Friday, October 29, 2010

Something Completely Different

Autumn is upon us, so I give you an image of warmer times.

Where do you think this wonderful looking beach is? It's Oval Beach on the Eastern Shore of Lake Michigan.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

How does one review a true masterpiece? Clearly when reading and reviewing a series of books that calls itself ‘Masterworks’, this is in an important question. Ask someone who knows what they are talking about to name the 10 best classic science fiction works. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin is a good candidate for that list (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound). Ask someone to name the 10 best classic science fiction works by a woman author and The Left Hand of Darkness is probably number one.

The Left Hand of Darkness is a true classic of science fiction and an important piece of literature. Classes are taught about this book, a simple Google search will reveal hundreds of articles of true criticism of the book, essays that discuss its place in history, study guides, book discussion outlines, etc. Where does this leave me – should I attempt to say what other people, people who know way more than I do, have already said? Should this review become a simple book report? I say no – do the Google search. You will find great, interesting and important information about The Left Hand of Darkness and Ursula K. Le Guin. What I will discuss is its relevance today, over 40 years after it was replaced. I will discuss why the young(er) fan of SFF books should read this classic that was published before they were born.

On its surface, The Left Hand of Darkness is a first contact book. The Ekumen, a seemingly utopic alliance of planets all populated by human species that have evolved or been engineered from an earlier civilization, sends a single envoy to the planet known as Winter. The story is told from multiple points of view in a journal style as the Envoy negotiates with two different nations and eventually sets out on a defining journey with one of the natives.

The key element of The Left Hand of Darkness is that the humans of the planet Winter are asexual – or perhaps more correctly hermaphrodites – both male and female. They only enter breeding cycle one a month, where one of the two partners becomes the female equivalent and one the male equivalent – and who plays what role can vary from cycle to cycle. The key is that there are no genders among the people. Le Guin explores what a society without gender roles would be like through and apart from the perspective of the Envoy, who is male and from a gendered society and species. There is no war on Winter, but there is violence, death, murder, etc. The politics can be just a Machiavellian, but they are different, foreign to the Envoy in a very fundamental way.

Le Guin’s exploration of a genderless society while writing in the late 1960s is an excellent piece of feminist literature. However, these explorations are subtle and not didactic. While it’s often argued that The Left Hand of Darkness is not Le Guin’s most lyrical writing, this subtle style is distinct and left me with the feeling of ‘they don’t write ‘em like they used to’ – and this is a good thing. There is a strange duality where the Envoy comes from the more utopic society, yet the genderless society of Winter has its own sense of utopia. The sense of it all is hope – hope for the future. Wrapped up in this is the equally interesting presentation of a Cold War between two nations on the planet of Winter, a Cold War on a planet where true war is unknown. Themes run deeper than feminism, hope, and the balance of superpowers and I encourage you to follow that link above to learn more.

The story itself is quite worthwhile even without the thematic prowess. By today’s standards, it’s short and to the point. Le Guin creates an exotic world in the planet Winter that is equally familiar and alien to our senses, like the people who inhabit it. The interplay of trust and perception with politics and an epic adventure across glacial wasteland makes for powerful moments.

So, does The Left Hand of Darkness stand up 40+ years later – emphatically, YES! This novel has a timeless feel about it and a wonderful subtly wrapped in important thoughts that are inherent to our society and species. We will always be a gendered society, but just what do these gender roles mean? And the dichotomies within can apply where they weren’t necessarily aimed – the Cold War of the planet Winter now reads much more like an interesting take on the differences between Democrats and Republicans in the US – and I’m sure that those from other places will find their own modern analogs if they wish. This book earns its write to be at or near the top of any ‘best of’ list and easily belongs in a series of Masterworks. 8.5/10

Note: This review was originally posted at The SF & Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pre-Reading Info for Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

The much anticipated release of the penultimate volume in The Wheel of Time series will be released on November 2ndTowers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound). As a long-time fan this post serves no other purpose than to point fans in the direction of resources and teasers available before the release next month.

I have finished the book and I enjoyed it very much (a full review will go live on the 2nd). Fans, I know you can’t wait, and I am looking forward to talking about all the juicy stuff I now know. So, while you wait, enjoy:

  • You can purchase an ebook version of the Prologue: “Distinctions” at the usual places (a greedy move by Tor in my opinion). There is also a teaser for the Prologue here that consists of one of the points of view from the Prologue.

  • Jason from Dragomount also helped to develop a book trailer for Towers of Midnight. You can watch below (minor spoilers that really don’t spoil in my opinion).

  • EDIT: And head on over to the Tor/Forge blog where there are a lot of fun little articles about The Wheel of Time and Towers of Midnight by various Tor publicists, editors and people behind some of the better Wheel of Time fan websites out there. (or just check out the newsletter)

Also, it is strongly suggested that you not read the Glossary of Towers of Midnight prior to the book – one entry has what most WOT fans would consider a major spoiler (or two).

I think I’ve covered it all, enjoy the wait!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Look at My Review Scores

Some days I get bored or maybe I’m just procrastinating. Today is one of those days and the result is that I dove into the scores I give my reviews. There is a lot of debate about the usefulness/uselessness of scores on reviews. Generally, I find them useless, but I do give each of my reviews a score for my own reasons. The reason I keep doing it is that I can play with the statistics of those scores. I can actually do quite a bit with them and probably will in future editions of boredom/procrastination.

In some of the recent discussion in quality of reviews, Adam of The Wertzone posed the question if ‘scoring’ varies with books that provided by publishers versus books not provided by publishers. So, I took a look at the scores of my reviews. I have a total of 184 scores from my near-5 years of blogging, 114 of those scores were for books provided by publishers and 70 of those scores are for books I purchased or otherwise acquired on my own. The chart below shows the frequency of scores for all of my reviews, for reviews of books provided by publishers, and for books not provided by publishers.

The most interesting thing I see in this chart is that there appears to be no real difference in the distribution of scores for books provided by publishers vs. books not provided by publishers. This is good – it indicates that I’m consistent in my reviewing regardless of the source of the book. I also think that it indicates that my reading choices don’t vary much either – basically I read what looks interesting at the moment, and what governs those choices doesn’t seem to be any different for books publishers have provided versus books that publishers didn’t provide.

And yes, my review scores are skewed to the right. This is because I pick books that I think I’ll like. Yes, I do challenge myself from time to time, but in general I want to enjoy the books I read and I have pretty good idea of what I like. To learn a bit more about how I score those reviews, I touch on it here.


Monday, October 11, 2010

Blogging Advice: RSS Feeds

It’s not often that I give blogging advice – I’m not that sort of guy and this blog is not that sort of blog. But as a reader I am noticing something that really annoys me – more and more blogs are chopping off their RSS feeds. The blogs/websites give a teaser in the RSS feed and require you to click on the link to read the rest of the article. This is a bad idea that hurts those blogs/websites and is a disservice to the readers.

I assume that the reason blogs do this is to bring people directly to their site. Whether they just vainly want the stats or if there is an actual economic reason (like increasing hit counts to increase advertising rates), it is still a bad idea. In the SFF world, you want people to read articles. You aren’t looking for a profit (and if you are, look somewhere else). Publisher sites and blogs want to inform readers, bring more readers, etc – they want people to buy the books. So, you want people to read the content, not (necessarily) visit the website.

The extra step of clicking on a link really does keep people from reading the content – it certainly keeps me away. Very few teasers are enough for me to bother to read an article, but if I have the full article in front of me, I’m much more likely to at least skim it, if not read it in detail. Another key point is that many of us are reading our RSS feeds while working. And many readers work for large corporations or government entities that put up a lot of web filters. From experience, many SFF websites and blogs are blocked by these security filters. My understanding is that the Federal Government blocks pretty much all blogs. Some examples – Suvudu, SF Signal, YouTube, big name authors like Neil Gaiman – you guys are blocked by my corporation’s web security. But the content comes through RSS feed. If you want me to read, I need the full article (thank you Neil Gaiman and SF Signal for the full feed).

So, check your feed – is it a full feed? Tor, Suvudu, and many blogs – your feeds are not full feeds and I don’t read your articles as a result. I am not alone.

Also, don’t put ads in your RSS feeds. Flash is bad, ads are almost always Flash, it slows down the RSS feeds to a crawl and is extremely annoying. If you have ads in your RSS feed, you will almost certainly be dropped and I will no longer read your content.


Friday, October 08, 2010

Someone Didn’t Care for One of My Reviews

This guy didn’t think much of my review of The Way of Kings (and a bunch of others). He makes some good points, some that I can agree with and some that I don’t. But, it sucked me into another one of those recurring discussions in the blogosphere about blogging. If you’re curious, join in, if not, I don’t blame you.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Sam Sykes Answers Questions Five

Sam Sykes is a young debut author who has hit the SFF scene hard – right in the balls (sorry to be crass, but this is a Sam Sykes interview and it’s not for the faint of heart – or someone overly sensitive to language). And to add a bit of trivial info to this introduction – Sykes is actually a pen name that Sam uses in part to distinguish himself from his mother, writer Diana Gabaldon. Sam’s debut novel is Tome of the Undergates, the first book in the Aeon’s Gate Trilogy (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound, my review). Book 2, Black Halo (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) should hit the shelves in 2011. Sam’s distinctive public persona is a breath of foul air in the world of SFF (and I mean this in the best way possible).

Thanks again to Sam for submitting himself to Questions Five (and for producing arguably the most entertaining entry in this interview series)!

Joe Hill, a magical pug, a Mexican, Joe Arpaio, and Lou Anders go on adventure seeking the Tome of the Underpants. How do things go?

“Oh god, oh god, oh god, oh god,” Joe whines. Tears are in his eyes, blood is on his hands. It’s getting hard to keep track of the fluids.

“Shut up, just shut the fuck up,” Lou says. He’s wanting to rub his head, wanting that brief clarity of mind that only comes from hand-to-head-sans-hair contact. But he can’t take his hands off the wheel, not until they reach Mexico, not with a dead body in the trunk.

“Jesus fuck, Lou,” Joe says, “I killed him. I killed that guy.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“The fuck it wasn’t my fault! I said I was just going to talk to him!”

“Look, man, it’s not like you did too bad. It’s Joe Arpaio. He provoked you. You…you know…you’re kind of blameless.”

“Then why the fuck are we going to Mexico, huh? Why the fuck is he in the trunk?”

“I don’t know, dumbshit! Why the fuck did you kill him for having the same first name?”

“You don’t know what it’s like, man! You’re not a Joe. You don’t. Fucking. Know.”

“Gentlemen, please,” a voice, deep and bass, speaks up from the backseat.

Neither of them look back. Neither of them want to see the pug in the tuxedo. Neither of them want to believe it can talk, just like neither of them want to believe that those pills they took at the gas station were anything more than aspirin. But they look into the rear view window and the pug is still there, still talking, and it’s getting harder to believe anything else.

“Do I look like a young lady?” the pug asks. “Do I have curly golden hair? Do I wear a pretty little dress and dream of vampires instead of wearing this fine Armani and long for a day when I can put you both far behind me?”

“I guess not,” Joe says.

“Man, don’t fucking talk to it,” Lou snaps.

“No,” the pug says. “Because I am not a fucking little girl. I’m fucking more man than either of you little pieces of shit, so when I say to do something, you fucking do it like a man told you to, comprende?”

“Fuck is…is he Mexican?”

“Well, what the fuck do we do, then?” Lou asks. “You’re a fucking talking dog, what the hell do we do?”

A pug can’t smile. This is fact. But as they look up into the rear view, neither of them wants to believe that they see a pair of canine lips curling up into a broad grin.

“Have either of you heard, by chance…of the Tome of the Underpants?”

If Tome of the Undergates were a fortune cookie, what would its fortune be?

“Your god is deaf. Your heaven is a lie. Go to the water. Drink deeply. We will meet you there and we will all go to a world of endless blue and oblivion. Together.”

How would you interpret this fortune if it were your own?

Well, I guess I’d go drown myself. I mean, I’m not dumb. I’m not going to piss off a fortune cookie.

Please describe one reason Tome of the Undergates would inspire a reader to strip naked and run screaming into the forest?

If that reader is a fantasy reader: they would do so because the sheer amount of imagination would cause them to realize that nothing in life could possibly be as cool as a dragonman fighting a ten-foot-tall emaciated demon and the only way to live life to the fullest would be to go to that world and, going by the Terminator principle, one needs to strip naked and run around and hope for the best.

If that reader is a romance reader: they would realize that Tome of the Undergates’ awkward, often violent romance between two people who love and hate each other at the same time is probably closer to reality than anything read in a book and, not wanting to live in such a world, would go in search of the nearest bear and hope for an end to the misery.

If that reader is a horror reader: they would be moved by the idea of horrific beasts that view mankind as a pitiful thing in need of release from an uncaring world and view drowning as the quickest way toward a caring deity and, out of gratitude, would strip naked and run through a forest directly to my house to thank me.

If that reader is a guy named Stephen: you fucking owe me twelve bucks, you shit. If I catch you naked, I’m going to be pissed.

Why should Tome of the Undergates be the next thing that everyone reads?

Because it’s a new way of thinking: hateful people bound together by self-loathing instead of heroism, hateful people learning to overcome that and be bound together by something more…but not heroism, villains who are possibly more kind and loving than anything else on earth, character development taken in a way that can be sometimes hard to digest, but ultimately rewarding and engrossing.

Also, crotch-stomping. Oh, lord, the crotch-stomping.

Bonus question for inclusion in The SFF Literary Pub Crawl:

Please recommend a favorite pub or similar establishment – it doesn’t have to be local to you, but that is encouraged and if you can’t limit to just one, recommend more, but try to keep it to 3 or less. And don’t forget to say why it’s so great.

I love The Wine Loft in downtown Flagstaff. My hearing isn’t so great and I’m a man who hates the sight of other people having fun, so a bar with good beer, good wine and an atmosphere that doesn’t involve a bunch of people dancing to loud music is one I enjoy.

Also, the owner seems to like my dogs, so he must be a good person.

[For what it’s worth, this is my favorite place for drinks in Flagstaff as well]

Review: Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes

Tome of the Undergates (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is the debut novel from Sam Sykes, a relatively young writer with a rather distinctive public persona. This tome combines classic Sword & Sorcery with a bit of epic fantasy while inverting the noble band of adventurers as is the first book of the Aeon’s Gate Trilogy. It’s violent, witty, foul-mouthed, and unpleasant – and depending on one’s perception, it’s either perfect or horribly wrong.

Tome of the Undergates could read like the standard Sword and Sorcery adventure quest – there is wizard, a priestess, a shict (elf equivalent), a dragonman (troll/orc/ogre equivalent), and a talented man all following an inspirational leader. That’s where it ends because this merry band of adventures hate one another – not in the we don’t really get a long way, but in the I want you to die a brutal death as I carve out your heart with a spoon kind of way. Most of the characters are morally reprehensible, all are greatly flawed with mysterious pasts full of violence, pain and punishment, and it’s really hard to figure out how they haven’t already killed each other. Under the leadership of Lenk, who is slowly going batshit insane, the band is bonded not by noble mission or even the desire for a big paycheck – the band is bound by their own self-loathing. The only thing the hate more than each other is probably themselves, so the company, however unpleasant, is actually better than the alternative of being alone. And at least together they seem to get the chance to kill a lot.

All of this is told in the distinctive, dark wit of Sykes’ writing. It’s funny, it’s snarky, it’s sarcastic, and it’s over the top. The only thing more over the top is probably the violence – typically described in visceral detail. The violence is in your face from the beginning – not quite gratuitous, but so close it becomes semantic. Let’s be honest – in this, Tome of the Undergates is something a 14 year old boy would love. Or someone with a sick sense of humor. Or someone who wants to read an extended Dungeons & Dragons campaign. But it would be a mistake to dismiss this book simply because one of those doesn’t apply to you.

Sykes displays strong potential with his writing. Under all of the over-the-top humor and violence, there is some real talent. The adventure is one that I couldn’t help but follow – I needed to see it through. I became strangely devoted to the characters in spite of their questionable morality, rampant racism (err….speciesism?), reprehensible ideas, repeated blasphemy, and awful love stories. I wanted them to live, I wanted them to win, I wanted to see them kill some more creepy beasts. And I wanted to know more about their pasts – why are they so devoted to Lenk, why don’t the kill each other even though they really want to, why do they hate themselves, why don’t they kill themselves. And in the moments when Sykes provides glimpses into their pasts, he excels. Sykes underscores this as the real point by continuing the story well past the climactic battle with his most impressive bit of writing, particularly the section from Gariath.

Unfortunately, the writing has a few more downs than ups. This is Sykes’ first book and as a relatively young writer (only 25 at publication) his youth and inexperience show through. The pacing is off – the battles are too drawn out, a bit too clever, and the dialogue can be equally drawn out and overly clever. The points of view tend to shift both gradually and abruptly without warning or break in the text (this is one of my biggest pet peeves). Many will feel the violence is too much, the language too coarse, and the characters too nasty (in fairness, I think a good many people will consider this a positive). He keeps his characters a bit too mysterious, unrealistically so. And this nearly 500-page book could be much shorter without losing anything. But ultimately, these issues diminished in the face of a fun story.

Some books aren’t for everyone, and that is certainly the case for Tome of the Undergates. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t for some people – it succeeds well within its goals. It’s a book full of violence, adventurers with questionable morals, nasty creatures, with an interesting out-right inversion of the noble quest. And really, that 14 year old boy who doesn’t like books (but likes comics and/or video games) just may think this is the coolest thing ever. I liked it – with reservations – but overall I think it’s a great start for a promising young writer (and in spite of what my wife may claim, I’m no 14 year old boy and I think this book will appeal to a wider, if still limited audience). 7/10

Full Disclosure: Sam Sykes lives in the same city I do and I have met him on a few occasions, including one in which he bought me a beer and introduced me to George R.R. Martin as we gossiped about writing, publishing and blogging.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Review of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

My review of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is live over at The SF and Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project. Below is a short excerpt.

So, does The Left Hand of Darkness stand up 40+ years later – emphatically, YES! This novel has a timeless feel about it and a wonderful subtly wrapped in important thoughts that are inherent to our society and species. We will always be a gendered society, but just what do these gender roles mean? And the dichotomies within can apply where they weren’t necessarily aimed – the Cold War of the planet Winter now reads much more like an interesting take on the differences between Democrats and Republicans in the US – and I’m sure that those from other places will find their own modern analogs if they wish. This book earns its write to be at or near the top of any ‘best of’ list and easily belongs in a series of Masterworks.
Full Review

Friday, October 01, 2010

Something Completely Different

Well, I'm slowly getting caught up after a week-long conference last week and being single dad this week while my wife was away at a conference. I still owe a review to the SFF Masterworks Reading Project for The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) that I hope to write soon and I'm enjoying Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), though this book is not for everyone. I'm also trying to weasel my way into early copies of some the great up-coming releases that so many of fans are anticipating - Towers of Midnight by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), The Crippled God by Steven Erikson (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), etc. I have hopes, even if those are books that all of us bloggers will be reading (the thing is that most of us are fans first).

Anyway, on to photo - only in the U.S.!


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