10 Fiction Book Recommendations from July

I read a crapton of books every month: besides smashing records for how many Kindle Unlimited books I can borrow & return in a day, I also buy a lot of ebooks that seem interesting. Most nowadays are in the genre of science fiction and fantasy, and for the past few months, even a couple of narrower genres inside that called LitRPG and Wuxia.

So I thought I’ll push some recommendations for books I read in July. Note: please do not expect intellectual books & deep moving stories here, I read mostly to wind down my brain and my selections reflect that.

Homeland, Exile and Sojourn (The Legend of Drizzt 1-3) by R.A. Salvatore

Drizzt is one of the most iconic characters created in heroic fantasy. He’s a dark elf, but he does not conform to the template & vagaries of his race. I’ve read other books where he played a lead role and it was always fascinating reading about the character, but these 3 books look at his origins. It’s not only a nice intro to Drizzt, it’s also a deep look at Menzoberranzan: the cruel city of his origins.

Get Book 1 Homeland here.

Song Maiden, Mistress and Matron by Jonathan Brooks

A Gamelit fantasy book that breaks most of the stereotypes in the genre. The protagonist is a young disabled girl who enters a game as a plain-looking dwarf & wants to be left alone, and who then finds her voice in the game. The writing is a bit amateurish at times, but the concept carries the day, and the sequels end up levelling her up pretty well. It’s also got a decent conclusion at the end of 3 books, but as always, there’s a chance of more books.

Get Book 1 Song Maiden here.

Silver Fox & the Western Hero series by M.H. Johnson

Silver Fox & the Western Hero is quite an interesting Wuxia for western readers. It’s got every trope in the genre: cultivation, tough fights, and rumours of an epic destiny, but it’s much more accessible to western fantasy readers. It’s also an isekai, but one where you don’t really have to suspend your disbelief that much. Overall a good read, but do note: this is incomplete, in fact, the series seems to be just beginning 🙂

Get Book 1 Warrior Reborn here.

Pilgrim by Harmon Cooper

Pilgrim is one of those books that took me by surprise. I got into it expecting the usual trashy read, but this novel has depth. It’s also an amazing example of what happens when amateur authors become better at their craft, and it’s a tribute to distribution mechanisms like Kindle Unlimited (read Cooper’s earlier books to see what I mean). Pilgrim has got an original plot, a brooding hero, and a world that is very original and well built. I’m really looking forward to future books in this series.

Get Pilgrim here.

Why Reading Stories is Important

I know a lot of my friends who swear off anything related to fiction, at times even if it has a semblance of a story, like biographies or histories. They prefer to read “hard non-fiction”, stuff that titillates the brain-cells, and provides the most information per page read. I think that is a mistake, and here’s why.

The brain remembers associations

It’s been well proven that the brain doesn’t remember facts in isolation, but instead it’s very good at visualisation and association. This is why if you have to learn how to memorise a random pack of cards, you can never do it simply by chunking: you need to visualise cards as people and associate funky actions they perform to the order. What I’ve found is that the lessons that stuck to me most in terms of wisdom per page read were in those stories where I could visualise those life lessons. Reading a biography of Bruce Lee for e.g. is much akin to the experience of reading Deep Work. It’s better in some senses because while Deep Work is more structured and digestible, it never talks about the impact of its lessons. Bruce Lee’s life is probably a good condensation of its good—and more importantly—bad elements, stuff that happens to you when you take a philosophy to extremes.

For structured information per page, you cannot beat the non-fiction book, but if you want a more holistic view, read a good biography of somebody who lived its lessons so you can visualise those lessons in action. And learn about the good and the bad together.

Emotions are important to memory

There are some good examples of non-fiction books that emote. But most are dry: they present facts and quote examples from history to substantiate their arguments. A lot fiction books don’t really have a lesson to teach, their main purpose is to entertain. But read good literature, and this often changes quite a lot. Alex Haley’s Roots for example was one such book that brought the negro slave trade home for me: its vivid descriptions of African life, and how a young man’s search for his roots can lead to something sublime is still vivid in my memory. I’ll never forget how much that book contributed to my understanding of one simple fact: at one point of time, owning people was normal. The “good” slave owners routinely slept with their slaves, paid them nothing, and expected complete loyalty. The bad slave owners were worse. Now, I could have gotten this information from a book—even from an encyclopaedia—but thinking about these characters in the book, even now, years after I’ve read it, brings tears to my eyes.

Emotions are a powerful catalyst if you want to learn some lessons that’ll you’ll never forget. And the most emotion per page is from fiction.

The pleasure and whims of serendipity

You can get far with structured learning, setting your aims and goals and dreams together into yearly, monthly and daily plans. And then the whims of fate will upset all of your plans—like they often do—and then you can start over with a new set of unfulfilled wishes. Or: you can combine your goal setting with a healthy dose of serendipity and resilience in your life. I read non-fiction books for the information. Effective Typescript as I’m currently trying to learn some functional programming, and writing a blog article series on lessons learnt. But nothing makes me as happy or strokes my accidental creativity as reading fiction. It was when a stray character made a despondent comment about his life in Way of Kings that I conceived this blog post. Something about fiction resonates with you: brings neurones together in new mashups, and strokes your creative fire.

So: read fiction. There is nothing as good as curling up with a good book, and reading a wonderful old yarn.

Hyperwriting

One element of good writing for the independent web[1] which is often overlooked is that your writing is part of a larger story which is not under your control. This is to an extent true for all writing which doesn’t stand alone: an article is part of a magazine just as much as a recipe is part of a cookery book. And like all such writing, it’s perceived as part of a larger whole.

What’s special about the online jungle is that you can’t even assume constant assumptions on the part of the reader. For example, NYT articles are democratic, CNN.com has propganda [;-)], and Fark.com is (adult) funny. If you write your articles in one of these media, and if you keep your average reader in mind (you’d do this is you want effective writing, which is what all this is about) then you’d tailor your articles to suit expectations. But in the larger miasma of the web, how do you decide what and how to read expectations? The web is connected, and the spiders that visit your frayed hideyhole might come on from thousands of different places, and there’s no guarantee of any continuity.

One simple answer is that you create your own universe and let your reader be immersed into it. People buy this oh very quickly. The hypothesis is that every page is special, and a click-through from an adult site is as likely to be impressed as one from a search engine.

As an aside, one technique which is underutilized to propogate this mass-hypnosis is clever linking. Hypertext is alive because it can send your user to other pages. Even though Google has perverted the medium with commercialization, people do like to click on links. Use that fact! Lead them on. Make a story within a story (it’s much better than enclosing an aside in parentheses), or even make them read a worthier one. You get to choose.

Getting back, is there a different way? Creating your universe is oh-very-well, but can you match zillions of varied expectations? A good way is to try to reduce it to a few common ones. A lot of sites use a technique where visitors coming in from a search engine get their words highlighted on the site automagically. Let’s say you come here searching for “porn king” (god forbid). To help you out, my site will highlight all instances of that term in your landing page. Is this good for the visitor? Undoubtedly. Does it match your interests, does it tell your story more effectively? Maybe. In this example, very much not, but it’s still a very user-friendly thing to do.

You probably can cook up a different version of a page for a user that comes in from:

  • a social networking site
  • your girlfriend’s site.
  • a mobile browser (device dependent).
  • a competitor’s website, etc.

Condensed, what I’m talking about is that referrals and clever referral management to rewrite your content could pay dividends. True?

[1] Blogs, pages, documentation, stuff which floats.

Computer Names: Etymology

I recently bought a Mac mini (yay! yay!) and it started up and asked me for a name. This got me thinking about how I name computers. My first several computers (A 286, 386, and a 486) remained nameless, but every one of them after that had a nice glorious name.

Almost always female, this name was devised mostly at the spur of the moment, often from books that I’d be reading then. Ione for example, a lean P-166 machine, was named after one of the AIs in Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy (btw, that’s still one of the best non-core Scifi books I’ve read till date).

My bro named my current primary machine (An Athlon 1800). He calls it BLAZE. It’s a name that I’m admittedly not too fond of :-). There was also a machine called Seven (A P3-500) of the Seven of Nine fame. My notebook (A Centrino) is Athena, the Greek Goddess. You get the drift ;-).

What’s up with those machines now? Ione, which currently my mom very sporadically uses, is probably going to be given away soon. Seven, which I’d been using until now as my secondary box is going to be offloaded to her, and Blaze, well, it still has a few years up its sleeve, especially with a stock new 7800GT 7900GT in its innards. My notebook is still the box I do most of my work on, although I’m slowly offloading a lot to my Mac.

Well, what did I name my Mac mini? Ayesha, She who must be obeyed. [2] 🙂