverse law and order. Interesting characters, and more humor than I expected. The first novel flowed very quickly, and I had trouble putting it down. The next novel was very good as well, although didn't seem quite as magical to me. I look forward to the next books in the series, but do not look forward to paying the hardcover (or higher) price for it when it releases soon.

After that I moved on to another book that had been seeing a lot of acclaim lately, The Name of the Wind. That book also was hard to put down and a great read. Its sequel comes out in a few days, and I am sorely tempted to buy it at full price to continue reading about the development and growth of Kvothe. Interestingly, the next two books all share a thread of "Legendary Heroes" of some sort. This book also reminds me of The Misenchanted Sword, which also opens (or ends?) with a legendary hero who puts aside his old life in favor of running an inn. (Also a great read btw.)

Next up was a book that I have been meaning to read for a while: Elantris. This is a stand-alone book by Brandon Sanderson, the author of the Mistborn trilogy. I really liked the Mistborn trilogy, and in particular the well thought-out and developed magic system. Elantris is a book that he wrote before the Mistborn series apparently, and also has a well-thought-out magic system. The protagonist is also someone who will become legendary (I imagine) in his world, and is generally a stand-up hero. All three of these books (not the first two) have heroes that are probably written in order to be very, well, heroic. And that is fine by me; I read my fantasy for an escape from the morally ambiguous difficult world we live in. It isn't that I don't like more realistic political stuff (I have been reading George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire) but I also enjoy more fun fantasy with clearly delineated good and evil characters.

After Elantris, I read The Warded Man. The kindle version of this book is a steal at $5.99. I'll have to pick up the sequel which is down to $4.39 for the Kindle. This book has another interesting magic system (well, rules around magical wards, not so much full on fireball throwing wizards, but lots of demons) and another strong protagonist that passes into legendary status.

So I've read enough books on the Kindle now that I know this is a dangerous device: it gets me reading more, and I don't have the time for that. It is keeping me up late, and eating into my free time, when I should be programming or writing blog posts. It is so easy to take around that if I find that I have a few minutes, I can pull it out and read, and then my few minutes turns into a half hour. Really all that means is that I need to get more self control. I've found that I can wait in between books, but once I get involved in a good one, I have a hard time putting it down.

Other things about the Kindle that are great: I like changing the font size. It makes it easy to read. A few times I've run into problems with the DRM and publisher set restrictions on the device. For example, I tried the text-to-speech feature while I was reading Elantris. I was cooking dinner, and over the course of the two hours that I was prepping and cooking, got a good portion of the book read to me. That was great. Unfortunately though, some of the other books have had that feature disabled by the publisher. I wanted to go to the store and have the book read to me while I was shopping, but I couldn't do that. (I had to consume a podcast instead.) The text to speech feature is nothing that would replace an audiobook version of the book. Actually, I don't know if that is true; I would never buy an audiobook because I can read faster than I can listen, and I don't want to be tethered to an audiobook for an extended period of time. Using the text to speech feature for short periods is really great though.

I'm also a bit worried that I am now tied to the Amazon ecosystem for books. That doesn't really worry me too much, because I like Amazon and I think they have my interests as a customer at heart (note: I do work at Amazon, but I am not speaking for them.) The books that I have that are DRM'd though can't be moved to a new reader in the future. I hope I don't have to ever do that, but I have already brought ebooks over from at least two platforms in the past (my Palm Pilot, Treo 600, and OLPC.) So I am hopeful that Amazon will be able to move to a non-DRM'd platform in the future, but until then the DMCA should give me the protection to break encryption in order to view the files on other devices. I think. Actually I'm really very clear on that, but I think it is something I should be able to do. I'll have to spend some time looking into the legality of it. For the time being though, I'm very happy using the Kindle.

September 19, 2010

The Computer Connection by Alfred Bester

It is about time that I've gotten around to reading some Alfred Bester. I've known about him for a long time, probably when I first saw the character "Bester" on Babylon 5 and looked up that history. I've never gotten around to reading anything by Bester though. Last week I dug up some Bester stuff, and read "Adam and no Eve", and then just today finished off "Computer Connection". I got interested in Computer Connection because of this post over on Super Sad True Love Story sounds interesting, but that post reminded me that I haven't read any Bester at all, and I should be able to find some older stuff somewhere for pretty cheap.

I do miss Half Price Books in Dallas, but just about every time I go back to the States I manage to find a nice used book store.

I enjoyed The Computer Connection, but the created language that Bester used to add flavor to his world seemed a bit dated to me, or perhaps just annoyed me. But still, it was a nice fun read, and went very quickly. The book itself didn't feel dated, even though it really should just because of the gap between how quickly computers and electronics progressed since the book was written.

Next up I'm going to try Tiger, Tiger.

August 12, 2010

More books: Paolo Bacigalupi

While at Fuji Rock, I read two ebooks, both by a new author (to me), Paolo Bacigalupi. I thought they were great. First up: Pump Six and Other Stories (link is to the Baen ebook version, which is an amazing $6.) This is a collection of short stories and a great place to start. Not all of the stories are in the same universe, but a few of them are, and they give a very good introduction to the world used in the full-length novel. I really enjoyed most of the stories - although in all honestly some of them are a bit disturbing. The majority deal with a post-peak-oil world where energy is not abundant and people have reverted to a more local economy built on human and (genetically engineered) animal power.

It is a haunting and not-unrealistic vision of the future. Living in Japan, and occasionally going back to America, I keep wondering how long it will be until jet fuel starts to cost so much that I just can't afford the trip back to the US. So far it hasn't happened, but I'm not sure that we will be flying around the world ten years from now. I wouldn't mind a nice relaxing cruise to the US on a well-stocked cruise ship, but I just don't see that happening with current standards for US and Japanese vacation allowance.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Pump Six and other stories. Pick it up!

Next up is The Windup Girl, a longer visit to one of the worlds introduced in Pump Six. The main action takes place in Thailand, and follows the lives of people trying to live in the energy-deficient world that has a surplus of engineered plagues targeting non-GMO foods. The whole thing seems like a completely realized extension of where we are headed with Monsanto's engineered seeds that are not fertile. Also, they'll sue you if you somehow get their seeds into your field by (say, like the wind) accident. Crazy. A really great piece of Science Fiction, and wholeheartedly recommended.

April 23, 2010

Fafhd and the Gray Mouser: finally getting around to a classic

On my last trip to the US, I decided to finally sit down and read a classic in the fantasy genre, Fritz Leiber's Lahnkmar series with Fafhd and the Gray Mouser. I picked up the first volume, a compilation of sorts I think, and gave it a read.

Overall it took a while for me to get into it. I persevered and near the end it really started moving. I'm looking forward to more adventures of this famous duo. I'm kind of curious what other gaps I have in the "classics" of the fantasy and science fiction genres. I've read a lot of the interesting sounding stuff from Project Gutenberg, but since nothing has fallen into the public domain since about 1923 or so there isn't much that is "newish" - I'm thinking of stuff from the 50s and 60s. Some of that is still being collected and published in new volumes for reasonable prices, so I guess it isn't too bad, but it seems strange to me that things published before my father was born are not yet available for the greater social good.

At any rate, I did enjoy this book, and will probably get started on the next one. Too bad I don't have any long 8 hour plane rides coming up where I can steal some time for reading...!

March 7, 2010

Japanese that Japanese people don't know

The other day I bought the book 日本人の知らない日本語, "Japanese that Japanese people don't know". It is a cute little book with comics, lots and lots and lots of ruby (furigana readings over the Kanji) written by a Japanese language teacher who primarily teaches foreign students. The idea is that foreigners have lots of crazy questions about the Japanese language that Japanese people just don't think about.

Having asked lots of those questions myself, I thought it would be a fun read. So far, it has. There is lots of ruby over the kanji, so it is very easy to read. Unfortunately, the vocabulary is pretty large, and by nature heads off into unusual places in the language (like counters for strange things, or the names of unusual utensils) so it isn't really appropriate for entry level Japanese language learners. That said, so far it hasn't really been all that hard to follow, so if you are an intermediate learner you might want to give it a try.

Actually, I take that back. Some things are hard to follow. The punchlines usually. The things that students say make intuitive sense to me - because I don't understand the natural Japanese language things that the readers are supposed to know. Sometimes the last panel of the comic just leaves me scratching my head.

The sequel just came out recently so I'll probably pick that up pretty soon too.

January 17, 2010

Review of Lawrence Watt-Evans' "The Unwilling Warlord"

So a few days ago I finished reading the second book in the Ethshar series by Lawrence Watt-Evans. It took a bit of time for it to get going, but I liked it in the end. The third book, The Unwilling Warlord, was quicker to get started. What I have really enjoyed about the Ethshar series so far is that the protagonists are more or less normal people. They don't want to save the world and generally just want to do what they can to lead a comfortable life. The second book in the series was a bit tougher to get into because I didn't like the (lack of) work ethic in the protagonist. I didn't have that problem with the protagonist of the third book. He seemed like a bit of an opportunist, but not lazy and not stupid. He takes a fairly straightforward approach to things, and the story one of the magic systems in Ethshar (Wizardry) in depth.

I really like the multiple forms of magic in Ethshar and am looking forward to seeing more stories in the world that explore more of the magic system. This entry in the series focuses on a gambler playing dice for small stakes, who finds out that he is the hereditary warlord for one of the small Southern Kingdoms. He's forced into service there and of course hijinx ensue when the small kingdom faces a war on two fronts. He falls back on his gambler instincts and decides to use magic to cheat.

That's basically the summary from the back cover, so I'm not giving anything away. I would really like to see a story set in this area a few years down the road to see what came of Sterren's story. I enjoyed the book quite a bit. I wonder how it has been that I didn't find Lawrence Watt-Evans' work before. I know it can't be because of the name; he's got a great name. He apparently has another well-known fantasy series The Lords of Dus. And a few others it looks like.

I've really enjoyed Ethshar though because they are a bit light-hearted and fun.

January 11, 2010

Lawrence Watt-Evans "With a Single Spell"

A few days ago I started reading Lawrence-Watt Evans' "With a Single Spell". At first, I didn't like it. It took a while to get into the book. I didn't like the protagonist. He was a lazy, entitled, selfish boy. I had a really hard time empathizing with him. I feel like I've worked for where I am. I was never the smartest or strongest in high school, but I was determined, and I studied hard. I didn't get great grades, but I got into the advanced classes, got some college credit, and kept that work ethic up through an (admittedly relatively unknown) undergraduate program, and went on to an ivy league school where I felt like I got a great education at the graduate level. Now I'm somehow in my mid thirties, married, own property, and live in a foreign country. I never once felt like I was doing just enough to get by, and have worked hard, and enjoy that.

So the first two chapters of this book were really hard to me to get into. I almost stopped reading. But I kept at it (not so much out of perseverance as much as a feeling that the first book was so good this was bound to get better. Also, I had to go to the restroom and wanted something to read…)

Anyway, yesterday, and a bit more today (on my day off) I found myself getting more and more into the story. It is a good story. I really like this world of Ethshar which seems to have a well-thought-out magic system and a plausible history and geography. I liked this book in the final acts when it really got into the wizardly magic bits of things. It reminded me of reading through the old Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition Dungeon Master's Guide with all the spells. What could you do with all those spells? How did they work? How would they fail to work? That is some really interesting stuff. I remember as a kid I would spend lots of time thinking about that, and planning out just how my moving castle would work. (I vaguely remember some sort of moving abode spell, can't recall the name now) and stuff like that. This book hits on some of those areas.

I also like the idea about the implications of a single spell and how it can be very useful when well-used. I always thought that the cantrips in AD&D could be more useful than people thought…

Anyway, I did enjoy the second book in the Ethshar series, but definitely the first book grabbed me more. I enjoyed this one enough to go and buy the third book, The Unwilling Warlord (although truth be told, I got it from instead of Amazon, which just kills me as an Amazon customer. I can't bring myself to purchased a DRM-encumbered version of an ebook when I can get it without DRM.)

So, uh, four stars? Our of ? some stars? I enjoyed it, maybe you will too!

January 5, 2010

Lawrence Watt-Evans' "The Misenchanted Sword"

Note that I actually purchased the ebook from And it was cheap: about $2 when I got it, but now it is back up to $6 it looks like. Huh.

I found this book through Joseph Mallozzi's blog / book club. It sounded interesting, and I liked that the author took the time to answer the questions. The general impression sounded good and it sounded like an interesting book in the fantasy genre that didn't just throw around the same plot and cliches. (It has new cliches and a distinct refusal to accept the common fantasy plot.)

I really enjoyed the book, and found it a refreshing look at a fantasy setting. I really like that the focus of the story was not on saving the world and defeating an overpowering enemy. It focuses on a character and how the character is changed by magic and war. I am always interested in books that take conventions of the genre and do different and new things with them. I'm also interested in good standard treatments though. I am not sure that I could count the number of treatments of Lord of the Rings that I've read.

The story is well written and goes by quickly. The story really focuses on one character more or less but the other people you meet along the way keep things interesting also. I enjoyed the book enough that I went and bought the second book in the series. Apparently this is one of the author's less successful series, so if the second book is also good I think I'll look into tracking down some of his more popular stuff.

Anyway, another book to get if you notice it somewhere!

December 21, 2009

Up next on the ebook reader: Lawrence Watt-Evans "The Misenchanted Sword"

Lawrence Watt-Evans' Ethshar book series page.

But cheaper at Sadly. Come on Amazon, get some good low-price options going here! I love impulse buying books that can be digitally delivered!

Over at Joseph Maolozzi's blog they did a book-of-the-month club selection of The Misenchanted Sword: A Legend of Ethshar (Legends of Ethshar). I haven't read the book, but it sounds very interesting, and I really enjoyed the interview (although I did do some skimming to avoid spoilers.)

The book is available on Amazon, but over at they have a non-DRMed version of the ebook for a mind-blowing $2.80. Wow! That is an impulse buy! So I impulse bought it. Now I have to load the thing up on my ebook reader and start reading. I am currently reading some objective-c programming stuff on there, but some good fantasy is so much more attractive than dry pointers and object oriented stuff. Well, maybe. In either case, "here there be dragons", as the old unix long-beards say.

November 29, 2009

Nick Harkaway's "The Gone-Away World" and Bich Mihn Nguyen's "Short Girls"

Nick Harkaway's "The Gone-Away World"

I picked up this book a while back, and once I started reading it I had a hard time putting it down. This was my first time reading anything by Nick Harkaway, and I found his writing style to be a bit verbose, but very refreshing.

The setting is interesting; a broken world after a scientific disaster that allows the fantastic to leak into (or completely overrun) the world we are familiar with. The story isn't as much about the fantastic creatures and events, but about how people deal with things, and in particular, the protagonist and his circle of friends. There is also a very interesting comment on society and capitalism and the role of corporations.

Also, ninjas.

I really enjoyed the book, and in a way it reminded me of works by Haruki Murakami (one of my favorite authors) where there is some underlying fantastic element to life. It is much more obvious here, but I felt the same sense of an awakening wonder as I read.

Bich Mihn Nguyen's "Short Girls"

I also recently read "Short Girls" by Bich Mihn Nguyen. I haven't read anything by her before, but was intrigued by the cover (which depicts a ... short girl) and despite the warning not to judge books by their covers, went ahead and picked it up. I enjoyed the book, but it was a bit tough for me. The book centers on a Vietnamese immigrant family, and in particular the first generation daughters, Van and Linny, and their father.

Since I'm in an inter-cultural marriage, the focus on Van and her marriage to a American (of Chinese descent, but many generations out so just a regular American I suppose) was very interesting, and yet difficult for me. I can understand some of the sources of friction in inter-cultural marriages, and that whole aspect of the book led to a lot of introspection.

I enjoyed the book overall, but it isn't on my standard list of "entertainment" (science fiction or fantasy) books, but instead is more of an interesting piece of fiction that goes into a pile for understanding the American experience when you aren't American. Or trying to make your own American experience. I'm interesting in those sorts of stories more now that I'm in living in Japan and trying to come to terms with what that means for me and my family, and wondering about whether we will ever move to the US, and in that capacity deal with issues like these.

The book does deal with adult issues (marriage, adultery) and looking back, was not the happiest thing I've read lately. I still enjoyed the book a lot, and you might want to give it a try if you are interested in America and cultural assimilation / adaptation.

September 14, 2009

Added a book list on the right

Added a book list running down the right-hand side of the blog.

It is provided by Library Thing but I have also been playing around with's Reading application. It doesn't yet seem to provide a nice badge of books that I've read recently though. (Neither does Library Thing, I can only order it by the date I entered books, which is close enough for now unless I want to go back and fill in more books.)

September 6, 2009

Lev Grossman's "The Magicians"

Last week, I finished Lev Grossman's "The Magicians". I have a few things to confess. Well, more than a few, but we will limit things to only relevant confessions for this post. First, I've never read any Harry Potter books (wait, what kind of page is that Amazon? I appreciate the link to Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter but that is a strange page you got there. I should dig up the link to the series page I guess. Maybe later.) I haven't read any Harry Potter books because they sound like bad Young Adult fiction to me. I like good Young Adult fiction (see, for example, Garth Nix's Shade's Children, or for that matter, anything by Garth Nix. I am also interested in Zoe's Tale but haven't gotten around to reading it yet.)

Anyway, the point is that Harry Potter looks like bad young adult fiction to me. I have watched one or two of the movies, but never with my undivided attention (I'll divide my attention on just about any crappy thing, wait two of those are actually pretty good…) and definitely not with any sort of anticipation. Well, Cho Chang was cute.

So, I have a bias against Harry Potter. I also have a love-hate (hate-hate?) relationship with alternate-world fiction but lately I have been finding examples where I actually enjoy it. (Also, see Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber for an exemplar of the genre.)

A few weeks ago, I noticed the book "The Magicians", and picked it up. I never got around to reading it until it showed up on one of my blog feeds. I can't remember now which one it was, but the tagline was "What if Hogwart's Academy was real, and real people went there?"

Now this is interesting. What if you put real people into unreal situations? I am somewhat fascinated with this topic; I kind of feel like I have made my life into a study of this topic. I wake up every morning thinking "I can't believe I live in Japan" - which is when you get down to it, an unreal situation for a regular joe from New Jersey. Not even a regular joe, but a somewhat under-achieving nerd. So I am interested in this topic. Even more, this is one of those good examples of science fiction / fantasy where the setting, while unreal, is itself not the main point. The main point of the novel is about the characters: how will these people react, and what will they do?

The central question of "What is the point of it all?" comes into full focus when you have characters that are, in their universe, masters of great power, and who can conceivably do whatever they wish. What then is left but a philosophical discussion about the point of life, the universe, and everything?

Anyway, I really enjoyed this book. I would love to see a follow-up, because the characters were interesting, and the universe was developed enough that now I think it would be interesting to see further adventures in it.

Other points of interest: Lev Grossman is a literary critic at the New York times. Shouldn't he be qualified to write a good book? I think he did. Also, the Amazon book page has an interview with him. Cool! I didn't know they did that. I didn't know that's books editors had a blog on books either, but now I do and I will follow it. (What's that? An interview with China Mieville? You had me at word one.)

July 19, 2009

Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn Series

Over the past few weeks, I have been using my OLPC as an ebook reader again. I really like the OLPC as an ebook reader. I did already post a review of Bradon Sanderson's Mistborn: The Final Empire, which I really liked. I received it as part of the free ebook giveaway which was great. This was the first time I had ever heard of Brandon Sanderson, and I really enjoyed the book. Since then I have heard a bit about him, mostly because he has been tapped to write the final book in the (unending) Wheel of Time series now that Robert Jordan has left us. I actually read the first few books, and then started to lose patience with them.

I really enjoyed the Magic system in Mistborn, and wanted to read the follow up books. I don't think it is possible to read the first book and not want to continue on to read the next two. So I decided to buy the books in my preferred format (digital) and see if I could get them to work on my OLPC.

Why do I prefer digital books now? The main reason is space. I live in Tokyo with my wife, and we have a small apartment that we bought. It costs a ridiculous amount of money, and has very little shelf space. So I am trying to get digital versions of all my books, except for a few that I have nice leather-bound versions of (Lord of the Rings, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Feynman Lectures on Physics.)

So I wanted to get digital versions of the second and third Mistborn books. I picked up the second book, The Well of Ascension, from It cost $14, which is annoying because it costs $7.99 on, which includes a physical real book made out of dead trees. I got the final book, The Hero of Ages, from mobipocket for $14 because the fictionwise version was $23 or something like that. Of course, the real physical version of the book is $7.99, so in both cases I paid more to get what absolutely positively has lower creation and distribution costs from the physical versions. I hope that Brandon Sanderson saw a higher percentage of royalties from the ebooks versions, but I am pretty sure that isn't the case.

Anyway, both ebooks came in .mobi versions, and have DRM on them. That is bad because I can't read files with DRM on my OLPC. In general, DRM is used to lock a book to one reading device. That is a problem also because you need special software to read the DRM'd files, and in twenty years I do not have confidence that the proper software will be around. So I removed the DRM from the books. I was really happy that worked. It looks like I might have lost some data in the conversion process, (a few line breaks, one of the books lost italics) but they both still read very well.

And now, on to my very short review of the second and third books: they were great! I am sad now that I have finished reading the books because there is no more for me to read in that world. I do plan on reading the other books that Brandon Sanderson has written, and also have been checking his website, which has deleted scenes, and commentary for the chapters. It is very interesting!

The characters in the book are very interesting, and the magic system is really great. I love a nice system that is logical and makes sense, where you get a feeling that the world is logically consistent. Brandon Sanderson has thought a lot about those issues, and it really shows up in the books. Highly recomended!

July 4, 2009

Stripping DRM from Ebooks

I found a good post on how to remove DRM from ebooks at They have a link to some python scripts that can remove DRM from some forms of ebooks as long as you know the PID for the book that you bought.

This morning I purchased Brandon Sanderson's "The Well of Ascension", the second book in the Mistborn series. I found the first book during's launch ebook giveaway, (you can get it too!) and really enjoyed the book. I wanted to read the rest. (Apparently, I might not be the only one.) So I checked online, and I could get the second book for about $14 from Fictionwise. Sounds great. The only problem is that the books they sell there have DRM, Digital Restrictions Management. I am not able to read books that are encrypted with DRM on my preferred ebook reading platform: FBReader on my OLPC with Ubuntu installed on it. So I decided to try to remove the DRM. That would restore my rights as the owner of the book to archive it, so that I can read it in a month, six months, five years, or twenty years. As long as I ensure that I have the regular unencrypted file and software to read it, I should be fine.

If I did nothing about the DRM I would only be able to read the book on the computer that I used to download it. A 15" notebook. It isn't really all that portable.

I was able to strip the DRM as outlined in the link above, but the resulting mobipocket file came up empty when I tried to load it on FBReader. Bummer. So I tried another approach. I took the unencrypted mobipocket file, and loaded it up into the OSX Stanza ebook reading software. Then I saved it again as an ePub file, a more open format. That did open ok in FBReader, and now I can read the book that I purchased on any hardware that I like.

I am a bit disappointedthat I needed to pay $14 for the book. I would have preferred $7 or so since I do not get a physical copy, but ebooks are actually more convenient for me. On the book is actually $7.99 for a new, physical copy (or the Kindle copy, which I am not able to buy, but could use if I could after stripping the DRM) that includes lots of costs for printing, shipping to warehouses, distribution, whatever. Ebooks are a lot simpler when it comes to distribution: you ship them over the internet, with perhaps some up-front computation to encrypt the book using some sort of DRM scheme. Costs would be lower without the DRM. Customers would be happier because things are easier to use. People who want to buy books probably are not the people that are going to go and upload the files to the internet. People who just want to get the book for free can already do that. I can't see how DRM is really helping the industry, but that is the standard for books right now.

Thankfully, it is now possible to get non-DRM'd music files, from Amazon or Apple's iTunes store (but you need to make sure the stuff is iTunes plus still I think?) Hopefully video will go the same way.

I would really like to get a Kindle but I won't do that until I can get one that works in Japan. Until then I will make do with what I have. Even once I get a Kindle though, I would like to make sure that my books do not have DRM on them so that I have control of my files, and what I can do with them is not dictated by a third party (regardless of whether or not I think that the system is reasonable enough, and non-intrusive enough to use.)

BTW, you can use the MobiDeDRM if you get the Kindle PID (type '411' from the Setting menu, according to this blog post.)

Review of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn: The Final Empire

I got Mistborn: The Final Empire in's ebook giveaway. I hadn't heard of Brandon Sanderson before, but I really liked this first book. I read through it in about three or four days, which is pretty good for me because I have not had the time to just read for fun lately. I usually grab reading time on the subway and whenever else I had a few spare minutes during the day.

So, what did I enjoy about the novel? It is a fantasy novel, which is on my list of fun genres. The characters were very memorable. Most importantly it has a self-consistent view of magic, that seems to have a logical and sensible set of rules. The story also does not seem to be set up to be saved by a bunch of kids who have unexplained powers; there are smart people behind the plans to save the world that know what they are doing. There is also a young kid in there, but it seems reasonable enough.

Also interesting is the set-up of the story and the "big evil", which is not just a bad guy doing bad things for the sake of it. Read the book. It is both fun and interesting.

So much so that I've gone and bought the second book in the series. And plan to buy the third.

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