Posts for May 2004

2004-05-03: Book review ponderings

Over the past couple of days, I've been looking at a wide variety of book reviews around the Internet, in part for recommendations and in part to think some more about how I'm currently handling reviews and if there are better ways of doing it.

The main things that I'm missing compared to most other review sites (other than quantity, which will come with time) is more metadata; right now, my reviews have basically no metadata other than author and title, and at least an ISBN code would probably be useful (although is its own headache in other ways).

Some of this (like ISBN) would be pretty straightforward to include, although in some cases a bit hard to add retroactively. Page count would probably also be useful; I'm not sure if there's any other metadata that's particularly interesting to people, with the exception of cover scans.

One thing that I discovered in looking at other collections of reviews is that I really do love having the cover scans included. They don't necessarily add anything in particular to the review, but they give it a certain character and often I'll recognize the book more readily (and sometimes will not recognize the book when I should, which is also interesting).

However, I have no idea what the legal issues are surrounding cover scans.

It looks like I can reuse Amazon's images obtainable via their web services interface, which is rather neat, except that their list of terms and conditions is incredibly long and intimidating. It also would appear to require that I link to Amazon for purchases, and I'd actually rather recommend Powell's or some other independent bookseller. Hm.

I'm wondering if there is some other source of small cover art pictures (I don't want full-sized scans even if I could get them) usable explicitly for book reviews out there that I'm not seeing. I know that I can get this sort of information from places like Muze, but then of course I'd have to pay for it; their target market is on-line booksellers.

If anyone out there knows anything more about this, what other people do, or where to look, I'd be very interested.

2004-05-03: Few more new books

It looks like I forgot a few books on my list of ones I just picked up, borrowed, received as a gift (thank you!), or otherwise was adding to my to-read list. So here are the additions:

Bill Bryson -- The Mother Tongue (nf)
Lynn Flewelling -- The Bone Doll's Twin (sff)
Lynn Flewelling -- Hidden Warrior (sff)
Jo Walton -- The King's Peace (sff)
Jo Walton -- The King's Name (sff)

Now, to take time to read all of these....

2004-05-11: Hominids

Review: Hominids, by Robert J. Sawyer

Pages: 444
ISBN: 0-765-34500-5
Publisher: Tor

This is the Hugo award winner for 2003. I have absolutely no idea why. With the possible exception of Kiln People, which I've not yet read, it's far and away the worst book on the short list. I'm getting very close to the point of just ignoring the Hugos completely.

The basic story is that the Neanderthals prospered in a parallel world while Homo sapiens becomes extinct. One of the Neanderthals is accidentally shunted into our world as a side effect of a scientific experiment. A clash of culture ensues.

Well, sort of. What actually ensues is a pile of self-righteous, cliched, preachy tripe. The Neanderthals have perfect population control, have bred violence largely out of their society (without losing anything important, no less), have a perfect judicial system without real privacy concerns, are generally happy, well-adjusted, near-perfect people. And so on and so on, until the reader is utterly sick of it. The unrelenting, simplistic slam on Homo sapiens culture is at least woven into the story rather than concentrated in chunks of preaching, so there's some reason to keep reading, but it never reaches the point of credibility.

Some sections are just spectacularly bad. At the point that the only justification for religion that one of the human characters could muster was Pascal's Wager (!) and the Neanderthal concludes that the reason why human society is so messed up is because the belief in a God means no one cares about the current life nearly had me throwing the book across the room. I don't even like religion, but come on.

I like books that challenge assumptions and that tackle hard questions about human identity, but they have to actually say something interesting. I don't even mind books that get preachy if they offer some compelling story, but this one doesn't, and the preaching says nothing interesting. It just handwaves through all of the reasons why human culture is the way that it is and seems to have as its goal making the reader feel guilty about how screwed up Homo sapiens is. The random rape of one of the main human characters at the beginning of the book, just so that it can be used as an illustration of how our society is full of evil male violence, is typical of this whole book.

The book is competently plotted and the writing isn't horrible, although the characters occasionally come across as ham-handed cliches. The book is not, however, competently thought through. Avoid.

Rating: 4 out of 10

2004-05-13: Stirge's Reviews

My friend Eric Sturgeon has started writing video game reviews. They are perhaps not the best at being reviews, in that they don't always say a lot of specifics about the game, but they're some of the most entertaining reviews I've ever read. Rather more so than mine, in fact.

You should go read them. And then tell him that you like them so that he'll keep writing more.

(I'm the one who owns the couch. Although there are unfortunately now geographic obstacles to him sitting on it.)

2004-05-24: Someplace to be Flying

Review: Someplace to be Flying, by Charles de Lint

Pages: 544
ISBN: 0-812-55158-3
Publisher: Tor

Most science fiction and fantasy books are about big things, about large, ambitious plots that define the book, that serve as catch phrases to memory. "Remember the book about...." It makes them easier to get a handle on; you touch on the overall plot, give the person you're talking to an idea of what archtypes of story are blended together, and from that they can get a pretty good idea of whether the ideas are ones they want to spend a few days exploring.

Someplace to be Flying isn't like that. It's not that there isn't a plot... there are two, really, one about Raven's pot, and one about sisters. It's more that the plots, while important, just aren't what the book is about. It's about the characters, about Jack and his stories, about the crow girls, about screwing things up because you're too afraid of screwing them up, about what it feels like to start discovering a whole different way of thinking about the world and then the odd sadness when you realize that some people will just never follow you there, but it's okay, they're still good people. And it's more than that, too... lots of books have excellent characters, but these just live their lives out on the pages in front of you, open and honest and suspicious and defensive, quirky and sad and scarred and earnest.

de Lint talks a little bit on his web pages about how he's had a hard time finding a good term for what he writes, and that he's arrived on "mythic fiction" as a reasonable term. It's urban fantasy, to be sure, but the setting is even more current-day than that might imply; in some ways, it verges on magic realism, but there's more peering under the hood and more actual artifacts, magic, and detail than I'd associate with magic realism. But whatever you want to call it, it's amazing and engrossing.

I loved this book. I loved meeting the whole menagerie of characters, every one of which is significant, interesting, and memorable in some way. There's philosophy in here that really touched me, a certain acceptance of who one is and what one cares about, some real thought about the basis of loyalty and why people help each other and what the costs are. There are also Maida and Zia, the crow girls, two of the most memorable and likable supporting characters that I've ever read about. It's a book that I feel different, calmer, more thoughtful for having read.

It's hard to really describe this one, and unfortunately it's also hard to come by. Charles de Lint's books don't appear to be kept in print very well, and this one seems to be on near-permanent back-order. But if you happen across it in a used bookstore, pick it up and give it a shot. Try the first chapter, because I bet you'll keep reading.

Rating: 10 out of 10

2004-05-24: Book haul

Yes, of course, I couldn't stay away from ordering from Powell's for too long. (I'd gotten The Confusion in hardcover, see, so of course I had to get Quicksilver in the same format, and while I was placing an order anyway....)

Anyway, here's the latest bunch:

James Gleick -- Faster (nf)
Madeleine L'Engle -- A Wind in the Door (sff)
Terry Pratchett -- Guards! Guards! (sff)
Terry Pratchett -- Reaper Man (sff)
Alastair Reynolds -- Revelation Space (sff)
James H. Schmitz -- Telzey Amberdon (sff)
Karl Schroeder -- Ventus (sff)
Neal Stephenson -- Quicksilver (sff)
Joss Whedon, et al. -- Fray (graphic novel)
Roger Zelazny -- Lord of Light (sff)

2004-05-24: spin 1.46

A small upgrade that adds support for a -e command line option, specifying regexes of files to ignore. Useful if there are stray files around in your thread source tree that you don't want to copy into your destination web site.

You can get the current version from the spin web site.

2004-05-24: remctl 1.6

This release fixes a format string vulnerability in the remctld server, so everyone using remctl should upgrade (bleh). Sorry about that. There are no other user-visible changes.

This will likely be the final release of remctl before a substantial rewrite that uses a much richer and more robust configuration file syntax.

You can get the current version from the remctl web site.

2004-05-29: Initial Baycon haul

The dealer room at Baycon this year has been good to me. I would have liked to be able to find some more fantasy and some more recent stuff, since the new book selection and the used selection that isn't classic SF is a bit limited, but I've still been able to find quite a lot.

There will be more; there are some things that I'm going to pick up tomorrow that I haven't yet for a variety of reasons. But here's what I've gotten so far:

Peter S. Beagle -- The Last Unicorn (sff)
C.J. Cherryh -- Brothers of Earth (sff)
C.J. Cherryh -- The Faded Sun: Kutath (sff)
C.J. Cherryh -- The Faded Sun: Shon'jir (sff)
C.J. Cherryh -- Hunter of Worlds (sff)
C.J. Cherryh -- Serpent's Reach (sff)
C.J. Cherryh -- Visible Light (sff)
Samuel R. Delany -- The Einstein Intersection (sff)
Lord Dunsany -- The King of Elfland's Daughter (sff)
Mary Gentle -- A Hawk in Silver (sff)
Harry Harrison -- The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat (sff)
David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer (ed.) -- Year's Best SF 9 (sff)
Robert A. Heinlein -- Citizen of the Galaxy (sff)
Robert A. Heinlein -- Double Star (sff)
Robert A. Heinlein -- The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (sff)
Frank Herbert -- Whipping Star (sff)
Katherine Kurtz -- Deryni Rising (sff)
Mercedes Lackey -- Sacred Ground (sff)
Fritz Leiber -- The Wanderer (sff)
Vonda N. McIntyre -- Starfarers (sff)
Vonda N. McIntyre -- Superluminal (sff)
Ken Macleod -- The Cassini Division (sff)
Elizabeth Moon -- The Speed of Dark (sff)
Larry Niven -- Limits (sff)
Larry Niven -- A World Out of Time (sff)
Larry Niven & Steven Barnes -- The Barsoom Project (sff)
Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle -- Oath of Fealty (sff)
George Orwell -- Animal Farm (f)
Robert Silverberg -- A Time of Changes (sff)
Dan Simmons -- Hard Freeze (f)
Sean Stewart -- Passion Play (sff)
James White -- Mind Changer (sff)

Most of what's likely still coming is Zelazny.

2004-05-30: Lord of Light

Review: Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny

Pages: 279
ISBN: 0-380-01403-3
Publisher: EOS

I've been planning on reading Zelazny for years, as many of my friends love his work, but for some reason I'd focused only on Amber and it hadn't occurred to me that he probably had unrelated novels. So he'd been waiting and waiting until I felt in the mood to start a long series and had acquired more of them.

Lord of Light is entirely unrelated to Amber, so if you'd been caught up in the same erroneous belief that I have, this is a decent place to start with his writing. And the premise is an excellent one: on a world other than Earth, far into the future, the founders of a colony live as Hindu gods, constantly reincarnating through advanced technology, secure in their power and their well-defended city, maintaining a hold over a planet of people kept in medieval technology (not to mention the captive native inhabitants of the world). Most of them do, that is; others ply their trade as normal humans, again and again, and then there is the one people call Buddha, who never claimed to be a god, but who never claimed not to be a god either.

I don't know nearly enough about Hinduism and Buddhism to catch all of the parallels and play in this story, and I think my enjoyment of it suffered some because of it, but it even with what I know, the way that Zelazny plays with the ideas and flow of religion is fascinating. This is a book that for much of the story works well on two levels at once, both as a story of men and gods and a story of technological lords, set in their ways, trying to cope with or head off change.

Almost everything has two ways of looking at it. For example, there are mythical demons trapped in the bowels of the earth, with which brave men can bargain, but should still fear for their lives; and there is a native population of pure energy beings, trapped, immortal, and angry, who may make deals but who still have a slightly alien way of looking at the world. There are living Hindu gods in their sacred city, and there are men who still command advanced technology and use it to secure their paradise while taking on roles to keep their hold over the population secure. The story can be read both ways, and many times the characters themselves struggle to decide which defines them, or stride confidently with one foot in both histories.

I can highly recommend this book for the concept. The story is somewhat more pedestrian, following the adventures of Mahasamatman (who prefers Sam), the Buddha, who doesn't believe in religion, let alone in himself, and yet manages to be a credible religious figure at the same time. The plot elements are mostly excuses for Sam to be either cunning or oddly honorable at right angles to the world, which definitely enhances the religious parallel.

I had a rough time with the language of the book at the beginning, but after a while the mix between slightly archaic, formal speech patterns and descriptions and the oddly blunt, modern-sounding, sarcastic wordplay in an occasional description or comment started mostly working. It was still occasionally jarring, however, and not everywhere do the two levels of the story blend smoothly. The other primary flaw in the book was that I found the cast endlessly confusing; someone better versed in Hindu mythology would likely remember the names better, but I kept getting lost between Kali, Kubera, and Krishna, among others, and it definitely did not help that multiple characters use the same name at various points in the story.

The setting is, outside of the brilliant basic idea, unfortunately forgettable, or, more accurately, purely a backdrop. The places in the world feel like the hints of a stage setting, rolled out behind the curtain during intermission, sufficient only to set a certain mood and remind the audience of a context. The world never came alive, never became a character in its own right, and I missed that (although again this does fit the paradigm of a series of stories about the Buddha).

Overall, there is no mistaking that this is a great book. I found it to be a great book with distracting flaws, and how deep one finds the flaws will likely vary greatly from person to person, but I doubt anyone would not agree that under them is brilliance.

Incidentally, something that may save you some confusion: The first chapter of this book takes place much later than the second and subsequent chapters, at least until the end of the book. There is some signal of this in the book itself, but I missed it completely, and then spent half the book very confused about the order of events. Maybe this will help someone else avoid the same fate.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2004-05-30: Nobody's Son

Review: Nobody's Son, by Sean Stewart

Pages: 273
ISBN: 0-441-00128-9
Publisher: Ace

This book suffers from a horrible synopsis in Powell's. I'm not sure if it's the publisher's fault, theirs, or someone else's, but the sum total of information available in the Powell's listing is:

The magical tale of the unhappy things that happen to a hero after "happily ever after" -- a Canadian Library Association Best Young Adult Novel.

This is horrible, and I delayed reading the book in part because of some very erroneous impressions I got from it. Here is an excerpt from the book that speaks much better:

He saw Gail give her friend a quick, sharp glance. Well, maybe Lissa had meant to insult him. And yet, he didn't think the cut in the comment was really meant for him. Rather, it was as if he were hearing an echo of an old conversation between the two women. Must be a lot of water has flowed between these two. Deep water. Strong currents.

Reading the comment in Powell's, I had expected some sort of satire on the concept of "happily ever after," a nice enough idea, but something to read when in the mood for something poking fun at fantasy tropes. Whatever there is of that, it's faint and fleeting, and this book is not even remotely a satire.

There is a lot of deep water and strong currents here, and many echos of old conversations. This is not a parody of fantasy; it's an embracing of it at a deeper level than the mere affairs of magic and power. It's about how fantasy touches a person, about a hero coming of age who truly does need to grow up despite his good heart, and about how saving the world comes more truly in understanding how to cut past what's expected than any great deeds, since what's expected is exactly what's failing when the world needs saving. It starts with disgust about the expectations for happily ever after and ends with a happily ever after that one can believe in.

I truly liked the hero here, a rough and uneducated person who does not magically become more educated or much less rough over the course of the story, who is not suddenly trained to read, and who was never simple and hence never needed to become more complicated, only wiser.

Advance warning: The first chapter requires some plodding, in part because you have to get used to the language of the characters, which is written in dialect, and in part because the first chapter just isn't much like the rest of the book. It's there as background and to lay the groundwork for important events later, but this book really begins in the second chapter. At that point, you meet the remaining cast of the story and start to get a feel for what the book is really like, and when it finally returns to the setting of the first chapter, the eeriness will fit better into the story.

A lot of water flows beneath these characters, in ways that left me thinking and happy to have listened to the rushing of it. Recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2004-05-30: Second Baycon Haul

This will probably be it for me this year, particularly since the de Lint books are all hardcover (okay, I splurged). Used hardcover (except Forests of the Heart), but still. (Although I need to buy his books new to help encourage his publisher to print more of them....)

Isaac Asimov -- Foundation
Isaac Asimov -- Foundation and Empire
Isaac Asimov -- Second Foundation
Stephen Baxter -- Vacuum Diagrams
Charles de Lint -- Forests of the Heart
Charles de Lint -- The Little Country
Charles de Lint -- Moonlight and Vines
Charles de Lint -- Tapping the Dream Tree
Sean Stewart -- Resurrection Man
Roger Zelazny -- Doorways in the Sand
Roger Zelazny -- Isle of the Dead
Roger Zelazny -- This Immortal

The Foundation series I've already read, but had never owned, so that's just filling in a gap in my personal library.

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