The OF Blog: August 2009

Monday, August 31, 2009

A few more tributes to wotmania, plus a new interview on its successor site

Seems I'm not the only one blogging about the passing of a large fansite. Bloggers who have had some sort of connection with wotmania who have commented in the past few days:

The Wertzone (Sunday)

Pat's Fantasy Hotlist (Sunday)

Neth Space

The Thirteenth Depository (Monday)

In each of their posts, the authors talk about how they got their start in forum posting or at least active forum visiting with wotmania, particularly its Other Fantasy section, during the 2002-2004 period that I stated in my previous post Saturday might have been that section's "Golden Age." Perhaps there'll be another site (Westeros' Literature section being the closest I can think of right now) that'll have a section that celebrated diversity in discussions and reading...even if the threaded MB format was beyond archaic for most of us who posted on multiple forums.

But this is not just a tribute to the dead, but perhaps the first of several links to something the new successor site, Read And Find Out, is doing. I noticed while browsing there (the handle there is the same as the one here, although you won't see me post there very often, as I explained in the previous post) that one of the members there (and someone who comments occasionally here, I might add), Camilla, had just conducted a short but interesting interview with Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World (and a book I enjoyed when I read it several months ago). For those who may have thought my interviews to have been a bit too ponderous at times, I suspect the breezy, conversational style of this one might appeal to you. And from what I understand, the new site's webmaster will have a transcript available in the near future of an in-person interview he conducted with China Miéville yesterday at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Once this comes available, I'll probably link to it, although apparently there won't be any A/V to accompany the transcript.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Issui Ogawa, The Lord of the Sands of Time

In the twenty-sixth century, the enemy had used Venus as a seed bed. Now, Cutty carried out a thorough search for underground bases or colonies hidden beneath the thick atmosphere that shrouded this world. Sure enough, several large colonies were discovered. One after another they were wiped out with thermonuclear warheads - for the Messengers were no more than weapons of medium power. After the strikes, thorough mop-up operations were carried out to ensure that not a single spore had escaped.

The forces allocated to the Messengers amounted to everything that humanity in the twenty-sixth century could assemble, but those forces were still hard-pressed to cover two planets as well as the countless small bodies orbiting the Sun. Their main energy source was antimatter brought from the future, but supplies were not inexhaustible. A long-term conflict would mean building antimatter production plants. The twenty-second century lacked the facilities necessary to support the operations of the fleet, which forced the Messengers to rely on local help. To give up on humanity - that is, to conduct operations without them - was not a realistic option (p. 76)

There has been a long and storied history of cultural exchange between the United States and Japan. From Commodore Matthew Perry's 1853 expedition to Yokohama that forced the opening of several Japanese ports to the Americans to the 1860s Meiji Restoration that overthrew the shogun system and replaced it with a hybrid political system that took certain American/Western ideas on industrialization, politics, culture, etc. and melded them with traditional Japanese beliefs on how society should be organized; from the World War II conflict to the rise of the zaibatsu by the 1980s and Japan's growing dominance in the global automobile market; from Raymond Chandler being translated into Japanese to mangas being translated into American English, there is a rich history of cultural exchange and mutual influence.

Therefore, it should not be any surprise to the observant "Western" reader that a similar cultural exchange is taking place in Japanese SF and that an American company, VIZ Media via its Haikasoru imprint, is seeking to capitalize upon this growing American interest in all things Japanese. Haikasoru's debut translation, Issui Ogawa's The Lord of the Sands of Time, illustrates nicely the melding of American SF and Japanese societal views.

As the passage quoted above reveals, Earth is under attack in hundreds of parallel universes from a rapidly-reproducing alien force known as the ETs. Bent on destroying human life, the ETs have sent countless numbers of invasion forces to various points of the parallel Earths' pasts, from the dawn of the species to the 26th century. Combating them are AI cyborgs called Messengers, who have the capability of traveling through time, space, and through the hundreds of known parallel universes. The Lord of the Sands of Time concentrates on one such Messenger, Orville, or O.

In reading this book, I was struck by the parallels with 1980s cartoons such as Voltron, itself a Japanese import and a pioneer in the anime style. There is a team (although Ogawa deemphasizes this to some extent) who is battling a horde-like enemy who threatens to wipe out all civilization on the planet. While there is a conflicted semi-central character, the focus is on the society and not so much on the individual. It is a change from the lone wolf sort of character, from C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith to Star Trek's Captain James T. Kirk, that manages to save the day (and look great in the process).

In contrast, Ogawa's story places a premium on relationships. It also takes an old American SF trope, that of the character questioning his/her/its "humanity," and casts it back in a way that integrates these questions and conflicts into the broader focus on humankind rather than on individuals. O's rudimentary emotions become a portal by which Ogawa manages to explore various facets of human relationships. What he does that's rather interesting is that he does his not just in the context of person-to-person relationships, but in a much broader context of how individuals integrate themselves with their societies. This is something that often is not explored at length in American SF, or at least not in the older short novels from its so-called "Golden Age." Ogawa's take on this older American SF trope of a hostile contact with aliens, filtered through modern Japanese culture, makes for a very enjoyable read.

While there were times that I found Ogawa's use of the "team" to be a bit too repetitive for my tastes, for the most part, The Lord of the Sands of Time was a fast-paced, enjoyable read. Hopefully, Haikasoru will continue to translate more of Ogawa's stories, as I am curious to see what else may be produced from combining American and Japanese narrative/cultural elements into a SF setting.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

wotmania closes its doors on the 31st; successor site, Read and Find Out, to open on the 30th

Eleven years is a long time for many people. A child can go from primary school to university in that span. Varsity athletes can find themselves waking up one future morning aching from injuries that occurred when they were 80 lbs. lighter and a whole lot less grayer. Eleven years can be the span of a marriage or the time between the last flush of youth and the beginning of old age.

For the internet world, eleven years is a near-eternity. Think back upon all those old Geocities freebie websites that opened up in the late 1990s. Remember those primitive layouts, funky fonts, and horrendous design choices? Viewing those things is similar to seeing a dinosaur walking casually down the street. And yet after nearly eleven years, one of those old sites (with the original site still preserved here), wotmania, is finally closing its doors sometime on Monday, August 31, 2009.

I have visited that site regularly since February 2000 and posted there since October 2000. I was asked to become a moderator and Administrator for the nascent Other Fantasy section (which gave its name to half of this blog) when it opened on October 22, 2001. I have seen and done a lot during my time there, learning valuable lessons about myself along the way. I've seen molehills rise to the size of mountains in the hearts and minds of many there, with some of those molehills taking on a sentimental value that words alone cannot express if one was not present to witness them. But I am not going to talk at length about the community aspect of that site. After all, choose any large internet forum and you'll find all sorts of relationships, some of them quite intimate in nature. Rather, I want to focus on the Other Fantasy section, as I add it to the the list of the Fallen (Napoleon and Steven Erikson's fantasy series being the other influence on this blog's name).

When I became an Admin back in October 2001, the Blogger/Wordpress/etc. blogging phenomenon had yet to take off. There were only a few authors who had begun pioneering the use of personal websites to promote their works. Promotion was oriented much more toward the newspapers and magazines, both genre and "mainstream" alike. And yet in 2001, there were a few forums that had begun to expand out of the 1990s Geocities/Tripod era. wotmania of course was one, as it and Dragonmount became the two largest fansites devoted to Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time fantasy series. I believe Westeros developed around this time and I believe SFF World became one of the earliest general fantasy/SF forums out there. But yet there was change going on under the surface of the discussions of what might happen in Volume X of Doorstopper Fantasy Y.

I was not the "typical fantasy fan" when I became an Admin in 2001. In fact, outside of Tolkien, I did not read any genre-marketed "fantasy" works on a systematic basis until 1997, when I read Jordan's series and thought it interesting enough that I would try using the newly-popular World Wide Web to find information about it. My reading interests back in my mid-20s were generally in reading the Modernists, the Southern Gothics, and a few so-called "postmodernist" writers like Pynchon. I enjoyed best stories that were atmospheric, well-written, with various thematic interpretations. If I had not taken my new job responsibilities seriously enough to investigate other sites that were off the beaten trail, I might have found myself abandoning this "fantasy stuff" within a year or two, as I did find myself quickly bored with the relatively simplistic narrative structures of the epic fantasy mode.

But in early 2002, I began hearing about the "Prime authors" and the "Nightshade boards." I heard about this enfant terrible writing columns on SF Site and Locus Online about the "Next Wave." A friend of mine and fellow wotmania Admin, Keith, began to urge that I investigate this China Miéville chap and this Jeff VanderMeer fellow. So I did. Loved them. From there, I began to hear whispers, far away from wotmania of the time, of this thing called "New Weird." The Zeitgeist was something else. It was the internet equivalent of being in Berkeley in 1967 or Seattle in 1991. And although the New Weird "movement" (I think "moment" would be more suitable) never rose to widespread commercial success (its core principles, if it can be said to have such, would always have a DIY ethic that makes popular embracing nigh impossible to occur), it certainly had a major influence on the new Other Fantasy section.

OF in 2002-2004 had a distinct identity. The New Weird brushing shoulders against the "traditional" fare, with some interesting new fantasies being released in Great Britain and Canada by the Canadian authors Steven Erikson and R. Scott Bakker beginning to infiltrate in. For perhaps the first time in publishing (and this was occurring in other places besides wotmania, mind you), global fan discussions of Author X and Author Y being available in Place A but not Place B began to lead to the use of that other internet force, Amazon and its international branches, to import books back and forth across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans (and maybe the Arctic?)

During this time, a few of us began discussing great plans, like a combination encyclopedia, review database, and interview depository, in a time before Wikipedia became big. Jokingly called the OF Fantasy Author Lexicon (OFFAL), this abortive project came to symbolize not just our ambitions, but also the first signs of the lapses that would lead to the eventual decline of OF and then the ending of wotmania itself. The spirit was strong, but the programmer(s) was/were weak. OF was, after all, the tertiary section of wotmania and while a lot of interesting discussions and, after January 2003, interviews were occurring with a huge range of authors, ultimately, the webmaster had no interest in putting forth the time to making this vision a reality (in all fairness, he was working on his Ph.D. then).

By August 2004, I had begun to become fed up with the delays, but I didn't want to voice my displeasure so frequently or so vocally, so I began this blog on August 25, 2004 in large part to give myself something to do. But due to going back to school and working a full-time job, this blog was mostly inactive until June 2007, while the OF section also began to falter due to the decrease in time that I and the other OF Admins could put into it.

But when I did have some time free up in June 2007, I began to see this blog as being the sort of "alternative" OF that I had wanted for years. Although I had done interviews and even received a few galley proofs back in 2003-2005, I never really thought of taking advantage of the possibilities that developing an editorially-independent blog could present. I again did the research, observed what worked and what didn't for the fledgling blogs out there and I worked to re-establish a "voice" in the larger community. At first, this Blog was limited more to the newer releases, but as I continued to discover older, less-promoted authors, I began to indulge in covering topics and books that interested myself more than it might others. The OF Blog, which originally was meant to be an OF team blog, had by default become virtually my personal blog, despite my original intentions for it.

Meanwhile, I almost totally neglected the OF section. I added the occasional interview and review, but all of those were just mirrors of what I had originally posted at this blog. I no longer helped set up and lead "book club" discussions. I rarely promoted new authors on OF. My fellow OF Admins went through a similar experience. One, Ken, had already established a blog, Neth Space, when he was asked to become an Admin during this time. Although he kept the discussions going for a while, at least in regards to new releases, the apathy/inertia was unfortunately too much to overcome.

If anything, the OF section and perhaps the wotmania site as a whole, should have been put out of its misery two years ago. This is as much an indictment on myself as it is on others, since I did help kill off the fun there by neglecting it in favor of this blog. Then again, perhaps it was just meant to be, as I certainly don't think I'd be as comfortable working within the confines of a fansite forum ever again. This blog certainly fits my temperament more than helping moderate/adding content to a book discussion website ever would.

But despite realizing this, it certainly was a numbing surprise of sorts when the webmaster announced seven months ago that wotmania would be closing at the end of August. There was that sense of betrayal, the sense that all that I and others had worked hard to do (from starting a general spec fic discussion message board to adding hundreds of quizzes and reviews, dozens of interviews, and eventually a few promotional contests arranged with publishers) was being taken away. Thankfully, this blog had been well-established by then and the few pre-2005 materials that I didn't have mirrored here, I was able to easily port in February and March.

However, it's not the same. That sense of ending, although in some ways a relief, also carried a bit of irritation with it. Yes, there was a fatal neglect across the board. Yes, more could have been done to preserve momentum. But there's always going to be conflict when one's work, shared as it might have been to some extent, is going to "disappear" and that the duty, onerous as it had become by 2007, of being an Admin/mod was now ending.

For some, the site meant more than discussing X or Y. For those who wanted the "community" aspects of wotmania to continue, some members decided to help fund a new server, with a new webmaster in charge of devising a layout that would resemble the old site while still adding innovations. Supposedly this new site (due to open Sunday as will make a successor to the OF section the centerstone of the site. Supposedly, some of the spirit of OF would continue there. Apparently, some of the content that I and others created will be preserved there (I was explicitly asked if my personal interviews could be archived there; I said yes, with a bit of reluctance).

But it will not be the same. For starter's, I will not be participating in an administrative role, as I was not asked to be a part. Fair enough, since I would probably have declined due to my new responsibilities doing readings and selections for the Best American Fantasy anthology series, as well as the interviews I hope to continue to do for the Nebula Awards site and perhaps elsewhere. However, it would have been nice to have been asked. It certainly doesn't do wonders for the ego to discover that one's past accomplishments can mean so little to the new owners, although this emotion is more of a fleeting thought than anything that has consumed my thoughts over the past few weeks.

Will I participate in this new RAFO site? Right now, the answer is probably not, at least not in an active role like I had had at wotmania from 2000-2007. I'm like little Jackie in "Puff the Magic Dragon," as after a spell I have "grown up" and have "moved on." With some faint sadness and near-regret, but it was time to go forward and continue working on what I am now doing rather than trying to work in the past, thinking past thoughts. Still, it was fun when the scene was there, but this new site is not my scene. But for others, I think it will be. I do urge others to at least consider visiting/posting there, even if I won't be very active there. After all, there are still opportunities to discover new authors, learn about new trends, and perhaps the opportunity to learn things about one's self. Those things are better than just living off of the past, no?

So I guess this is farewell to wotmania and hello to...the real remnant of OF, or at least the alt-OF that could have been from 2002. But that alt-OF's final chapter won't be written for some time to come, so who's willing to stick it out and see what comes from our conversations here?

Ogawa and Abraham locked in a tight battle; new poll up

Since I'm going to be busy much of this afternoon, I thought I'd go ahead and put up the next poll now, even though at the moment there are still about 5 hours remaining and the battle between Issui Ogawa's The Lord of the Sand of Time (30 votes) and Daniel Abraham's The Price of Spring (26 votes) is close. Since I've read both books this week, I'm going to review both this weekend. Other books that drew at least 8 votes out of the 117 current votes that were included in this new poll are:

Iain M. Banks, Use of Weapons (19 votes)

Steve Erickson, Zeroville (11 votes)

Tanith Lee, Night's Master (9 votes)

Tamar Yellin, The Genizah at the House of Shepher (8 votes)

To these I've added recent arrivals such as Steven Erikson's ninth Malazan book, Dust of Dreams, Terence Taylor's Bite Marks, the second Haikasoru release, the English translation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka's All You Need is Kill (interesting so far, 1/4 in), Alison Croggon's fourth Pellinor book, The Singing, Jack Vance's first Lyonesse book (although I suppose I could quickly order/read the entire trilogy if it were to win), and Milorad Pavić's Second Body.

Voting is open until around 10 AM CDT on Saturday, September 5 (or about 90 minutes before my beloved Vols open their season against Western Kentucky), so be sure to vote early, vote often, and vote for a winner!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Here's something to ponder tonight/today/whenever

With all the talk recently about including more females, other-gendered, LGBTs, and PoCs in speculative fiction, what would a themed anthology look like if it contained stories that reflected a particular religious point of view? Would a Catholic-influenced or a Taoist-influenced (for example) group of stories contain any essential differences in outlook from say a Protestant fundamentalist or atheistic-influenced stories?

I know this might sound like a silly question, but when one stops and considers how one's attitudes toward the tenets of particular religious faiths often informs elements of their political and social views, I wonder how much (if any) and in what ways (if any) such viewpoints might influence a writer's story generation and crafting. Or for that matter, how much it might affect a reader's perceptions of what constitutes a "good" or "bad" story.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A list of PoC/Female "Mindblowing SF" stories and a complaint about the gender/race discussions

Two interesting and somewhat-related blog posts I've read recently. The first is by Shaun Duke and it pretty much is an essay decrying the tone and tenor of the recent debates surrounding females and people of color being underrepresented in recent SF/F anthologies. Although I can understand his point of view to an extent, I disagree with its main thrust in that I believe that agitprop is often necessary to sway public opinion. It might be messy and might irritate some, but it sure beats shutting one's trap and not speaking up.

But there's another facet that I think can be addressed with another link than by spending paragraphs laying out opinions. K. Tempest Bradford, following up on the past weeks' discussions, has created a list of "Mindblowing SF" written by female and/or PoC authors. Since these things tend to be popular, I'm going to copy/paste the list for the novels and highlight the ones I have read in bold and place in italics the ones I own and will read shortly. Feel free to do this, as it might help raise awareness in a way that would be constructive:

Ring of Swords by Eleanor Arnason
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Iron Shadows by Steven Barnes
Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler
Xenogenesis trilogy by Octavia E. Butler
Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
Mindplayers by Pat Cadigan
Synners by Pat Cadigan
Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter
Hunter of Worlds by C J Cherryh
Cyteen by C J Cherryh
Voyager in Night by C J Cherryh
Chanur’s Homecoming by C J Cherryh
The Fires of Azeroth by C J Cherryh
Heavy Time by C J Cherryh
Stars in the Pocket like Grains of Sand by Samuel R Delaney
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
The New Gulliver by Esmee Dodderidge
Age of Ruin by John M. Faucette
Life by Gwyneth Jones
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Lathe of Haven by Ursula K Le Guin
Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
Blue Light by Walter Mosley
Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor
Body of Glass by Marge Piercy
Natural History by Justina Robson
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Beauty by Sherri S Tepper
Silent City and In the Mother’s Land by Elizabeth Vonarburg
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
Bellwether by Connie Willis
Passage by Connie Willis

Not a bad "starter" list (keep in mind that fantasy authors were excluded from this particular list due to the nature of this list's origins), but what books (genre SF only) would you add to it?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Interview with Jeffrey Ford now up at the Nebula Awards site

This is my longest (around 8200 words) and perhaps best interview so far. Well worth the time both Ford and I put into making sure this was an interesting and fun interview to read. Please leave some feedback there on what you think, or you could be less lazy and leave some here as well, I guess.

The OF Blog turns 5 today

Back in August 2004, around the time that Web 2.0, or the blog craze was starting to reach critical mass, I decided to start this blog. As can be seen from the first post, there were many things I had in mind back then that later became staples here. Originally, I had thought of the OF Blog as being a sort of repository of information and thoughts related to discussions that used to occur at wotmania's Other Fantasy section (strange to think that in less than a week, that site will close its doors. I'll have a post devoted to that in a few days). Now, five years later, the OF Blog probably attracts more attention than the entire OF section has received over the past couple of years.

At first, this blog was meant to be a team blog, with moderators from wotmania having the capacity to add and edit information here. But for the past couple of years, it's been mostly a solo effort, although each team member still has the right to edit/post as they see fit. Before June 2007, it was rare for there to be more than a half-dozen posts in a month and sometimes a month or two would go by between posts, as I was very much involved in working seven days a week at two jobs for much of 2006-early 2007. But after an interim teaching position was set to end in late May 2007, I decided that it was about time that I started to make this place something that I would want to visit.

Despite having one of the older blogs around, I did notice what people like Ken and Pat were doing and I decided that I'd take that and interject my own personality into it. At first, most of the posts were reviews or interviews, mostly of recent books. I wrote to a few publishers, noted my connections with wotmania and the newly-reactivated blog, and soon I was receiving review copies from Tor and Random House, among others. I really have to give a lot of thanks to Colleen Lindsay, who was then a freelance publicist working with Random House to promote David Anthony Durham's Acacia and John Twelve Hawk's The Dark River. She convinced the publicity department that I was worthy of being added to Random House's reviewer database and ever since then, I've received hundreds of books from all of their departments. Of course, Colleen is now doing well as a literary agent and her blog, The Swivet, is very much a must-read item, but hopefully she won't mind if I give her belated thanks for helping me out back 26 months ago.

The past couple of years have been a blast for the most part. The format of this blog has continued to change. I have gone away from a review/interview-oriented format to more of an op-ed piece, with occasional activist posts along the way. I began to feel comfortable enough with expressing my opinions and my interests enough that by early 2008, I was promoting quite a few Latin American and Spanish authors here. This focus will continue to grow in the next few years, as I was asked by Jeff VanderMeer to help assist with the editing of the Best American Fantasy, specifically charged to help devise a longlist of Latin American spec fic short stories available in English and English translation that the guest editors could whittle down. It is a great honor and privilege to be asked to do this, as I said last week, and this is likely the best thing that has happened for me as a direct result of editing this blog.

Other fun things over the past five years would include my sometimes-hilarious interview with Patrick Rothfuss just before he became well-known outside internet circles, my chats with authors and editors like the VanderMeers, Jeffrey Ford, David Anthony Durham, Kathy Sedia, Hal Duncan, Charlie Finlay, Sarah Monette, Matt Staggs, Fábio Fernandes, and so many others. It is the sharing of information and opinions that creates the foundation for friendships and I certainly have been blessed to get to know them and the dozens of bloggers with whom I have interacted over these past five years.

Doesn't mean there haven't been arguments or spats. I never trust a close relationship that hasn't had at least one major disagreement in the past. But I rarely take things personally and I hope others haven't taken my sometimes-pointed criticisms to be personal attacks. However, despite my desire to keep it non-personal, don't think for a moment I wouldn't stomp on somebody's argumentative balls if the balls are out there deserving to be stomped on. Nature of the beast, ya know.

Hard to say what the next five years will bring, other than me turning 40 (I was barely 30 when I started the OF Blog in 2004). Hopefully, there will be more people visiting this site, perhaps be more vocal and dare to tell me why my post sucks and so forth! I do get rather uneasy when it's just praise and not constructive criticism as well. If I dish it out, I damn well better be able to take it, no? One thing that I do know will happen next year is that there probably will be more comments regarding short fiction. While I will not be revealing anything in the way of what stories I'm reading for the BAF anthologies, I will likely recommend more print and online magazines for readers to consider, especially for those who want to see what writers south of the Río Grande are writing these days. I probably will also write more essays dealing with social issues surrounding the global SF communities, as I very much am a social justice activist and I want to highlight literature that reflects some of these values and concerns. I'll probably stir things up some more, as is my wont, although that'll be in the interests of discussion and not in the interests of making me look good.

So...who's here ready to stay with this blog for another five years? Who's praying that I give up soon? Also, what memories do you have of this blog that you'd like to remind others of, even if it might embarrass me?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Jesse Bullington, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart

"Please." Heinrich's bloodshot eyes shifted wildly between the doorway and his son. "I'm sorry, lads, honest. Let him free, and spare the little ones." The babes screeched all the louder. "In God's name, have mercy!"

"Mercy's a proper virtue," said Hegel, rubbing the wooden image of the Virgin he had retrieved from a cord around Gertie's neck. "Show 'em mercy, brother."

"Sound words indeed," Manfried conceded, setting the boy gently on his heels facing his father.

"Yes," Heinrich gasped, tears eroding the mud on the proud farmer's cheeks, "the girls, please, let them go!"

"They're already on their way," said Manfried, watching smoke curl out of the roof as he slit the boy's throat. If Hegel found this judgment harsh he did not say. Night robbed the blood of its sacramental coloring, black liquid spurting onto Heinrich's face. Brennen pitched forward, confused eyes breaking his father's heart, lips moving soundlessly in the mud.

"Bless Mary," Hegel intoned, kissing the pinched necklace.

"And bless us, too," Manfried finished, taking a bite from the warm tuber.

The babes in the burning house had gone silent when the Grossbarts pulled out of the yard, Hegel atop the horse and Manfried settling into the cart. They had shoved a turnip into Heinrich's mouth, depriving him of even his prayers. Turning onto the path leading south into the mountains, the rain had stopped as the Brothers casually made their escape. (pp. 6-7)

Lately, there has been a trend to glamorize the rogues and thieves of the world. Whether it's via films such as the Ocean's series or through caper novels like Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, the violent perpetrators of theft and bodily harm have been made more palatable for those reading or viewing their stories. Underneath the advertised "grit" for these type of tales is generally found a romanticization of these law-breaking transgressors.

Jesse Bullington's The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart eschews this softening of the rogue's image into something that is acceptable. Instead, his two fictional brother, Hegel and Manfried Grossbart, are just downright murderous, thieving SOBs who are not glamorized at all in this swift-moving 432 page debut novel. Although they might be witty on occasion, passages such as the one quoted above illustrate just how black-hearted and cruel their wit is. Shaft may have been a bad mo'fo, but these two are bad mo'fos without the lovable charm.

Bullington grounds his story in mid-14th century Central Europe. Beginning in 1364, 15 years after the last vestiges of the terrible Black Death plague have struck fear (and death) into the hearts of millions of peasants, the story of the Grossbarts integrates its setting almost seamlessly into the narrative. It is a time that produced the fear and paranoia that a century later led to Kramer and Sprenger's infamous Malleus Maleficarum being produced. Belief in witches and demons, with Satan at their head appearing in various guises, was rampant and as the novel develops, these complex intersections of orthodox Catholic belief and popular superstition inform and enliven many of the Grossbart adventures.

The basic plot of The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart could be summed up as being simply two twisted, cold-hearted, murderous brothers who believe they are under the protection of the Virgin Mary that are traveling across Central and Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Black Death both to escape punishment at home and to fight for the Virgin against the demons and witches that stalk the land. When I was about halfway through the novel, I began to realize there were certain superficial parallels to the original The Blues Brothers movie in terms of how the brothers do wrong (much, much more wrong than the Blues Brothers did) in the name of fulfilling their "mission" from God (or Mary, in this case).

But as I said, this is a superficial comparison, one that deals only with the brothers' interpretations of why they are wandering and seeking adventure. Bullington's novel is very different in that the brothers are violent, perhaps psychopathic murderers who would as soon spit in the face of a hurt fellow human being as they would spit in the eye of Satan. But it is this sheer cussedness that makes these two characters so appealing, despite the unromantic portrayals of them.

Bullington's prose is to the point. While he tends to favor third-person omniscient narrative to dialogue, he manages to create a faster-moving narrative that highlights the tension between how the brothers view their "mission" and how others around them see them for being murderous thugs. And yet despite this narrative dissonance, Bullington rarely indulges in writing in a more elevated style to highlight this; he allows the characters to do this without resorting to narrative flashing red signs.

Some readers may find the opening chapters to be hard to read. As befits these characters, there is a lot of swearing and some rather blasphemous (for some) talk occurs, especially about the part of whether or not God might have raped the Virgin to create Jesus and if a wussified Jesus might have been Mary's revenge on God. But if these topics seems to make some squeamish, it should be noted that after the first few chapters, the narrative settles down somewhat into language that, while rough at times, might not be as offensive to some. However, this is a very minor point and I note it only for those who want PG or G language; I found the blasphemous talk to suit the characters nicely and that such talk aided in their character developments.

When I finished the novel last night, I was sad that there were no more pages left to read. I usually don't like caper or anti-hero novels that much, or at least those that bowdlerize the dark aspects of such characters, but The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart grabbed my attention from the first page and I had to keep reading until the final page. This is the best 2009 debut novel that I've read, hands down.

Publication Date: November 16, 2009 (US), Tradeback; November 5, 2009 (UK), Tradeback.

Publisher: Orbit (US, UK)

Disclaimer: I have been familiar with this story ever since Jeff VanderMeer blogged about an unpublished novel that he had read for critiquing purposes back in February 2008. I thought then that the little excerpt provided (before the second Grossbart brother's name was changed) was very promising and I was very eager to read it. So when Bullington offered me a bound galley proof of this novel almost two months ago, I was all over that like white on rice. I originally had intended to read/review it in late October, closer to its November 16 release in the US, but since it was the overwhelming winner in the last poll for books that the readers here wanted read, I went ahead and read it all yesterday. However, I should note that my reactions then and my reactions now are virtually identical.

Bullington wins latest poll, next round up

Issui Ogawa, The Lord of the Sands of Time
11 (6%)
Daniel Abraham, The Price of Spring
24 (13%)
Toni Morrison, Beloved
4 (2%)
Steve Erickson, Zeroville
14 (7%)
Jesse Bullington, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart
83 (47%)
Clive Barker, The Books of Blood (vols. 1-3)
9 (5%)
Brooks Hansen, The Chess Garden
6 (3%)
Iain M. Banks, The Use of Weapons
17 (9%)
Sherri Tepper, Beauty
4 (2%)
Ursula Le Guin, Changing Planes
4 (2%)

So with that, Jesse Bullington's upcoming debut novel, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, will be reviewed shortly (hopefully this afternoon). The authors whose books received 10 votes or more were added to the new poll, along with several recent arrivals. Hopefully, these polls will encourage me to read through my ever-growing stack quicker, as even though I average close to 10 books read a week now, I sometimes get a dozen or two in a week's time.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn't seen her for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she'd never look.

"That you, Shasta?"

"Thinks he's hallucinating."

"Just the new package I guess."

They stood in the street light through the kitchen window there'd never been much point putting curtains over and listened to the thumping of the surf from down the hill. Some nights, when the wind was right, you could hear the surf all over town. (p. 1)

Detective novels often begin with a client, sometimes known, other times a mystery into themselves, approaching a detective or private eye and asking for help. The reader usually knows nothing more than what the detective reveals in the opening pages - how are the streets, who are the scum, what problems the private eye is facing, when the mystery/murder is said to have occurred. Out of all the interrogative questions, it is the "why" question, why these events are unfolding before our eyes, that usually is the last to be answered, if it is ever answered directly. In his seventh novel, Thomas Pynchon plays around with these interrogatives in a way that ended up creating a mostly satisfactory reading experience.

Inherent Vice opens in Los Angeles in the summer of 1970 (although the dates are not explictly stated by the characters, passing comments about the Manson Family trials, the Lakers/Knicks NBA finals, Governor Reagan and President Nixon's first terms of office, etc. serve to ground the story). The Summer of Love is fading into a hedonistic world in which sex and drugs serve to provide the novel with a seediness worthy of the blackest of noir settings. "Doc," the private eye from whose point of view the reader interacts with the story, has been approached by his ex-girlfriend, Shasta, to investigate her new married lover's dealings as a real estate investor. Shortly afterward, her lover disappears and Doc is on the trail.

The novel revolves around Doc's explorations of 1970 L.A. and the people that populated some of the hangouts that Doc would frequent. As with many of Pynchon's novels, there are copious cultural references and character names like Adam Velveeta that would be as much at home on a 1960s-era Bob Dylan album as they would be cruising Sunset Boulevard at night looking to score some snatch. One example of the ambience that pervades Inherent Vice can be found in this scene where a friend of Doc's, Denis, is talking to Jade, one of the more colorful character in this novel:

What he couldn't also help noticing in the mirror now was that Denis and jade were striking up a friendship. "And what's, like, your name?" Denis was saying.

"Ashley," said Jade.

"Not Jade," Doc said.

"My working name. In the Fairfax High yearbook, I'm just one of, like, a thousand Ashleys?"

"And the Chick Planet salon..."

"Never considered that a career. Too fuckin wholesome. Smiling all the time, pretending it's about 'vibrations' or 'self-awareness' or anything but," sliding upward into an old-movie society-lady screech, "hoddible fucking!"

"Southern California," Denis chimed in. "No sympathy for weirdness, man, none of them darker type activities."

"Yeah really like where's that at," Jade, or Ashley, sympathized.

"And people wonder why Charlie Manson's the way he is."

"Do you eat pussy, by the way?" (pp. 134-135)

And so it goes, with Doc and his cast of sometimes strange, sometimes awkward, always intriguing associates opining about how life was changing, how the sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll were sometimes not enough or sometimes just too much, how Reagan was the sign of the end times, and so forth. For many readers, a detective novel, especially that of the noir style, is not about the case, but the people who are associated with the case. In Pynchon's case, the real story becomes these zany characters and not the mystery surrounding Shasta's lover's disappearance.

If anything, the main weakness of Inherent Vice revolves around the imbalance between the attention focused on developing the plot compared to the detail that went into creating the ambience for the novel. As hilarious as the Pussy Eater's Special or Jade's murmurings may have been, some readers might find themselves wondering if Pynchon would ever "get on with it" and delve further into the mystery that purportedly is the center of the story. To a degree he does dawdle a bit too much in places, but it would be a mistake to judge the merits and deficiencies of the novel solely on its ability (or inability) to develop a hard-hitting, fast-moving plot that zips through from scene to scene until the end is reached.

Pynchon's novels generally deal with characters and the insanities of life. Although Inherent Vice perhaps is more straightforward than his other novels, a large part of the fun in reading it deals with the deciphering of the cultural references. Readers who are willing to dwell a bit longer at the narrative beach, soaking up the stylistic sun, those are likely going to be the ones who will enjoy this novel the most. Others, especially those who want a more linear plot, may find that Pynchon has overindulged too much in this novel, creating a story that is fun in places, but with an uneven plot that does not support the setting as well as it should. For those readers, and I am one that is in the middle of the two camps, this novel perhaps would be viewed as a worthwhile read, but one that fails to match Pynchon's narrative power in earlier novels such as Gravity's Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, and (more recently) Against the Day. But even though Inherent Vice might indulge too much in its hedonistic vices, it still is an enchanting, albeit flawed read, that many might enjoy reading. After all, when in a purple haze, the ethereal just seems to be just within reach, making for a warm and fuzzy recollection.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Y.T. Listism?

So the discussion still continues in a few quarters about that New Yorker list of "seven essential fantasies" that I blogged about a few days ago. There have been some interesting lists that have sprung up - see the comments to my post, to Aidan's, to Pat's, to James's, to Suvudu's, to Mark Newton's, and to Adam's, for example. But it's J.M. McDermott's reply this evening to my list (which I ought to add is not intended for "beginners," but rather for the jaded and for those who are equally comfortable in the "literary" and "speculative" narrative modes) that grabbed my attention:

I thought the NYer list was... embarassing.

Look, each of these authors is pretty good, at least, and a couple (GGK, for instance) are as good as it gets.

But, the thing about the list that really bugged me was it was six white guys and only one woman.

If we want readers to actually get a sense of the diversity that is happening, it takes only a moment to go one step farther and reach out to writers who are arguably better than a lot of the people on the list, just as accessible, and who each come with a cultural perspective that isn't exactly like the other ones. Our increasingly diverse cultural heritage and cultural influences are related to our constant splintering off into subgenre after subgenre.

Your list is far better, Larry, and I wish the NYer asked you instead of the person they did ask. But, don't you kind of think part of what makes your list better is the cultural diversity?

I mean, this isn't to say that a list of all 7 white guys couldn't be acceptibly representative of all fiction (or, in this case 6 white guys and one woman). It's to say that any seven you choose is going to be limiting and broken, anyway. And, applying diversity doesn't even remotely make it hard to find quality books that meet the stated goals of the list.

Anyway... To hook 'em young and keep 'em, with more diversity of ethnicity!

1) Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
2) Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay
3) Kindred by Octavia Butler
4) The Etched City by K. J. Parker (I believe he meant K.J. Bishop)
5) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murikami
6) Lavinia by Ursula K LeGuinn
7) In The Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss

I could come up with a more diverse list, but I think - for a young reader - it would be difficult not to find something that hooks 'em here. And, each of these writers is one of the best at what they do. Each comes from a very different cultural perspective (if you think Canada, US, Australia, and UK each count as different...).
J.M.'s comments touches upon something that I decided to slip in there to see if any noticed. I purposely did not want this to be all Y.T., all the time here. In fact, if I hadn't limited myself to just seven, I easily would have included more female authors (I'm kicking myself for leaving off Patricia McKillip's The Riddle-Master trilogy, for example, as it kicks all sorts of ass, so consider her exclusion and that of Italo Calvino to be brain farts). Margo Lanagan, for example, deserves every bit of praise she receives and more. And that's leaving out possible choices such as Ben Okri, Nnedi Okorafor, Nalo Hopkinson, Steven Barnes, Samuel Delany (even if he's SF at best and not really considered to have written "fantasy"), etc.

All these are from the top of my head and doubtless even more would bubble up if I were to glance around at my bookshelves. So why is it that in most suggested lists (and not just in the original post) that virtually all the suggestions are male and mostly Caucasian to boot?

Could one make the argument that by perpetuating mostly all-Y.T. lists that sense of separation might have been created that would isolate African American, Asian American, Latinos and Latinas, and others from various cultural traditions (not to mention females and LGBTs of each of those categories) from the presumed "mainstream?" Or is it more complex than that? Do you see this situation changing now or anytime in the near future?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I have a very cool announcement to make

I've sat on this for a few days now, but since it's now been made public, I can go ahead and share with you that I've been asked to be an assistant editor (along with Fábio Fernandes) for the Best American Fantasy anthology series, starting with BAF4, which will be published in 2011 and cover 2010. Fábio and I will be working with Latin American (Spanish and Portuguese alike) stories that have been translated into English.

Needless to say, this is a dream opportunity, since for the past few years, I have found myself hoping to one day get to help edit an anthology of Latin American fiction, particularly of the speculative variety.

For more details, be sure to read Jeff VanderMeer's post on the matter.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

So apparently I've been nominated for some award?

Reading through the comments section in a recent post of mine, I see three posts saying that I was nominated by some group called the Book Blogger Appreciation Week for something. At first, I thought this was some sort of spam (related to a couple of comments that I've deleted in the past week or so), but I did a search and apparently this is some sort of festival of sorts for book bloggers.

Things like this make me uncomfortable. Perhaps it's because I've been through the Who's Who sort of deal when I was in high school, where some of my teachers would nominate me to appear in some sort of publication for the purportedly the best and brightest American high school students, while to have proof of it would involve spending $30-40 on buying the book. Needless to say, that was my first, mostly nonplussed reaction to all this. Then I thought for a bit and realized that while it's nice that people like this blog and the content I and others have added to it over nearly five years (anniversary is later this month), I don't need a nomination or some sort of award to feel good about all this. Perhaps others do feel vindicated and/or elated, but I've always felt a bit shy about being lauded for anything. Anyone else ever feel this sort of discomfort before?

I hesitated to post this because I thought my words might be misconstrued and that some would think that I'm bashing this organization or any other organization. I'm not. I'm just blogging about how odd it is to have something created that seems to be more like a gold star to me than anything that reflects the efforts I've put into creating the content here. I hope others can understand this feeling and not think I'm being ungracious or anything close to that. I'd just rather people comment directly here on what they like and if they like what I do, then perhaps ask me to do work for more visible sites. I know one of the biggest honors I've received over the past year or so was being asked to write a couple of guest reviews for Omnivoracious and my two interviews (one live, the other going live in the next few months) that will/have appeared on the Nebula Awards site that the SFWA runs. Those were honors, this award nomination is just gravy, no? Nuttin' sayin' that gravy ain't a good thing to have on 'casion, though, right? (and yes, I do occasionally speak in my native Middle Tennessean/Nashvillian dialect. Deal.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

My interview with Charles Coleman Finlay now up at the Nebula Awards site

Just click here for the interview. For a little bit of background, keep on reading.

This interview was conducted via email between April and May. Charlie was very gracious in putting up with my delays at the time (if I recall, this was when I had just interviewed for my present job and was in the process of doing the onerous tasks of readying my public school students for their US History exit exam in early May) and the two of us had fun talking about history as well as the fictional elements of his latest series.

When I was conducting the interview, only the first book in his series, The Patriot Witch, had come out. Now all three volumes are available in MMPB format. As a historian (albeit one who focused on modern German cultural/religious history and not on colonial American history), I am wary whenever someone attempts to write historical fiction, since my mind is geared toward parsing the text much more rigorously than I do when I'm reading imaginative, speculative fiction. However, I can say that I found The Patriot Witch to be very enjoyable, with the historical elements of the impending 1775 outbreak of rebellion meshing well with the character of Proctor Brown and other practitioners of witchcraft (Salem being "real" for the witches in this setting). The pacing was very fast-paced and I hope to get around to reading the final two volumes, A Spell for the Revolution and The Demon Redcoat, in the very near future.

Hopefully, there will be people curious enough about the interview and my short synopsis that they'll check out Finlay's work. Also, there will be another interview of mine, this time with Jeffrey Ford, that'll be posted on the Nebula Awards site sometime in the next few months. That one is the longest interview, at just over 8200 words, that I've ever conducted.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A fantasy list for those who don't want to stop at second base, but who'd rather hit a grand slam and then score continuously or something

A week or so ago, the New Yorker had this list of "seven essential fantasy reads," books for those who've read the Tolkien and Lewises of the world and would like to sample the most genrerific of books. This list had as much depth to it as any garden-variety "I'm new to fantasy! What should I read?" recommendations post that clutter a plethora of SF/F message boards that cater to an epic/secondary-world fantasy-seeking/loving audience. Mark Newton posted his own list, found here, that seems oriented more toward those who didn't read Tolkien and/or Lewis as formative adolescent reads.

It's a good list, chock full of books that I would recommend to most here, but me being me, I'd like to create a list for those here who perhaps want to escape genre tropes or at least the overt marketing of such. The books mentioned below perhaps will be found in any other section of a bookstore but the SF/F one. Perhaps they won't even be found in the vicinity. But perhaps there'll be readers who love edgy "literary" stuff who want to see if speculative works can approach that. With that in mind, here are books that I would suggest to readers who are jaded on the genrerific and who are thinking "and now for something completely different":

1. Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana - This is a tale that revolves around memory, personality, relationships...and comic books. And lots of other stuff. In some ways, this is my favorite Eco novel, in large part because it is much more "personal" than his other novels. Quite a few fiction boundaries are blurred here.

2. Steve Erickson, Arc d'X - Any book that can make Thomas Jefferson into a frightful mo'fo and can tell it with panache deserves a nod here, especially when the more "supernatural" elements come into play.

3. Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire machines of Doctor Hoffman - There are so many layers to this story that I cannot hope to discuss them all in 2-3 sentences. Suffice to say that this is some weird shit that's written in such a way as to make the illusions all the more "real" feeling for the reader.

4. Michael Cisco, The San Veneficio Canon - There are elements of horror and mystification to be found in this omnibus of two short novels. Cisco blurs the boundaries between the "real" and "unreal" to create an eerie work that is haunting long after the final page is read and the book closed.

5. José Saramago, Blindness - Terrifying. The meanings of blindness are such as to create images that seem to burn a ghost image into the retinas. But this story, dependent upon Saramago's unique writing style, makes for something remarkable to behold.

6. Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves - One of the best horror/postmodern/poststructuralist/puzzle novels that I have ever read. Like the house that's explored, the book's insides are much larger in scope than its exterior.

7. Roberto Bolaño, 2666 - Depending on the reader's attitudes, this is either a great commentary on life and literature at the turn of the 21st century, or it is one of the most devastating SF novels ever written. It depends on your point of view and evidence for both is provided in this novel and in Bolaño's other writings. For this alone (helps that the narratives are kickass), this novel deserves a place here.

Also considered:

Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciónes

Gene Wolfe, Latro in the Mist (omnibus)

Ursula Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

Zoran Živković, Impossible Stories

Milorad Pavić, Second Body

Brian Evenson, The Wavering Knife

Jeff VanderMeer, City of Saints and Madmen

Catherynne M. Valente, The Orphan's Tale (duology)

Neil Gaiman, The Sandman (graphic novel series)

Chris Adrian, The Children's Hospital

Salvador Plascencia, The People of Paper

John Crowley, The Ægypt novels

What about you? What are your "essential" reads and why are these "essential"?

What makes a detective/mystery novel "work"?

Just a little question I have at 3 AM (yes, I have to be at work in 5 hours, but I've slept so much this weekend that it's impossible to sleep right now). I am not a huge detective novel reader, yet in the past year, I have read four novels, each of them vastly different in style and scope, that utilize elements of the detective/police procedural novel, starting with Brian Evenson's Last Days, then the ARC of Jeff VanderMeer's Finch (to be reviewed in October), then China Miéville's The City and the City (which I won't review until I re-read it at some point in the future), and now I'm halfway through Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, which I'll review by Saturday. I have discovered that despite my relative unfamiliarity with the genre, most of these novels have managed to keep my attention, but I am still trying to puzzle out the specifics of the whys.

So I thought I'd pose that to the readers here. For those who've read detective novels (perhaps some or all of the ones above), what was it about the stories, plots, characterizations, style, etc. that appealed to you?

Facts and figures about 2009's reads #201-300

For those curious about #1-100 and #101-200, click on this link:

Took me slightly over two months to read 100 more books, so here are some interesting (and occasionally odd) facts and figures about the latest 100 reads:

  • Since making a more concerted effort to raise the number of female authors read, I have gone up to a slightly more respectable 22% for these 100. However, I hope to improve this number even more in the near future, since I have quite a few works lined up by female authors whose works I've been meaning to read for some time now. Sometimes, greater self-awareness can lead to a broader reading scope, no?
  • 26% of the books read were read in Spanish or Spanish translation (a couple were in Polish and Serbian, but not available in English, so I read them in my second language)
  • 11% of the books read were read in Portuguese (3), Serbian (3), Italian, German, Latin, French, Hungarian (one each)
  • The number of books written by Popes dropped from 2% for the #101-200 down to 1% this time
  • 1% of the books read were Greek histories written by Spanish classics professors
  • 1% of the books read were grammars for the Serbian language
  • 13% of the books read were anthologies and/or short-story collections
  • 4% of the books read were poetry collections
  • 7% of the books read were of English translations of books published in various languages
  • 3% of the books read were graphic novels or graphic novel adaptations of novels
  • 2% of the books read were 2009 debut novels
  • 14% of the books read were re-reads from previous years
  • 13% of the books read were published in the US or elsewhere in 2009

And most importantly:

  • 2% of the books read dealt with squirrels and their daily habits

So...any questions you might have about these books? I'll be posting more about #271-300 in a day or two, likely with a few more additions.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pynchon wins by one, new poll up

119 people voted this time to see which book I'll read/review by 8/22. The final tally was very close, as Thomas Pynchon's just-released Inherent Vice beat out the George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois-edited tribute anthology to Jack Vance, Songs of the Dying Earth, 31 votes to 30. In third place was Clive Barker's The Books of Blood, vols. 1-3 with 13 votes, followed by a tie for fourth between Jesse Bullington's soon-to-be-released The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and Steve Erickson's Zeroville, each with 11 votes. In sixth place was Brooks Hansen's The Chess Garden with 10 votes.

Since the difference between first and second was only one vote, I'm going to try and review both by the 29th and I have put the 3rd-6th place vote getters in this week's poll. To replace the other four, none of which received more 6 votes, I have added the following books:

Daniel Abraham, The Price of Spring (recently released - still need to read the other volumes first, but since none are over 400 pages, that won't be too much of a problem)

Iain M. Banks, The Use of Weapons (been on my shelf for virtually a month now)

Ursula Le Guin, Changing Planes (excellent short fiction collection that I finished reading almost a week ago)

Toni Morrison, Beloved (started reading that tonight, about damn time that I did)

Issui Ogawa, The Lord of the Sands of Time (first of a series of Japanese SF that will be published by the new Haikasoru imprint)

Sherri Tepper, Beauty (part of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series, this book has been on my shelf for a couple of weeks now)

Voting lasts until Saturday, August 22, 2009 in the evening sometime. Will try my best to have a review of the winning book up by Saturday, August 29, 2009, if not sooner. May the best book win?

Two interesting Filipino anthologies arrived today

I've recently decided to expand my awareness of non-Anglo-American SF, so when I was reminded a week or so ago by a post I saw over on Bibliophile Stalker that there were some recently-released SF anthologies from the Philippines available on Amazon (stocked by Prime Books' Sean Wallace, I believe), I immediately placed an order for the two books pictured above.

I'm currently about 60 pages into Philippine Speculative Fiction IV and the quality of the stories is very, very good. There will be a post at some point in the future about this anthology and the other one pictured, A Time for Dragons: An Anthology of Philippine Draconic Fiction. I'm also awaiting the arrival later this month of a fantasy anthology that I ordered from Brazil, Anuario Brasileiro de Literatura Fantastica 2008. Was hoping to be able to order a recently-released Spanish SF anthology, Mundos desconocidos, but I can't find it on the usual online catalogs from Spain. I'm also searching for more related anthologies released in 2009 (that date is important, as it'll tie into my year-end project for this) in English, English translation, Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian (and maybe French or Romanian). If you know of where I can find them (as e-zines or as bound copies that I can order with shipping less than $50/book), please let me know, okay?

Friday, August 14, 2009

I guess my puppy has excellent taste in books?

Ever wondered what type of books might appeal most to dogs, specifically six month-old puppies? Well, I just discovered that today. I'm off work today due to being hopped up on painkiller meds after having an infected wisdom tooth removed yesterday afternoon, so I was around to catch Callie (the puppy) in flagrante delicto with the two books pictured below that had been delivered a few minutes before by the FedEx guy while I was busy eating a very soft meal of almost-undercooked french fries (yes, I doubt I'll be eating anything that involves much chewing for a while).

But Callie appears to be a bit selective. There were three cardboard envelopes by the porch door. Only one had been opened and chewed upon. Here are the contents of that package (she was busy with the book on the left when I discovered it and disciplined her - and no, I didn't hit her or anything cruel like that. Stern voice can work wonders...or so I hope):

I guess Callie is drawn more to the paranormal romance type story. Especially if it has vampires in it. Sorry Jeanne C. Stein, but your Retribution book seems to have been handled roughly by Callie. But Moira Moore's Heroes at Risk only received a couple of puncture marks. Don't know if this is a sign that Callie couldn't decide if she wanted to devour the book later or if she didn't like the quality of the book.

However, Mickey Zucker Reichert's Flight of the Renshai and Violette Malan's Storm Witch weren't even touched by Callie. I think she might have been intimidated by their size and heft, perhaps finding that (as is the case with several Americans, canines and non-canines alike) that MMPBs appeal most to them.

So, dear reader, do you think I ought to see if I can get Callie to give a "review" of the Stein book? It might take some convincing, based on her look from this photo I just took:

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Apparently, their marriage vows included "in stupidity"

Two authors, husband and wife, in the past few weeks have managed to bring the stupid:

John C. Wright, with comments comparing homosexuality to bestiality and other psychological disorders.

L. Jagi Lamplighter, disrupting a recent Worldcon panel on PoC characters.

Edit: Just found a second post of hers on this topic, in which at least she demonstrates some willingness to try and understand other points of view on this sensitive matter. Still doesn't eliminate the problems of the first post, but it does at least show some willingness to listen, which might help me to put aside the daftness and read/review her book without worrying about my negative response to her opinions coloring my impressions of her book.

Her husband, however, he still has a long ways to go before I will ever be able to divorce his personal opinions from his novels.

Query for the readers here

Sorry for the relative silence here, but I'm again a bit busy with other facets of my life (good things, mostly, even if I'm going to be having dental surgery later this month to have a wisdom tooth removed that's nowhere near fully emerged). But I did have this little thought before I was about to go to bed, so I thought I'd ask it here, just to see what the responses are:

I've mentioned in some form or fashion several hundred books over nearly five years here (5th anniversary of this blog is on August 25th, by the way). Some I've waxed poetic about; others were just a picture and a very brief comment. But perhaps there was a book or two, regardless of the manner in which I discussed it, that tickled your fancy. Perhaps there were a few books that you ended up loving. Perhaps...perhaps.

So...what book or books have you tried due (mostly? in part?) to my comments here? Did you like it/them? Why or why not?

And to make it more interesting: What book do you think I need to read (or re-read)? Why so?

Monday, August 10, 2009

A piece that will be hard for many to follow

Lo siento, pero quiero empezar mi ensayo en español. Aunque español es sólo mi lengua segunda, me gusta hablar y leerlo cuando a veces deseo alejarme de mi cultura nativa. Quizás no me entiendas. Quizás no quieras que escribo en español o en cualquier idioma. Quizás no te gusta leer mis pensamientos en español porque te amenazan...claro, si crees que quiero amenazarte porque escriba en español, tengas problemas...

But for the benefit of the well-meaning monolinguals, I'll switch back to English, although it would behoove those who can understand at least some of my Spanish to pay attention to what I said there, as it relates directly to my thoughts regarding this piece by K. Tempest Bradford. Bradford continues the discussions that have been brewing in various parts over the past week (months? years?) regarding the selection of anthology pieces by discussing why she believes there should be a sort of mindset change on the part of the editors. She readily admits this is a difficult task, but me being me, I want to look at this from a different point of view.

The future of SF is made up of women and people of color, and people of various cultures and classes, and LGBT folks, and non-Americans and non-Western nationalities (China, India, the Philippines, to name just three).
This quote I think lies at the heart of not just Tempest's argument, but at those made by those who seem to have problems with imagining a world in which the currently non-privileged might come to have a much larger stake at the shape of a certain form of literature. What sort of mindset should an editor (or reader) have when confronted with people who may have different value systems and different ways of expressing themselves. For those who did understand what I said above in Spanish, how would you understand this, written in yet another language?

Rekla sam ti već. Vi što dolazite sa one strane Venecijankog zaliva, koji zovete Jadransko more, teški ste u svakom pogledu. Teško vas je naučiti radosti i ljubavi. Ali, zato i gospodin mora mene nečemu da nauči. Ja nisam do sada imala iskustva s muškarcima. Videla sam dečurliju kako iy čamca mokri u kanal Svetoga Luke, ali to nije to. Moraš i ti meni nešto svoje pokazati. Ali ne sada. Daj mi malo vremena. Žensko vreme ne teče na istu stranu kao muško. I nadam se da je gospodin shvatio da je ovde na nostu bolje proveo vreme no da je lupao glavu nad lošim stihovima koji nisu za pevanje...

Who knows what I said (beside myself and maybe a couple of readers)? After all, I could have quoted from a pornographic novel or that could be a discussion of the week's sporting action, for all many would know. But it (and no, I won't provide a translation or source for this either) perhaps is best that it serves to represent a basic stumbling block. If it is so difficult to understand what is being said when the communication is taking place in an unfamiliar idiom, is it really that much easier when the various participants who supposedly speak the same language have a cultural gap that leads to misunderstandings?

It is only natural for people in general to feel threatened at some time or another by the unfamiliar. Grasping things that lie beyond our ken can be terrifying; is this "good" or "bad?" What if the "good" or "bad" being perceived is something alien to both? How does a writer go about "translating" this into a medium that people of various cultures can grasp to some degree?
That "translation" I think is part of the equation that Bradford dances around a bit but doesn't quite say as directly in this piece as I believe she has in other writings on similar topics. For so long, there has been a sort of cultural imperialism in which the dominant WASP male paradigm shoved aside other points of view (female, non-WASP, those of non-"white" color, LBGT, etc.) off into that "quaint" and sometimes "threatening" category of "Other." Stop and think about this for a bit before reading on: Despite my knowledge (at least on a rudimentary level) of multiple languages, what language is being used to read the majority of this post, regardless of the place of origin for the readers? What do you think might have been the fleeting (or not-so-fleeting) reaction of some who saw that my first paragraph was written in my second language?

How does one overcome these cultural/linguistic barriers (and I believe the two ought to be considered as being closely intertwined, as language use even within a supposedly uniform language can reflect cultural differences)? How should SF editors (and readers) go about correcting perceived injustices? That's the rub, and while Bradford acknowledges this, I am not certain that she couldn't have gone a bit further with her points. If I were offering merely prescriptions, I would suggest that editors (and readers) dare to explore things outside their comfort zones. To be bolder and not to shy away from things that are "different" and potentially "threatening" to their core cultural values. But if we are comprised of these core cultural values, then how do we go about changing undesirable facets without changing ourselves completely? That's the question that many wafflers and pessimists may have in regard to this topic. After all, why would those who have dominated the discourse for so long want to surrender their mantle willingly? "Isn't it good that everyone speaks English? Después de todo, si hablo en español y no me entiendas, sería una cosa buena? No? Then speak English, duh."

That mindset, related to "If only women would write 'relatable' characters with good plotting" or "Why should the people of Earthsea be dark-skinned? What's the big deal about Ged being portrayed as fair-skinned on the TV mini-series?," is a true mountain to overcome, in large part because for those near the summit, it seems like there's little impeding their path through life. Overcoming this is the crucial step, but outside of those in the industry living life for a time outside their cozy boxes, how can people go from viewing others as "different" and possibly "threatening" to viewing "different" as being "something that will educate me more about life's possibilities?"

How would you answer that last question?
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