The OF Blog: August 2013

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Rabid Squirrel Interro-view: Mihir from Fantasy Book Critic

In this third installment of the Rabid Squirrel Interro-views of online reviewers and bloggers, I turned to Mihir Wanchoo, who is part of the dastardly cabal that runs the popular SF/F review site Fantasy Book Critic (I kid; I've known most of their team for years now and have a great deal of respect for each of them).  Hopefully, this interview will be of as much interest to readers here as were the first two installments.

Fantasy Book Critic is one of the few SF/F-related group blogs that aren't operated by publishers.  How did you come to join the team there?

We are mighty proud of the fact that we don’t accept any money from anyone or advertise anything on the blog. Fantasy Book Critic is run entirely as a passion project started by Robert Thompson and backed by a team of contributors (Liviu, Cindy, Sabine, Casey, Lydia and me). As to me joining the team, I think it was serendipity. Back in the early 2001-02 was when I started getting into fantasy after discovering Winter Warriors by David Gemmell. Previous to that I was primarily a mystery/thriller reader.  At that time in India, it was very hard to find SF &F books so I slowly went about finding rest of DG, Tolkien, Jordan, Eddings, Brooks, etc. A few years later I discovered fantasy blogs like FBC, Pat’s Hotlist, and Graeme’s Fantasy review among others. These blogs were my only way of getting to know about upcoming fantasy books as at that time I was still living in India and barring a couple of places (who had limited titles) there were still no major bookstores that carried any SF/ fantasy titles (This has changed vastly now).

After regularly following FBC’s posts, I started interacting with Robert Thompson and I would like to think I became a friend of his. I was also interested in interviewing authors and so when I got an opportunity to interview one of my favorite authors Sarah Ash. I requested Robert if he would be interested in posting Sarah’s interview and he replied in kind.

After that Liviu and Robert asked if I would want to be a part of the FBC team and I’ve counted that day as one of my luckiest ones J

How does the FBC team divvy up books for review?  Is there constant communication between the team members?

That’s very simple we stick to “Rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock” on skype and that usually helps settle all email inquiries. The not-so-fun part is when Liviu gets into his Clint Eastwood mode and keeps calling us punks ;)

Jokes aside, we usually divvy all email queries within our group and since we kinda know what interests each person. It becomes easier plus when interests overlap we have 2 people co-reviewing it. This isn’t a perfect method but sure beats the alternative of Rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock.

So who gets “lucky” and covers vanity-press offerings?  Or is that something that is agreed never to be discussed?

That falls under the latter part but we always like to give all books/authors a chance and so if the blurb or excerpt excites any of us, we give it a shot (no matter the route of publication)

FBC covers primarily SF/F.  Do the books you read/review there correlate to the books you read outside of FBC?

The primary focus for Fantasy Book Critic has always been Sci-Fi and Fantasy however from time to time; we have also focused on thrillers, historical fiction, urban fantasy and horror.Usually the books I review on the blog are the books I want to read in various genres such as fantasy, UF, SF and thriller/mystery.

That being said while I still read thrillers and mystery titles, Ihaven’t reviewed much of them on FBC as with my previous reviews, we used to get a rash of comments saying that this is a SFF blog and the readers would like us to focus more on that. So with that in mind I still read thrillers but I don’t review most of them. Lastly I also enjoy urban fantasy and in this regard I think Bastard and I are the only male bloggers who enjoy this field IMO. So I always make it a point to review or keep with UF books on both the blogs (FBC and Bastard books).

So pretty much you split what you review between two different blogs?  Does this affect the way that you approach writing a review for each site?

Oh yes, with FBC, there’s a pattern to the reviews. With Bastard Books, it’s more informal. Overall though the review matter doesn’t change one bit just the way it is showcased. That and I’ve call Bastard my overlord all the time!

Bastard overlord, huh?  What if there were a pack of chittering rabid squirrels that demanded that you review more squirrel-friendly literature?  Would you cave in or would you stick to your (reviewing) guns and cover only what interests you?

MW: One can never say no to anything that has the adjective rabid to it ;) but honestly I often try to expand on my reading habits. Time though is the biggest factor that determines which books I read and review. So to be fair if you have any recommendations for me I’ll be glad to take them on with the caveat that maybe we could also see a more recent fantasy/sff book on the OF blog.

Fair enough.  If FBC will consider reviewing some of the shortlisted titles for either the National Book Award or the Man Booker Prize, I'll endeavor to review a few more recent SF/F books here.

I see that you are active on Twitter.  How has Twitter impacted what you cover on FBC or what you read in your spare time?

I’ve been handling the FBC twitter handle since the last year. Twitter has been fun as I’ve gotten to interact with a lot of cool folks (both authors and bloggers). The best of it has been that I’ve discovered a lot of new and upcoming authors whom I wouldn’t have necessarily gotten to know about quite so early.

The not-so-good part is trying to stay out of twitter arguments and similar ilk.

What are some of those “twitter arguments” that you wish could be laid to rest, perhaps with a stake through the heart?

Oh I don’t think most of them are ever going to go away. But the one perception that I wish to change is that UF and PNR are pretty much the same thing. Not all UF books are the usual trope-laden stuff. For example Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops series is a fantastic example of an urban fantasy series that basically stretches the imagination of its readers as well as the magical boundaries of the world.

I would urge SFF readers not to shrug and roll their eyes at this fab sub-genre which is slowly finding its feet.   There are so many good and different UF series out there that I implore all naysayers to give those hidden gems from Ilona Andrews, John Connolly, Tim Marquitz, B. Justin Shier, Kari A. Stewart and many, many more. Hell, just bug me on Goodreads and I’ll be more than happy to point all the titles out.

But I’m one of those philistines who refuses to use Goodreads out of general principle!  You’ve mentioned urban fantasies a few times now.  As someone who is not very familiar with it, what are some of its characteristics?

Ah that’s a very touchy subject. Most detractors would gladly point to the covers featuring females in various awkward poses and leather pants/tight pants. Then there’s the sassy/tough female protagonist who might have parent issues and needs to find love with a big, bad misunderstood dude. Lastly there’s the smoldering love looks that occur with them in vicinity of each other. All this is true of all PNR and some UF books. But this trope is the same as the earlier fantasy books that had the same pseudo-tolkien outlook and very derivations of the same LOTR themes.

 In the past few years, there have been a few UF books that are different and are willing to pave newer roads in this sub-genre. There’s Ilona Andrews who explore a fascinating culture of the were-humans in a post-apocalyptic world as seen through the eyes of a mercenary anti-hero with a sharp sword and a laconic wit. Then there’s Myke Cole who’s rather ambiguiously exploring how the world and governments would react to the presence of magic in his Shadow Ops series. There’s John Connolly who in his Charlie Parker series tries to connect human suffering, choices and actions with the supernatural world in a very sublime way and with absolutely stunning prose. There are so many more examples which I don’t wish to bore you with by enumerating them all.

Lastly philistine or not, Goodreads would be fun for you Larry. There are all sorts of folks and with that comes all sorts of drama and flame wars. They might not be of the intellectual sort but every once in a while you do come across like-minded folks and book suggestions that might surprise you.

Perhaps, but I really don't have the time for even considering that right now.  Plus I have a history of wanting to have fewer "voices" influencing me, but that's another time/place discussion, as I'm not being interviewed here! Moving on...

Frequently there are discussions online, both on blogs and on Twitter, regarding "the state of genre."  What is your first (and maybe second) reaction to that term, "the state of genre?"

That’s a very interesting term “state of genre”. If you listen to different people, you’ll get different definitions of what it means. My first reaction is honestly that there’s no exact definition to it. Are we talking about the slow movement away from the pseudo-European world setting (the sooner this occurs, the better) or the advent of grimdark fantasy and the slightly nonsensical backlash against it?

I can’t say what my second reaction is because I am still a bit confused as to what my first reaction is. I honestly think that the fantasy field is an evolving one, in the 90s and the early 2000s we saw the advent of long-winded series. From the latter half of the first decade there has also been a rise in morally ambivalent fantasy and characters. So I would think the state of the genre is definitely heading in interesting directions. What I want to see more of: World settings (focussing on non-European history/civilizations, fat protagonists and possibly a series/trilogy where the apocalypse isn’t prevented and the world actually ends (I know J. Fallon has done something similar in one of her series, but there’s a caveat to it).
I believe “state of genre” as a term is a very fluid concept and it’ll be interesting to hear what others think of it though.
You said earlier that you grew up in India.  How available were Anglo-American SF/F in India during your youth?  Also, how different would “state of genre” be if we weren’t implicitly talking about Anglo-American SF/F but instead how this literary genre is viewed in other parts of the world?
Aah my youth was spent looking for books to read but back in the 90s decade as well as the earlier half of 2000s, SFF books were very hard to find. In Bombay/Mumbai we had this are called Fort wherein along a long road, there were lots of roadside vendors/hawkers who used to sell SF, fantasy, mystery, thrillers and loads of other stuff. I often found lots of new books over there and not in the stores like (The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker, Most of Terry Brooks’ and David Gemmell’s bibliography among others.)
However after 2006, there have been newer bookstores coming up that catered a lot of the SFF books that weren’t available earlier. I would like to hope that currently there’s definitely more if not less of the same.
When you think of State Of Genre and look it up from the desi viewpoint, it’s hard to find any similarities as it’s fairly European based. I had written a short post about Indian Speculative fiction and how our rich cultural heritage could often be viewed as SFF from a non-religious point of view. We have had very few fantasy stories wherein the culture mined is not a European one or a facsimile of it. Some examples that come to mind are Martha Wells’ Wheel of the Infinite, Kate Elliott’s Crossroads trilogy (not entirely Indian but has some small ties to a south Asian outlook), Robert Jordan’s WOT which had its core belief of time being a wheel and various cycles that followed, sounded awfully similar to some of the stuff in Hindu and Buddhist scripture.
But overall there’s almost next to nothing that connects to us desi readers based on our historical and mythological background. Of course there have been a few authors like Amish Tripathi, Krishna Udayasankar and Samit Basu who have made their work know to audiences away from the Indian subcontinent but I believe we are yet struggling to compete with Anglo-American SF/F from a SFF writer point.
You bring up authors like Jordan’s mammoth WoT series that utilize elements of Hindu mythology?  How do you feel about this adaptation of Indian stories/beliefs to suit a Western audience?
While I enjoyed that bit and the start of the WOT series. I honestly can’t call myself a fan, I gave up on it after book 7 when the plot still wasn’t escalating much and the braid-tugging was going on at full steam. I enjoyed RJ’s scope and vision for the series and how he incorporated several different aspects of various cultures and religions (The age cycle, Arthurian mythos, etc) to make up his world that basically launched the EPIC back into the epic fantasy genre. It also heralded the dawn of long winded series and inspired many more writers (I believe GRRM acknowledges this and had a couple of nods to RJ and his series in his books).
But honestly that was a very small nod to Desi mythology; a recent and more pronounced acknowledgement was to be found in Mage’s Blood the first book of the MoonTide quartet by David Hair.  The book is about a clash of civilizations in this case literally the East versus the West. The author has quite interestingly portrayed a land which is a facsimile of the Indian subcontinent and has modelled it quite sharply down to the narrow details such as festivals, Gods, swear-words, etc. (The swear word bit was a bit amusing to read as the author quite smartly captured the Indian swearwords and kept them to the same biting context).   
Obviously I would love for authors to explore more of the Indian culture, history and mythology and Max Gladstone has also written a fascinating post about the ignorance of the Western world with the world’s longest epic The Mahabharata which is also my favorite story of all. Also I would have given my left kidney to see David Gemmell write about Shivaji Maharaj, the founder of the Maratha Empire and a heroic figure who is perhaps worthy of an equal status among the nine worthies such as Hector, Charlemagne, etc.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Martín Arias and Martín Hadis (eds.), Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature

In England, however, poets finally realized that these metaphors – some of which, I repeat, were very beautiful, like the one that called the bird the "summer guardian" ended up hobbling poetry, so they were slowly abandoned.  In Scandinavia, on the other hand, they carried them to their final stage:  they created metaphors out of metaphors by using successive combinations.  Thus, if a ship was "sea-horse" and the sea was "gull's field," then a ship would be "horse of the gull's field."  And this could be called a metaphor of the first degree.  As a shield was the "pirate's moon" – shields were round and made of wood – and a spear was the "shield's serpent," for the spear could destroy the shield, that spear would be the "serpent of the pirate's moon."

This is how an extremely complicated and obscure poetry evolved.  It is, of course, what happened in learned poetry, within the highest spheres of society.  And, as these poems were recited or sung, it must be assumed that the primary metaphors, those that served as the foundation, were already familiar to the audience.  Familiar, even very familiar, almost synonymous with the word itself.  Be that as it may, the poetry became very obscure, so much so that the finding the real meaning is like solving a puzzle.  So much so that scribes from subsequent centuries show, in the transcriptions of these same poems as we have now, that they did not understand them.  Here's a fairly simple kenning:  "the swan of the beer of the dead," which, when we first see it, we don't [k]now how to interpret.  So, if we break it down, we see that "beer of the dead" means blood, and "swan of the blood" means the bird of death, the raven, so we see that "swan of the beer of the dead" simply means "raven."  And in Scandinavia, whole poems were written like this and with increasing complexity.  but this did not happen in England.  The metaphors remained in the first degree, without going any further.

– From Class 1 (Friday, October 14, 1966) (pp. 5-6)

Those of us of a certain age can recall classmates bringing tape recorders to a college lecture, taping the professor's words in order to fill in the gaps in their notes when prepping for an exam.  While I myself never did this, there were times that I vaguely regret not having a copy of what my history professors said, because there were so many fascinating stories, like the two failed coup attempts by the future Napoleon III or the "glorious" dying speech of Gustavus Adolphus (and the professor's musing that his actual words, if any, were much earthier).  Yet memory (and its distortions) adds layers of interpretation to what was said (and recorded).

So it was with great interest that I ordered the English translation of Martín Arias and Martín Hadis's Professor Borges:  A Course on English Literature.  I was already quite familiar with Borges the literary scholar; see my June-July 2010 posts on Borges), but I knew very little about Professor Borges.  The twenty-five lectures transcribed in Professor Borges reveals a Borges who is in turns digressive, almost absent-minded, and a sharp, incisive dissector of English literature of the 8th to 19th centuries.  It is a fascinating look at how the (inter)national literature so familiar to Anglophones is presented to an educated yet foreign college audience.

Borges' topics might be baffling to those of us weaned on the Norton Anthology of English Literature, as he devoted nearly a third of his twenty-five lectures to the Anglo-Saxon period.  He focuses not only on Bede, Caedmon, and Beowulf, but on the oral qualities of these works.  He discusses kennings, the complex poetic metaphors found in Old English, and he shows how these literary metaphors shaped not just Anglo-Saxon poetry but why these forms faded in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest.  It is not an easy topic for those of us who are native speakers of English, but yet Borges manages to make this topic not only lucid, but a joy to read (well, at least for those like myself whose first literary love is poetry).

The lecture format suits Borges' musings well.  He is seen spending time reciting multiple times (often with the help of female students who would read passages aloud for him to listen to first) passages from divers authors (Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poetry being a prime example) to demonstrate how much English poetry depends upon rhythm and rhyme to create images that "flow."  In reading it, I found myself wishing to hear how Borges was presenting these lines, even when I knew (due in part to footnotes, but also to my own recollections of the works cited) that occasionally Borges would present an approximation of what was written down and not what was exactly said.  If anything, these little discrepancies added to the experience of reading how a lover of literature presented his knowledge of the field to students.  Borges' passion almost bleeds through the pages, especially when talking about poetry, and it likely made a positive impression upon his students.

Yet there are gaps in this course.  While the "greats" are covered, there is nothing after Oscar Wilde.  It is as if for Borges, English literature after his 1899 birth is too new, too untamed, to be covered in a course.  This is a shame, as his fleeting thoughts on the Modernists (mostly favorable) presented elsewhere in his non-fiction left me wanting to hear more substantive thoughts on Joyce, Woolf, and others.  This is a minor nit-pick (after all, it is difficult to conceive of works post-1980 being discussed in context of an Anglo-American tradition at this moment; time will only tell when we ourselves have faded away, perhaps) in what otherwise is an excellent presentation of Borges the Professor.  Pardon me if I now feel the urge to re-read some Rossetti or Blake now; Professor Borges is to blame.

Nine Years

It was nine years ago today that I started the OF Blog (then named OF Blog of the Fallen) as an extension of wotmania's Other Fantasy section.  Yet even in the early years, when posting was sporadic (then, like now, I was working well over 40 hours/week), I kept envisioning doing something different than just writing reviews of books read.  One primary influence those early days (even though I rarely commented on his blog) was Matt Cheney (and if you aren't familiar with him, you should be; go read this post about his ten years of blogging) and it's been a pleasure to have worked with him and others over the intervening nine years of this blog's existence.

Granted, there have been some shifts in focus.  Tastes, after all, do change with age, or perhaps things once loved more come back to reclaim my affection.  I know there are many who were disappointed that I have largely (but not totally) stopped covering new SF/F releases.  Some of that is due to burnout and some due to having limited time to cover books at all.  Perhaps there will be a few more reviews in the near future (it has been a month or two at least since I've written any reviews) now that my body is (slowly) adjusting to an 11:30 AM-1 AM work/travel schedule (with an even earlier day on Wednesdays), but there might be more gaps of a week or so in posting (chances are weekends are best for posting).

Regardless of the increased demands on my time, I still intend to keep blogging (and tweeting, for those who follow my Twitter account).  Nine years is almost a quarter of my life (next year, it'll be exactly - within 39 days - 25%) and certainly a lot of maturation has taken place over those years.  Curious to see what will happen as this last year of my 30s passes and I approach the grand old age of 40 next July.  Should be fun.  Hopefully, some of you will be along for the ride (and won't be scared by the squirrels who track my every move here).

P.S.  Here's a fairly-meaningless (and slightly inaccurate - the tracking actually began back in 2010, not 2007) chart of page views over the past few years.  Surprised at how stable it is, as I would have thought the totals would have been much less since 2010:


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Rabid Squirrel Interro-view: Aisha of Practically Marzipan

For the second online reviewer/blogger interro-view, I turned to one of my favorite people to chat with online, Aisha.  Aisha runs the blog Practically Marzipan and is also a columnist/reviewer for a leading Indian paper, The Sunday Guardian.   Time to see if the rabid squirrels who co-conducted this interview felt even a smidgen of pity or gave mercy to this intrepid interview subject:

You have a regular column, "Left of Cool," in India's The Sunday Guardian as well as maintaining a review(ish) blog, Practically Marzipan.  What are some of the differences you've noticed between writing for a newspaper compared to writing for a blog?

With my blog I can assume readers who read the same sorts of things as I do, or can take for granted that they already have certain sorts of information. And there's also the option of linking to lots of things as context and constructing whatever I'm trying to say on top of things other people have said--which changes the whole tone of the writing from (I suppose) statement to dialogue. Writing for newspapers or magazines has been great for discipline--most of the time I need deadlines and wordcounts to get anything done, and it's probably good for me not to be able to depend on other people's writing. But I feel like I sound more like myself when I'm writing for the blog. (But also I sound more myself when I'm writing for the regular column than I am when I'm writing a review).

All this seems to indicate that there's a definite separation between my writing for the blog and my writing for the column, and that would probably be true if I was less lazy. As things are, most things that get put up on the blog are versions of columns or reviews I've already written, so there are no clear lines and you can probably ignore most of that previous paragraph.

Seems like you have a hard time deciding which has helped you develop more as a reviewer/critic.  If you were pressed by a gang of rabid palm squirrels threatening to nibble your toes if you didn't respond definitively, which one, the newspaper columnist or the blogger, has given you the most satisfaction?

Nooo, not the squirrels! The blog certainly gives me more satisfaction.

What's wrong with having rabid squirrels giving you their undivided attention?

That you have to ask this is itself a matter of concern. Though, do I get a free pass if one of the only pieces of fiction I've ever had published has a squirrel in it? Also one of my favourite Indian short stories is about a squirrel. (I guess what I'm trying to say is please don't hurt me, squirrels)

[Furious, frustrated chittering is heard in the distance.  Aisha is spared…for the moment, with the understanding that she’ll consider reviewing the upcoming Squirrels movie.]

If I recall, you also used to work as an editor for a children's lit publisher.  What are some of the wonderful discoveries you've made in children's/YA literature, both professionally and during your personal life?

Professionally, not that much--because a lot of the editing I did involved textbooks and while it's possible to make brilliant textbooks (I'd like to think mine were pretty good) you can't really have very strong feelings about them.

But my job meant being in a place where children's books were accessible at all times, and I discovered I could really love books for much younger readers. I've written more about things like picture books and books for early readers in the last few years than I ever did before. Obviously I can't read them as a child would (or even as a parent would) but the best of them get down to the bare bones of language and story (and colour and line) in ways that are fascinating to me.

Well, I've been an uncle for nearly a year now and my niece already has shown a great interest in picture books or anything in the shape of a book (OK, she tries to munch on a few of them, but that is beside the point).  What books, picture books and on up through early readers would you suggest that I (or any reader that has an infant/toddler relative) consider buying for her?  I (we?) need names!

Well there's an Indian publishing company called Tara Books who do gorgeous things with traditional folk art, so I'd recommend pretty much anything by them (look how pretty! ). And I've fallen in love with Chris Haughton's books-- A Bit Lost has a baby owl in it so it's clearly superior, but Oh No George! looks great too. One of my favourite books from this past year was one called Virginia Wolf which is *sort* of about Virginia Woolf (there's an artist sister called Vanessa, for example) but is mostly about depression. Another I liked was something called The Bravest Goat in the World, about a goat that sticks to her sense of self and ... dies. It's more inspiring than depressing, I promise.

 I'll take your word on it for now.  So perhaps Indian children's/YA lit isn't as depressing as say Charlotte's Web?

Well quite a few of those titles aren't Indian. But I think most of the children's lit I like isn't entirely happy and uplifting--even when there's a happily ever after at the end there's often this sense of a huge and unknowable world. Think of something like Tove Jansson's Moomin books, for example.

What is the lit scene, whether it's literary fiction, speculative, or works not otherwise constrained by those two labels, in India today? 

It's (I'm restricting this to English language only because that is what I do almost all my reading in) growing faster than I would have believed it could a few years ago; it's changed out of all recognition since I started working here and that was only a few years ago. I think the most important development has been the beginnings of a genuinely "popular" literature--affordable books in English that the authors often claim is accessible to everyone. I think most of it is dreadful (but then there are writers like Anuja Chauhan, whose first book was very good and whose second and third I'm told are wonderful), but it has opened up a space for genre fiction and there's already quite a bit of it. It's mostly mythological fiction so far, but that's partly because the breakout success in the genre (Amish Tripathi's Immortals of Meluha) was in that genre.

But there's also a visible divide between the literary and the popular, with very few authors who seem to belong to both groups. I'm hoping that as Indian sff develops it'll straddle that divide so that we can have speculative writing that is also formally experimental; since we don't have a firmly entrenched English language genre tradition to fall back on (*all sorts of disclaimers here) we have a better chance at it than most places.

How "accessible" (a word that I do dread using here but am failing at recalling a more suitable synonym) would these English-language "popular" lit books be for a non-Indian population?  Are there elements that differ significantly from literary tropes that populate Anglo-American literary genres? 

It depends on the book, but I think most of them are pretty accessible, or not less so than the more literary (a word I dread using here!) sort of Indian fiction. There are a couple that even I found incomprehensible, but that's a problem with individual writers (and, I suspect, no editing) rather than an alien setting.

A lot of it is along the same lines as the Anglo-American scene: there are romances, crime fiction, military novels, a bit of fantasy. One significant difference is that we've got an entire genre composed of semi-autobiographical stories about young men in college finding love (by young male authors, mostly). I read something about the college novel being dead recently, and I'm not sure what the people who wrote that would make of these.

Have you ever thought about reviewing any of these "college novels" for your global audience?

I've occasionally done some rather mean spoof reviews of them (tagged "(sic)" on my blog; see what I said about the editing above), but I'm not sure if a global audience would find them hilariously bad, as I often do, or incomprehensibly so.

It's complicated though-- English, and the ability to speak it fluently, can be intensely political issues in India, and it's easy to fall into a sort of classism when mocking a badly written book. And these books clearly do have an audience (a far bigger one than most mainstream literary writers), and class and language politics play a big role there too. So I'm trying to find a balance between righteous rage at books that are very bad and classist snobbery. Or something.

You are very active on Twitter.  How has Twitter shaped your reading and reviewing?

I suspect it has actively hindered them.

Twitter ought to be good for writers in that the 140 character limit should make us pare down out tweets for the minimum number of words and maximum clarity. I haven't managed to get it to train me out of using too many adverbs yet, so I don't know if that's true.

I follow a bunch of brilliant, incisive critics on twitter, so I am mostly really intimidated by them but also pushed to be better because you don't want to look silly in front of people you respect. But I think I'm also learning to think I might have something worth saying because there seem to be people who continue to be willing to read me and talk to me.

What's wrong with adverbs? 

Nothing, if they're used in moderation. But there's an adverb in my blog name and one in my twitter username, so I suspect I will never escape them.

Apparently not, considering you used one in your response!  Does this dismay you or make you more accepting of verb modifiers in fiction?

Absolutely not. (Um.)

As a reviewer, what do you consider to be your strengths and weaknesses? 

Lots and lots of weaknesses! A lack of intellectual rigour, a fear of making sweeping pronouncements that leads to my often not saying anything new for fear that I'll have to back it up. I'm not sure what my strengths are, other than that I usually sound like myself (which is only a good thing if you like what I sound like); I'm not sure why people are willing to read what I write, and I'm pathetically grateful when they are.

Hrmm….so a relative lack of confidence in your work, despite having accomplished more professionally than most of us will likely ever achieve, is your biggest weakness as a reviewer?  It sounds like you're a conscientious critic swimming in a sea of inflated self-opinions.  Would this be a fairer assessment of your strengths?

It would be a very flattering assessment of my strengths, if it was true. I've been able to read and write for a living for a few years, which is something most people don't get to do. But luck and circumstances have been a huge part of that, and I read people who are far better critics than I am every day. If I'm particularly conscientious it's natural timidity plus a tendency towards academia (plus, I suppose, the social effects of being a brown woman on an internet where the majority of voices are still white men-- there's an added sense of needing to protect oneself from attack by never saying anything that can't be incontrovertibly backed up).

I wish I could argue your last point, but I understand a small part of the reality there.  But have you ever been tempted to kick down those sexist/racist doors and fight vociferously?  Are there other bloggers that do this?

Are you trying to get me to talk about Requires Only That You Hate? I don't think I could do what she does even if I was also blogging anonymously, but I'm glad she exists. Or someone like Deepa D, whose style is very different but equally welcome-- she had a great post recently where she and some other bloggers picked apart and mocked a collection of short stories that were (judging by the extensive quotes they posted) pretty terrible on the race front in particular.

You keep getting people clutching their pearls over how horrible and mean this sort of thing is; no one seems to talk about how cathartic it can be. Things like casual sexism and racism in literature (in the books themselves, in how they are received, in how fans react to them) make the world worse in ways that affect me directly, casual classism, transphobia, casteism, all affect people I care about. My safe spaces are not places where everyone is required to be teeth-grittingly nice in the face of bigotry, they're places where we can mock and rage at things that can hurt us and know that the other people in that space have our backs.

(I'm still too "nice" to create that sort of space, though.)

Word association time:  When you see/hear the word "fandom," what thoughts/images immediately come to mind?


OR far too many things to name, many of them wonderful and many incredibly frustrating and/or upsetting.

C'mon!  There has to be something specific that really appeals to you and/or makes you want to unleash your fury upon the miscreant(s), right?

When I say fandom I mean about ten things, all of them connected but not necessarily the same. I love that literature and movies and music and tv can make communities, I love that fanfic can be art and politics and porn at the same time, I love enthusiasm, I love love. I'm less enthused by the sort of fandom that is not only uncritical itself (do that, if you want, I'm not going to judge how you read/watch) but that denies other fans the right to be. I hate the cult of nice. I hate that things like sexism and racism play out in fannish communities, and that fandom is still assumed to be the preserve of certain types of people in certain sorts of countries (queer women of colour who don't live in North America are not among them). I hate being pressured to feel grateful when a writer with a big fan following occasionally remembers that people like me exist.

So -- no, I don't have much to say about fandom. ;)

Do you see these reactionary elements of various fandoms changing anytime soon?

I don't know. It's a continuous process; it gets better in some areas, worse in others, people push back against change. I think things are improving, but there's so much left to do.

And finally, if you could have a totemic animal represent you and/or your blog, what animal would it be and would they be voracious readers and/or fierce attack creatures?

Owls! (everyone who reads my twitter groans on cue) They're appropriately literary, very good at killing things, they're wise in English and foolish in Hindi.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

List of Booker Prize winners

Since I've been reading the Booker Prize shortlists for the past few years (and largely reviewing the books on those shortlists), I thought I'd post here a list of the previous winners (similar to what I do for the Nobel Prize in Literature) and highlight the books that I've read and/or own.  Due to my age and nationality and literary interests, this should be a fairly bottom-heavy highlighting:

1969   P.H. Newby, Something to Answer For     
1970   Bernice Rubens, The Elected Member            
1971   V.S. Naipaul, In a Free State           
1972   John Berger, G.         
1973   J.G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur     
1974   Stanley Middleton, Holiday           
             Nadine Gordimer, The Conservationist 
1975   Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust           
1976   David Storey, Saville             
1977   Paul Scott, Staying On     
1978   Iris Murdoch, The Sea, the Sea        
1979   Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore         
1980   William Golding, Rites of Passage         
1981   Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children 
1982   Thomas Keneally, Schindler’s Ark          
1983   J.M. Coetzee, Life & Times of Michael K    
1984   Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac   
1985   Keri Hulme, The Bone People       
1986   Kingsley Amis, The Old Devils           
1987   Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger    
1988   Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda    
1989   Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day       

1990   A.S. Byatt, Possession      

1991   Ben Okri, The Famished Road 
1992   Barry Unsworth, Sacred Hunger          
             Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient 
1993   Roddy Doyle, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha        
1994   James Kelman, How Late It Was, How Late 
1995   Pat Barker, The Ghost Road         
1996   Graham Swift, Last Orders    
1997   Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things      
1998   Ian McEwan, Amsterdam    
1999   J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace         
2000   Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin    
2001   Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang        
2002   Yann Martel, Life of Pi         
2003   D.B.C. Pierre, Vernon God Little      
2004   Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty    
2005   John Banville, The Sea          
2006   Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss        
2007   Anne Enright, The Gathering           
2008   Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger        
2009   Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall        

2010   Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question            

2011   Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending       

2012   Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies 

So far, only read 9 winners out of 44 years (and 46 winners/co-winners) of the Booker Prize.  Might read more of these in the near future, but part of me is hesitant, considering my negative reactions to other works written by some of the Booker Prize winners that I already have read.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Rabid Squirrel Interro-view: Andrea from Little Red Reviewer

In the first of a series of hard-hitting (or at least not slow-pitch Beer League softball) interviews of a variety of online reviewers/book bloggers, Andrea from Little Red Reviewer agreed to answer a series of questions that I asked about the genesis of her blog, the continuous debate over the Hugo Awards, what constitutes a geek, and even a question about her apparent love for a certain Canadian actor who boldly went where no man had gone before...or something.  Hopefully, this interview will be of some interest to readers:

I see that you have been blogging at Little Red Reviewer since March 2010.  What motivated you to start a blog devoted to books instead of something devoted to another field of interest?

Flashback to five or six years ago, when I’d been publishing casual book reviews online at various places, including SFFWorld, SFRevu, Worm’s Sci Fi Haven, and an old blogspot that’s now defunct. Learning how to review books was becoming a serious hobby, something I wanted to invest more time and effort into. By setting up my own blog I had the freedom to develop my own style and schedule. Which is a fancy way of saying I get to be snarky and swear a lot.

At the moment, science fiction and fantasy books are my field of interest. My apartment looks like a library threw up. But I do have other interests.  I’m a low-tech foodie and a craft beer snob. My “practice” blog from way-back-when included posts on those and other topics, but food blogs live and die by their photography, and all my tasty food always looked gross in the photos. Occasionally I do post about food or beer or gardening on Little Red Reviewer, but it’s mostly genre geekery. Due to some other projects I’m involved in, there are less book reviews than I’d like on LRR, but it seems to be the non-review posts that get the most comments, so there’s that.

I’ve always been puzzled when other reviewers wistfully comment about how their non-review posts receive more traffic than the reviews.  When you read other blogs, are you primarily reading them for their reviews or for other reasons?

I’m primarily reading them for book reviews, and sometimes movie reviews. I also enjoy looking at people’s photos of cons, cosplay, geekery and such. I read book reviews and blogs because want to hear what people thought of books I’ve read, and I’m interested in non-spoilery reviews of titles I’m interested in reading. It’s goodreads, with a more personal touch.  Discussion posts do seem to get more hits and more comments, because, well, it’s a discussion, not just some blogger shouting their opinion into the void.

What genres of literature does your blog focus on and does your blog accurately reflect your reading tastes or does it instead capture only one part of your overall reading interests?

Little Red Reviewer focuses mostly on Science Fiction and Fantasy, which covers 90% of what I read. I used to read a larger variety of genres, including some non-fiction history books. In a way I have allowed the “brand” of the blog to dictate and narrow down the types of books I read for pleasure. Which is too bad.  I need more hours in the day so I can catch up on Barbara Kingsolver, mythology studies, architecture, and American History.  Or I could just sign up for a community college literature or history class, and the reading would be homework.

“Branding” is an interesting choice for describing why you cover SF/F so much.  Do you ever think that sometime in the near future you might find the focus of your reading (and reviews) moving away from SF/F books (and related media) and toward something different?

I doubt it.  I’m more than satisfied with what my blog has become, and much of that satisfaction is due to it’s tight focus on genre.  If I were to get serious about blogging other bits of my life, I’d start another blog. Could be a good excuse to learn how tumblr works.

I see that you've been doing reviews of not just the Hugo nominees for Best Novel but also in other categories such as Best Novella.  What is your take on the overall quality of these stories in comparison to other, non-nominated works of the past year?

This was my first year nominating and voting in the Hugo’s. I’ve now reviewed all the nominated novels, novellas, novellettes and short stories.  Very little of what I nominated made it to the final ballot, just shows I have different tastes than other folks, and that popularity and PR is important. I had a tough time getting into some of the nominated novellas and I was surprised to see Blackout by Mira Grant and Redshirts by John Scalzi on the final ballot for best novel. Nothing against either of those books, but I’ve read better.

Of the novels I nominated, two of them, And Blue Skies From Pain by Stina Leicht and Faith by John Love, received little to no fanfare when they were released. Leicht did the podcast tour thing and is very active on twitter, Love not so much. Stina Leicht made the ballot for Campbell award, but these authors are among many who suffered from not enough exposure. It is possible for a small publisher to make a big splash, just look at Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s nominated short story The Boy Who Cast No Shadow from PS Publishing.  

Scalzi’s appearance at many, many conventions along with Tor’s strong advertising of his brand ensured everyone, everywhere was going to know about Redshirts.  I’m not knocking Redshirts, it’s a fun book. I bought a copy for my Dad, and got Scalzi to autograph it at a Con.  But is it among the best five books published in 2012? I don’t think so.

What I’m getting at with that ramble is that getting on that ballot is linked to exposure. It’s not a popularity contest, but someone can’t nominate you if they’ve never heard of you. More of us need to be reading from more publishers, and more of us need to be voting.  I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford attending WorldCon. But a $60 annual membership fee?  most of us spend that kind of change at the bookstore and don’t even blink.

I’m woefully under-read when it comes to short form, but am hoping to fix that with rampant listening of short story podcasts from places like Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and PodCastle.

This is a rather sanguine, diplomatic response considering the responses of many other bloggers.  When you come across their negative reactions to Hugo-related matters, how much agreement/disagreement do you have with their views and how they express them.  Can the Hugos be “saved” for those fans in their 20s and 30s who don’t feel as connected to WorldCon conventions?

Oh yeah, there was a big kerfuffle back in April, wasn’t there? I do recall some nail spitting and vitriol. Quite a bit actually.  Maybe I’ll get to be part of it next year, when I can call myself an expert because it’ll be my 2nd year as part of the process. Will there come a day when I’m the one bitching about how a YA novel or another joke from Scalzi got on the ballot? More than likely. It is inevitable that naiveity become jadedness.

And do you mean “saved” for, or saved from?  With google hangouts, podcasting, youtube, skype, tweeting with authors non-stop, I think the definition of “connection to WorldCon convention’s” is changing.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the old guard preferred to save it from us young uns and newcomers, rather than for us.

Well, I was trying to be optimistic with the “for,” but now that you’ve gone ahead and mentioned newer developments like podcasting, Google+, Skype, Twitter, etc., could it be that traditional print literature-oriented conventions are going the way of the dinosaur and that instead of a monolithic fandom bloc like WorldCon that the near future will see a fissioning of SF into several competing (and maybe also complementary) communities?

I think you’re on to something there. I love that more and more smaller cons are popping up all over the place.  A few months ago I was at a local small business meet ‘n greet, with the topic of the evening being social media. On a projection screen they were showing a live twitter feed of the event’s hashtag. I thought that was brilliant.

WorldCon will never go away, and I’m grateful to have some big thing that brings us all together, you know? But I gotta wonder how much of the WorldCon/Hugo kerfuffles could be avoided if the meetings were done via Google+ or Skype.  You wouldn’t have to buy a plane ticket or get a hotel room.  All this scifi style technology, how come we’re not using it better?

You have a visible presence on Twitter.  How has Twitter influenced you as a blogger and a reviewer?  

Twitter has vastly widened my world. Building a blog following is primarily done through interaction with other bloggers. And there’s only so much you can comment on someone else’s blog, especially if you’re only trolling book review blogs. With twitter, I could suddenly have conversations on any topic with other bloggers, with authors, with publisher reps, with people I met at a convention or a bookstore event, with anyone who had similar interests as me, in any timezone. Twitter really is the best thing since sliced bread.  I’ll tweet a link to my reviews, often tagging the author or publisher. If I’m lucky, those people retweet it, gaining more exposure for everyone involved, and often starting a conversation. The dark side, is what if I publish a negative review? Do I really want to bring that to the author’s attention? Maybe I do, but not quite as loudly.

Have there been any negative consequences to using Twitter as a primary forum for communicating with others?

It is a time suck.  I’ll sit down to get some serious work done, and check twitter, just for a second.  Next thing you know, two hours have gone by, and I’ve gotten nothing done. But seriously, the only negative to twitter is the character limit. But many a casual, character limited conversation has led to a private message of “what’s your e-mail address?” and we go from there. it’s amazing the intonation you can cram into a hashtag.

Gender in Genre has been a topic of much debate in recent years.  What is your take on the debates and on the roles that women writers, editors, and readers play in literary discussions?

There’s no avoiding this thorny topic, is there?

On the one hand, my take is that I’m very happy to see these discussions taking place, although I very rarely take part in them. Every community (and the speculative fiction publishing industry IS a community) needs to be shown where it’s self imposed boundaries lie, and be forced to push past them into newer territory.  We are lucky enough to have so many well spoken and well educated  writers, editors, and readers who can speak intelligently and professionally on this topic, allowing me to stay silent in my little corner and let the Smart People talk about the Big Smart Topics.

On the other hand, anyone who says “where are all the female writers, readers and bloggers?! We do not have enough women involved!” hasn’t spent much time in the Urban Fantasy blogosphere. I mean, urban fantasy falls under the larger category of fantasy, and is within the sphere of speculative fiction right? And so those are seen as legitimate genre authors and legitimate genre blogs, right?  

Yes, that’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it?  I’ll readily admit my near-total ignorance of what is being produced these days in urban fantasy.  What similarities and differences are there between blogs and discussion groups that focus on say “hard SF” or epic fantasy as those which concentrate on urban fantasy?

it’s one of many white elephants. While we’re in this room that’s suddenly crowded with white elephants, let’s beat some dead horses.

The blunt and obvious difference is the gender make-up of the communities. To make a gross generality (which I have underlined so it’s not forgotten by the end of this paragraph), the communities that focus on Hard SF or Epic Fantasy are mostly male, and the communities that focus on Urban Fantasy tend to be mostly female, and the big fat “why is that?” is blunt and obvious too. Most of the urban fantasy on the market right now is marketed towards women, has female protagonists and mostly female writers, and hard SF and epic fantasy has historically been aimed towards men, with a focus on male protagonist and a historically high proportion of male writers.  Things are changing, and ultimately we’ll all read what we want, but marketing is pretty damn powerful.

And what do the communities have in common? A hot blooded passion for promoting the genre. all these blogs and communities exist for one purpose - because people love what they are reading and they want to discuss it.  

It’s funny, but I don’t see much of the “where all the dudes at? we gotta read more men!” on the UF (urban fantasy) and PNR (paranormal romance) blogs. Authors there are just authors. Their plumbing doesn’t seem to matter as much.

I get what all the hoopla is about, truly I do.  But the reason I’ve opted out of so many of these conversations is because I’ve never much cared about gender.  I’ve spent plenty of years as the only woman in the room, and it never took the fellows very long to see me as “just another one of the guys”. I never waited for their (or anyone’s) invitation or validation. If I want to do something, or join something, or read something, or write something, or be something, I fucking do it.

Will a certain percentage of humans continue be assholes and truly believe they are superior to others? Yes.  Is it our best interest to call those people on it and out them as assholes? Yes.

Not much to add here but a musing:  Taken into account that there is a lesser imbalance in hard SF/epic fantasy readership compared to UF/PNR readership, would it be fairer to note that much of the issue revolves around male readers and their preconceptions than with anything that women prefer to read?  I ask as someone who will readily admit that he is largely ignorant of what is being published in UF/PNR.

I’m only slightly less ignorant. Urban Fantasy is exactly what it sounds like: fantasy adventure/thriller/mystery in an urban environment, be it Earth or a secondary world. Paranormal Romance focuses very heavily on the romance and relationships aspects of the story, and there are paranormal creatures and situations. Sometimes tons of hot sex too. Look for the super sexy shirtless men (usually with their heads cropped off) in the SF/F section. Those are probably PNR.

Yes, I think it boils down to preconceptions, and judgemental preconceptions at that. With a childish dash of “eewww, there are girls in our treehouse! Someone call her ugly and fart nasty so she goes away!”  What happened then was what has always historically happened when a large group of people are told they can’t join the club:  we made our own club, fashioned to our preferences.  

Glancing through your recent blog entries, I see multiple references to Star Trek and specifically to William Shatner.  If Shatner could be the answer to any question regarding SF, what question would you ask and why?

Multiple references? *looks back* oh, yeah, I guess there are. This was your tough, get
em where it hurts question, wasn’t it? hmmm...

Q. What actor do I wish I could have seen on television when the show that made him famous first aired? 

A. William Shatner.

Why that question?

This isn’t about Shatner, it’s about Kirk. My first exposure to  Star Trek was syndicated reruns, the episodes often shown out of order at weird times. No story arcs, no viewing parties, no gravitas. But still!  Adventures in outer space? With aliens? and characters who bantered back and forth? and laser weapons? and saving the day in less than 60 minutes? this was cooler than Star Wars!

Star Trek IV was the first Star Trek movie I saw, and it solidified a few things for me: This franchise was a helluva lot of fun, and I wanted to grow up to be like Kirk. He constantly bent the rules, but always did the right thing. He understood what promise and loyalty and dedication really meant, with a side order of optimism, creativity, and sneakiness. I’d have left the Kobayashi Maru to burn.

I was later to learn that Star Trek IV makes so much more sense if you actually watch the movies in order.  But come on, I was 8 years old. And I’d just found my new role model.

Shatner is so kitschy that he somehow is beyond cool in a sort of “geeky” way.  But this raises a serious question:  What does it mean to be a “geek” and yet somehow “cool” at the same time?  Lately, I’ve seen references on numerous sites to “geek chic” and I’m left wondering if this is actually a positive thing.  What are your thoughts on what it means to be a geek and how that relates to “geek culture?”

Everything old is new again, don’t ya know? I’m just old enough to be amused by that.

Geek and Cool is like pornography. I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.   A few years ago I tried to introduce a friend to all the weird stuff I read. I lent her a few of my favorites, a Steven Brust, a Neil Gaiman, a Catherynne Valente or two. A few weeks later she handed me back the bag’o’books and said “I tried, but this stuff is way too weird for me”. Boy did I feel like a geek. That same friend called me last week and says “What the heck is a Tardis and why is everyone on TV talking about it?”  I suddenly felt really cool.

Geeky (and I imagine geek chic, whatever the hell that is) is trendy right now, forcing everything geeky into the mainstream.  It’s a positive thing, because a lot of people who were closet geeks are finding their voice, finding their fandom family, finding something that makes them happy with themselves.  Not only has geeky become cool, but so has coming out as one.

In six months something else will be trendy, and the posers will move on to the next trendy thing, leaving us true geeks, Newbs and all,  to our own devices.

I must admit that the recent (say post-2005) embracement of “geek” as a positive term confuses me, as for the most part I was more into musical pop culture than I was into anything that today would be labeled as “geeky.”  You use the term “true geek” in your response.  What is a “true geek” compared to someone who might be curious about current pop cultural trends yet who did not have a “community” with which to associate?

A true geek is someone who geeks out for something because it speaks to them, not because it’s cool.  If you’re curious about a current trend, by all means, look into it. Try comic books, try cosplay, try fanfic, try vampires or vomit-zombies or Doctor Who or Catan or bronies or anything else. See what sticks.  When you’ve found your community, when it feels like you’ve come home, you’ve taken your first step to becoming a true geek.  And if nothing sticks? Don’t worry about it, but don’t call yourself a geek either.
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