Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Race in SFF

I’m always interested when a major newspaper or other media outlet talks about SFF because it just doesn’t seem to happen all that often. Today the Boston Globe ran this article by Vanessa E. Jones about race in SFF – mainly concentrating on the scarcity of black authors in the genre. It seems likely this was inspired by the monochrome appearance of the attendees at the recent Readercon.

The article itself is a pretty good one, if being rather predictable. SFF does have too few non-white authors and there are subtle race, gender, sexual orientation, and other stereotypes are too often intentionally and unintentionally perpetuated in SFF works of both the past and present. I’m not really knowledgeable enough to write in any kind of detail about this – and I’m not going to be the one to point to all the good stuff that SFF is producing in this area. Other (likely much more informed and intelligent) responses are popping up around the blogosphere (and here's an interesting entry that's a bit older but well worth reading). But, what really got to me is the focus of this article. You see apparently the race issues are limited to the black minority. There doesn’t seem to be any other racial minority worth talking about, at least the article doesn’t mention any. Anyone else a bit bothered by this bit of tunnel vision?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Horse Buggies and Automobiles

One of many observations I’ve made since I began blogging is the circular nature of so much of the discussion. A topic gets hot, is talked about endlessly, dies for a while, and is resurrected again to begin the whole process anew. One such topic (and one that seems to always inspire a reaction from me) is that on reviewing in general, and specifically the quality of on-line reviews and on-line versus print reviews. I most recently mentioned this only yesterday, but dig deep enough and you’ll fine a lot of discussion around the time preceding Scalpel’s ill-fated launch, and another round some months prior, etc. Each of these incarnations may have a slightly different focus, but it all seems to be part of the same on-going discussion.

The latest entries in the newest round (which has been building in response to a panel at Readercon) are actually somewhat anomalous – these most interesting contributions seem to be voices of reason (at least from my admittedly biased view). Paul Kincaid dissects the argument that on-line and print reviews are fundamentally different, and then explains in detail what he feels makes a good review. Jonathan McCalmont follows up with a very good discussion on the quality of on-line reviews.

Really, I shouldn’t even be jumping in here – I don’t write the type of reviews that these guys want. I’m not a critic and I don’t even pretend that I offer criticism – I just offer my opinion on books. I go into detail in this explanation on my reviews, but it really boils down to me wanting to write a review for the average fan, a review that I would want to read. I’ve always just wanted a short idea of what the book is about (i.e. short plot summary), some commentary that says what’s good and/or bad about the book, and what makes it so. The ideal review length for me tends to be in the 600-900 word range. I do love the longer, in-depth reviews/criticisms, but not until after I’ve read the book.

From many discussions that I’ve had on various message boards and blogs, I found that there is a real demand for this type of review (as can be seen by the relative success of this blog and those like it). The more academic-minded reviewers out there chafe at this, but as I see it, it’s a simple fact. A large audience is really craving this, and there are a number people like me who provide. That doesn’t mean that there’s not audience for longer, more ‘professional’ type reviews – a street-level criticism to bring up a term that’s been bandied about. Of course there is – there’s room for all of us, and this is a point that is so often overlooked, especially when extreme, or at least narrowly focused opinions tend to get all the attention. However, one thing that will continue to annoy me (well piss me off may be more correct here) is the derogatory elitism and disdain shown to those like me by some out there (particularly old-school print reviewers).

Before I ramble on too far, I think I’ll sign off until the next time this all comes around…

On a side note – Jonathan McCalmont is looking to keep the idea behind Scalpel alive with a new (Gabe-free) project. My reaction: Excellent!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Tagged by the 'Blogging Tips Meme'

The SciFi Chick, Angela, has tagged me for this blogging tips meme - I suppose I have to do somethng about it.

-Start Copy-

It’s very simple. When this is passed on to you, copy the whole thing, skim the list and put a * star beside those that you like. (Check out especially the * starred ones.)

Add the next number (1. 2. 3. 4. 5., etc.) and write your own blogging tip for other bloggers. Try to make your tip general.

After that, tag 10 other people. Link love some friends!

Just think- if 10 people start this, the 10 people pass it onto another 10 people, you have 100 links already!

1. Look, read, and learn. **

2. Be, EXCELLENT to each other. *

3. Don’t let money change ya! *

4. Always reply to your comments. ***

5. Link liberally — it keeps you and your friends afloat in the Sea of Technorati. *

6. Don’t give up - persistance is fertile. **

7. Give link credit where credit is due. ***

8. Pictures say a thousand words and can usually add to any post.*

9. Participating in 'memes' is a distructive habit and should be avoided at all costs.

-End Copy-

Well, I'm not actually a big fan of memes. I don't like chain emails and back in the stone age, I didn't like chain letters. I'm tempted to not tag anyone, but really, misery loves company. So, I tag A Dribblie of Ink, Adventures in Reading, Fantasy Book Critic, Graeme's Fantasy Book Review, OF Blog of the Fallen, The Bodhisattva, The Gravel Pit, The Fantasy Review, The Pearls are Cooling, and Rob's Blog o'Stuff.
Just Another Critic Who's Grip on the Cliff's Edge is Slipping

Here is an article published in the Washington Post by book critic Ron Charles about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Look, he has some good points - close examination on the excitement around HP does bring up some interesting problems. Declining reading is troubling. Yada yada yada

But, underlying the few good points he makes is sense of superiority that just turns off most people. He gets defensive about his profession and in doing so is basically ridiculing those who just don't get it. He's preaching to a choir here - this article is written for those steadfast Harry Potter haters and critics like him (in certain circles I’m sure it’s equally important not to like Harry Potter – Malfoy rejoice). The rest of us little serfs just don't get it. The opposite is true - he doesn't get it. While it is very depressing that so many of these people who are enthusiastic about Harry Potter have probably read nothing other than Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code in the last few years, dismissing the appreciation of these books by steadfast readers (such as myself and most of you reading here) is a gross oversight. Dismissing the sense of wonder and excitement this series has produced in children is criminal. Harry Potter is a gateway to other (and better) fiction, sure not as much as we hope, but that doesn't make it any less important.

This is just another version of what has come become way too common. A print critic attempting to justify their existence by telling how everyone else has it wrong - a buggy builder decrying the automobile.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

I agreed to post my review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at FantasyBookSpot, and it’s up and waiting to be read. As a fan, I really enjoyed this book, and that’s how I reviewed it – as a fan. I don’t claim to be a real critic, and on many levels, I had lots of problems with the book. But, as a fan, as someone who enjoys the story of Harry Potter, this was as close to the perfect way to end the series as I can imagine. I think this is the point of view that people most want to see in a review, and that’s what I give. I’m quite curious as to what people think of this review.

This final entry in the landmark Harry Potter series is a wild ride, full of action, with incredible feats of bravery, and horrible moments of grief. J.K. Rowling has written the best possible conclusion and that is a singularly remarkable feat. 8/10 (full review)

Monday, July 16, 2007

Review: Set the Seas on Fire by Chris Roberson

Set the Seas on Fire by Chris Roberson harkens back to an age of exploration and wonder, where one could realistically dream of travel through a world unknown. Set during and just following the Napoleonic Wars, Roberson offers a historical fiction adventure that serves as a prequel to Paragaea: A Planetary Romance, while offering a worthwhile adventure all its own.

Lieutenant Hieronymus Bonaventure serves as second in command on the HMS Fortitude in the days of dominance of the British Empire. As the Fortitude sails the tropical Pacific, it encounters a Spanish Galleon, and the somewhat inept captain is determined to capture its cargo. During the battle, a formidable storm sweeps both ships off course and into uncharted waters. With limited supplies, the crippled Fortitude must seek out the unknown in order to survive – leading to the discovery of a paradise, and the darkness nearby.

The narrative is really a pretty simple tale of nineteenth-century adventure: naval battle, undiscovered island, first contact with natives living in paradise, exotic women, leave-takings, unnecessary battle against dark and unknown forces, pyrrhic victory and survival for some. This blunt breakdown of the story is not intended imply that it’s an uninteresting one, or that it’s not worth reading – it’s well told and gains strength as it progresses – but, it is just the frame. The filling is the afore-mentioned and aptly-named Hieronymus, deridingly known as Hero by a sarcastic midshipman.

Roberson shows the making of a special kind of person, a leader of men, a lover, an adventurer, a nineteenth-century Odysseus and the first half of his Odyssey. Through flashbacks we periodically visit the childhood and early manhood of Hieronymus, son of a scholar, dreaming of adventure, seeking and receiving the tutelage of an accomplished swordsman, who has lived his own life of adventure. Young Hieronymus contrasts with his older self, Lt. Bonaventure, having experienced some of that adventure in the service of duty for King and Country, yet somehow managing to not live life in the spirit of adventure he craved as a child. His excitement and education at the discovery of an island and its people are tempered as the implications are fully realized. He learns of love, cultural shock, and consequences – he glimpses his future from a shaman and doesn’t have the courage to stop the mistake he knows his captain will make.

Set the Seas on Fire is a fun and satisfying adventure through the South Seas. Most correctly shelved as historical fiction, fantastical elements are almost an afterthought where native myth comes alive, meeting the captain’s folly. While succeeding overall, a few minor issues gave me a bit of grief. In an effort at setting a nostalgic feel, Roberson uses the seeming old-fashioned language of the nineteenth century which I found difficult to get into at first, although, by mid-way through the book I didn’t notice it anymore. Some awkward pacing occurs do to the use of flashbacks as things slow down significantly. This is entirely intentional and appears to be an effort to take a step back, breath deeply and get to know Hieronymus a bit better before moving on. The success is a bit mixed, but aids to a building of anticipation and the desire to know what will come next.

As I’ve said above, Set the Seas on Fire is a highly enjoyable novel, good story, and great view of an interesting character. But, through it all, I’m left with the sense of missing something important. And that is precisely the case because while it stands well on its own, Set the Seas on Fire is a prequel, and it appears that the meat of the story, the second (and more interesting) half of the Odyssey, occurs in Paragaea, which I haven’t had the opportunity to read. So, while I can recommend Set the Seas on Fire as a fun nineteenth-century adventure, I think that it just might need Paragaea to truly complete it. 6.5-7/10
A Very Interesting Article

Here is an incredible article about black crime fiction that Brian Lindenmuth wrote over at FantasyBookSpot, or more correctly, it's mirror site - MysteryBookSpot. He goes into great length exposing the overlooked world of black crime fiction. Even though I only very rarely read anything approaching crime fiction, I found this article to be fascinating, and now I think that I'll have to search out a couple of these books.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Scourge of The

I’m sure that I can’t be the only person who’s noticed just how often a book title begins with the word ‘The’. Am I the only one who is annoyed by this? To be completely honest, anytime I see ‘The’ as the first word in a title, I’ve already mentally marked the book down a bit. Now I can’t ever recall having not bought a book due to this, but I’ve come to realize that titles are among the most important aspects of me choosing a book, and it bugs me. To me, it just seems somewhat lazy when ‘The’ is the first word – I’m sure this is an overgeneralization, but it does represent my gut feel.

I took a quick look to see just how prevalent it is – I’ve posted a total of 68 book reviews since starting this blog about a year and half ago. Of those books, 28 start with ‘The’ – that’s over 40% of the titles starting with the same unoriginal word. I didn’t bother to count up how many tags/labels I’ve attached to various posts, but 39 of them start with ‘The’, and most are book or series titles.

What does this mean – well, I suggest that if a writer or editor is looking to come up with a good title that’s more likely to grab the attention of someone like myself – avoid the scourge of ‘The’. Really, put just a bit more thought into it and the title will benefit.

Am I alone here? Thoughts? Any comments from someone who has actually had to come up with at title?

*I’m particularly proud of the fact that I used ‘The’ to start the title of this blog post.
**The was utilized 20 times in the writing of this post.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang

I just posted my review of The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang over at FBS. This is a powerful short story, or perhaps more correctly, it’s a new fairy tale or fable in the spirit of Arabian Nights. I look forward to getting around to Stories of Your Life and Others soon. 8/10
The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks

The Traveler refuses to be pigeon-holed into any one genre – it is equal parts spy novel, adventure, techno-thriller, science fiction, fantasy, secret history, and ass-kicking chic-lit. And as a sum of these parts it should satisfy fans of each and all.

Maya has been raised by an elite warrior class known as the Harlequins – but their kind are dying, having been systematically hunted and exterminated by the Tabula, a secret organization seeking a world order. The Harlequins are the sworn protectors of Travelers – mystics, healers, and leaders of mankind who have the ability to travel between the dimensions of reality and are the true enemy of the Tabula their desired world order. The last known Traveler is long dead and Maya seeks a normal life as an ordinary citizen. Her father begs her help on a mission, seeking a pair of brothers who just might be Travelers. The Tabula are wired into the world’s surveillance systems and secretly pull the strings behind most world powers and they know.

Maya is a truly fascinating character who is wonderfully presented. Conflicted, hurt, lonely, and deadly – this isn’t the life she wanted. The other ‘good guys’ are equally interesting and rounded, while the ‘bad guys’ seem just a bit too cliché and uninteresting.

Though the summary above sounds rather SFF, the framework of The Traveler is all spy and techno-thriller. The standard approach to introducing a heroine and her environment is taken, but written with skill enough to not matter – after all, this is a book for the masses, and we’ve come to expect certain things.

The constant and complete surveillance of the world created, where governments seek to control and eliminate true freedom, makes this book the 1984 of a post 9-11 world. Personal freedom is assaulted and destroyed, and the visionaries, the most human of us all, hunted to extinction. The underlying views are neither subtle nor preachy, and they are certainly exaggerated to an extreme that is all the more scary because it rings true. Secret organizations seeking to rule the world aside, the implications and truth sink in and would make the Lone Gunmen cry.

The Traveler garnered lots of attention, maintaining a presence on the international bestseller lists when released in 2005. The attention was largely focused on the paranoia of the book and the author himself, whose identity is not publicly known and who advocates a life ‘off the grid’. Of course if you aren’t interested in all that nonsense mentioned above, it is a very good action-adventure-spy-techno-thriller written with more skill than one usually finds.

The Traveler picks and chooses from numerous genres and delivers a truly entertaining book, meaty with paranoid echoes of the real world. The first entry in the Fourth Realm Trilogy is followed by The Dark River, which I look forward to reading, and you should too – 8/10.

Monday, July 09, 2007

A Report from Readercon 18

Matt Denault has written up a spectacular report on Readercon 18 for FantasyBookSpot. I highly recommend reading it as some real interesting things were discussed.

Ok, so I’m going to focus on something that actually applies directly to me and rant a bit – the panel discussion title “Reviewing in the Blogosphere” with John Clute, Kathryn Cramer, Jim Freund (M), Ernest Lilley, Tom Purdom, and Gordon Van Gelder. So, the first observation is that I don’t believe any of these people actually qualify to be on a panel titled “Reviewing in the Blogosphere” – these people are certainly qualified to talk about reviewing, but they review for publications and such. Ideally, this panel should been populated by half with some amateur blogger reviewers or message board reviewers – essentially someone that’s never received a paycheck for a review.

As a result, it seems that the discussion quickly turned into “Reviewing On-line” and the challenges that the Ivory Tower have faced as they transition from print to screen rather than anything about blogs. This was not a discussion about reviewing on blogs, but the same discussion on reviews that continues to occur with these Ivory Tower reviewers who disdain the likes of me. Matt sums up some of Clute’s responses:

Clute responded that these plot summaries plus reviewer opinion are not really reviews. Asked what a review should do, Clute replied that it should be just like any other piece of writing any writer might produce, something that deploys all the skills she or he can muster, that they are proud of, and that they can envision still being in-print (and still being proud of) 10 years from now.

I can agree with much of this – a plot summary is the worst kind of review. A plot summary plus opinion can be just as useless. Many blogger reviewers do suffer from either a ‘laziness’ or perceived need to get something out quickly – this certainly applies to myself at times. Putting some true time and thought into a review is important.

However, the latter part of the summation above is where I start to disagree. John Clute writes detailed critique-style reviews. This is not something that should always be strived for. A quick review like what I write here is often all that is needed or wanted. I write reviews the way I do because they are the type of reviews I want to read. I want a quick idea of what the basic plot is and a basic idea of what is good and bad about the book. For this to be too meaningful, I need to have some knowledge and trust of the reviewer. I really don’t look for the more detailed review-critique until after I’ve read a book.

Clute seems to stop short of implying that everyone writing reviews should write as he does – but does imply that it’s not a place for amateurs. I’ve been annoyed by ‘Clute-worship’ in the past and it still annoys me now. This isn’t because of anything that Clute does – I actually believe that he deserves all the attention and praise that he gets. But there is often this idea that if you don’t strive to write a review like Clute does, that you just shouldn’t bother at all. That’s what I don’t like.

Ok, so back from the tangent – I would have loved to read a nice summary on “Reviewing in the Blogosphere” – instead they presented an Ivory Tower perspective of reviewing on-line. That’s too bad.

Oh, and let’s not forget that I’m commenting on a second-hand account of it all – I could easily be way off base.

Matt – great reporting. I hope FBS sends you to all the cons.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell

In a distant future humans expand to planets beyond Earth as they struggle for survival in a galaxy full of conflicting alien species. One distant terraformed planet brings humans into contact with an even larger conflict between two powerful alien species. Humans fight for survival and in loosing effort – in a last desperate action, someone (human or alien) activates a weapon that destroys the wormhole providing access to the planetary system. The consequences are huge – essentially all technology made useless. Humans and aliens alike are stranded and turn toward long lost basic survival skills in a world without technology.

Fast forward several hundred years to equatorial Nanagada – John DeBrun leads a peaceful life in a costal town near the Wicked High Mountains that divide Nanagada from Azteca – a land of brutal, invasion-minded people at the yoke of their vicious alien gods. DeBrun has a mysterious past – he washed up on shore 20+ years earlier with no memories. Since arriving he has lead a life of adventure to distant Capital City and the frozen north before settling down to a family life. War comes with a surprise invasion of the Azteca that threatens to destroy all of Nanagada with John’s memories and mysterious and powerful Pepper holding the key to survival.

Crystal Rain is Tobias Buckell’s debut and a great adventure novel. We see the struggle of a budding civilization in a post-apocalyptic world, alien domination, human sacrifice, blimps and sails, and battle all wrapped up in a solid science fiction framework. As a fun adventure, Crystal Rain succeeds well – immediately sucking me into the story and becoming a ‘page-turner’ of a novel, however, it provides much more than just adventure. In one such aspect, Nanagada was originally settled by people from the Caribbean region of Earth and Buckell’s Caribbean roots shine in the multicultural world that emerges. The distinct voice creates a depth to the setting not often achieved with so few words.

The most interesting part of Crystal Rain for me is only hinted at through the majority of the novel – the ultimate decision made hundreds of years ago to end the war, resulting in the destruction of civilization and the death of countless people. Who could make such a decision, how, and what would be the consequences to that individual of such a necessary evil? Could history repeat itself? Ultimately, this is an underlying theme, rearing its ugly head in various forms.

Crystal Rain was unfortunately and unjustifiably too often overlooked when released last year as it was eclipsed by such releases as The Lies of Locke Lamora and His Majesty’s Dragon and the popularity of authors like John Scalzi. The story stands alone, yet introduces us to continuing saga that is followed up by Ragamuffin (released in June 2007) and future novels. This is science fiction and the beginning of a space opera, but the style and feel of Crystal Rain will satisfy fantasy and sci-fi fans alike. Do yourself a favor – read Crystal Rain – it was one of the best and most overlooked releases of 2006. 8/10

Monday, July 02, 2007

Bangkok Haunts by John Burdett

My review of Bangkok Haunts by John Burdett is up over at FantasyBookSpot (or MysteryBookSpot in this case). If you haven't read any of Burdett's fiction, I strongly encourage it.

In Bangkok Haunts ghosts, mysticism, and even sorcery clash with the world of prostitution, pornography, and poverty when a horrific snuff film surfaces. Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep guides the reader into the brothels and jungles of Thailand - offering a subtle criticism of the West and its impact on the East through a dark, witty humor that blatantly challenges our basic assumptions - this is Thai noir, and it doesn't get much better than this. 8/10 (full review)
Related Reviews: Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo
Book Giveaways – Everywhere!

I love books; I really love free books, so it’s no surprise that I love all these book giveaways going on.

I think I started advocating for book giveaways as a way to reinvigorate the Wotmania OF message board in early 2004 – at this time there were only the occasional sweepstakes programs here and there. Now, if you know what you are doing, you can find seemingly countless book giveaways that really don’t have any strings attached – all you need to do is supply an email or private message, sometimes with a name and address, that actually isn’t used for anything other than getting you a book in the case that you win. There really is no reason not to sign up.

Excepting bookstore and publisher sweepstakes, I think I first noticed on-line giveaways sometime in 2003. At that time, it was limited and author sponsored – I think the giveaway was a R. Scott Bakker book at Wotmania OF, and not really a true giveaway, but more of a contest. Starting a few years later, Pat over at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist really got book giveaways going – he has them all the time. Other places like FantasyBookSpot had occasional giveaways, but nothing like Pat. Now it seems that everywhere I look there are more – SFF World, Wotmania OF, SFX, Fantasy Book Critic, Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review, My Elves are Different, SF Signal, The Fantasy Review, etc… And you can find many other sources for free books such as the reader review programs at many of the major publishing houses, bookstore giveaways at places like Waterstone's, publisher direct contests at their own blogs (such as Orbit), other blog contests (like what Carl sponsors at Stainless Steel Droppings), and even the occasional giveaway from the authors themselves (such as this one from Tobias Buckell).

Clearly the combination of every fanboy/girl out there getting into blogging and the realization by publishers of the power of on-line marketing through the fanboy/girl is making these giveaways even more popular. And why not – it makes good marketing sense (to me anyway). Even this survey indicates as much. Now the specific category of contests is really low, but if the winner of the contest starts recommending it to friends, or writes a review on a blog, or talks it up on a message board or a book club, the chain reaction starts and the cost of that single book has more than paid for itself in more than one way.

And who doesn’t love free books – I am a bona fide bibliophile and I sure do love these contests. I almost compulsively enter just about every one that I see, even though in many cases I could request said book from the publisher or I may even already have a copy. I don’t care, I get selfish, gimmeee books, gimmmeee more books. And if I don’t win, I often do buy that book.

So, my little blog is pretty successful – I’ve had over 20,000 visitors (not counting RSS views) and at a rate of several thousand per month, that’s growing fast. But I haven’t done any giveaways – should I? Perhaps I should declare my blog giveaway free just to be different. Well, that sounds good to me – Neth Space is and will remain giveaway free*.

*this is mostly due to laziness rather than any actual principled stand or desire to be different. In fact if offered giveaways, Neth Space would happily reverse this stand almost instantly – after all, I do love giveaways.


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