2016 is finally over! It was a tough year for me, even right up to the end where I caught a nasty holiday bug. I did read a lot of great books last year. According to my Goodreads profile, I read 208 books, nearly 100 less than the year before. I blame my new found love of Netflix bingewatching for that. Here are my favorite 11 books of the year, in no particular order (no counting rereads).
I also joined a romance book club. I’ve never really enjoyed romance novels. I don’t mind if a book has romance in it but the main plot has to be something more than finding true love or getting laid for me to really enjoy it. So, I thought perhaps I was wrong in binning romance books all together and pretty much ignoring them. With that in mind, I joined this lovely group of people and gave the romance genre a real shot at winning my heart. We read several paranormal and urban fantasy romances, a few contemporary romances (some with suspense and one with BDSM), and 1 historical fiction romance. In general, I was underwhelmed. Some of the books did exceed my expectations and for romance novels they were good, but none of them made it into my top 50. Let me slightly amend that. I had the opportunity to host twice, which means I picked the book we read. Both times I picked books I had not previously read and one of them was Darkness Haunts by Susan Ilene. There is no romance in this novel. There’s a spattering of flirting, but that is all. While several people enjoyed it (including me), it does not count as a romance novel. Obviously, I’m not a good host for a romance book club but the group was great about it.
As 2016 ends, I am looking forward to a better year in 2017. I spent all of 2016 sick and most of it on bed rest. It took quite some time and many doctors to get diagnosed. I now know that I have CTEPH and in February I will be in San Diego having PTE surgery to hopefully correct the issue. It’s a major surgery and I could be in the hospital recovering for up to 20 days. So if Dab of Darkness goes dark between Ground Hog’s Day and Valentine’s Day, it’s just me laid up in a hospital recovering. Life should get better after that surgery and I’m just really looking forward to being on the other side of it. 24/7 supplemental oxygen makes life rather boring, as I can now attest to.
Set in a near future, this book often looks to the past – the glorious 1980s! Wade Watts lives in a dingy, crowded trailer park and goes to virtual high school. His joy in life is found through the OASIS, an on-line universe created by James Halliday & Ogden Morrow. You can discover space aliens and ride unicorns or play for hours in a 1980s arcade. In fact, after Halliday’s death, his final message was released to the world: He had built a quest into the OASIS, one that required the players to uncover secret, hidden clues (or Easter eggs). The prize is his fortune, and the prize is still unclaimed. Now Wade has discovered one of those clues and the hunt for the ultimate prize has heated up again as more competitors join the game.
Lynn from Lynn’s Book Blog told me I would love this book and she was right. This was just all kinds of fun. The future is a kind of stagnant, bleak place. Technology only went so far and then it petered out. With most of the world’s fuel supplies used up, people abandoned the countrysides and gathered in ever-increasingly congested cities. The OASIS allows many people to log in from home and go to virtual schools or virtual offices. Yet folks often stay connected to this virtual reality for their entertainment as well; so society is becoming less and less connected to each other in the real world.
Wade is a high schooler I could relate to – not popular with any clique but decent at his grades. I especially liked that in VR high school you can mute anyone but the teacher – so even if some jerk is calling you names, you don’t have to listen to them. His personality comes alive when he logs on to the OASIS and can zip around with his VR friends saving worlds and doing dungeon crawls. It’s not to say that the VR doesn’t have it’s cliques and bullies. If you have the funds, you can spend them in the OASIS on cool equipment for your avatar. So there’s always some amount of ‘fitting in’ strife for Wade to maneuver through. However, he does have stalwart friends in the OASIS, like Aech. They’ve been on dozens of missions together and spent hours and hours discussing every thing. They’ve been on-line friends for years, and that friendship really means something to Wade who has few people in the real world.
Then we have the whole 1980s nostalgia thing going on. Halliday, who built the ultimate prize game into the OASIS, was a big fan of the 1980s. He loved several things about it and built those things into the OASIS here and there. From the music to the arcade games to the TV series to the SFF books of the time, this story is a smorgasbord of 1980s trivia. I was born in 1978, and then I was raised on country music. MTV was not allowed in my house, but I married a man who loves his 80s music, so I have picked up some of it over time. For me, I loved nearly all the 1980s references. Some of the music references I didn’t recognize and some of the Asian anime I haven’t seen, but for the most part it was all recognizable. Sometimes the references would just be a one-liner from a movie and you’d get it if you’ve seen the movie. It made this book one of those stories you can geek out over.
Of course, the over-arching plot is for Wade to find all of Halliday’s Easter eggs, complete the quest, and win the prize. However, it was far more complicated than that. Halliday’s quest has been around for many years now and thousands have been trying to find the next clue and it hasn’t happened. Even Wade has spent many, many hours searching the OASIS for the next scrap of intel on the Easter eggs. But now Wade has a hunch and he, as his avatar Parzival, acts on it and he’s rewarded with the key to the first gate. Of course, once he accomplishes this, his name appears on the public OASIS scoreboard and now everyone is tracking his avatar’s doings. The race is on to complete Halliday’s quest and win the prize!
Along the way, Parzival makes some new on-line friends such as Art3mis, Shoto, and Daito. Aech is along for the ride, being Parzival’s trusty sidekick. I really loved the interactions among these teens. Well, Wade makes some assumptions about their ages and such – it’s almost impossible not to. Pitted against them are Nolan Sorrento and the Sixers. These players are corporate funded and there are thousands of them. They have been paid to hunt for the Easter eggs. They have more equipment (both real world and in the OASIS) and they have this wealth of experience to draw upon for any situation. They are intimidating competitors. Also, their corporation isn’t above bribing, paying off, threatening, or physical acts of aggression. Sadly, Wade learns this the hard way.
I found myself cheering Parzival/Wade on throughout this book. I also did a few face palms when I thought Wade had lost his way or made a stupid move. The book has so many great scenes! I love how the beauty, wonder, and infinite possibilities of the OASIS are paired with the dingy, crowded, hopeless reality of the real world. Wade just wants an escape. I totally get that. Later in the book, he meets a character who wants to change that and make the real world something to look forward to and use the OASIS as a tool to help mankind get back on it’s feet and perhaps out into the stars. That was a great touch too because it gets Wade to consider the possibilities.
This was a most enjoyable book, perhaps one of my top 5 for the year. The fancy VR world coupled with all the 1980s nostalgia made this story unexpectedly fun. By twists and turns, I would be caught up in a fond Atari game memory one moment and completely entrenched in the next Easter egg challenge the next moment. And I bet this book is just as good on the second read.
The Narration: Ah, Wil Wheaton, you were born to narrate this book! Wheaton was the perfect fit for this novel. He makes a very believable teen Wade. His female voices were good. Each character was distinct. He was especially good at imbuing the characters with emotion and there is quite the range of emotions in this book. Great performance!
What I Liked: The virtual reality – so many possibilities!; the 1980s nostalgia; Wade’s real world life versus his OASIS life; the Halliday Easter eggs and the hunt for them; the Sixers make formidable foes; Wade’s on-line friends; the outcome of the book; great narration.
What I Disliked: Nothing – a thoroughly enjoyable book!
Everyone, please welcome Scott McKenzie. I enjoyed his gambling vampire book, Drawing Dead, and you can check out that review over HERE. We chat about Scott’s day job, some of his favorite books, his earliest fanfiction (He-Man!), and much more. Enjoy!
How does modern pop culture influence your work? Do modern cultural references date a piece or add touchstones for the reader?
I’m heading towards 40 so I’m now in the period of my life where all new music is just a load of noise and all the good movies have already been made! Pop culture does influence my work though – I drop references to my favourite books and films into my stories, but my editor Rebecca Burruss is good at telling me when they take the reader out of the story. I guess it’s all about context. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline would be nothing without all the pop culture references, but if the same references were used in any other story, they would come across as having been shoe-horned in unnecessarily.
Given the opportunity, what fantastical beast of fiction would you like to encounter in the wild? Which would you avoid at all costs? Would you take a selfie with the beastie?
I’d have to say vampires – I’ve written a few vampire stories and I love the mythology. I’d be sure to have a sharp stake at hand though! I’ve just finished reading book two of Blake Crouch’s Wayward Pines series, so I’m sure anyone who has read those books would want to avoid the monsters in there… As for a selfie, the answer is no. I don’t do selfies, with or without beasts.
What has been your worst or most difficult job? How does it compare to writing?
I work in IT – I’m an Operations Manager for an online gaming site. It is a busy, high-pressure job where things can change at the drop of a hat. In essence, my day-to-day activities are at the opposite end of the spectrum from someone who can sit down in front of a blank screen and tap away at a keyboard for a few hours. I’ve been lucky in my professional career up to this point by the fact that I’ve mostly worked with decent people, but every now and then you run into people or systems that get in the way of you when you’re just trying to do your job. I try to channel my frustrations into my writing – bad processes and bad management are common themes in my stories. My short story “Death by Autopen” is all about someone who finds himself on the President’s kill list due to an administrative error.
What book should be made into a game (card, PC, board, etc.) and why? Is there a specific character who you would want to play in this game?
One of my favourite novels is The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart. The central premise of the book – life is random so you may as well roll a pair of dice to decide your fate – would make for a great board game. However, some of the themes in the book may make it a board game for over-18s only!
In this age of publishing, self-promotion is really necessary for the author. What do you enjoy most about advertising yourself and your works? What do you find most challenging?
I enjoy running giveaways on Goodreads and giving books away for free using Kindle Select. Every now and again I’ll set one of my books or short stories to be free in the Kindle store for a day or two. Sometimes I’ll promote the freebie and sometimes I just sit back and watch what happens. It’s a good experiment in working out the difference active promotion makes. I like meeting new people on Goodreads – it’s the best place to make friends with people who want to read the crazy stuff I’ve written. What I find most challenging is getting out of my comfort zone to promote my work. I’m an only child who likes to lock himself away in a room making stuff up!
What were you like as a kid? Did your kid-self see you being a writer?
I wrote stories as a kid, which were usually heavily based on what I was into at the time. I can remember writing Star Wars, He-Man and Transformers stories that were probably total nonsense, but the love of filling a blank page with a story has never left me. I also loved the read-along book and cassette stories that always came out with major film releases. Anyone who was into them should check out www.readalongadventures.com
If I wasn’t reading, chances are I was watching films. I went to the cinema a lot when I was a kid, and I was over the moon to get Alex Hyde-White to do the narration for my first audiobook – Drawing Dead: A Tale of Poker and Vampires. He was the star of Biggles: Adventures in Time, a film I remember watching in the cinema, which I still go back to now and again.
The Desert Island Collection: what books make it into your trunk and why?
I guess it’d be a good idea to put some long books on the list in case I’m on the desert island for a long time! Here are five books I’d happily be stuck alone on a beach with:
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – Classic adventure. It by Stephen King – My favourite book by my favourite author. Killing Floor by Lee Child – Gotta have some Jack Reacher on hand. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – The perfect feel-good story. Twelve Grand by Jonathan Rendall – Very funny and interesting book about a journalist who was given £12,000 to gamble with and told to write a book about it.
What do you do when you are not writing?
With work and family life, I get very little time to write so the answer to this one is – everything else! I have two children who I spend as much time with as possible, but they inspire my creativity. Without them, I wouldn’t have written Krampus: A Christmas Tale (http://scottamckenzie.com/Krampus.html) or hooked up with Phil Ives, who did the incredible artwork for the book. Phil and I have just started working together on another scary picture book for children. This one’s called Frankentickler…
The Saturday of Bubonicon is where the most stuff happens – lots of panels, plenty of readings by individual authors, the mass autographing session, and the costume contest. For this post, I decided to talk about the panels and in another post I will share my crappy photos of the costume contest and talk about all the cool art I saw in the art show room.
First, let me say the Con Suite was awesome. This is my first time partaking of it and I was impressed. The hotel house rules put the Con Suite up on the 16th floor and they have to cover the expensive items (i.e. the TV) and the floor with plastic – which kind of makes you feel like you are walking right into a kill room, except there is all this food and nerdy people having merry geeky conversations. There were simple breakfast burritos that you could dress up with salsa or cheese, plenty of fruit, bagels, various beverages, and all sorts of appropriate con food (minion cheese nips!). And donuts! It’s been months since I had a donut and I was just dreaming about them last week.
Then off to my first panel of the day, Secret History versus Alternate History: Splitting Hairs. Since Ian Tregillis couldn’t make it this year (sniffle), Walter Jon Williamsfilled in as moderator. He was joined by Cherie Priest, John Hemry (AKA Jack Campbell), S. M. Stirling, & John Maddox Roberts. Williams quickly defined the terms ‘secret history’ and the grammatically correct ‘alternative history’ to the panel’s agreement. This panel was part history lesson and part discovery of other great authors of the genre that I need to hunt down and devour. Priest talked about how boiling water, two ladies (Clara Barton & Sally Thompkins), and their insistence to remain in charge birthed the organization we know today as the American Red Cross. There was also plenty of talk about dirigibles (real and fictional), submarines, and the what if photography came around a bit earlier (since all the tech was there but no one had put it together). Stirling highly recommended checking out the memoirs of Anne Lister, a mountaineer & traveler who died in the 1840s. Fredric Brown was also recommended, along with Anno Dracula by Kim Newman.
TheABQ Steampunk Society hosted a tea and chat with Cherie Priest that everyone was welcome to attend. The ladies of the ABQSS were all decked out in their outfits, complete with gadgets and personas. The tea was hot, the room chilly, the conversation excellent. Leah R, the ABQSS Event Organizer, was dressed as Briar Wilkes from Boneshaker (hooray!). Various steampunk touchstones in modern culture were discussed such as the tv series Jack of All Trades (which I need to Netflix!) and the robot Boilerplate (who has a tidy little faux history and website). Beyond Victoriana is a blog that focuses on steampunk, and especially on steampunk beyond the boundaries of England and English culture. I had quite a bit of fun browsing around on this site. Of course, Priest gave us a little history lesson (which is tied to one of her books) concerning Maria Boyd, a spy for the Confederacy in the Civil War. I forget exactly how Maria came up in conversation, but she had a fascinating life starting in her teens with plenty of marriages, internment camps, spying, affairs, etc.
Alas, the tea was drunk the hour was over and we all had to shove over for the next item on the schedule. I was off to Pop! Culture: Influences of Today’s Life, a panel moderated by Cherie Priest and which included Ernest Cline, Scott Phillips, Gabi Stevens, and Lauren Teffeau. Some of this panel I got, some I didn’t. I am a produce of the 1980s, but it was heavily influenced by country music and nothing but country music (unless I heard it in a movie). Don’t fret; I rectified this somewhat when I escaped to college and discovered all sorts of emo and alternative music. But there are still gaps in my 1980s cultural references as there were plenty of movies/music/tv that I wasn’t allowed to experience. Other parts of the panel, i totally got, like I can completely understand why someone (Cline) would want a DeLorean or two, and why they would trick them out with paraphernalia from Ghostbusters, Star wars, and KITT. There was plenty of talk about Star Trek, MST3K, and Atari to go along with it. Also, I learned an important Star Wars trivia – the gold dice hanging from the Millennium Falcon in the first movie were later stolen from the set and didn’t make a reappearance in the subsequent films.
The fun continued with Sidekick and Minion Cliches & Comic Relief, moderated by Daniel Abraham (who is half of the awesome writing team James S. A. Corey, the other half being Ty Franck). He was joined by John Hemry, Claire Eddy, S. M. Stirling, & Connie Willis. This panel started off with a rousing discussion of the definitions of sidekick, minion, and foil and then friendly banter about the differences, followed by examples – Pinky & the Brain, Harry, Ron & Hermione, Sherlock & Watson, Batman & Robin, Don Quixote & Sancho Panza. Who’s a foil (someone there to constantly screw up and create opportunities for our hero to look good)? Who is a minion (someone forced into assisting our evil empire builder)? Who is a sidekick (and there was tons of discussion on exactly what role the sidekick plays)? And here is another new-to-me author to add to my TBR pile – Sean Stewart. Then someone mentioned a podcast done in the style of old-time radio theater, The Thrilling Adventure Hour. A few movies/tv shows, such as The Venture Bros. and Grabbers, were also mentioned.
The last panel of the day was What Scares You Now? Horror Today which was moderated by Craig A. Butler. He was joined by Cherie Priest, Scott Phillips, David Lee Summers, & Joan Saberhagen. First, let me say that I was NOT stalking Cherie Priest on Saturday. It just so happens that she was in nearly all the panels I had an interest in. No, the stalking came the next day – just kidding. But we did get to share an elevator (and some morbid humor) with several other ladies. Second, half the panel started off introducing themselves and their fear of centipedes. Hence, there was a fair number of centipede jokes throughout the hour. There was plenty of discussion about vampires and zombies; Priest said an interesting thing that I will attempt to clearly paraphrase: the two are opposite sides to the same coin. One makes you unique, powerful, desirable, and autonomous while the other strips everything unique from you, makes you undesirable, and leaves you no longer in control of yourself. I am sure there is a senior psych paper in that somewhere. Saberhagen was difficult to scare, as she fears none of the made up monsters. She did have bits and pieces to add to psychological terrors, such as when your senses say something is in front of you or happening that your mind says can not be. And of course there were lots of recommendations of what is good in horror now: Salem’s Lot, Manhattan, The Day After, Kate Kerrigan, The Ape’s Wife & Other Stories, The Slenderman.
And there we have most of Saturday. It really is a small convention, but that lets me ride the elevator with book celebrities and ask pesky questions at every panel (if I wanted to). And I get to know some of the regular con goers too. Plus several of the local authors bring their spouses and kids, so that is always cute to see.