Here’s what I read in March 2016.
You’ll notice a bit of a new format this month, and going forward it will probably evolve a bit. No more numbers, which some found confusing anyway, but which I used as a shorthand to help me track how much I read. Since I’ve started using Goodreads this year, and have come to use the site daily over the last 2 months, the tracking on there is sufficient for my use. Also, I’ve switched to just an (audio) tag for audiobooks, and I am going to stop using chronological order to [hopefully] improve readability.
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone (audio): Really good telling of the Amazon story thus far, with the focus on it’s founder.
The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play by Neil Fiore (audio): Did nothing for me, but I think Fiore was speaking to someone with different vices than mine.
Die Empty by Todd Henry (audio): I didn’t like this. Much of it is based on similar books that I’ve read, and Henry doesn’t really build upon their ideas.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (audio): Nerd porn. I wanted to love it, but didn’t. Part of that is the execution – huge info dumps that make the first third of the book tough to get through. The other part of it is the source material. Cline’s period of nerdtopia differs from my own, and as a result most of his inclusions have me scratching my head, and that goes doubly so for what he excludes. But that’s just a generational problem. Still, parts of this were an all-caps worthy AMAZING! The climatic battle? OMG. Also, get the audio because Wil Wheaton does a great job.
You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day (audio): Really funny, and a bit sad, and serious (but not too-serious), and overly earnest, and awkward, and unfiltered. So, it’s exactly what you’d want in a Felicia Day memoir.
Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon (audio): Semi-related collection of essays I wouldn’t read again.
5000 Words Per Hour: Write Faster, Write Smarter by Chris Fox: Must-read for writers. There’s a ton of stuff in this short book: Writing sprints. Tortoise enclosures. Eliminate distractions. Track daily word counts, increase typing speed, and set progress goals. Drill down your scenes beforehand. Editing sprints. Join a community for accountability.
Write to Market: Deliver a Book That Sells by Chris Fox: This book blew my mind a little. Everything in here I knew already, and thought I was already doing, but Chris Fox caused me to see why I wasn’t getting results. The gist of it is that I was following market-focused advice, which lead me to produce 4 books in a niche that looked like they belonged on a shelf next to other books in that niche. So far, those books sit on that shelf because they don’t sell many copies. The advice in this book caused me to see the market as more granular, where it’s not good enough to write space operas because people like space operas, but to write space operas with a single word title and a spaceship on the cover with a blurb that sounds a lot like Battlestar Galactica because a lot of people who buy indie books like that exact book. It’s a subtle move, really, but it’s some heavy Judo.
The following are all of the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard:
Beyond the Black River (audio): Good story. A little overwrought, perhaps.
Black Colossus (audio): Blueprint to storytelling. From opening scene to ending.
The Devil in Iron (audio): Maybe unique concepts at the time? The story falls off in the name of “innovation”.
Gods of the North (audio): After killing her brothers, young Conan chases the ice maiden through the snow and tries to rape her.
The Hour of the Dragon (audio): Only modern-novel-length Conan story. Great. Howard was killing it way back.
Jewels of Gwahlur (audio): Seems like this might have inspired Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, especially the end.
People of the Black Circle (audio): Loved the prose, but the tension was wrong. Conan slips through everything with minimal effort.
Queen of the Black Coast (audio): Needed to be longer to fulfill the plot.
Red Nails (audio): One of the best. With an actual dragon (as opposed to the dragon-less The Hour of the Dragon).
Shadows in the Moonlight (audio): Conan kills an ape.
Shadows in Zamboula (audio): Cannibals, dark magic, darker ending. Good story that lacks the usual wordy intro.
A Witch Shall Be Born (audio): Brutal treatment of your superman, Howard.
The Phoenix on the Sword (audio): Poems every chapter, and a magic ring of power. OMG it’s The Hobbit!
The Tower of the Elephant (audio): This is a weird monster story, pretty different than the rest.
The Scarlet Citadel (audio): Breathlessly paced. This is an action movie in text form.
Rogues in the House (audio): Not bad, but Conan mostly plays a backseat in this one.
The Slithering Shadow (Xuthal of the Dusk): Short and fun. One of the best monsters in the Conan stories.
The Pool of the Black One: Pirate Conan and a mysterious island.
The God in the Bowl: Locked-room mystery meets hack-n-slash.
The Vale of Lost Women: Mostly a Conan cameo story like Rogues.
The Black Stranger (audio): I wanted more out of this story. It was long compared to others, but felt drawn out.
What I love in these stories:
Everyone thinks of a hulking brute when they think of Conan, but he’s much more complicated than that. He speaks a dozen languages, is well-traveled, and by remaining outside of the social hierarchy can fit in similarly anywhere within it (though always an outsider). He’s a barbarian at times, sure, but he’s also a strategist, a diplomat, and a romantic hero.
I also love the diversity in these stories. There are so many different races and cultures showcased in these, and they’re all given a pretty fair shake. Especially considering Howard was from early 1900s Texas. Sure there’s some non-PC stuff, too. But show me a white male today who writes about as many races in a fair manner, AND who also showcases strong HEROINES.
What I don’t love:
These stories are wildly uneven in any frame of reference. The beginning of almost every story is weak compared to when they get going. The stories don’t get better chronologically, as you would expect from an improving writer (I read this might have been due to depression or boredom). And some characters are uneven within the course of a single story. This is especially true of the strong heroines mentioned above, which all of a sudden wilt and become sniveling damsels.
Descriptors. George RR Martin apparently was influenced by Howard, and I can believe it. The same shit I hate about ASOIAF is prevalent in Conan.
Here’s the 3rd paragraph of Red Nails, for example:
She was tall, full-bosomed and large-limbed, with compact shoulders. Her whole figure reflected an unusual strength, without detracting from the femininity of her appearance. She was all woman, in spite of her bearing and her garments. The latter were incongruous, in view of her present environs. Instead of a skirt she wore short, wide-legged silk breeches, which ceased a hand’s breadth short of her knees, and were upheld by a wide silken sash worn as a girdle. Flaring-topped boots of soft leather came almost to her knees, and a low-necked, wide-collared, wide-sleeved silk shirt completed her costume. On one shapely hip she wore a straight double-edged sword, and on the other a long dirk. Her unruly golden hair, cut square at her shoulders, was confined by a band of crimson satin.
IT BURNS, IT BURNS, MAKE IT STOP!
To clarify, Martin is the better storyteller although the writing is not his strength. And Howard’s prose roars like a lion at times once he gets going.
On the whole, I recommend Howard’s Conan stories to everyone. Really fun reads overall, most are available in audio for free on Librivox or YouTube, and all are public domain texts (possibly the ones without the audio tag in the above list aren’t, which is perhaps why they weren’t on Librivox).
I plan to continue in Howard’s worlds with some of his other heroes in upcoming months. That itself should be a solid recommendation.