My Favourite Books

I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy books. Exploring fictional universes – with different rules and realities – not only helps me to relax, but also helps me to think about how our world could be different.

Stretching my imagination in unexpected directions helps me when I’m developing ideas, content and strategies. It’s creativity fuel.

My favourite books are those which explore unique ideas or perspectives, and which changed my perspective or thinking as a result. Here are some of the highlights (in no particular order).


Children Of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Follows the evolution of a species of spider-like creatures to accelerated sentience, as a result of accidental interference from the botched terraforming attempt. Incredible and unique perspective over multiple generations as the species and individuals mature to dominate their planet and become a space-faring race.


The Malazan Book Of The Fallen series by Steven Erikson

An enormous fantasy epic, which brutally and unforgivingly omits any kind of exposition whatsoever – but in exchange provides some of the most in-depth high-fantasy I’ve ever read. Develops from small scale swords-and-sorcery into a race for ascension to godhood, and culminates in an interplanetary magical war between interdimensional beings.


The Ember War by Richard Fox

A sci-fi war to protect the last of humanity and an alliance of dwindling races from an overwhelming incursion into our galaxy from trillions of seemingly invulnerable alien drones. Balances hack-and-slash, hand-to-hand marine combat with darker undertones of what it means to be human, and how far we should compromise those values, as a species, in order to survive.


The Game Is Life series by Terry Schott

What if everything we experience is just part of a simulation? Starts off lightly, and gets very deep; with some of the most challenging ideas (and the biggest spoiler/surprise) I’ve ever read in fiction. Discovering universes-within-universes and exploring questions around multiple identities and the nature of ‘self’ is just the beginning.


The Shadows Of The Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky

A world populated by city-states where the inhabitants have skills, powers and capabilities modelled after insect species; as an unfolding industrial revolution challenges the decline of magic. A story woven throughout a global conflict as the imperialistic wasps and their subjugated allies march across the world, thwarted only by the industrious beetles and their fragmented resistance – all underpinned by a darker war between technology and magic.


The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson

A fantasy epic with a unique magic system, where powers and abilities are granted based on the ingestion of different types of metals. Some excellent twists, and gets deeper and darker as side-stories and the subsequent trilogies explore more of the universe(s).


The Painted Man series by Peter V. Brett

The only defence against the demons which rise from the earth each night to terrorise humanity are the magical wards which we inscribe and maintain around our towns and villages. One man’s discovery and newfound ability to fight back changes everything, leads to the gradual revelation of the inner workings of the demon society, and reveals a much deeper truth.


The Syncronicity War series by Dietmar Wehr

Humanity is losing an interstellar war, until we start receiving visions from the future, which shift the course of events in our favour. It becomes apparent that, at some point in the future, both sides in the war develop the ability to send messages back in time – requiring them to develop strategies to fight in both time and space, and across multiple realities.


The Nightside series by Simon R Green

A private eye operates out of the Nightside; an alternate reality London created by Lilith as an immutable space outside of the control and influence of heaven and hell. Often cheesy and gimmicky, but jam-packed with fascinating ideas, concepts, and plot twists.


The Godslayer series by James Clemens

Set in a world where 100 immortal gods carved out and rule territories in relative stability until one of them is killed, in a plot to disrupt the status quo. Magic and science are powered by the bodily fluids of gods; blood, sweat and tears (and beyond) are harvested, distilled, and used in everything from medicine to industry.


The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson

An enormous fantasy epic set between warring nations, in a richly constructed world. Loads of depth to the magic system, religion, and societies. Some excellent writing, which hops between exploring the combat mechanics and strategies of a battle fought across the Shattered Plains – a vast expanse of plateaus and monster-filled chasms – and charting the subtle decay and downfall of the in the background.

Thanks to @Mr_TP for reminding me about this one!


Have I missed anything? Let me know!

Optimising for books

I spent years resisting buying a Kindle, because I knew that it would mean the end of paper books (for me, at least).

I enjoy the tactile interaction, the smell, the sensation of turning a page; all rich, sensory experiences. But eventually, I found myself caught without a book, unexpectedly finishing what I was reading, not being able to get hold of that particular sequel, or damaging my back carrying around a couple of bulky fantasy tomes in a satchel one too many times. And so, to avoid that feeling of desperate booklessness (and bruised shoulders), I sacrificed paper and embraced digital.

Now, I have my entire library in my bag or in my pocket, just a ‘click’ away. And I’ll never go back to paperback. Because, whilst I miss browsing by cover and reading the back and inside pages and turning pages in bed, the efficiency with which my reading library and activity is now managed makes the crude, analogue interaction I have with books on dusty shelves seem archaic.

My total conversion to Kindle, however, is less about the device itself, and more about how I effectively I use it, and how I manage my reading. You see, I’ve optimised my reading experience. And I’d like to share the software, setup and processes which enable me to seamlessly synchronize, catalogue and manage my literature, so that you can, too.

*Note that I’m a heavy Windows and Android user, and whilst most of this should be adjustable to fit, your mileage might vary.


Calibre

At the heart of my reading ecosystem sits Calibre. It could be lazily described as ‘iTunes for books’, as, with minimal setup, it does a great job of ‘albumifying’ your books, syncing to and from your kindle (and other devices)*, and allowing you micromanage metadata and collections. Calibre is a great tool for minimising what’s actually stored on your device at any given time, as well as managing what you’ve read vs what you haven’t, and other useful info.

It’s worth customising and playing a little – there are a ton of settings, including the ability to create custom columns, which I find particularly useful for marketing which books I’ve read, and some other bits and pieces.

calibre

It’s worth investing the time in tweaking book titles to separate their series from their titles (don’t forget to map any versions you have on your device to the updated version), just to keep things clean and tidy.

*I should point out that, in some cases, the content format stored on the Kindle device (particularly with some of the more recent Kindle models) cannot be directly exported to / synced with Calibre. In these cases, you can still go through your Amazon account and download the files. Hopefully somebody will have a less cumbersome fix shortly.


Calibre Cloud

cloudCalibre really starts to come into its own when you start extending it and adding building blocks around it. In particular, the Calibre Cloud app adds some serious punch by moving your entire library to the cloud (or more specifically, to your DropBox folder), and syncing it to your phone – allowing you to easily send and browse books on the fly. Of course, the added benefit of running your library from DropBox is that it becomes incredibly easy to sync and share your whole library with family or friends (though you should of course consider the legal/piracy implications here – though Amazon is impressively liberal around ‘family’ sharing).

For bonus points, the pro version of the app allows you to push files straight into the Kindle app on your phone, without having to email the file across.


Calibre DeDRM Tools

alf

If you’re reading content on multiple devices, or need to convert the format, you may run into some DRM challenges. Apprentice Alf’s blog provides provide a Calibre plugin which you can calibrate to your own Kindle or device’s ID, which will automatically strip out DRM at the point when you add a file to the library (as such, if you intend to use/need this, it’s good to get this set up early – although you can export, delete, and re-import files to get around this).

Of course, this plugin could be used for evil, so for the sake of clarity, I’ll quote the website which hosts the plugin,

Please only use this application for gaining full access to your own ebooks for archiving/conversion/convenience. De-drmed ebooks should not be uploaded to open servers, torrents, or other methods of mass distribution. No help will be given to people doing such things. Authors, retailers and publishers all need to make a living, so that they can continue to produce books for us to read. Don’t be a parasite.


Goodreads Integration

goodreads

With a large library of books in play, it’s easy to forget what you’ve read, what’s on your ‘next up’ list, and so forth. This is something which Goodreads does reasonably well, and if you’re using a relatively recent generation of Kindle, you’ll find that Goodreads is automatically integrated into your device (they’re owned by / part of Amazon, and have been for quite some time), and that when you review and ‘share’ your completed books, it syncs the ‘completed’ status to Goodreads.

This is powerful, because it means that syncing your Goodreads account back to Calibre closes the feedback loop on what you’ve read. This plugin does the legwork of connecting your account, and makes it easy to use bi-directional syncing (individually, and en masse) between your Calibre library and Goodreads data.


Bonus tip – Articles

Reading can’t all be for leisure, right?

That’s where kit like Send to Kindle for Chrome comes in. It’s great for pushing the content of web pages or articles to your Kindle with just a click.

If you use Pocket to manage your consumption of articles, it’s worth looking at P2K, which allows you to schedule automatic and intelligent pushes from your Pocket account to your Kindle (the paid version, at ~$3, lets you specify a tag).

If you want to get really clever, you can build processes whereby Calibre classifies and stores these articles differently/separately, and build out not only your reading library, but the articles you plan to read, editorial, newspaper pieces, and just about anything else.


Worthwhile?

There’s still a lot of admin involved, I’ll give you that. This is a degree of micro-management which, a few years ago, I’d never have imagined investing into my books. It’s intimidating, initially, but it’s worth investing it.

…Because your book collection is only going to get busier, and messier. The rise of Amazon, Kindle and self-publishing has lead to a proliferation in the creation and distribution of new literature which has changed the way in which I – and all of us – read. Books are easier, cheaper and faster to purchase. Furthermore, increasingly, the new model is for teaser books (the first in a series) to be completely free in order to get you hooked, and the series themselves become increasingly composed of more-shorter books to recoup the value. So now I grab free books preemptively, in the knowledge that I’ll get to them eventually. I have hundreds which I’ve never looked at – yet.

I’m vastly quicker to acquire books, and to store them for a rainy day, with no risk of running out of shelf space – at a pace which would have been unthinkable without a Kindle. Managing this volume of books with shelf space, or even with a Kindle but lacking Calibre or an equivalent, would be nightmarish.

Without this system, I’d be piling up epub files in an ever increasing tower, never quite knowing what I’ve read, what’s next, or even what I’ve got. So I’m putting my eggs in this basket as the way I’ll manage my library for the foreseeable future, so it’s worth getting it right, and making sure it’ll scale and survive as it grows.

What’s your system? What have I missed? What do you do differently?

Top Redirection Tips

Search bots and third party spiders are generally pretty stupid. They request files which don’t exist, get stuck in dead ends, don’t take into account site or platform-specific evidence
which might help them more effectively crawl, and generally prefer brute force (more crawling depth and resources) over crawl finesse. This behaviour clogs up your server logs with 404s and adds unnecessary server strain (you’re still using processing and bandwidth overhead to serve those 404s, and they generally aren’t cached), but also means that search engines and evaluative tools aren’t getting a good understanding of your website. More sophisticated bots are problematic in other ways – Google, for example, pro-actively manipulates URL strings and forms to pages and URLs which it otherwise miss; but in doing so, it too generates overhead and errors.

Bot-by-bot, this shouldn’t affect you greatly. However, it’s not unheard of for a relatively large website to get hit by many dozens of bots per minute, generating many thousands of
erroneous records (and causing SEO/social/user/technical issues) per day. If you’re an SEO perfectionist, or looking to squeeze out an extra drop of performance and visibility from your website, you’ll want to make sure that any time or resources which search engines are using to crawl your site is being used as effectively as possible. That means anticipating the kinds of mistakes they’ll make, and catching them before they happen.

The following is a list of ‘core redirects’ which I’ve compiled from my own experience – if you have other ‘must have’ redirects, let me know in the comments!

If you’re running WordPress, the Redirection plugin is perfect for setting up and managing your redirects and error management behaviour. Otherwise, your .htaccess file is a great place to start.

Lastly, bear in mind that, as ever, these are tailored for my sites, my needs. Implementing them as-is my cause redirect loops or errors. These are meant as learning material to inspire you to craft your own solutions, rather than as a copy-paste resource.

My Core Redirects

Redirects which tidy up erroneous filename requests (make sure that the correct/canonical version of the file exists, and/or adapt the rules to fit your own unique circumstances!):

  • Redirect erroneous requests for an IOS icon to the correct file.
  • Redirect erroneous requests for a favicon icon to the correct file
  • Requests to invalid/incorrect XML sitemap filenames (modify as appropriate to suit the correct version(s) for your site)

Redirects which clean up generally unfavourable behaviour

  • Requests to paginated children of, or date-based queries to the root URL (doesn’t make sense on non-blog websites – also bear in mind that this rule is intentionally quite greedy)
  • Requests for empty search strings (triggered by form submissions)
  • Breaking requests for images with malformed parameters (frequently used by Bing!)
  • Redirect all feed requests (if you don’t use feeds)

Utility redirects which solve specific problems caused by third party bots/networks

  • (Sometimes) breaking requests from Facebook containing post tracking parameters (do not use, or at least modify, if you rely on these strings for tracking/analysis or other functionality).

Things I haven’t covered

This is really just the tip of the ice-berg; at the moment, for Days Of The Year, for example, I’m running upwards of 600 redirect rules – however, it’s the rules I’ve outlined here which do most of the heavy lifting, and catch the majority of issues and problems.

Beyond these, there are definitely other areas you should think about; here are just a few places you’ll want to consider turning over some rocks:

  • Requests to your own, unique legacy/old/changed URLs and URL patterns (if you’re using Redirection’s, don’t rely on its auto redirect creation on changed post slugs; it’s a little flakey sometimes).
  • Pattern rules for when you change your image/thumbnail sizes, e.g,. -76[4-5]x382\.(jpg|png) –> -800-600.jpg
  • Pattern rules for when you update dependencies and libraries, e.g., jquery-1\.8\.js –> jquery-1.9.js
  • Pattern rules for security probes, such as for ‘backup.tar.gz’ type file sturctures – but these should typically be caught upstream (by something like iThemes Security for WordPress, and/or Cloudflare)
  • Fixing broken or malformed internal/inbound links, but this is already covered off superbly elsewhere
  • Rules for platform-level problems (or symptoms thereof) which can/should be solved elsewhere, like WordPress’ tendency to allow for empty archives, or page-zero concepts.

My WordPress ‘Cleanup’ Script

I include the following, or something similar, in most of my WordPress projects. It lightly standardises some awkward behaviours, removes some superfluous settings and capabilities which I rarely/never use, and enhances/improves some default functions and approaches.

Warning – do not simply copy and paste this into your theme/functions; it’ll need adapting to fit your use-case, and will likely cause as many problems as it solves if not tweaked and refined to fit your needs.

Think you survived Mobilegeddon? Think again.

Think again. 

Here’s the thing…

Your site is slow.

Thousands of visitors each month land on or reach error pages, ‘out of stock’ messages, empty URLs and dead ends.

Visitors frequently find the wrong products or services when they search, or content with incorrect or outdated information. They find pages targeted at the wrong country, currency or context.

Thousands of searchers don’t reach you at all, because you’re not speaking their language (literally, or metaphorically).

Everything you say, and every word on every page, is the bare minimum effort that you can put in to scaling the harrying of people into converting.

Your checkout process – or your hyper-aggressive sales messaging – confuses and irritates every single one of your customers, so big chunks of them shop elsewhere.

Your retargeting is aggressive, unsophisticated, and persists after purchase.

Your messaging, systems, products and brand aren’t consistent between territories – or between digital and the highstreet – and the experience is disjointed; disappointing. 

You’re failing to understand how to support, educate, empower and amaze your audience – or failing to deliver upon that understanding.

But you didn’t get hit by mobilegeddon.

Even though your mobile experience is crap. 

When getting it right is technically, conceptually simple.

When there are clear benefits to getting it right, and every blog and news outlet in the industry has spent months producing cookie-cutter business cases, best practice examples, and resources to help you to provide a great experience.

Here’s the thing…

None of these factors exist in isolation. ‘Mobilegeddon’ is part of a larger question around how well you serve your audience what they want or need, in a format which is suitable to their situation, in a way which builds a positive brand experience. 

If you’re already getting that wrong in a thousand small ways, then maybe Google improving the way in which they measure one small part of it might not have a huge effect – not if you’re already scoring low across the board.

Not when you’re already providing a poor experience. When your competitors are providing a poor experience, too.

Imagine how much is on the table, in your space, for the first brands to win. To care. To surprise. To just get it right. To invest more than the minimum viable effort to survive the latest wave of algorithm updates.

So here’s the plan.
Sort your mobile experience out first. This week. Build a business case around the opportunity cost of bouncing visitors, checkout abandonments, and wasted media spend. Propose that all of your domains, pages and content is delivered responsively, reactively, or a hybrid of these as best fits your audience. Deliver the pitch whilst it’s topical, and whilst Mobilegeddon is all over the media which senior management are consuming. Strike while it’s topical, and while people are engaged. 

Manage the implementation through, and measure the impact against the same metrics. Estimate the amount of money you’ve made. Be a hero. 

Now go and fix everything else, or risk continuing to play Buckaroo with your brand.