Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Here Are The Top 4 Books I Read in 2017

Each year, I set a goal for the number of books I intend to read on Goodreads. I never read a book without recording it there, and I make a point of reviewing every book I read.

This year, I set myself the rather lofty, but still achievable, goal of 35 books. I've already exceeded this year's goal by a comfortable margin, but if you know anything about me, you'll know that I'm difficult to please.

Only four of those books managed to worm their way into my coveted "Five Star Club". So, without further ado (and in no particular order), here are my top four books for 2017. Click on the cover to find out where you can buy each one.

The End of The Trail by Louis Rakovich

A barren land of salt and snow; a castle where underground paths twist and turn in endless circles and a reclusive king has not shown his face in years; a forest where few things are what they seem. An unnamed hero must navigate through these places as he takes on the task of tracking down a supposed witch, in a story that blends dream and reality, rumor and truth, danger and hope.

My Review

There isn't much to say about this book, because it's so short that I don't want to give anything away. It's not too short, though: the length is just right. And not because it was bad. Quite the contrary, it's a fully composed story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

It was creepy, but not too creepy. It was beautifully written. It made me think. And the ending, while somewhat predictable, was utterly satisfying. You can't go wrong.

A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin

The last of the Targaryens, Daenerys Stormborn, the Unburnt, has brought the young dragons in her care to their terrifying maturity. Now the war-torn landscape of the Seven Kingdoms is threatened by destruction as vast as in the violent past.

Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf with half a nose and a scar from eye to chin, has slain his father and escaped the Red Keep in King′s Landing to wage war from the Free Cities beyond the narrow sea.

Jon Snow is Commander of the Black Watch on the frozen Wall. Pledged to protect the Seven Kingdoms from the Others as winter approaches, his enemies want his head.

The last war fought with dragons was a cataclysm powerful enough to shatter the Valyrian peninsula into a smoking, demon-haunted ruin half drowned by the sea.

A DANCE WITH DRAGONS brings to life dark magic, complex political intrigue and horrific bloodshed as events at the Wall and beyond the sea threaten the ancient land of Westeros.

My Review

When I finished the previous book in this series, I said that not very much happened and that I hoped this one would have more meat. I wasn't disappointed.

Things are happening in Westeros and surrounds, and they're happening quickly. There are more deaths and more bombshells in this instalment than I've seen since The Red Wedding. And the fact that Tyrion and Daenerys are back, just makes it all the sweeter.

It's difficult to say more, for fear of spoilers. Suffice it to say that I still think this is the most well fleshed out fantasy world I've ever read, and the characters among the most real. There aren't any cookie-cutters here. At the end of each book, Martin includes a long section describing all the houses and character histories in the series, which he updates after each story. In this book, that section is now over a hundred pages long (I think after the first book, it was maybe twenty).

Editing-wise, not a single typo to be found, and no plot point that didn't make sense.

I might even go so far as to say that this is the best book in the series so far.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Sixteen-year-old Cinder is considered a technological mistake by most of society and a burden by her stepmother. Being cyborg does have its benefits, though: Cinder's brain interference has given her an uncanny ability to fix things (robots, hovers, her own malfunctioning parts), making her the best mechanic in New Beijing. This reputation brings Prince Kai himself to her weekly market booth, needing her to repair a broken android before the annual ball. He jokingly calls it "a matter of national security," but Cinder suspects it's more serious than he's letting on.

Although eager to impress the prince, Cinder's intentions are derailed when her younger stepsister, and only human friend, is infected with the fatal plague that's been devastating Earth for a decade. Blaming Cinder for her daughter's illness, Cinder's stepmother volunteers her body for plague research, an "honor" that no one has survived.

But it doesn't take long for the scientists to discover something unusual about their new guinea pig. Something others would kill for.

My Review

I really enjoyed this.

As science fiction goes, the world is truly compelling. On the one hand, it's post-apocalyptic, but on the other, it's a bit of a utopia. 

World War IV happened a long time ago, and almost destroyed the world. That's the apocalypse part. What came out of that war was a treaty that saw all the countries of the world consolidated into less than ten, mostly based around continents, so you have the African Union, Europe, the Americas, and something called The Commonwealth.

This story is set in New Beijing, a massive city-state that's part of The Commonwealth. Technology has progressed to the point where humans can be cybernetically enhanced, everyone flies around in hovers, and intelligent androids, able to show emotion, are commonplace.

Now for the bad news. There's this worldwide plague, you see, with no cure, and a 100% mortality rate. If you contract it, you die. Within days. Scientists all over the world are racing against time to find a cure, while every day thousands of people are dying. It's a losing battle.

Enter Cinder, a teenage cyborg who runs a small mechanic's shop, repairing androids, portscreens (pretty much tablet PCs), and other miscellaneous electronics. She has an evil stepmother and stepsister, and a prince invites her to a ball.

This story is VERY loosely based on the Cinderella fairy-tale, but if you didn't know that, and I hadn't pointed it out to you, you might miss it. The fairy tale served as inspiration for the author, but that's where it ends. It ends up going in an entirely different direction.

There's some romance here, but not very much (less than I expected, anyway), and you're sure to enjoy it even if you're not a fan of love stories.

The one thing that bugs me is that this book is billed as Young Adult. I think the only thing that technically makes it YA is the age of the protagonist. But it doesn't take place in a high school or anything, nor do any of the characters face typical teenager-type problems, nor do they behave like teenagers would be expected to behave.

No, this is quite clearly an adult book, and it deals with some pretty adult themes. Having said that, I should point out that it's a WHOLESOME adult book. There's not a single swear word to be found, nor even any blasphemy. Which is refreshing, because blasphemy is often what stops me from giving a book 5-stars.

Editing-wise, there's the odd typo here and there, but it's very well polished, and none of them detracted in any way from the story.

If you like science fiction, and you like a good family-friendly read, I don't doubt for one minute that you'll enjoy this book!

The Martian by Andy Weir

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm nearly kills him & forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded & completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—& even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive. Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to kill him first. But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—& a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

My Review

I watched the movie about a year ago, more or less around the same time everyone else did, I think, when it won the Oscar. At the time, I thought it was really good, and I'd probably have given it five stars too, if I were in the habit of reviewing movies.

Personally, I'd never heard of it until all the hype around the movie started, but once I'd watched it, the book went straight onto my to-read list. A friend once told me that, in her opinion, if you're going to watch a movie AND read the book, you should always start with the movie. That way, when you read the book, you're pleasantly surprised at all the extra bits that they invariably leave out of movie adaptations (as opposed to being frustrated, disappointed, and angry, when you watch the movie and realise all the things they left out).

The book is amazing! The movie was good, but the book is better. Don't get me wrong: the movie is pretty true to the book, in my opinion. The book just brings you so much more, is all. There are more problems for our intrepid astronaut to solve, and the science is more detailed as we're taken through his thought process in solving those problems.

There's a lot of maths, too, but it's really easy to understand - and if you REALLY don't like maths, you can safely skip it. I'm not a fan of maths, but I didn't skip it. I kept thinking that if Andy Weir had been my maths teacher in High School, I would have aced it on Higher Grade in Matric, instead of just barely scraping through on Standard Grade.

Generally, I don't much care for "hard" science fiction, because I find the maths and science tedious, but because this book is just so accessible, I cannot in all good conscience give it fewer than five stars.

And that's no small thing. If you follow my reviews, you'll know that it's incredibly rare for me to read a book and find absolutely no fault with it. Editing often lets a book down for me, so if I find a single typo, the author can kiss their five stars goodbye. This book, though, is polished to a sparkling sheen. 

Did you know, by the way, that The Martian was originally self-published back in 2011? It's not like I've never given such a high rating to an indie book, but it's been a long time, and it really renews one's faith in independent publishing.

What makes it even more special, is that The Martian is officially the first e-book I've ever borrowed from a library, and I can't think of a better way to start that journey.

Anyway, enough gushing. If you're even remotely into science fiction, or books about the human condition, drop everything and pick up a copy of this book. But if you DO intend to watch the movie, I agree with my friend - watch it first, then read the book. You'll be really glad you did.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Genesis Earth by Joe Vasicek (Book Review)

The ultimate voyage of discovery ends when you learn the truth about yourself.

Michael Anderson never thought he would set foot on a world like Earth. Born and raised in a science colony on the farthest edge of the solar system, he only studied planets from afar. But when his parents build mankind's first wormhole and discover a world emitting a mysterious artificial signal, Michael is the only qualified planetologist young enough to travel to the alien star.

He is not alone on this voyage of discovery. Terra, his sole mission partner, is no more an adult than he is. Soon after their arrival, however, she begins acting strangely—as if she's keeping secrets from him. And her darkest secret is one that Michael already knows.

Twenty light-years from the nearest human being, they must learn to work together if they're ever going to survive. And what they discover on the alien planet forces them to re-examine their deepest, most unquestioned beliefs about the universe—and about what it means to be human.

This book is rated T according to the AO3 content rating system.

My Review (4 / 5 Stars)

Having just come off the emotional rollercoaster that is Christine Bernard's Unravel, I was looking for something light to read, and based on the title and glossy cover, I thought Genesis Earth would be it.

Well, it is, and it also isn't.

About 150 years into the future, a group of scientists live on a space station at the edge of the solar system. They don't live there because Earth has become uninhabitable, or some other catastrophe has taken place, as is the case with most science fiction. No, Earth is just fine--climate change is still an issue, but other than that, life on Earth is pretty much as it always was.

The scientists live on the space station because they have some very important research to conduct. They're trying to manufacture a wormhole to another point in space-time, and they need to do it as far away from Earth as possible because a mishap could destroy an entire planet.

Faster-than-light travel hasn't yet been developed, so the journey from Earth to the station takes many years. Consequently, many of the younger generation, born on the station, have never known Earth except through stories and pictures from their parents.

Such is the case for our protagonist, a 16-year-old scientist.

The book is an easy read, but there are layers within layers, including discussions about evolution vs creationism, the purpose of religion, and loyalty to a collective vs loyalty to oneself.

I was impressed. Even more so, when I discovered in the Author's Note at the end, that Genesis Earth was self-published after many failed attempts to get a traditional publisher to take a look at it. I wouldn't have guessed that; it reads like any traditionally published work. It's professionally put together, and the editing is near-perfect (Except for one of my biggest editing bugbears: there is no such word as "alright|!). This is probably thanks to the countless revisions the author said he made before finally unleashing it on the world.

The only thing that irked me a little was the ages of the main characters. It seems as though the author only made them so young so he could call this a Young Adult book, but once the story gets started, you completely forget how old they are. The main characters are most obviously adults, and calling them 15 to 16-year-olds simply doesn't ring true.

Click here to learn where you can pick yourself up a copy.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Get a Free Book When You Vote for Me in the 2017 South African Blog Awards

It's that time of year again. It's time for the annual South African blog awards. This year, I'm nominated in the categories of Best Entertainment Blog and Best Lifestyle Blog.

If you read this blog regularly, and you enjoy it, I'd really appreciate your vote! Please click on the button below to cast it.

If you forward me your confirmation e-mail from the Blog Awards, I'll send you one of my e-books for free. Just let me know which one you want when you send me your e-mail. My e-mail address is graham@grahamdowns.co.za.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Unravel by Christine Bernard (Book Review)

What a fantastic story! Rose Madison is a promising young writer at her college, and popular to boot. With a highly successful author for a mother and stunning good looks, she doesn't know how lucky she has it.

Until everything in Rose's life starts to fall apart. At first, it's innocent enough: when words start disappearing from the award-winning story she's meant to read in front of the whole school, she chalks it down to stress. After all, the supposedly "missing" words are back when she goes over it again later.

But things quickly start escalating from there, and slowly, Rose comes to the conclusion that she's going crazy.

The pacing of this story is brilliant, and the situations in which she finds herself are chilling. It's been a while since I've read one of those "Just one more chapter" books--I couldn't put it down!

Plus, I tend to enjoy stories about writers, and in this one, the lifestyle is portrayed quite realistically, in my opinion. I really cared about Rose and what was happening to her.

So, I won't lie, I thought I'd figured out what was happening quite early on, but it turned out I was only half-right, and the last chapter nearly made me drop my phone in the toilet when I got to it! Christine Bernard really knows how to keep you guessing.

There were two things that niggled me with this book. The first was, in the e-book version I read, there is no linked table of contents. I've grown quite used to knowing, over the years, how many pages/minutes I had in the current chapter, so I could make a decision about whether I had time to read it or not. But with the chapters not marked properly in the epub, I had no way of doing that. But maybe that was a blessing in disguise because I devoured the book in record time.

The other thing was that, although the author is South African, the story takes place in America, and ostensibly uses American spelling, grammar, and phrasings. That's not a bad thing in and of itself (although I'd have loved it to be a bit more authentic and proudly South African), but she didn't quite get it right. "Color" is spelt without a "u", and the characters say "Yeah" and go to the "mall". But they also wear trainers instead of sneakers, jumpers instead of sweaters, and visit the shops instead of the store. I think the author is still trying to find her voice a bit... but I get the impression her second book is much better.

Speaking of her second book, boy am I glad that this one's a standalone. I'm getting really tired of series, and foreshadowing of things to come, which require me to read another three books before they come to a head. It was so nice to read a self-contained story. I hope Ms Bernard keeps that up. I don't really enjoy series.

In conclusion, if you like deep, psychological stuff, you'll love this. It's going to make a fantastic movie one day, in the vein of Stephen King's more psychological stuff, or something like The Cell. Best you read it before that happens.

(4 / 5 stars)

About the Book

Rose Madison is of sound mind, with a sharp focus and a willingness to succeed. At only twenty-three, she’s already won an award for her short story, and has been hailed as the next big thing in the literary world. She’s beautiful, funny, intelligent, and comes from a wealthy and successful family. It’s clear to all, including herself, that her future looks bright and promising.

Why then, does the perfect Rose Madison start to slowly lose her mind? 

This is a story of a young woman in her prime, clutching at the remains of sanity.

Click here to find out where you can pick up a copy.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Did you buy e-books on Black Friday?

Every year since I published my first book, I've participated in Black Friday, without much success. I don't know if it's just that people don't buy e-books on Black Friday (see the title: do you?), or my books just aren't very appealing, but that seems to be the way it is for me.

This year, I had actually decided to not take part. It just didn't seem like it was worth the effort. But then the admins of The Secret Book Club group on Facebook sent out a message to all resident authors, inviting them to post their Black Friday deals in the group.

If you're not a member of that group, you really should consider joining. There are over 4 000 members, all of whom love reading, and love talking about books. People post funny book memes, ask for recommendations, and review books they've read. It's very well maintained and administered, and the membership is well represented between young and old, men and women, e-book lovers and print book lovers, and lots of different countries.

Although there are many authors, publishers, and book PR people in the group, self-promotion is generally not allowed. Except for occasional, special "Admin Approved" posts. Of which the Black Friday deal was one.

When I got this message, I decided to give it a try. I went over to Smashwords and generated coupon codes, offering 100% discount off all my books there. Then I made a post to the group, where I listed out all the links and coupon codes. I made my deal exclusive to The Secret Book Club members and did not mention any Black Friday deals anywhere else.

If you're a member of the group, click here to see my Black Friday post, and let me know what you think.

It worked out pretty well, I think. People like exclusive deals, so I think the members really appreciated the fact that the deals I was offering weren't available anywhere else.

I "sold" seven copies.

If you're a reader, did you buy any e-books on Black Friday? Why or why not?

If you're an author or otherwise involved in the book industry, did you offer any special deals on e-books? How did you do?

Thursday, 23 November 2017

All Rights Reserved: A New YA Science Fiction Book by Gregory Scott Katsoulis (Book Review)

This is easily my favourite book of the year.

It reminds me a lot of Orwell's 1984 (which I've actually never read, but know enough about to make it feel like I have).

In the distant future, all forms of communication are copyrighted. A shrug more than 2.5cm high costs you money. Crying or laughing, unless you can prove it's involuntary, costs you money. Speaking costs you money. The word "Sorry" costs a flat $10, and is considered an admission of guilt which opens you up to an InstaSuit from the person you're saying it to. The value of other words fluctuate wildly, depending on the market, and some people make it their business to scour those markets and use the cheapest possible words to say what they want to say (which change from day to day).

It's not just communication - all forms of expression carry a cost. There are a few hairstyles still in the public domain, but wearing your hair in any other style incurs a monthly fee. Likewise with clothes.

And the penalties for copyright violation are far-reaching. If your great-grandparents once illegally downloaded a song, you can be held liable to pay damages, or be carried off into lifetime servitude if you can't afford it.

That particular part of the book fascinated me, because the whole idea that people should be held liable, and have to pay for something their long-dead ancestors did reminds me of what's happening in South Africa right now with land reform and Black Economic Empowerment. I know that's not the intent, and in South Africa's case, the motivation is ostensibly more altruistic, but it goes to show how easily things can get out of control.

And everything in this dyspotia is out of control. And it's not too far-fetched, either. A couple of tweaks to copyright law here, a few fudges of Free Speech there, and we're on a slippery slope. You already can't technically sing the melody to "Happy Birthday" without paying someone royalties. All the rights holders need is a way to enforce it so that it's not prohibitively expensive to collect, and you'll have to pay $100 whenever you sing it at someone's birthday party.

Scary stuff.

Editing-wise, it's no worse than some of the bestsellers I've read, and it's better than most. But I long to read a flawless book again. It's been a long time since I've clicked that fifth star....

My Rating: 4 / 5 Stars

Click here to find out where you can get your hands on a copy.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Need Editing for your Flash Fiction Story? I'm now available on Fiverr

As a multi-genre author of short stories, flash fiction collections, and novelettes, I am uniquely skilled in the English language.

As such, I can provide proofreading of your flash fiction story, in any genre, catching spelling errors, typos, and glaring plot holes.

My own work is written in British English, but I'm fully capable of sticking to American spellings and phrasings if you prefer.

Click here to find out more. It's only $5. :)