Walking Away From Book Blogging

I’ve been writing 20four12 since March 2012 and it’s been a lot of fun along the way. Originally, this blog started as a sort of “catch-all” that allowed me to simply try out blogging on a daily basis, just to see if I could manage to be consistent. Very quickly it morphed into a book blog where I spent my time writing about the books I was reading and a lot of other book-related topics.

Now, in May 2015 it’s time for me to walk away from having a dedicated book blog. I’ve done a lot of reading in the last three years, some of it good, some of it bad. I’ve talked about a lot of those books here on 20four12, but one thing I’ve never managed to do was cross over into a level of readership that makes all of the reading worthwhile. While the WordPress system says I have over 600 followers, I think around two dozen of them are actually real people. All the rest are spambots, crawlers, or people who clicked “follow” three years ago when I was featured on Freshly Pressed and then never returned.

20four12 suffers from a few things: First, the name is hard to remember and it’s difficult to tell someone how to find. That’s my fault, I should have picked something better when I first stared. Second, I’ve never been consistent enough to draw the readership levels that lead to engaging conversation in the comments or otherwise. Third, while I am by no means a bad writer, I’ve discovered over time that my ability to write a high-quality review is rather hit-or-miss. Fourth, the effort required to wrestle this blog into that high readership, high engagement area is something I don’t have the time (or inclination) to do.

The long and the short of it is this: I want to write about books… sometimes. The rest of the time I want to write about other things, and doing that on a blog that has been a book blog for three years doesn’t make sense, doesn’t fit, and just doesn’t work for me.

So, I’m moving onto something new. I’ll be doing whatever writing I feel like doing over at calebflanagan.com because the domain is easy to remember, easy to pass along to others, and is multi-functional for me and what I want to do in the future. There I can talk about web development, sports, books, movies, television, and anything else without clouding up what the blog happens to be overall.

The new site doesn’t have much there yet, and maybe it won’t for a little while longer, but I feel like it’s the place I want to be doing my writing from now on. If anyone wants to see what I have to say on topics like I listed above, feel free to bookmark it and see what happens there in the future.

Thank you to everyone who has followed me here. Thank you to the authors and publishers that have sent me advance copies of books to review. Thank you to the readers who have commented and the other book bloggers I’ve met as part of this endeavor. I will keep 20four12 active here to act as an archive for the reviews and other things I’ve posted. I’m sure someone out there will still find them useful even years from now.

It’s been fun! I hope to see some of you over at the new place at some point.

Caleb Flanagan (formerly of 20four12)

Taking Stock of My Reading Loose Ends

Last year was a hell of a year for me in regards to reading, but as a result, I now have a very long list of books that I need to read so I can tie off the loose ends of series that I haven’t finished. Somewhere along the way I got caught reading the first or second books of a bunch of series without reading all the way through. It might have had to do with trying to keep things fresh while reading 100 books, or it might have been laziness. It’s probably a little bit of both if I’m being honest.

Going into 2014 I had series I hadn’t finished, then I added a bunch more, and now I’m sitting on a pile of… 24 separate series where I have at least one book, often more, that I need to finish in order to finish things. Some of these series are ones that are not fully published yet, but I want to be caught up with the most current book so it will be more manageable to stay current in the future. Across these 24 series are a total of… 67 books. Reading nothing but the books in this backlog could fill my entire 2015 on their own, leaving me with no room for new releases by my favorite authors or new books in series I am actually caught up on. It’s a very large conundrum for me. I don’t like leaving things unfinished in this regard, especially when I’ve enjoyed the books I’ve read so far.

The real question is how I go about tackling such a bit list of books. I don’t really want to add to the backlog of unfinished series, so I’m working really hard at not starting any new ones that have more than one book currently published. So far I’m doing okay with that, but at some point I’m really going to want to read things like The Gentleman Bastards books, or the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. I think the only feasible solution is to find some sort of middle compromise. If I can decide on some of the backlog I really want to read first and work to mix one or two of them into every month this year I think I can make some serious progress. For example, the following 11 books would catch me up or finish ten lingering series:

  • The Pillars of Sand by Mark T. Barnes
  • The Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers
  • Fairest: Levana’s Story by Marissa Meyer
  • Symbiont by Mira Grant
  • Fragments by Dan Wells
  • Ruins by Dan Wells
  • Dragons of Spring Dawning by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
  • iD by Madeline Ashby
  • The King by David Feintuch
  • The Mortality Doctrine: Rule of Thoughts by James Dashner
  • The Revenge of Seven by Pittacus Lore

If I were to focus my initial efforts on those ten books I would cut my unfinished series number by nearly 30% over just a few months. Sure, it isn’t like reading the last five books in a single series, which takes a lot more effort, but it would be measurable progress and put me in more comfortable position as far as numbers are concerned. After taking care of these one-offs I could just randomly pick a series with three or more books left and start methodically working my way through them.

Now, beyond the one-off books on the series backlog, there are a few series I’m very eager to actually get finished sometime soon.  Some of them have been on this list for a really long time, a couple of years in some cases:

  • The Unincorporated War by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin
  • The Unincorporated Woman by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin
  • The Unincorporated Future by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin
  • Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • The Third Lynx by Timothy Zahn
  • Odd Girl Out by Timothy Zahn
  • The Domino Pattern by Timothy Zahn
  • Judgment at Proteus by Timothy Zahn

Those books are ones that definitely got left behind because I was rushing to read other things and then never managed to circle back. I’m an unabashed Timothy Zahn fan and I loved the first book of the Unincorporated series much more than I thought it would be.

However, there are some series in my backlog that will simply take forever to catch up on, things like the entire The Dark Tower series after the first book and the entire second half of the Dresden Files from the eighth book onward. I really like the Dresden Files books, but they all melt together when I read multiple in a row and I’m still rather skeptical of The Dark Tower books after having read the first one, but I sort of want to see what happens as the series progresses.

I think my end goal for 2015 is going to be to trim the backlog by about 50% if I can manage it. That would leave me with about 10-12 series left to finish and most of those would be the bigger ones and I’d feel a lot better about tackling them more slowly. If I can pull off that type of a reduction in series backlog this year I will be so happy with myself. Maybe I’ll even have the chance to start one or two new series that only have a couple of books and be current with them so I don’t add back to the list at any point.

Book Review: “Heir to the Jedi: Star Wars” by Kevin Hearne

Heir to the JediIt’s been very interesting to see how the new Star Wars canon is beginning to come together after Disney removed the entire Expanded Universe from being and official part of the lore not that long ago. The first two books put forth some interesting backstory for Grand Moff Tarkin and the two lead characters of the new Star Wars: Rebels cartoon, but they did not deal at all with any of the big three characters of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, or Princess Leia. With Heir to the Jedi, Kevin Hearne introduces us to a Luke Skywalker from just after the destruction of the first Death Star, when he is a hero of the Rebellion, but is still trying to figure out what the Force actually does and how he fits into the big picture of the Rebellion in the future.

Luke makes his way through two missions during the course of the book. First, he is sent to Rodia to do some research about a new arms deal for the Rebellion. There isn’t a lot of money to go around, but Admiral Ackbar thinks that fostering a relationship with one Rodian clan in particular would be useful. To successfully complete the mission, Luke can’t take his usual X-wing because the Imperials would recognize it, so instead he uses a ship called Desert Jewel, which is owned by a woman named Nakari, a woman who also happens to be a rather accomplished sniper and is also bankrolled by a fair amount of family money if the need arises.

The mission to Rodia is relatively successful and upon returning Luke is asked to rescue a very talented slicer from Imperial captivity. This time he takes the Desert Jewel, but brings Nakari along with him as they’ve fostered a budding romantic relationship and seem to work well together on the whole. Ultimately, Luke and Nakari are able to help the slicer escape their Imperial captivity, but with some dire consequences along the way that will likely shape Luke significantly in future books.

Heir to the Jedi is doing a lot of work in establishing what kind of personality Luke Skywalker is supposed to have, and it does a pretty good job of setting him up as a man who wants to do the right thing, discover the secrets of the Force, and aid the Rebellion in whatever ways his skills work best. The problem for me comes when I realized that the Luke Skywalker in this book is very different from the Luke Skywalker we see in The Empire Strikes Back. This book is official canon, so I hope we get some more screen time with Luke in another book or two that will help flesh him out as a character while still letting fans of Star Wars love the character he is in the official movies. As it stands, after reading Heir to the Jedi, I don’t believe the Luke Skywalker from this book fits with the Luke Skywalker from The Empire Strikes Back.

I also had a tough time with feeling like Heir to the Jedi every really got started. Yes, there are action scenes, and yes, there are some interesting characters, but despite all of that, I felt like I was spinning my wheels a little bit as a reader. Maybe it had something to do with the first person viewpoint, a rarity in the Star Wars books, or maybe it was just the story that had been chosen for the author to tell. I’m not really sure. I’ve read other work by Kevin Hearne and never felt like I was spinning my wheels, so I found it a little strange to have it happen this time. Regardless, I hope that Kevin Hearne continues to get opportunities to work with Luke Skywalker as a character because I think he’s got a lot of good things in place at this point and I would hate to see it ruined by someone else.

So far the new Star Wars canon books have been solid in what they have done, but none of the three have really blown me away. I hope that they can get to that point sooner or later because some of the non-canon Expanded Universe has some really great moments that are not being matched by the new canon to this point.

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Book Review: “The Mirror Empire” by Kameron Hurley

The Mirror EmpireThe Mirror Empire was an incredibly difficult book for me to get through. It had nothing to do with the subject matter and nothing to do with the quality of the story, as both are wonderfully fantastic, but everything to do with my having not read a true epic fantasy book in a very, very long time prior to picking it up. The last six months of 2014 were filled with books that moved quickly, had lightweight world building, and in general were not very hard to comprehend or digest. To go from that straight into Kameron Hurley’s fantastic, complicated, intense, and frankly, rather weird storytelling was a challenge, a big challenge, but one I would not give back for anything.

For a decent amount of time went by where I constantly admired the cover art for The Mirror Empire, but was unsure if I should pick it up to read. It took a majority of the authors on my Twitter feed raving about the book over and over again for me to bite the bullet and take the plunge. Just as I realized if all the authors I loved were going to love this book I should probably read it as well, it happened to show up on sale for my Kindle, so I had the bonus of trying it without paying full price.

If I had known how good The Mirror Empire was going to be, I would have waited until after the sale and paid full price as a show of support to the author. As it was, I bought one of her other books to make up for it.

The plot of The Mirror Empire revolves around two parallel universes colliding with each other as a satellite known as the dark star, among other names, rises into the sky giving greater power to certain magic users and taking away power from others. There are invading armies, warring kingdoms, feuding families, mysterious powers, killer plants, and so many other strange things in this book. One of the most interesting things about The Mirror Empire is the gender and sexuality orientations. Beyond the traditional male and female, half a dozen other options exist, all of which mix together into some interesting and dynamic family situations. I thought these new ideas on gender and sexuality were well thought-out and added a very rich layer to the story being told.

In this book your ideas of what is acceptable and what’s not are going to be challenged. The gender-bending moments, as well as the way people interact with each other really push the boundaries that most people are going to be comfortable with having. It took me a little while to settle into the book as a result, but I think by the time I finished I was glad I kept going and had the opportunity to see Kameron Hurley do what she is doing with the book. I think that the genre is better off for what she’s attempting with this trilogy.

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Lessons Learned by Reading 100 Books

In 2014 I had a reading goal to read 100 books. There are not a lot of people who can claim reading 100 books in a single year, and I count myself rather lucky to be able to include myself as one of those people. For a decent portion of 2014 I had real doubts as to whether I would reach my desired goal, but I did manage to pull it off thanks to a particularly spectacular month of reading last October.

The year started out strong and I stayed at a pretty good pace of getting books read, finished, and out the door. However, in the middle of the year I started to fall behind, coming one or two books short of pace for a few months in a row and eventually saw myself nearly a full month of reading behind. As the year got into its later months I had to make a decision: Do I just give up on this now, or do I make one big push in October and see if I can get back on pace? I decided to give it my all in October, with the idea that if I could get 100% back on pace I would stick it out for November and December and get to the 100 books read mark. If I fell short in October, I was going to cut my losses.

Here is a chart showing how things went for the entire year:

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
7 9 9 8 6 7 8 7 8 16 10 6

Every single month in that chart should have had an 8 or higher, but you’ll notice several months where I only got 7 books finished, and a couple with only 6 complete. That’s why October had to basically be a double month of reading. I did a valiant job trying to stay on pace, but coming up just one book short over the first 9 months of the year really added up towards the end. Thankfully, I can say that October might have been a beast of a month where I came very near to never wanting to see my Kindle again, but the plan worked and I make it all the way to my goal.

Along the way to reading so many books I learned a few things. I thought it might be nice to share some of those lessons for anyone else looking at trying a similar reading challenge in the future. I won’t be trying it again in 2015, but you never know, I could see myself giving it another shot sometime down the road.

Lesson #1: Life Circumstances Play a Big Role

I consider myself to be a pretty lucky man. My wife is very supportive of my reading habits and my keeping this blog, so she makes sure if I ask for a little time to put towards those things that I get that time as much as possible. However, I do have a full-time job as a web developer, two small children (ages 3 and 5 at the time), a home to keep in good shape, social obligations involving friends and church, and other various hobbies.

All of that adds up to a lot of time already allotted to things that are not reading. I’m a quick reader, so I know I can read a 350-400 page book in about 5 hours, give or take, but it’s obviously easier to do that when those hours are in big chunks and not broken up into 20 or 30 minute increments.

If I had no wife, no children, a less demanding employment situation, and fewer social obligations I could have blown 100 books out of the water. I probably could have pushed 150 or maybe even 200 like I’ve seen other reviewers claim to have done. I like reading, and I like it enough that I will give up time towards other hobbies such as World of Warcraft, watching television and movies, or similar things, but I don’t love it enough that I’ll turn my back on spending time with my wife and children. I also don’t love it enough that I’ll put my job at risk to reach a reading goal.

There was a delicate balance that had to be met as I fit extra reading in around the other things I have to be aware of on a day-to-day basis. Trying to hit this goal really put some things into perspective for me as to what’s important to spend time on and what isn’t. For example, the last three months of 2014 saw me post nothing but my monthly recap on what I had read. The hour or so I would spend blogging at any point was better spent reading and trying to hit my goal.

Lesson #2: Choose Your Books Carefully

If you are anything like me, your reading list of books you want to read next features a heavy dose of books over 600 pages in length. I really wanted to read books from some of my favorite authors during 2014, but they were so long I just couldn’t do it. I needed to be able to finish two books per week, which meant if I could carve out 2 hours a day for reading (which was my average), I needed to read books closer to 400 pages in length as often as possible, sometimes a little smaller, sometimes a little bigger.

My average book length for 2014 was 396 pages per book. That’s lower than I wanted it to be, but time constraints led to making choices based on book length rather than genre, author, or other factors. I did still read some big books, Promise of Blood, The Crimson Campaign, Words of Radiance, The Garden of Stones, Cibola Burn, and City of Heavenly Fire to name a few, but I was also crushed to see books such as Red Mars, The Lies of Locke Lamora, The Thousand Names, and The Emperor’s Blades left behind because I simply couldn’t fit them in to the rotation.

Lesson #3: There Will Be Loose Ends

Due to my penchant for reading science fiction and fantasy, most books are part of a series, or at least a trilogy. That means if I want to read the first book, I probably need to read the second, third, and maybe fourth, fifth, and sixth books. Here’s the problem with that: Every series sees its books get longer and longer the further you read. As I mentioned above, the longer the book, the less of a chance it had of getting read.

As a result, I have a very long list of loose ends I need to tie up in order to finish off trilogies and series that I’ve started, but left incomplete. I’ll be writing a post next week taking a look at that big pile of loose ends in more detail, but suffice it to say for now that there is another entire year of reading to be done to clean it up.

Lesson #4: Consistency Means Everything

If you are going to read 100 or more books in a single year you have to be consistent. You need to create habits around when you are going to read, for how long, and where. It cannot be something that just sort of “happens” whenever you feel like it. Times need to be set when you can sit down for an extended period and hammer through some pages.

I struggled with this for the first few months, but finally found a routine that worked for me. Once I had that done I was able to be more comfortable in staying consistent with how many books I read each month, but even then I was a little behind pace. You can’t just read every third day, it needs to be a daily thing or it becomes too easy to put off until the next day and then you’ll find yourself behind all over again.

Lesson #5: It Can Get Expensive Very Quickly

Borrowing books from the library is not really my thing anymore. I did it a lot when I was in middle school and high school because I didn’t have money to blow on books and I didn’t have a Kindle. Last year I discovered my Kindle is both a blessing and a curse. Yes, it makes it easy to read anything, anywhere, but libraries don’t have most mainstream books available electronically yet, so if I had designs on reading something by an established author I was out of luck. Instead, I needed to buy the ebook for myself because I really do not like reading hard copy books very much anymore. I did it a few times when I was in a pinch last year, but I did not prefer it by any means.

One lifesaver for me was the Kindle Daily Deal. Up until they announced the Kindle Unlimited program, the Kindle Daily Deal could be counted on getting me anywhere from 2-5 books a month that I was actually quite interested in reading. At $.99-$1.99 each, that saved me a lot of money, but I still spent a lot more cash than I should have on books.

Lesson #6: You Will Find Wonderful New Authors

As a direct result of my reliance on the Kindle Daily Deal and also as a result of writing this blog on a regular basis (at least for the first few months of 2014), I managed to get exposure to some fun new authors (new to me at least, but also newly published), many of them self-published. I had never read books by established authors such as Scott Westerfeld, Brian McClellan, Michael J. Sullivan, Brandon Mull, and Jim Butcher until last year. I also discovered new talent such as Michael McCloskey, Pierce Brown, Myke Cole, Alex J. Cavanaugh, Rhett C. Bruno, S.L. Dunn, and Cassandra Rose Clarke.

If nothing else, reading 100 books in a year broke me out of my established reading habits and showed me how very many great things there are to read beyond what I already knew to be a vast expanse of genre fiction.

To wrap things up, all I can say is that reading 100 books in one year was amazing, tiring, uplifting, frustrating, and ultimately, fantastic. I applaud those reviewers or general readers who can do that sort of thing year after year after year. Some of which read twice that number in a single year. I learned a lot about myself as a reader and so very much about how different authors operate within the same genre that I’m glad I gave trying such a reading goal a chance.

If anyone wants to see a complete list of what I read in 2014, you can find a dedicated page right here that will give you titles, authors, and page counts, along with a link to any of the books I wrote a review for, which are the book titles shown in blue.

As for commentary on books I did not find the time to review in full, most of them are mentioned at least briefly to some degree in my monthly recaps from last year:

It was a fun year of reading and I hope all of you who may be looking at trying such a lofty reading goal for yourselves can get some benefit by seeing the lessons I learned while doing it myself.