What Do Our Choices in Thrillers Say About Us? Goodreads’ Mystery & Thriller Week

Goodreads just listed their top 100 Mysteries & Thrillers based on popularity as of this month. What that translates into basically is how many people clicked a star rating for a particular book. The more ratings, the more popular the book. Not too scientific, but it gives readers a baseline comparison in the genre (unless some ratings are spammed…).

While getting the crowd’s opinion for gauging pop culture taste is a tried-and-true tradition, it bears examining fan faves here a little bit more closely.

I present an only *slightly* deeper look at popularity on Goodreads using number of reviews (rather than ratings) and avg. rating for a book. I think it’s a much better gauge of quality of a book (whether you love it or hate it) to give it a review. It’s hard to fake reading a book when there’s a review with it, but some fake reviews likely still exist.

So what do these picks say about our taste in thriller fiction? I’ll let you decide.

Goodreads’ full list can be found here.

– Josh

 

thrillers_# reviews

 

thrillers_avg rating

 

A Dark Sci-Fi Tale That Unhinges Its Characters and Readers

Spoilers neatly quarantined in their own section.

Evie, Mas and Don. What a trio.

The free short story “Skinner Box” is complex, holding more emotional resonance and depth than some novels. It shows the nature of human relationships when in isolation (apt timing during COVID-19) and such layered levels of deception that the reader must pay keen attention, unravel the different meanings, and contemplate the implications.

In short, it’s damn good. I read it twice to appreciate the nuances and the agendas of the characters, all thinking they know the true mission they have been sent on in this interplanetary trip through the solar system.

This story is filled with trauma, of the abuses, physical and emotional, we visit upon our closest loved ones. The abuse is essential to the story. It’s not just senseless violence (this story is rated M), and it plays out in ways critical to understanding what the crew is attempting. The aha moment at the end forces the reader to view the violence in an entirely new light.

Everything ties neatly with the technology experiments taking place on board the ship (the reward and punishment in the skinner box trials, conditioning the nanites) and the desires of the people on board. It’s nothing short of brilliant how the story can be read completely differently the second time. It’s dark sci-fi at its best and Carole Johnstone is one of my new must-read authors. This tale would also fit nicely in an animated short-story anthology like Netflix’s LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS.

What perhaps is the story’s crowning achievement in my mind is the acceptance each character has of his or her fate and embraces it despite the risks, understanding that freedom is just an illusion.

SPOILERS:

Don’t do it, don’t read the excerpt that follows. It gives it all away. Come back after you read the story.

>>>>>
>>>>
>>>
>>
>

I am an unsupervised machine learning model with a continuously learning AI program.
I am bio-evolution.
I am one-shot learning.
I am the singularity.
“I’m transhuman.”

This was an extraordinary reveal. It was all about Evie. She was the test subject, she was the potential answer to solve space travel for one evil corporation. I don’t know what the literary mechanic is called when a character’s whole reality comes undone, but I could feel Evie’s anxiety as the understanding of her existence dawned on her.

So the mission was to figure out how to make interplanetary travel possible with long periods of isolation. Human-to-human didn’t work and robot-to-human didn’t work. What would? Perhaps an AI that thinks it’s human AND can resist the stimuli (whether it’s abuse, or other harsh conditions) and maintain its ‘programming’. Evie thinks that the ‘other man’ – Boris the cyborg on a previous mission, or her human lover Mas on this mission – is the test subject. She’s trying to see if they’ll do her bidding in killing her husband for her. Why? Don is beating and raping her, but thinking it out logically, doesn’t that make the abuse a part of the test conditions to make the cyborg sympathetic and the lover angry? It’s one giant twisted and perverse scientific experiment to make long-haul space travel a reality.

But Evie is really the one being tested. First with the cyborg Boris, who agrees to murder, but then self-terminates as his programming dictated; then with a man she develops feelings for and wants to protect by committing the murder herself (so Mas doesn’t have to).

It’s an unsettling look into the human soul and how we can deceive one another. Not to mention our ambitions at playing God. In the end, it’s not just the nanites in a skinner box, but the crew as well in their dysfunctional ship.

5 of 5 stars.

– Josh

The National Emergency Library is a Good Thing, Even With All Its Technical Flaws

A Quick Tech Guide to Getting Your Free Ebook Loans

The National Emergency Library (NEL), made available by the Internet Archive, is providing a worldwide service during the COVID-19 pandemic (yes, anyone on the planet can sign up). Libraries across the nation have shuttered, but now through June you have at your fingertips a massive free digital library. There are over 1.3 million book selections. Good luck picking your ten. In addition to a wide selection of books, there are no waitlists for a digital copy. That’s the big selling point.

The NEL isn’t without controversy. Publishers and some authors say it’s piracy since the books aren’t licensed. Yet they don’t acknowledge that NEL places limits on book checkouts (10 at a time for 14 days per book) and the digital files are locked down completely, to the point downloads are only possible through Adobe’s Digital Editions app (a double-edged sword, which I’ll get to).

 

Ebook loans without a wait list are available during the pandemic at the National Emergency Library.

Ebook loans without a wait list are available during the pandemic at the National Emergency Library.

 

Publishers simply want their money. Are they wrong? Maybe not, but they don’t have much of an argument from where I stand. Two big reasons: First, people who do choose to buy ebooks don’t actually own them, but rather only have limited licenses to ebooks. That fact is buried in Terms of Service agreements and makes me even less inclined to buy ebooks.

Second, I can get most of the books I want at my library, so this is a legitimate alternative to help me and my kids (if they can get off Netflix) read during this period. Before the pandemic, I was three books shy of figuring out if the Baudelaire orphans could really defeat Count Olaf in the 13-book series, “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Now I can tear through these books in short order. I’m not paying $30 when I could normally get them at my library.

But this article is not about all the money grubbing and finger pointing. It’s about the technical part of getting your free ebook loans, which is a bit frustrating. I’m fairly tech savvy, and it still took me four days of sporadic testing to figure this thing out. So now, in short order, here’s how I navigated this arcane process to book bliss.

Reading in the Web Browser (a.k.a. The path of least resistance):

  • Go to https://archive.org/ and sign up for a free account. Click on the book icon. Search for a book. Read in your web browser. Done.
  • If you don’t want to carry around your laptop to read, you can read on a mobile web browser, but you’ll strain your eye-sight squinting at the baby-sized font. (The book pages are scanned images, not actual text, so they don’t resize well.)
  • Brush up on your search query skills when book hunting. There are a ton of results. Get specific. For example, if you’re looking for a book in a series, put in the exact title of the entry to find it rather than the series’ name.
  • Good luck getting your kids to read in the web browser. They might laugh at you.

Reading an ebook offline:

  • Download the Adobe Digital Editions app to your device. Unfortunately, you have no other choice.
  • Connect to your Adobe account or create one.
  • Look in the book description for download links to the ePub and PDF files.
  • Download the ePub version (HIGHLY recommended).
  • Open in Adobe Digital Editions. You’ll be prompted to login to your Adobe account if you aren’t already in order to authenticate the device you’re reading on.

DESKTOP:

  • If you’re reading on a laptop (really?) using Adobe Digital Editions, either file type will work. But sometimes two thumbnails of the book appear randomly. The interface is bare bones too. I didn’t do much here because I’m not reading on my laptop…

 

ADE

Adobe Digital Editions is its own kind of horror story, one you can’t even avoid if you want to download ebooks from the National Emergency Library.

MOBILE DOWNLOAD:

  • The only way you’re going to even have a remotely painless ebook experience on mobile – from download to reading – is the following route.
  • On a mobile browser, login to your Internet Archive account, borrow your book and download the ePub file. (The PDF of the “scanned book” will cause you to pull your hair out. I warn you – the file is big, pages bleed off-screen, it doesn’t work half the time if downloading on desktop and syncing to mobile, and it won’t work at all if trying to download directly on mobile.)
  • On my iPhone, the download prompt asked me which app I wanted to open the file in. Open in Adobe Digital Editions, which I can now officially say is the most jarringly bad ebook app experience on mobile (an indie developer could do better). The download with start automatically.
  • If the device isn’t already authenticated with Adobe credentials, you can do that in the settings.
  • Don’t let your mobile screen go to sleep during download, and don’t check your texts or other apps. The download will stop every time if you navigate away from the screen.
  • Downloads on LTE sometimes took a minute, sometimes upwards of 20 minutes. These are small ePub files so it’s a problem I would suspect with the software.
  • There’s a standard disclaimer that the ePub files have errors, so I first went with the PDF, which turned out to be a far inferior and more frustrating file to even download and get working. I swapped back to the ePub with ‘errors’ after wrestling endlessly with the PDF.

MOBILE READING EXPERIENCE:

  • It’s passable, but not pretty.
  • The ePub book text is pulled from scanned pages, so there are lots of weird characters (a.k.a. ‘errors’) that are obvious, but not deal breakers.
  • If you choose to do the PDF “scanned book”, the font is an eye-strainer, and when trying to download on mobile to read, I couldn’t. I had to do it on a laptop first and sync to mobile. So, that’s not an option anymore in my book (pun!)
  • You’ll probably want to increase the text size with the touchscreen pinch-and-zoom gesture. If zooming pushes text off the screen, rotate the screen to landscape and rotate back to normal to fix (on iPhone at least).
  • The controls are not consistent from ePub to PDF. I recommend only ePub on mobile, but if you have both files, the screen options for the book change depending on the file type. Really poor experience that keeps you guessing.
  • Of the basic screen options (you can count them on one hand), highlighting and notes exist, but you can’t download them from the mobile app. So what’s the point?
  • Actually trying to highlight often advances the page instead. Or it highlights huge blocks of text you don’t want and modifying the highlight is frustrating. Saying the function is worthless is not too harsh.
  • Don’t try to advance the pages while the screen is loading; you’ll jump several pages ahead.

Learning about all these issues was a four-day trial. The NEL is a service that I hope continues, but the technology that it uses for mobile downloads and reading is below even basic standards for mobile ebook readers. The majority of these issues are Adobe’s to solve. If users are forced into Adobe Digital Editions, it needs to simply work. The company’s ebook app is far from intuitive or easy, surprising for a company that pours millions or more into development for its Creative Cloud apps. Consumers also need more obvious prompts that make it clear ePub files are what should be used for small screens.

Without more guidance, readers likely will suffer a lot of heartache through the summer, if they even attempt to struggle through downloading and reading on a mobile screen using Adobe’s app. The Amazon “Buy Now with 1-Click” Button never looked so enticing. But remember, that’s a deception too, since you’re only licensing ebooks.

I hope the NEL can reach its full potential. The books are there (at least until authors request their work be pulled), but the technology is not. As the Baudelaire orphans might say, maybe Abode is the real VFD, Very Fickle Developers. That might make for a good entry in that series. Now back to fighting Count Olaf instead of bad technology.

Happy reading through these hard times!

Josh

 

The Perfect Story Collection? ‘Exhalation’ Astounds with its Look Into the Human Soul

Exhalation1

Click image for interactive version. Most stories are less than an hour, and it’s time well spent for seekers of not just great, but essential speculative fiction.

 

Exhalation isn’t just a collection of short stories, it’s an experience that you will revisit over and over in your mind. I’m still processing the issues it raises about technology, society, and our collective and individual free will. It’s hard to put into words how profound the ideas, and the execution of those ideas, are.

Again, it’s an experience.

Story collections can sometimes be hit or miss and they are only as strong as their weakest link. There are none here. Ted Chiang wrote the stories in this collection, his second, over the course of almost a decade and a half (2005-2019). They all feel timeless, distinct, and something that is experienced at a personal level.

I’ll argue that these stories do what the best sci-fi should do, and then some. Science fiction allows people to potentially be more open or exposed to ideas that they otherwise wouldn’t be. Exhalation checks that block and then does something even more rare – it gets you thinking about changing your behavior, about being a better citizen of the world, and by doing so, moving the needle in the right direction.

Happy Reading!

Josh

exhalation2

Recreation of the book cover. Click image to interact.

A Compelling City on Water Filled with Staggering Human Misery

Splendidly spoiler free review.

Blackfish City is an extraordinary piece of fiction. Sam J. Miller is able to build a world, immerse readers in it, and make them marvel at its strangeness and decaying grandeur. The mysteries that surround the water city of Qaanaaq — its history, technological wonders, and status as the envy of the Sunken World nations — set a riveting stage for the book’s cast of deeply scarred and fascinating characters. The narrative itself is expertly paced and written, giving each character a depth that makes you almost feel their anguish and understand the desperation of their lives in Qaanaaq.

The social and political subtext that is a hallmark of every great piece of speculative fiction is abundant in Blackfish City and often made me think of contemporary parallels without ever beating me over the head with an agenda. It opened my eyes to broader perspectives about different lifestyles, the fallibility of human systems, and the absolute corruption of the soul when survival becomes the only goal.

This book tries to deliver the entire package in a single tale – authentic world, fully-realized characters, compelling narrative, social commentary, unique fantastical elements – and I think in large part it succeeds. I appreciate immensely an author being able to bring a story to life within a single novel and deliver on all these elements. It’s a testament to being able to enthrall readers and give them a story that stays with them, moves them in some way, and becomes a meaningful part of their love of the genre without them having to commit to a ten-book series. *cough* Game of Thrones *cough*

Qaanaaq is a scary place, and it echos the dead nations that preceded it in many insidious ways that aren’t immediately apparent. The squalor and social divides are all the proof that’s needed that the computer programs that run the city are no better than their human programmers. It was absolutely chilling to think that the most ruthless of the old world could rule the new one and use anonymity and hide behind the so-called benevolent computer programs to keep a stranglehold on what was left of the world’s wealth.

Qaanaaq is seen as a successful model forward as the world floods or burns, but those who make it to the floating city find only temporary relief. There is barely enough space for the population, many residents crammed in closet- and box-sized living spaces. A deadly disease the breaks, is sweeping the population and a phantom of the old world, bent on vengeance for the genocide of her people, has arrived.

My favorite parts? Slight spoilers start now…

I was a big fan of Ankit and Kaev. They are both tragic characters, but survivors. Miller isn’t afraid to shatter his characters and it was devastating to see how short lived some of their happiness was. Joy has been in short supply their whole lives and I had a hard time when I realized that part of their tale would not end well.

There is so much sorrow in this book, and Ora and Masaaraq represent the core of this. Their story is arguably the center of the narrative, and they are determined to persevere no matter what. They are symbolic of an older generation under siege but with the strength to help those who come after them. They could represent the philosophy of yin and yang, one fiercely loyal to blood family, the other committed to the human race achieving more harmony.

To get a quick take on all of the book’s main characters, check out my data visualization. It shows the order characters were introduced in the book and a ranking of my favorites. For those who want spoilers, hover on the dots to see some of my analysis of each character. DON’T hover on the dots if you don’t want want spoilers!

4 out of 5 stars (I wish the third act hadn’t been so rushed.)

Happy Reading,

Josh

Blackfish City

Click image to interact

 

Black Mirror for the Book Crowd

I’m speechless, and a little unnerved. None of these stories seem far fetched and a few might even be plausible in our lifetimes. Some of the best voices in speculative fiction bring their A games to the Forward Collection (free in Amazon Prime Reading).

Read (or listen for free) in any order and prepare to encounter some weighty issues. For fans of plants, AI, humanity, free will, cloning, and quantum computing:)

The image shows my own reading order and ranking for the collection. Click on the picture to explore and find some easter eggs in the data graphic.

Happy Reading! – Josh

forward_viz graphic

 

Classic Stories Reimagined

The cynical side of me could say, “Look, people are cashing in on stories in the public domain.” Or I could give some of these a shot and see if they’re worth a read. But please don’t let these be in the vein of the Cinder series. (Sorry, those were just too superficial for me.)

Check out these reworked classics and read more at https://www.tor.com/2020/02/05/23-retellings-of-classic-stories-from-science-fiction-fantasy-authors/

 

book retellings_graphic

‘Artemis’ Review: Jazz, you’ve been a bad, bad girl.

Image result for artemis book coverThe book Artemis by Andy Weir is like the flavored algae that the moon colonists in the story eat, passable but it’s no gourmet meal. No matter how much chicken flavor you put on the algae (known as Gunk to the locals), it’ll never be the real thing.

As much as I wanted to love this book, and as many laughs as I had with it, it was an exercise in frustration because of its unevenness. Its highest of highs – corporate sabotage, hilarious inner monologues, “sciencing the s#&*” out of any Martian lunar problem – were stifled by flat characters, horrible dialogue, and a third act, that while entertaining, warp speeds to a tidy convenient conclusion.

Like the book’s liquor, food, and air, the story feels reconstituted or recycled from Andy Weir’s acclaimed debut novel “The Martian”. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the reader is treated to several survive-or-die scenarios in this book like those found in the other.

Jazz Bashara, our smuggler and supreme smart-ass, is the most well-developed character with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but as far as her character arc, it could be summarized as “hustle harder to make more money and move up to a nicer moon apartment.” Her current living arrangement is nicknamed the coffin for its size.

The story attempts to depict a frontier town on the moon, but the handful of half-dome structures that make up the town along with a desolate moonscape are the entire setting. Realistic, maybe, but it’s a bland backdrop that doesn’t really feel complete.

The story at face value is a cool concept with heartwarming moments and some great MacGyver on the Moon situations, but the character relationships are uneven, which made me care only half the time. (I liked the dad, Dale, and Svoboda, and others grew on me (Ngugi, Rudy), but others were wasted (The Landviks, Sean, Chu, Sanchez, Bob).

The good stuff? Weir is extraordinarily strong in his science writing and weaves it seamlessly into the narrative, making for fun action scenes that are the life of this tale. I’m glad to have read it just for these moments: Sabotaging a moon rock harvester in an EVA suit where one screwup means death? Check. Using a remote control bot to illegally open airlocks for you? Check. Putting out moon fires, starting moon explosions, and rolling your moon rover to escape said explosion? Check. The finale, which I won’t ruin, is nuts and satisfying – it creates a true heroine out of Jazz.

I recommend reading this for the fun of it and getting an idea of what you can expect as a tourist on the moon (no drinking age!). Don’t let the shortcomings prevent you from taking this wild ride. Verdict: 3 of 5 stars

Bonus: Poking fun at “The Martian” – “Only an idiot relies on duct tape to maintain a pressure seal, but I didn’t have a choice.”

Favorite Quote:

“The trick with Gunk is to steer clear of stuff trying to taste like other stuff. Don’t get the “Tandoori Chicken” flavorant. You’ll just be disappointed. Get “Myrtle Goldstein’s Formulation #3.” That’s good s*&%. No idea what the ingredients are. It could be termite carcasses and Italian armpit hair for all I know. I don’t care. It makes the Gunk palatable, and that’s what matters.”

Happy Reading!

Josh

Dune. Get it Done.

Dune-Frank Herbert (1965) First edition.jpg

Dune (1st edition cover) Source: Wikipedia

I properly experienced Dune a few years ago (Goodreads tells me it was exactly seven years ago this month) by reading Frank Herbert’s masterpiece. It might’ve been on audio or an ebook, so maybe it wasn’t a ‘proper’ reading. (Here’s my back-of-the-book review if you’re interested.)

But before that, Dune existed to me only as David Lynch’s 1984 movie (awesome if you’re a 10yo kid watching on cable in the ’80s) and the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries (which I revisited on DVD and immediately put in the junk pile. Baron Harkonnen spews his dialogue in rhymes. It’s painful to watch.)

At this point in my life, I demand good stories and Dune fits that bill. And that’s why I’m going back and finishing the first three core books (how’s that for a new year’s resolution!). I’m somewhat glad that Dune hasn’t been adapted repeatedly (exhibit A and B above) and remains fertile ground for the reader to imagine his or her own Arrakis (aka the planet Dune). But the story is being adapted again, this time by one of the most visionary movie directors living – Denis Villeneuve (aka the man behind the Blade Runner sequel.) I have high hopes he’ll get it right. He has made me believe again in the power of film.

But before his vision of Dune comes to the big screen, now is the time to read the book. I’ll admit that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (just finished rewatching it on Netflix) prompted me to read The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings, and I loved the experience. Jackson brought that world to life on the screen, and I was moved by the books, especially Sam and Frodo’s relationship as they struggled through Mordor, with the experience enhanced by imagining the actors from the film.

But honestly, how often do people go back and read a book after watching the movie version? Maybe it’s more than I think, but personally I use the film or TV versions as an excuse not to read the book (exhibit C: The Witcher).

So. Dune. Get It Done. I read this absolutely fascinating commentary about the book on Tor.com. It motivated me down this path. Skip paragraphs 5 and 6 if you don’t want spoilers and happy reading! – Josh

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

-Paul Atreides

 

A Pitch Perfect Sci-Fi Short That Speaks Volumes

Emergency Skin (Forward collection) by [Jemisin, N. K.]

The best fiction keeps your undivided attention. It holds you in the moment, simultaneously letting you savor every word and creating anticipation for what happens next.

N.K. Jemisin’s short story “Emergency Skin” does these things and more. The story of a human foot soldier on a mission to a decimated Earth is almost immediately flipped on its head. The Earth is thriving when it shouldn’t be since the ‘best’ of the species hightailed it off-planet with as many resources as possible centuries ago when they saw everything circling the drain. Everyone else be damned.

Jemisin cheekily uses the AI embedded in the soldier’s suit to show how wrong our ‘superior’ cousins got things. The planet survived the catastrophic damage that people inflicted on it and society didn’t crumble. We rebuilt.

The story could almost be a standup comedy routine (the audio story is excellent) the way it’s delivered and how exasperated the AI is at not being able to explain things.

But Jemisin does something more here than entertain; she creates multiple layers speaking basic truths about civility and compassion without beating you over the head. It ultimately made me reflect deeply on how we think we have the solutions to everything and he we might be deeply flawed in some of these assumptions.

It’s hilarious, it’s thoughtful, and it shows Jemisin at the top of her writing game.

(Part of the Amazon Prime Reading collection “Forward“)

Happy Reading!

Josh