… And We’re Back

Well, it’s been a wee bit longer than a few weeks; try over four years.  Yep, years.

Lots happened in the interim. Moved across the globe a few times. Ruptured my quadriceps tendon in Viet Nam. Suffered a hemorrhagic stroke in Thailand. Cut my heel and had to cruise on back home.

As for this site, Barking Book Reviews, it has got a new domain name — actually a subdomain — but it’s the same exact stuff that was here before. Even got the same pictures and whatnot.

I probably won’t post nearly as often as I once did, to be honest — as for the book news and whatnot, forget it; I let the Internet pass me by long ago. But there was a lot of traffic here, once upon a time, and I still had the database sitting around doing nothing, so I figured what the hell. Long live Barking Book Reviews!

A barking gocko, aka tokayThese days I’ve got other fish to fry, as it were, but I still love to read, so I’ll drop in — probably with a big ‘ole wall o’ text — when a can.


Barking Book Reviews Takes a Holiday

The Gecko is Going to Go Eat Curry, Som Tam, Snooze on the Beach and Write Some Book Reviews … Maybe

It’s time for yours truly, after dealing with a busted up leg and working long hours to make up for the work I missed early in the year because of said bum leg, to take a well-deserved break. So I may or may not be posting book reviews and whatnot here for a week or two.

Actually I’ll have more time for pastimes like reading and writing (including book reviews, perhaps); it’s a holiday, which for me means goofing off and not much else. Furthermore, I used to live in the Land of Smiles, so I’ll feel no need to run off and visit wats and do the things that tourists normally do. In fact I don’t usually spend a lot of time at the beach, although I do love being by the ocean.

So I may actually be posting more often here, but I don’t want to make any promises. Once I get into holiday mode, I may not have any desire to crack open the laptop. But then I should finish at least two books over the next week, so some book reviews may appear.

But if you don’t see any posts for a few weeks; have no fear: the Gecko is alive and well and shall be barking said book reviews and whatnot in the near future. He’s just busy goofing off in the meantime, and stuffing himself with Thai food.

In the current meantime, here’s some random book news:

Funhome author Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother? (book cover)Funhome Author and Artist Alison Bechdel to Release Second Memoir: Are You My Mother?

I’ve had some interesting discussions over the years with people about whether or not long-form comics, namely the graphic novel, constitute literature. Usually we can both agree that it’s art, but is it literature?

It’s a pedantic argument at best, but then pedants are as pedants do; we like to argue about this sort of thing. To those who would fall into the “no they aren’t” camp – and once upon a time I would have – I would submit to you Daniel Clowes’ Ghostworld and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

Of course many people have heard of Ghostworld thanks to the eponymous film, which, while more faithful to the source material than most movies, nevertheless takes too many (and often needless) changes to Clowes’ work. Fun Home has had no movie interpretation, and I’m not sure it would lend itself easily to that medium.

But this is neither here nor there. Both works were commercial and critical successes, and Fun Home, by Dykes To Watch Out For writer and artist Bechdel, was arguably a huge success. Book critics loved it; I don’t recall seeing a bad review of it. The thing about Fun Home is that its writing is as important – and as well done – as its art, and as both come from the same source, they are inextricably woven together. Each could perhaps stand alone, but would be considerably lessened.

So why I am I bringing this up? Bechdel, who notably has won a 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship, among other honors and awards, is releasing her second memoir, Are You My Mother? on May 1st. Fun Home was simply brilliant; a very moving work and dramatically different from the comic which has made her famous (not that I don’t love that too; I never would have read Fun Home if I hadn’t been a Dykes fan since I discovered the strip in college many moons ago.

Are You May Mother? may hasten my purchasing of a tablet that has a color-capable screen. Bechdel uses color minimally, and I imagine Are You My Mother? would look fine on my old-school Kindle’s e-ink display. But there are other graphic novels that I would like to be able to read. And aside from the convenience of the ebook form, living in Viet Nam I have no other choice for these titles other than ebooks.

Rest assured, there will be a book review of Are You My Mother? appearing here eventually. I’ve been waiting for this one for a long time.

Speaking of comics I’d like to read:

Dark Horse Comics' Alabaster: Wolves #1 (cover), written by Caitlin R. Kiernan. Gorgeous artwork, yes?Caitlín R. Kiernan Helms Alabaster: Wolves at Dark Horse Comics

I’m late to the table on this one but such is the lot of the hobbyist with a full-time job. On the other hand, the Gecko is his own boss with regard to barking and blogging. Dancy Flammarion has been one of the more popular characters created by Kiernan, appearing in both novels and short stories, as well as comics.

Earlier this month Dark Horse Comics launched the Alabaster: Wolves title, written by Kiernan and featuring Dancy. There are previews available at Dark Horse, and the artwork is nothing short of incredible. Kiernan has discussed this work at length on her blog. The thing that really has incited me to want to read this title, aside from enjoying Kiernan as an author, is that this isn’t just some project she’s doing to pay the bills; she is clearly invested in this as a writer.

She is a woman with a lot of irons in the fire; her latest novel, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, appeared earlier this spring.

Can one write book reviews of comics? Should I wait for the entire series to complete? Should I do a running review/commentary? I never really stopped to think about it before. Something to ponder while snoozing on the beach at Hua Hin.

Big News: Publisher Tor to Remove DRM From eBooks. There Was Much Rejoicing

Readers Against DRMBy July All Tor Plredges All eBook Titles Free of DRM

A major publisher dropping DRM really is huge news, and I’m surprised it didn’t make a bigger splash; it even took Boing Boing a whole 24 hours to catch up with it, much less yours truly.

Well, in case you haven’t heard by now, Tor, a science fiction imprint of Macmillan – one of the so-called Big 6 in publishing, at least here in the United States – announced earlier this week that by July of this year all of its ebook titles would be DRM free; Tor UK made a similar statement.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last 15 years or so, then you know that DRM is digital rights management; Wikipedia is your friend. Or you can  try Defective by Design. DRM has been a pain in the ass of digital media users for years, be it music files or video files – and of course ebook files. I understand that piracy is an issue, and personally I believe that artists should be remunerated for their work. But I also believe that if I buy something – if I give money that I have legally earned in exchange for something – it’s mine to do with if I see fit.

If I want to listen to it in my car, on my computer and on my phone, I should be able to do so. It’s the same with ebooks; I should be able to read it on my Kindle, my phone, my laptop and my Android tablet. It seems the folks at Tor have seen the light:

Our authors and readers have been asking for this for a long time, Tom Doherty, TOR president and publisher, said in a statement. They’re a technically sophisticated bunch, and DRM is a constant annoyance to them. It prevents them from using legitimately-purchased e-books in perfectly legal ways, like moving them from one kind of e-reader to another.

Yes, we have. Yes, we are and yes it is. Yes it does.

Macmillan imprint Tor and Forge logoAmen. When the producers of the works in question themselves are saying this isn’t the way to go to address issues of piracy and intellectual property, it’s time to listen.

Let’s hope this continues to be a trend with both publishers large and small. DRM is easily circumventable, and often has the opposite affect, forcing people to either a) pirate works or b) do without (including not PAYING MONEY for books) because their files are crippled by DRM.

As usual props to Locus, where I saw Tor’s DRM announcement first.

Nominees Named for 2012 Hugo Awards and John W. Campbell Award

Jo Walton's Among Others (book cover): nominated for a 2012 Hugo Award for Best NovelScience Fiction Fandom Speaks with the Hugo Awards: Latest George R. R. Martin Opus, Yet Another Zombie Novel Up for Best Novel

Again with the zombies — but then given the fact that the Hugo Awards are determined by fans, perhaps not surprising.

If you’re like me – middle-aged and cranky – you’re done with vampires and zombies. This is the most horrible aspect of aging, even more so than entropy gradually mucking up your chromosomes and causing your body to fall apart: it’s how everything in popular culture gets recycled. Again and again. And again — ad nauseum, ad infinitum.

And the thing of it is, each time there’s a new generation of people for whom it’s all new and wonderful. I remember when I was that guy, a few decades ago. But now I’m 43, and I’ve seen the vampire thing come and go and come around again. Ditto with the zombies; done with that trope.

Unless the author has come up with something startlingly original – or at least so rarely recycled that it’s original to me – I don’t want anything to do with vampires or zombies. And obviously, I’m in the minority when it comes to popular culture, including popular literary fiction. To wit: the Stoker Award and the Hugo Awards.

Among the five novels nominated in the Hugo Awards category for Best Novel is Mira Grant’s Deadline (see what she did there?), yet another zombie apocalypse novel (this one is part of a series, naturally). Now, before you get your knickers twisted, I’m not knocking it, as I haven’t read it – I’m just saying once more, I’m not interested in zombie and vampire novels anymore – aside from some old friends that I like to reread once in a while.

It’s one thing if you bring something original to the table, but based on the blurbs I’ve read for Grant’s Newsflesh series, it sounds like the same stereotypical zombie stuff. Engineered viruses mutate and just happen to raise the dead, who want to eat the living. Nope, no one’s ever used that idea before. There is some mildly interesting sounding stuff about the evolution of the media, the Internet and politics in the wake of the zombie apocalypse – I guess it’s only a partial apocalypse – but not enough to interest me in reading it.

Again, I’m not knocking Ms. Grant; she may be the authorial bees knees and I’m missing out. So be it; call me when she gets over the zombie thing.

George R. R. Martin's A Dance with Dragons (book cover): Nominated for a 2012 Hugo Award for Best NovelNo Surprise Here: A Dance with Dragons Among Hugo Awards Best Novel Nominations

The fifth book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, his gritty fantasy magnum opus, titled A Dance with Dragons is also among the five novels nominated for the Hugo Awards. Released in July of 2011, it came out nearly six years since the previous book, A Feast for Crows. The lengthy interval became so onerous to some fanboys and girls that they resorted to browbeating Martin on the Internet, including on his own blog.

I guess they all forgave him, given the fact that fans nominate and subsequently chose the winners of Hugos.

While I have mixed feelings about Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, as expounded upon at length here on Barking Book Reviews, generally (and shortly) speaking, I like it – enough to keep reading, at any rate. I read A Dance With Dragons shortly after it came out – naturally it was a best seller the moment it was released – but that was right before I returned to Southeast Asia, and I consequently never wrote a follow-up review. But I will say that it shares the same strengths and weaknesses with the previous books, and that I’ll read the next one when it comes out.

The most interesting sounding novel on the list is Jo Walton’s Among Others, which has already garnered recognition: it was named one of School Library Journal’s Best Adult Books for Teens for 2011, as well as one of io9’s best Science Fiction and Fantasy books of the year for 2011. Walton has previously won a Prometheus Award in 2008 for the novel Ha’penny, and a 2010 Mythopoeic Award lifelode, among other accolades.

After perusing this excerpt of Among Others at publisher Tor’s site, methinks I’ll be adding that to my own shortlist of books to read and review.

The rest of the Hugo Awards list, along with the other major categories; you can find a more complete list of 2012 Hugo Award nominees over at Locus, from which I cadged this short list. Or you can go straight to the Hugo horse’s mouth. Also, again, if you are like me, you have perused that list and thought, “what the hell is a novelette? How does it differ from a novella? And why do we need further, arbitrary distinctions? Follow that link for an answer to the first two questions; as to the latter question, we’ll save that for another time.

On other interesting thing to note about the list for Best Novel: it includes British author China   Miéville’s Embassytown, which is also nominated for an Arthur C. Clarke Award. This Clarke Award nomination, among others, got fellow British science fiction author Christopher Priest’s panties in a bunch.

Wondering about Cambell Award? Scroll down, dear gentle reader.

Leviathan Wakes, James S.A. Corey (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Deadline, Mira Grant (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin (Bantam; Harper Voyager UK)
Embassytown, China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan)
Among Others, Jo Walton (Tor)

“The Ice Owl,” Carolyn Ives Gilman (F&SF 11-12/11)
“Countdown,” Mira Grant (Orbit Short Fiction)
“The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” Kij Johnson (Asimov’s 10-11/11)
“Kiss Me Twice”, Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s 6/11)
“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” Ken Liu (Panverse Three)
“Silently and Very Fast,” Catherynne M. Valente (WSFA)

“Six Months, Three Days,” Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com 6/8/11)
“The Copenhagen Interpretation,” Paul Cornell (Asimov’s 7/11)
“What We Found,” Geoff Ryman (F&SF 9-10/11)
“Fields of Gold,” Rachel Swirsky (Eclipse Four)
“Ray of Light,” Brad R. Torgersen (Analog 12/11)

“Movement,” Nancy Fulda (Asimov’s 3/11)
“The Paper Menagerie,” Ken Liu (F&SF 3-4/11)
“The Homecoming,” Mike Resnick (Asimov’s 4-5/11)
“Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City (Prologue),” John Scalzi (Tor.com 4/1/11)
“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees,” E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld 4/11)

The Unwritten, Vol. 2: Leviathan, Mike Carey, art by Peter Gross (Vertigo)
Locke & Key, Vol. 4: Keys To The Kingdom, Joe Hill, art by Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW Publishing)
Schlock Mercenary: Force Multiplication, Howard Tayler, colors by Travis Walton (www.schlockmercenary.com)
Digger, Ursula Vernon (www.diggercomic.com)
Fables, Vol. 15: Rose Red, Bill Willingham & Mark Buckingham (Vertigo)

Lou Anders
Liz Gorinsky
Anne Lesley Groell
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Betsy Wollheim

John Joseph Adams
Neil Clarke
Stanley Schmidt
Jonathan Strahan
Sheila Williams

Daniel Dos Santos
Bob Eggleton
Michael Komarck
Stephan Martiniere
John Picacio

Karen Lord's debut novel, Redemption in IndigoKaren Lord Among Authors Nominated for John W. Campbell Award

The John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year honors the late editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, now named Analog. Many would say that he is the founding father of modern science fiction; if anyone can be said to be such a thing, it is Campbell. Writers Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss established the award in Campbell’s name some decades ago..

Unlike the Hugos, it is a more traditional sort of award; you can read more about it at the University of Kansas’ Center for the Study of Science Fiction. This year’s nominees are:

Mur Lafferty
Stina Leicht
*Karen Lord
*Brad R. Torgersen
E. Lily Yu

*authors in their second year of eligibility.

Check out the Barking Book Review of Karen Lord’s excellent Redemption in Indigo here.


Christopher Priest Whips Out Epeen, Engenders Clarke Award Controversy

Literature awards inevitably engender some controversy – really any award that involves subjective judgment is going to get somebody’s knickers in a twist. But it’s strange when something as esoteric as the Arthur C. Clarke Award causes enough ruckus to garner coverage in the mainstream media.

The Clarke Award – most assuredly not The Clarkie – is of course named after the grand master of science fiction himself; as he was British the award seeks to recognize British science fiction authors and their works. The shortlist for the 2012 award came out a week or so ago (I first saw the announcement on Locus’ news feed), and seemingly within nanoseconds a ruckus ensued at warp speed, a ruckus that got British news outlet The Guardian’s attention, as well as that of Irish Times blogger Christopher *ahem* Clarke. The latter seems particularly upset about Priest’s slagging of  China Miéville.

Wut? Such is life in the Internet age.

Sheesh, You’ve Already Won A Clarke Award …

Giant space bees from Futurama. They are in author Christopher Priest's bonnet.British author Christopher Priest apparently has a bee in his bonnet over this year’s shortlist, and we’re not talking an ordinary bee, or even an Africanized honey bee, apparently. We’re talking about an insect of gargantuan proportions, on the order of the dread space bee, a la Futurama.

Priest, incidentally, won a Clarke Award last year, and … wait for it … has a novel eligible – make that had – a novel eligible for this year’s award. So it seems kind of disingenuous, not to mention greedy, for him to get all bent out of shape when he thinks the shortlist is lacking. Well of course you are; you missed out on the list and the potential extra book sales that would have garnered, so you decided to generate that publicity and ensuing extra book sales another way.

On the other hand, one can’t really argue that he’s not qualified to offer an opinion; he is a published author with eleven novels under his belt, as well as having garnered a previous Clarke Award among others.

But the thing is, Priest has gone off the deep end, whipping out his epeen and going on a full-on nerd rage on his blog. It’s one thing to say you disagree with the shortlist and offer a defensible argument. It’s another to dish out the cyberspace vitriol. Furthermore, he hasn’t reserved his vitriol for the judges panel, which, again, might seem disingenuous and self serving but still understandable, perhaps. He’s also decided to attack the shortlist authors themselves.

Again, he may be qualified to do so, but it still seems like a base and classless thing to do, particularly when he has a vested professional and financial interest in all this; one would expect better of a writer of Priest’s caliber – whatever happened to the British stiff upper lip? Even sadder still, he makes elegant arguments for the novels he felt should be on the shortlist, and manages not to mention his own potential candidate, The Islanders.

With the director of the Clarke Award pooh-poohing the idea of firing the panel and suspending the awards this year, one wonders what Priest will do next. Threaten to take his toys and go home, never to write again?

It’s all rather silly, but then it’s hardly the first time; the Internet is littered with the carcasses of righteously indignant blog posts; I’ve made a few myself over the years. But if you’re interested and haven’t been following the ruckus already, check here for a good Clarke Award hullabaloo rundown at Strange Horizon’s blog, including links to a lot of other author responses – authors who seem to have exercised some decorum and restraint as befitting people of letters.

My, that last bit sounded a bit pompous. I better quit before I whip my own epeen out.

The Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best of British Science Fiction P.S. Almost forgot: here’s the 2012 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award:

  • Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (Gollancz)
  • Drew Magary, The End Specialist (Harper Voyager)
  • China Miéville, Embassytown (Macmillan)
  • Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
  • Charles Stross, Rule 34 (Orbit)
  • Sheri S.Tepper, The Waters Rising (Gollancz)

U.S. DoJ Investigates Apple, Publishers for Alleged Antitrust Violations

Does Apple’s Nudging of the Industry To an Agency Book Pricing Model Constitute Collusion?

Themis, Greek goddess of Justice. If only it were that simple, eh? Here’s perhaps the most interesting book-related story to appear while I was busy convalescing from a torn quadriceps tendon (in the long term) and hacking up multicolored phlegm (in the short term): the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) is investigating Apple Inc. and five U.S. publishers for possible antitrust violations.

It’s things like this that make me miss being a journalist – which probably explains in large part why blogging is such a big hobby for me (I don’t do nearly enough to promote it; I just like to indulge myself). Anyway, credit where credit is due; I first spied the antitrust story on Locus; it provides a link to a comprehensive story by the Wall Street Journal. That evil magnate Murdoch hasn’t quite ruined the Journal yet – say what you will about it’s conservative slant, it has been a source of quality journalism for many years, and hopefully will continue to be so, despite its current owner.

But I digress yet again. In addition to Apple the DoJ is looking at Simon & Schuster Inc., Hachette Book Group, Pearson PSO, Penguin Group, Macmillan and HarperCollins Publishers Inc. HarperCollins, incidentally, is owned by the aforementioned Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which, as alluded above, also owns the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). Ostensibly we can conclude from this that Murdoch hasn’t gotten his fingers too deep into the WSJ’s newsroom.

The WSJ says, citing unidentified sources – “people familiar with the matter” – that the DoJ is investigating whether Apple and these publishers colluded with one another to drive up the price of ebooks. Apparently Apple is trying to nudge the industry away from the standard wholesale model of book pricing, in which retailers buy books for half the cover price and then charge what they deem fit, to an “agency model,” which is how Apple operates its iTunes store. From the WSJ, to wit:

As Apple prepared to introduce its first iPad, the late Steve Jobs, then its chief executive, suggested moving to an agency model, under which the publishers would set the price of the book and Apple would take a 30 percent cut. Apple also stipulated that publishers couldn’t let rival retailers sell the same book at a lower price.

“We told the publishers, ‘We’ll go to the agency model, where you set the price, and we get our 30 percent, and yes, the customer pays a little more, but that’s what you want anyway,'” Mr. Jobs was quoted as saying by his biographer, Walter Isaacson.

The publishers were then able to impose the same model across the industry, Mr. Jobs told Mr. Isaacson. “They went to Amazon and said, ‘You’re going to sign an agency contract or we’re not going to give you the books,'” Mr. Jobs said.

The Justice Department believes that Apple and the publishers acted in concert to raise prices across the industry, and is prepared to sue them for violating federal antitrust laws, the people familiar with the matter said.

The publishers have denied acting jointly to raise prices. They have told investigators that the shift to agency pricing enhanced competition in the industry by allowing more electronic booksellers to thrive.

Like I needed another reason to loathe Apple and its business practices.

Another interesting aspect to this story is that for once it’s not 800-pound gorilla Amazon getting beat up over pricing – and I’m not defending Amazon – but it’s the spectre of Amazon that Apple and these publishers cite in defending the agency model practice.

William Lynch, chief executive of Barnes & Noble, gave a deposition to the Justice Department in which he testified that abandoning the agency pricing model would effectively result in a single player gaining even more market share than it has today, according to people familiar with the testimony. A spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble declined to comment.

Prior to agency pricing, Amazon often sold best-selling digital books for less than it paid for them, a marketing stance that some publishers worried would make the emerging digital-books marketplace less appealing for other potential retailers. The publishers’ argument that agency pricing increased competition hasn’t persuaded the Justice Department, a person familiar with the matter said. Government lawyers have questioned how competition could have increased when prices went up. Amazon declined to comment.

Incidentally, the fact that everyone involved declined to comment, and the fact that there were no angry denials and or rebuttals following the publishing of the WSJ’s story March 9, that pretty much confirms that what the story claims as true. I can say that from personal experience; if there were some facts or conjecture in the story that weren’t correct, you can bet Apple, et al., would have been up in marketing arms and the press releases would issue forth like a volley of arrows in a Chinese historical epic. Television interviews would be conducted in which executives waxed indignant.

But when everyone continues to clam up, that’s a sure sign that the story is correct.

And while we’re on the subject of Apple, ebook publishing and naughty business practices …

Apple Refuses to Sell Books that Link to Amazon

Apple Inc.'s current corporate logo; the use of which here I believe constitutes fair use, yes?Over at paidContent – a great digital media trade mag – there is an interesting story by one nonfiction author Seth Godin and his experience with selling a short ebook through Apple. It seems Apple rejected his book because it uses links to Amazon in its citations of other works. To wit:

I just found out that Apple is rejecting my new manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams and won’t carry it in their store because inside the manifesto are links to buy the books I mention in the bibliography.

Quoting here from their note to me, rejecting the book: “Multiple links to Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) store. IE page 35, David Weinberger link.”

And there’s the conflict. We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores (Amazon, Apple, Nook…) and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing. Apple, apparently, won’t carry an ebook that contains a link to buy a hardcover book from Amazon.

Now I should mention here that you shouldn’t be mislead by the term manifesto. Godin isn’t some self-published yahoo – see what I did there? – with some crazy, moralistic rant – although the title does kind of suggest that, at least to me. He’s an Internet entrepreneur, and was one before it was cool, as well as the author of 13 books that have been translated into 30 languages.

In fact he makes marketing seem almost not evil.

So … what does it all mean? That remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure: we’re living in a Chinese proverb; we live in interesting times. The world of ebooks and digital publishing is still a young one, remember — less than a decade old, really.

As for me, I don’t want to see Amazon, much as I appreciate it (for the most part), become the sole major seller of ebooks. By the same token, I don’t want to line the pockets of Apple’s c-level management and shareholders anymore than they already are. Nor do I want to see publishers colluding on prices, naturally.

It might be different if authors themselves were getting rich as a result, but I’m sure the average author isn’t going to see any benefit from price fixing. Contrary to popular belief, with a few notable exceptions, authors by and large aren’t living high on the hog, anymore than the rest of us are.

Anyway, something to think about the next time you stand in line for a nominal upgrade to your precious iPhone or iPad, or download something from the Apple store. It will be interesting to see how the ebook marketplace shakes out over the next few years.

Anthony Shadid’s Memoir, Truth vs. Fact and Life Imitates a William Gibson Novel

I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve been paying attention or because of some arcane aspect of the publishing cycle, but it seems as if there is all sorts of interesting news in the world of books these days. Of course much of what I’m blogging about here is particularly relevant to my interests, namely the books I like to read and subjects I’m interested in. So there you go.

Thus without further ado: Random Book News, Vol. V (or thereabouts):

Is There Room for Facts in Truth?

When I was perusing the New York Times ‘book section – online – last Sunday afternoon while feeding my coffee (shop) addiction, I clicked on a link by accident. Or was it fate? Because I discovered a book that I just have to read, one that I likely wouldn’t have discovered had it not been for that errant click.

On a side note, I absolutely loathe using the touchpad on a laptop, but the little mobile, carpal-tunnel mouse that followed me from Viet Nam to the United States and back to Viet Nam finally died recently, God rest it’s tiny little optical sensor. But in this instance it was perhaps fortuitous happenstance. But I digress.

The Lifespan of a Fact is a nonfiction account of a fact-checker at odds with a nonfiction writer, one who argues that art and truth trump facts – particularly when they inconveniently diverge from the author’s sense of timing and aesthetics.

I’ll let the Times’ review tell the story of The Lifespan of a Fact, and author John D’Agata’s head-butting with the diligent Jim Fingal (Fingal … apparently there is at least one of Tolkien’s Eldar that didn’t sail into the West). I will just add that as a writer and former journalist – some would argue that I’m not former, but we’ll save the semantics debate for some other time – truth vs. fact is a subject near and dear to my heart. On one hand, I understand where D’Agata is coming from, but on the other hand, I feel that we owe it to history to not subvert fact in favor of truth, as truth in this sense becomes subjective.

Part of my attitude undoubtedly comes from having worked as a professional journalist for 20-odd years (and some of them were quite odd years). There there was the time spent at the hardcore journalism school at Ohio University too (not enough money or grades for Columbia or Stanford) – an errant fact in a story was an automatic “F,” usually.

But on the other hand, when it comes to longer forms of nonfiction writing, there is room for art, truth and fact to coexist – at least there is in the hands of a skilled author. Don’t misunderstand me; in the eternal debate over whether or not writing (as distinct from journalism and news reporting), both fiction and non fiction, is art or craft, I tend to lean toward the former. But that doesn’t mean that creation doesn’t require technical skill. A musician must know how harmony and melody work together; a painter must know how to hold a brush and how to use it. In the same way a writer must now how words go together – beyond grammar and punctuation.

Shadid’s Memoir Serves as an Epitaph

House of Stone by Anthony Shadid (book cover)Speaking of journalism and the New York Times, it seems that esteemed foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid, who died of an asthma attack recently while covering the bloody civil strife in Syria, has published a memoir that was just released this week. Although Shadid died Feb. 16 at age 43 – the same age as yours truly – he accomplished more with his time than most, to be sure.

One would think that his memoir would be about his time covering wars all over the world; and if it had been, it no doubt would be a gripping read. Had that been the case it would be an account of winning Pulitzer prizes and getting shot while covering war and bloodshed, including in his ancestral home of Lebanon (Shadid is an American of Lebanese descent who spoke Arabic fluently).

But Shadid left all of that at the office, so to speak, Rather, House of Stone is about a year spent restoring a family home in Jedeidet Marjayoun, Lebanon, following the breakup of his marriage and family. This is framed by an historical account of his family’s flight from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire to the United States.

But as Times’ reviewer, author and New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll notes, House of Stone is a far cry from This Old House: Lebanon.

House of Stone is an elegant narrative that creates unity from diverse elements, much like the Ottoman-era cemento tiles over which Mr. Shadid obsesses and bargains during one stage of his beguiling restoration work. The book tells the story of his family’s migration from Lebanon to Oklahoma early in the 20th century, and along the way it illuminates the consequences of the Ottoman Empire’s fall; the binding ties of bayt, or home and belonging, in Arab families; the workplace ethics of Mr. Shadid’s small construction site in Lebanon; and the flavors of that battered society’s bitterness and resilience.

I think I’m going to have bump this one up to the top of my long, long list.

Amazon.com Bots: I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That, Dave

I don’t always agree with what Corey Doctorow has to say, and I’ve never read his fiction (although it’s on my list, as I’m curious). But he does tend to frequently post interesting book and publishing-related news on seminal blog Boing Boing.

Take for example this “damned weird story,” as he puts it:

Carlos Bueno, author of a kids’ book about understanding computers called Lauren Ipsum, describes what happens when the cadre of competing bots that infest Amazon’s sales-database began to viciously fight with one another over pricing for his book.

Amazon.com’s many bots feud over book-prices

Apparently Bueno isn’t the only author finding that Amazon’s HAL 9000 is acting strangely.

Veteran author Jim C Hines offered some of his titles independently direct through Amazon’s Kindle store. He discovered that Amazon reserves the right to arbitrarily reprice his books — slashing the cover price of a $2.99 title to $0.99 — and pay royalties on the lower price.

Author discovers that Amazon can reprice his indie Kindle books however they want and cut his royalties

Kind of amazing, stunning even, to consider that the world of ebooks and ebook publishing is really only about five years old or so, and yet it’s come to this already. Perhaps HAL, the errant, sentient computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t an apt metaphor so much as the Borg from Star Trek: The Cheap Imitation The Next Generation. We are Amazon. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Science Fiction Author Dave Marusek Gives It Away

The Wedding Album by Dave Marusek (book cover)I think I originally discovered this on Boing Boing as well. Author Dave Marusek is notably going about things backwards, or so it would seem. Marusek penned the successful novella The Wedding Album, which was originally published in Asimov’s and subsequently reprinted a number of times and translated into five different languages as well.

He recently published the novella as an ebook, along with My Morning Glory, a collection of three so-called flash science fiction stories that originally appeared in the scientific journal Science. What’s more, he gave them away for free, in both Kindle and Nook formats, for one week each. I’m not sure what format the Nook version was, but the Kindle version is in Amazon’s proprietary standard.

Marusek explains why he’s ebpublishing an already successful print book in an lengthy and interesting post on his blog:

Not to make too big a deal about it, but this is more than just a book launch. It’s also the launching of my new role as e-publisher. The synergistic, skill-extension effect of the personal computer and the Internet has finally caught up with authorship, and all hell is breaking loose. With the introduction of the Kindle only three years ago, the traditional barriers to book manufacture and distribution have been battered down. Tens of thousands of aspiring authors have rushed in where only traditional publishers used to tread. Now, literally, anyone who’s ever wanted to publish a real book (in both digital and POD editions) and sell it around the world can do so at minimal cost and fuss. (Grammer, speling & punctuation is optional; )

Suddenly there are channels to put books into the hands of the reading public that do not involve traditional publishing. Trailblazing authors have already racked up digital bestsellers without NYC’s input. Traditional publishing is reeling with the changes and trying to adapt, and someday it may figure out a new business model (transmedia novels, anyone?). In the meantime, we mid-list authors of the old regime are scrambling to stay afloat in the new. One thing many authors are doing, now that we’ve been given the tools, is to bring out our backlists in ebook format. I’m giving that a try; in my case I only own the ebook rights to my short stories, and I’m only planning on e-publishing these few. (You can already buy “MMG” and “TWA” along with 8 other stories in my Del Rey collection, Getting to Know You.) If all goes well, I may self-pub my next novel, Camp Tribulation, (partly because I’m doubtful any legacy publisher will touch it–it’s that good!–or, maybe it’s no good at all; I don’t know; still too early to tell; it’s about two years away from completion).

One may wonder why I am e-publishing “TWA.” After all, it’s been reprinted about a dozen times and translated into five foreign languages and is easily found on pirate sites. Hasn’t everyone already read it who’s going to read it? I hope not. The fact that it has done so well for so long suggests that, given a little nudge, it might have the right stuff to find new readers on its own who may become new fans.

I may be one of those new fans. I’ll let you know before too long; I took advantage of the giveaway and downloaded both. But as someone who has been through the violent crash of print journalism and the Internet – literally at ground zero, in Silicon Valley – I can sympathize with the Marusek’s of the world and the a changin’ times. Believe me.

Grove Press’ Barney Rosset Dies

I’m only passingly familiar with Grove Press, having read a few well-thumbed volumes published by this imprint back in my university days, Beckett, Burroughs and whatnot – the kind of books that I wanted to read in college, but never really seemed to get around to reading. Yes, a bit cliché, I know.

Anyway, Grove Press’ founder Barney Rosset died last week at age 89.

Download the Universe: Niche Reviews for eBook Niche

As Carl Zimmer notes on the inuagural blog post of Download the Universe, science books have been around for about as long there have been books – and important books at that. Look at all the trouble Darwin’s Origin of the Species has caused.

Download the Universe is a new book review blog dedicated to science ebooks – not the print ones, but specifically the electronic ones. As Zimmer says:

Many of the necessary elements are falling into place for this experiment. Programming is becoming painless and powerful. Readers can buy ebooks with a tap on a sheet of glass. And there are enough readers now that they can conceivably support a community of ebook authors.

But there’s something missing in between. It is still tough for readers to discover new science ebooks. Traditional book reviews limit themselves to works on paper. Some ebooks may appear in computer magazines, but buried in reviews of laptops and printers. In between, we need a community.

Download the Universe is a step towards that community. It is the work of a group of writers and scientists who are deeply intrigued by the future of science books.

Among the editors – many of whom are authors themselves – listed on the site, I spied some familiar names (to me, at least, being the nerd that I am). Among them are: Annalee Newitz, whose byline has been popping up in alternative pubs for some time and who is currently editor-in-chief at Io9; Jennifer Ouellette, science writer and blogger (Cocktail Party Physics, anyone?); and Maggie Koerth-Baker, who I’m familiar with from her work on Boing Boing.

An interesting and worthy endeavor, Download the Universe is. Among the reviews there already is an essay on a subject near and dear to my heart: The state of the eBook, early 2012, by John Trimmer. It’s a nice overview of where the market and the technology stands at the moment. As I noted earlier, it’s hard to believe that the ebook market has only been around for five years, and the Kindle for three.

Living in the future is cool.

J.K. Rowling to Pen Adult Novel

I’m sure a lot of copy editors initially wrote headlines like this when the news first broke a few weeks ago that Harry Potter author Rowling has a new book in the works, this one aimed at big boys and girls. Then said editors paused and thought “wait, no, that sounds like she’s writing a pornographic novel.” And then they opted for headlines that were perhaps more clear.

To wit, this new book is to be for an adult audience, in that it’s not going to be written for children – not, ostensibly, an adult book in the sense that Anne Desclos’ The Story of O is a decidedly prurient adult novel.

Not that prurience is necessarily a bad thing. And judging by some of the freaky, twisted Harry Potter fanfic out there, there would be a market should Rowling decide to turn to erotica. Just think: The Story of H. As in Hermione’s erotic awakening at the hands of a dashing, elder professor at Hogwarts — we know she has a penchant for dashing professors, after all.

Moving on …

“Although I’ve enjoyed writing it every bit as much, my next book will be very different to the Harry Potter series. … ” Rowling said in a statement – statement meaning that this was her marketing-and-PR-approved quote composed by some poor sap at Little, Brown and Company’s PR firm, and not words that she actually said in front of a journalist (God, as a former journalist I have always wanted to write that. Now I have). “The freedom to explore new territory is a gift that Harry’s success has brought me.”

Anyway, there apparently aren’t any more details out there beyond that. Publisher Little, Brown and Co. merely announced that it acquired the rights to Rowling’s next novel; there is no word on when Rowling’s next effort will appear in bookstores.

Having said that, I will I say that I enjoyed the Harry Potter series. I reread all the books while on a recent vacation and can say that they stood up to the scrutiny of a second reading, for the most part, particularly the earlier works. They are not without minor faults here and there, but then most published works rarely are, and it’s to Rowling’s credit that she was able to maintain the quality of her writing across the seven works. So many sequels to initially successful popular fiction books today are clearly half-assed attempts to cash in on said success; it’s often painfully clear when an author is phoning it in and subsequently cashing in.

On the other hand, Deathly Hallows could have used some editorial pruning. But then given Rowling’s rock-star status and the tendency toward bloat in popular fiction today, I suppose that’s no surprise. In any event, it will certainly be interesting to see where Rowling’s muse leads her post Potter.

Life Imitates Art: Gawker Editor Lives William Gibson Novel Pattern Recognition

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (book_cover)This is a strange post-modern tale, if there ever was one. Someone sets out to discover the creator of a Clickbank ebook seller website – ostensibly just one plot in an entire Clickbank content farm. Why would someone do this? Well it seems that creator of said horse-related ebook site, in order to get around Twitter’s spam bot filters, has set up an automatic scrape of random books and websites, publishing them out of context as tweets several times a day, ostensibly to pad the obvious spam bot tweets.

This random text has apparently developed a genuine cult following.

About seven times a day, Horse_ebooks spurts out bits of context-free nonsense, like: “Worms – oh my god WORMS,” and “I noticed that my hair grew faster from spending time in my pyramid.”

The feed’s strangely poetic stream has been embraced like a life-preserver by internet users drowning in a sea of painfully literal SEO headlines and hack Twitter comedians. Since it appeared in August 2010, word of Horse_ebooks has spread steadily, propelled by blog posts and Twitter chatter by internet obsessives. But unlike many internet culture phenomenons, it never truly went viral. Horse_ebooks is too weird, too much of an acquired taste to break into exponential growth.

Being one of the obsessives, Gawker editor Adrian Chen — quoted above — set out to find out who was behind Horse_ebooks. But it seems that some among the community were afraid this revelation might dispell the magic, prompting threats.

Seriously, this is straight out of William Gibson. Chen actually manages to discover the identify of this person, after doggedly pursuing his identity through the WhoIs information of his many websites – he’s a Russian web developer, but of course – and confirming it through a Facebook page, where there was a link to the developer’s personal portfolio website.

Ah brave new world, that has such webpages in it.

Now this is only tangentially related to books and book reviews. But if you’ve read Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, then you can see the parallels between this work of fiction and Chen’s story are downright eery – so much so, that I just had to comment on it.

Life imitates art — specifically that of William Gibson. As he himself has observed, he no longer has to write about the future; the present has gotten plenty weird as it is.

Looking Back on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation

Isaac Asimov's Foundation series book covers, as purloined from ye olde Wikipedia.Nerd that I am, I recently reread Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, including the sequels and prequels. Actually that’s a bit of a misnomer; I had read the Foundation series — the original three — years ago, back in my college days, but had never actually read the sequels and prequels written some 30 years later.

This isn’t going to be so much literary criticism as it is merely personal reflection, observation and pondering. After all, a serious critical treatment of the entire series would be the stuff of graduate school theses, and I don’t have the time on my hands that I once had when I started Barking Book Reviews.

Of course, the original Foundation trilogy is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it won a one-time Hugo Award for Best All Time Series, ahead of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Remember, this was way back in 1966, long before Hollywood ever got a hold of either Tolkien or Asimov. Nevertheless this was perhaps at the height of Tolkien’s popularity here in the United States (as distinct from that of LoTR as modern media phenomenon) — this was the era of “Frodo Lives,” after all.

At the risk of beating a dead critical horse, in many ways, the original trilogy is stereotypical of when it was written: the 1950s. Women characters are virtually nonexistent. Colonization of space is seen as inevitable — sort of a Galactic Manifest Destiny, as it were, although conveniently there isn’t the nuisance of any indigenous species to subjugate and/or slaughter. Asimov, incidentally, actually finds a reason for this empty galaxy — this struck me as odd the first time I read the novels — which he elucidates near the end of the sequels.

But Asimov can’t be dismissed as so many ’50s-era science fiction writers can, those who imagined a bright, shiny future where men were men, women were women and Science — with a capital S — made everything better. While science is the hope of human civilization in the Foundation series, it is mathematics, psychology, sociology and history — all of them together comprising Hari Seldon’s psychohistory — not nuclear rocket ships and and square-jawed, crew-cut manly men.

Indeed, Asimov said that he originally conceived of the series as a science fiction version of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This isn’t the the pulp or even pop sci-fi of Buck Rodgers movie serials; this is the thinking person’s science fiction. The ideas here are not only the central plot conceit but also essentially the main characters, and it’s to Asimov’s credit as a writer that he pulls this off with aplomb.

It’s also to his credit that Foundation stands the test of time. It’s true that certain aspects of it seem dated, but nevertheless its central themes and ideas — the individual vs. society, cultural evolution, fate and predestination (and the moral ambivalence they engender), the inevitability of entropy and decay (and humanity’s inevitable balking at same) — seem as relevant today as they surely must have back then. Bear in mind that at that time the first Foundation novel appeared in book form (it was first serialized in Astounding Magazine in the 1940s) World War II had concluded only a few years before, the Cold War was getting into full swing and nuclear war was consequently a real possibility – not science fiction but terribly disturbing fact.

They Have Sex in the Future, Don’t They?

But then as has been widely observed, science fiction isn’t really about the future; it’s about the current time — the Future is just a literary conceit. This becomes readily apparent when we look at the sequels to the original trilogy. While the third book in the trilogy, Second Foundation appeared in 1952, the first of the sequels, Foundation’s Edge, appeared in 1982, followed by Foundation and Earth in 1986.

While Asimov remains true to the original trilogy and its ideas in these two books (yes, there are contradictions, but that’s the nature of the literary beast), two things are evident: 1) Asimov has matured as a writer; and 2) there are signs of the times, so to speak. With regard to the former, the characters here are considerably more developed, replete with moral flaws and all. The female characters (and male characters’ attitudes to them), while not perhaps paragons of feminism or even egalitarianism, are nevertheless a far cry from the female characters found (few and far in between) in his earlier work — the character of Dr. Susan Calvin perhaps being a notable exception that proves the rule.

This brings us to the latter: in these latter-day Foundation sequels there is … gasp! … sex! In Asimov’s early works, there might be the occasional nod to the fact that men and women bump uglies from time to time, but it was always an oblique reference at best – someone mentions spending the night, or someone (always a man, of course) who has been up the gravity well for a long time and is looking forward to getting back planet-side, because it’s been a long time since he’s seen a dame.

But flash forward 30 some years, and not only do we have characters having sex, but we have female characters initiating it. Sometimes the characters even talk about sex. Of course, by today’s popular fiction standards, the brief and occasional sexual interludes among Asimov’s characters seems almost quaint (not to mention a little awkward).

Still, “the idea’s the thing,” if I may paraphrase the Bard.

Isaac Asimov in a (deservedly so) kingly pose, in all his mutton-chopped glory (art by Rowena Morrill).The ending also struck me as one that Asimov would not have written in the 1950s – and indeed, didn’t – even if his muse had instructed him to write the sequels back then. I have to admit – and this isn’t a bad thing – I didn’t see it coming. The fact that the character himself is caught by surprise by his own decision that determines the future of humanity is perhaps a sly acknowledgment of this on Asimov’s part (but I’m purely speculating here).

I hesitate to engage in specifics, and thus spoilers, so I shall remain vague. Looking back on the previous books, it wasn’t a complete surprise – I’m referring to the ultimate fate of humankind, or rather the course of its development as determined at the end of Foundation’s Edge – and I think it caught me by surprise since I tend to always compartmentalize Asimov as a writer from the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction. As such, again, had he written Foundations Edge in, say, 1955, I somehow don’t think he would have brought the series to the same conclusion as he did in 1982, on the other end of the 1960s and ’70s.

Incidentally, I would add that one of my first thoughts upon finishing Edge was that the conclusion was more reminiscent of Asimov’s colleague Arthur C. Clarke than of Asimov himself. One wonders if Asimov was perhaps influenced by some of Clarke’s more idea-driven works, but then one is indulging in speculation once again. Asimov was a big fan of Clarke, however – so much so that he declared Clarke the best science fiction author of their time, while he, Asimov, was self-declared (albeit with a bit of tongue in furry cheek) the best science (as in nonfiction) writer.

I should back up a moment here; if you haven’t read the books and you’re a bit confused, I don’t blame you. I keep talking about “the end,” but Foundation’s Edge isn’t the last book. Without getting too spoilerish here, as mentioned above, the course of the future development of humans is set at the end of this next-to-last book. But of course there is still one more sequel, and you may be thinking, “Yikes! How do you write a sequel when the course of Life, the Universe and Everything has been decided?”

Well, Douglas Adams gets away with it, and Asimov does too. In Foundation and Earth, we follow along as the character who is tasked with determining the course of humanity’s development in the previous book seeks to confirm that he made the right decision. Along the way he finds the mythical origins of humanity, working his way across the galaxy – it’s worth reading Foundation and Earth just to come along for this ride — and Asimov ties in his earlier robot books and empire books here as well.

It’s to Asimov’s credit as a writer and a man of ideas that he pulls this off: writing a tolerably good sequel after the fourth book in the series determines the eventual fate not just of the Galactic Empire and Hari Seldon’s Foundation, but of all humanity to the end of its evolutionary track. Most authors of popular fiction, when faced with such a task, seemingly phone it in to milk the resulting cash cow. Oh the names I could name …

Foundation Prequels: More Substance than Milk

Isaac Asimov's Prelude to FoundationOne might think that said milking might be the case in the prequels that were written after the two sequels (and the original trilogy), but this is not the case. Rather than looking literally at the big picture once more (and sticking to a successful formula), in these two books Asimov drills down to examine the life of Hari Seldon. Up to this point we the readers have known little of Seldon, the mythical founder of the Foundation, who looms large over the original trilogy despite being, in terms of the plot, a minor (albeit very important) character who never appears again – in the flesh, at least – beyond the first part of the first novel, Foundation.

I have to say in retrospect, I found these two chronological prequels – the last two, in terms of the order in which Asimov wrote – to be perhaps the most fulfilling. Here we get the most well-developed characters of the Foundation series, and certainly some of the most interesting. While one can argue that character development and plotting were not among Asimov’s strengths as a writer, I think it is fair to say that in these later novels – this is true of the later robot novels as well – we see Asimov at his best as a writer. While he lamented a lack of ideas late in his life, he seems to nevertheless have perfected his art.

Here we see Asimov deftly weave his robot novels together with the Foundation novels as well. This tie-in first occurs at the end of Foundation and Earth, and while placed in a context that makes sense, it still comes across in terms of plotting as rather tacked on or last-minutish – as in, “I want to tie in these two different series of novels, so I’m just gonna throw this chapter on here at the end and do it.”

But in the two prequels he goes back and expands and firmly establishes this tie-in, giving it roots by elaborating in detail historical events mentioned in brief before. In fact, if one were to read the books in the proper chronological order – prequels, original trilogy, two sequels – the ending of Foundation and Earth would not appear tacked on at all. In fact a clever reader will see it coming; Asimov clearly had the ideas for the prequels in mind even as he was writing the sequels.

One more note about the prequels. I think it’s fair to say – as many others have observed – that we can draw parallels between the aging Hari Seldon and an aging Asimov. He did acknowledge that he thought of Seldon as his literary alter ego, after all. Either way, there is a ring of truth about the aging Seldon – both in his middle age and in his elderly years – as depicted by Asimov.

Perhaps having suffered a heart attack in 1977 and bypass surgery in 1983, and consequently having faced the spectre of his own death, he subsequently experienced a rather expansive spate of creativity – nothing like pain, misery and death to awaken one’s muse. In any event, the Foundation sequels and prequels, while perhaps not eclipsing the original trilogy in terms of ideas and scope, do manage to surpass them – and much of Asimov’s earlier work – in terms of artistry.

Isaac Asimov by Rowena MorrillAgain, its a credit to Isaac Asimov as an author – an incredibly prolific one in both fiction and nonfiction – that he wrote some of his best work not at the beginning of his life or even in the middle, but at the end. Perhaps his widow, Janet sums it up best with the title of the posthumous collection of her husband’s diaries and personal letters: It’s Been a Good Life.

P.S. So I set out to jot down a few thoughts on the Foundation series, and ended up with 2,100 words. D’oh!. But then I’ve  been doing that since college.

P.P.S. That rad portrait of Asimov sitting on the bas-relief throne? That’s by Rowena Morrill. You’ve likely seen her work sitting on a bookshelf. Be prepared to spend some time perusing her excellent artwork, if you follow that link. And just for the heck of it, here’s another one of Asimov by Rowena.

Erm, Fell Out of the Saddle again

The cover of Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf.Well actually it was stepping off a bus.

So back in November I declared myself back in the blogging saddle, having resumed my hobby from its previous hiatus. I commenced with a review of Connie Willis’ Blackout and All Clear, and then, nothing. Until now, nearly three months later.

What happened? Well I got busy with the whole teaching English thing, then finding an apartment in Ho Chi Minh City, and ad then there was plans made for a holiday trip to Northern Thailand during the Tet holiday here (Tet being a good time to get away from Viet Nam, since the whole country basically shuts down for a week to celebrate).

Then this happened. And it sucked. And it continues to suck.

But now I’m getting on with the new normal, and finding time for my hobbies again.

I should add that I still read a lot of books while this was going on; in fact I resorted to a lot of literary comfort food during my convalescence. I reread Tolkien — The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin. I reread Douglas Adams, the entire Hitchhiker’s Guide plus the Dirk Gently novels. I even reread some old Star Trek novels that were favorites of my youth (some of which, alas, haven’t exactly withstood the test of time).

I also read some new stuff, including Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf, which I ordered after having read the New York Time’s book review. Perhaps I’ll get around to posting a review here, but for now let it suffice to say that I found more faults with it than does the NY Times’ reviewer. I don’t know if that’s because I’m just more fussy, or perhaps because I’ve read many more examples of that genre and related ones in my misspent youth. The Last Werewolf is certainly not without merits, but it takes more than clever prose to rescue yet another ho-hum tale about an over-sexed, angst-ridden, ennui-filled debonair monster.

Anyway, on with the show (provided I don’t break or tear something else).

Back in the Saddle: Thoughts on Connie Willis’ Blackout and All Clear

So I took a break from blogging – well, more of a hiatus, really, which you can read more about over at the Gecko’s Bark.

But I’m more or less back in the saddle, although I have less time for reading and writing now that I’m working again. Nevertheless, here I am.

While on my goofing-off hiatus, I still read often. I finished Connie Willis’ time travel and WW II two-part opus, Blackout and All Clear, read William Gibson’s entire catalog once again, from Burning Chrome on up to his most recent, Zero History – the third entry in the so-called Bigend trilogy. I also re-read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and re-visited a lot of Arthur C. Clarke’s catalog. Somewhere along the line I also perused Earth: The Book (which, while amusing, is nowhere near as funny as its predecessor). More recently, I’ve re-immersed myself in Isaac Asmov’s various Foundation novels, and went back and read the sequels, which I had never read before, and am currently working my way through the prequels.

The works above for the most part represent the equivalent of literary comfort food. There are others of course – I often visit my old friend W. Somerset Maugham and his friends in The Razor’s Edge; these are just some of the works I happened to turn to when in need these past months. The Harry Potter books are mental Doritos: not the worst thing you could eat but not exactly healthy, but oh so tasty and enjoyable. Of course some might say the same of the science fiction I read, even the lofty ideas inherent in Clarke and Asimov – one person’s occasional tasty snack is another’s dietary staple.

To each his own.

Sounding Connie Willis’ All Clear

Connie Willis' All Clear, the sequel to her World War II time travel saga, begun in BlackoutI think too many months have passed since I read All Clear for me to give it a proper review along with its companion novel, Blackout, and I’m not of a mind to go back and reread it just now. So I’ll just offer up some general impressions. First off, I confess I wasn’t exactly thrilled with Willis’ Blackout.

I think for people who haven’t read a lot of science fiction just the mere aspect of the time travel may be enough to entertain, but time travel isn’t exactly a fresh topic, and it’s hard to bring some originality to this well-worn sci-fi staple. Furthermore, beyond the central idea of a science fiction novel – the conceit that makes it science fiction as opposed to just fiction – the same things that make any sort of fiction good make a science fiction novel good (beyond the ideas and themes): plotting, characterization and so forth – the actual art of writing (I would argue it’s an art, not a craft; at least it should be).

In Blackout, Willis throws us right into the thick of things, with our characters from the mid 21-century England back in World War II-era. They are historians, you see, using time travel as one would naturally expect historians to do, should they ever have access to it. If, like me, you’ve immersed yourself in the nerdy world of science fiction, you are probably thinking (if you aren’t already familiar with Blackout/All Clear’s plot), “Yawn. Historians traveling in the past. Gee, that’s never been done before. Let me guess. They get stuck and/or are in danger of altering history. Been there, done that.”

And in a sense, you would be right. And one of the problems I had with Blackout is that in addition to these very standard sci-fi conventions, our characters are pretty generic. One hundred pages in, I couldn’t help but think frankly: “Wtf? How and why did this win a Nebula?”

However, I’m nothing if not stubborn, and for whatever reason, I’m loathe to stop reading a book I’ve started. It has to be really, really bad for me to give up on it. Funny, but I’ll bail on a movie or television show at the drop of a hat, but I’ll slog through terrible fiction. But I digress.

As it soon becomes clear by the middle of Blackout, the most important character – at least in this first novel – is Blitz-era London, the surrounding countryside, and their British inhabitants. It is this that is Blackout/All Clear’s saving grace, and makes it Nebula worthy: Willis paints an indelible portrait of what it was like to live through the Blitz and World War II in a way that perhaps no factual history book could.

I wonder now – as I did before – if Willis actually made a conscious effort to draw the characters of her future historians somewhat generically in order to draw the reader to the characters who dwell in the past – who can’t simply pop back to the comforts of 21st-century London when it suits them. By the middle of Blackout it is these folks that we come to care about more so than the future historians. Indeed, as one of her historians notes toward the end of All Clear: while History remembers the political leaders – Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler and Stalin – and venerates those who fought and died, the common people – both those who lived through the war and those who didn’t – who simply “carried on” through the incredible adversity with the business of living life – are also worthy of veneration and remembrance.

To be sure, this is a sentimental cliché, and Willis is hardly the first author to express the idea – it’s perhaps an even bigger cliché than time travel. So it is to her credit that by the time we come to the end of All Clear, we care what happens both to our historians and her characters native to 1940s England, and she manages to write an entertaining and Hugo-nomination worthy effort that doesn’t get weighed down with maudlin sentimentality (there is a bit of this, to be sure, but not too much).

Again, hard core sci-fi fans – the ones who live to find continuity errors in extended works and can endlessly debate items of literary canon – may be tempted to poo-poo time travel as depicted in Blackout and All Clear, and I wouldn’t necessarily blame them. There is never a satisfactory explanation as to how time travel actually works here, and only somewhat vague notions as to why it suddenly stops working, at least in terms of being a two-way trip.

But again, the novels aren’t really about time travel, but about the lives of British citizens living through the Blitz – time travel is just a conceit to take the reader back there – readers, who, like our mid-21st century historians, may know the details of the war, the dates of the battles and perhaps even the horrific accounts of the survivors – but really can’t fathom what it was like to simply be alive at this time, to be an ordinary civilian living through the War, dealing with the rationing, and nightly air raids. To discover this is why her historians do travel back there, and why it’s worth it as readers to go along for the ride.

So if you’ve read Blackout or happen to be in the middle of reading it and are inclined to put it down, as I was, carry on and get to the second novel, All Clear; it’s worth it, in the end.

One big complaint I do have about the novels, however: they really should have been one work. Willis says in a forward that it became clear during the writing that the work simply had to become two works; I’m inclined, humble reader I may be, to respectfully disagree. I think some very skillful plotting and/or skillful editing could have produced one long but well-paced and entertaining novel. Blackout quite frankly doesn’t stand alone as a novel, and it seems to me that if a novel can’t stand alone, then it shouldn’t. But then judging by the trends today in popular fiction, I’m in the minority.