Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Random Thought - Four Dollars Worth of Books

This post is going to be a little bit of gloating, a little bit of an explanation, and a whole lot of love. What you see in the picture to the right is four dollars worth of books. Or at least, it is the number of books that the redhead and I recently purchased for four dollars at a library book sale.

I have written on this blog before about my love for library book sales, so it should come as no surprise that last Friday the redhead and I took a short trip to a nearby sale following up on an advertisement on the website Book Sale Finder. We knew we were going on a day when they were having a bag sale, so we brought a little cash and were prepared to spend an hour or two going through their selection and figuring out which books we already had and which ones we didn't (I have a tendency to buy books that I already own if I don't take a spreadsheet with me when I go book shopping). In my experience, one can expect to pay something on the order of five to ten dollars per bag of books, but when I walked up to the table the volunteers had set up, they were almost apologetic when they told me that they were charging one dollar per bag.

People sometimes ask me how one acquires a collection of thousands of books - the collection the redhead and I have amassed is just over eleven thousand books - and this sort of luck is a part of it. But it isn't really luck, because this sort of thing happens when one goes to book sales on a regular basis. Most of the time you show up, you buy reasonably cheap books, and you walk away having spent some reasonable amount of money for a reasonable number of books. Other times you get there and you just happen to be in the right place at the right time. I have had this happen before, when a library book sale had science fiction and fantasy paperbacks in flat fruit boxes and was selling them at a dollar a box. That time I bought everything they had and left with something like 1,200 books for around thirty-five dollars.

I wasn't quite so willing to buy out this library book sale's stock, and they didn't have that many books to begin with, but once I knew how little they cost, I became far less selective than I normally am. They had about seven flat fruit boxes of paperbacks and a smattering of hardcover. I ended up buying about half of their mass market paperbacks and a handful of their hardbacks and trade paperbacks. I am pretty certain that I unintentionally bought some duplicates of books I already have. I know that I bought duplicate copies of a few books I already owned, but in those cases the copy for sale was in better condition than the one I owned already. For example, I know I have a copy of John Varley's Ophiuchi Hotline, but my copy is beat all the hell and the cover is close to falling off. So I got a new copy that is in good condition. Similarly, my copies of Dune Messiah and Heretics of Dune are both pretty mangled. I got new copies of those as well. I bought one book twice at the sale, but that's the risk one runs in these situations. In the end, I wound up coming away from the sale with one-hundred and sixty-six books for my four dollars.

I figure that even if half of the books are unintentional duplicates (which seems reasonably likely), I'll end up coming out ahead. After all, the cost per book was in the two and a half cent range, so even if half are books I don't need that will only push the total up to something like five cents a book, and that seems like a pretty good deal to me. The most important thing about most of these books isn't that they were inexpensive. No, a lot of them are books that I probably would have bypassed on most days. Instead, I have a pile of books that I can now read and maybe find new storytellers and new stories that I might have missed otherwise. Some of the books are by authors who are unfamiliar to me, but are good enough at their craft that they have apparently managed to have several of their books published. Other books are parts of one or another extended multi-author series that I have never read. Others are books by authors that I know well, but I haven't read that particular title of theirs. And so on. The real point here is that there is a lot of new material for me to read in these boxes, and I am quite looking forward to it.

Random Thoughts     Home

Monday, July 17, 2017

Musical Monday - Amanda by Boston


Continuing with songs that are associated in my mind with specific people that I know., here is Amanda by Boston. There isn't really much to this other than the fact that I know a woman named Amanda, and whenever I see her, this song simply pops into my head unbidden. I still don't really know how common this quirk of mine where certain people are associated with songs based on their names actually is, or what it might signify, but it seems at least moderately interesting to me.

This song is actually kind of interesting, mostly because of the band that produced it and its position with respect to that band's overall oeuvre. Boston was one of the most successful bands of the 1970s, with their debut album Boston sporting numerous hits that still receive heavy airplay on "classic rock" stations, and a follow-up album Don't Look Back that was even more successful, with its own set of hit songs. Amanda, however, was on the band's third album, titled Third Stage, that wasn't released until 1986, ten years after Boston came out, at a time when Boston was more or less considered to be almost passe. And the odd thing is that Amanda became the band's most successful hit record - and as far as I can tell is the only single they recorded to ever reach number one on the Billboard Top 100. If you ask a typical music fan to list the most notable songs by Boston, they will probably reel off names like More Than a Feeling, Peace of Mind, Don't Look Back, Feelin' Satisfied, or even Rock and Roll Band, Party, or The Man I'll Never Be long before they even think of Amanda. All of those other songs have stayed in people's minds with much more tenacity than the song that was seemingly the most loved when it was released.

As a band, Boston seems to be plagued with a lot of odd misconceptions like this. I have had numerous people confidently assert to me that even though the band's debut album was a wildly successful album, they were never able to really build on that success, and every album after the first was a flop. The trouble with this narrative is that Boston's debut album topped out at number three on the album charts, while Don't Look Back and Third Stage both reached number one (although, to be fair, Boston had more staying power than either of the following two albums). Sure, the band never again had an album that sold as many as the seventeen million copies that Boston did, but calling an album that sold seven million copied (as Don't Look Back did) and another that sold four million copies (as Third Stage did) complete failures seems to be a bit harsh. It has, however, apparently taken root in the public consciousness that Boston was a one-album wonder, which seems decidedly unfair to the band, but is something that is unlikely to change.

Previous Musical Monday: Angie by The Rolling Stones

Boston     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Book Blogger Hop July 14th - July 20th: Archimedes Was Killed During the Sack of Syracuse in 212 B.C.


Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: What is your go-to drink and/or snack while reading?

I don't really know that I have a specific drink or snack that I associate with reading. Most of my reading is done basically when I am not committed to doing something else, so I spend a lot of time reading on the bus, or while waiting for something, or in between other things, or just on a Saturday afternoon because I don't have anything that keeps me from it.

I suppose my "go-to" drink for reading would be Diet Mountain Dew, but that's only because that is pretty much my go-to drink for everything. For a snack, I don't know, something on crackers maybe? I'm fond of peanut butter on crackers, and I've found a pimiento cheese brand that is flavored with bacon that makes for a good cracker spread. Maybe peanuts, because those are easy to eat with one hand.

Most of the time, however, I'm not really in a position to have a particular drink or snack when I am reading, so I'll probably just end up with whatever happens to be on hand if I'm feeling peckish.


Book Blogger Hop     Home

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Review - Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee


Short review: Tasked with putting down a heretical rebellion within the Hexarchate that has caused calendrical rot, Kel Cheris convinces her superiors to revive the insane dead General Jedao. If that sounds kind of incomprehensible to you, be warned that reading the book only makes it a little bit clearer.

Haiku
Calendrical math
Makes exotic things happen
Immortality

Full review: Ninefox Gambit is a work of military science fiction in which the science fiction is almost incomprehensible, and the military actions are only slightly less so. That said, it is a beautiful book that is not really hampered by the weirdly exotic world that it drops the reader into, and this weirdness is handled so well that by the end, it almost feels natural. Despite the alien strangeness of the setting, the story told in the book is fundamentally almost ordinary, and that manages to root the book in such a way that even with exotic calendar based math warping reality, there is enough that is familiar to hold onto that the story doesn't dissolve into impenetrability. One of the fine lines that science fiction authors have to walk is the balance between presenting a world in which technology and culture are different enough from ours that it feels at least somewhat alien, but not so different that the fictional reality has ranged so far from the familiar that it is effectively unintelligible for the reader. In Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee flirts with this line, standing right at the border where the setting would become entirely baffling, and occasionally stepping across for just a little bit, but for the most part remaining just shy of mystifying.

The central conceit of the novel is a brand of mathematics exists called "calendrical math", and by using it one can determine which collection of variables need to be controlled in order to change the way physics works, allowing for a variety of "exotic" technologies that are dependent upon this shared belief system. The government under which the various characters in the book live is the "Hexarchate" and it enforces a rigid calendrical orthodoxy of festivals, remembrances, and torture sessions to power the technologies that underpin the authority of the ruling Hexarchs. Deviations from the calendrical observances are treated as heresies and ruthlessly stamped out. Technology that does not depend upon calendrical math is called "invariant" technology, and is represented as generally being less effective than the calendrically powered "exotic" technologies - and with one notable exception none of the "invariant" technologies are ever really described. The "exotic" technologies are only described in slightly more detail than that: We get names like "Amputation Gun", and "Threshold Winnower", and "Carrion Gun", and a couple of dozen descriptions of various battle formations, but with the exception of the obvious effects some of them have, the technology is never really given any substantial definition.

Some have said that Ninefox Gambit is about calendrical math, but that does not seem to be entirely accurate. There are lots of references to calendrical math in the book, with discussions of people doing computations and the effects of maintaining or not maintaining the calendar, but there is no actual math in the book. To a certain extent this is to be expected - after all, if Lee knew how to do calculations that would reshape the laws of physics, he would be publishing ground-breaking academic papers, not writing fiction. On the other hand, when science fiction authors introduce heretofore unknown technologies into their stories, they usually try to give the reader some general idea of the parameters under which those technologies operate. Calendrical math, however, seems to have no limitation at all, which I suppose might be the point, because once you posit a particular technology that can alter the very fundamental elements of reality, all bets would seem to be off. This gives the book a pervasive sense of unreality, as the central conflict involves putting down a heretical faction that has cropped up and instituted their own calendar with an associated competing set of technologies. Since what is possible with calendrical math is never really explained, the reader really has no grounding in what is possible in this conflict, and as a result, must be content with simply gliding along as the various interested parties explain what is happening as it happens and satisfied with never really understanding exactly why.

One thing that is certain is that the political structure that makes up the Hexarchate are both instrumental to and supported by the maintenance of the orthodox calendrical arrangements. The nation is divided into six factions, each with a defined role within society. The Kel are the soldiers, and are imbued with "formation instinct", which causes them to reflexively follow orders. The Shuos are spies, assassins, and information brokers. The Nirai are mathematicians and creators of the exotic technologies that flow from the calendrical math used by the Hexarchate. The Rahal are the magistrates and judges, charged with enforcing civil order. And so on. Each faction has its place in society, and each member of a faction has a defined role to play. The incomprehensibility of the technology is almost entirely irrelevant to the book. While it is weird to read a book that is basically military science fiction in which none of the actions taken by the various forces involved make any sense because the technology they are using relied upon odd patterns of behavior and geometrical configurations that are never given any more detail than a fanciful name, the simple fact is that all of this exotic technology is just a way to explain the existence of a society that is so rigid that the deadliest heresy is allowing people to have choices.

The core story involves Captain Kel Cheris, a member of the Kel faction of the Hexarchate, whose use of unorthodox formations in response to having heretical weapons deployed against her unit has called attention to herself, leading to the Shuos Hexarch selecting her for a team to evaluate the best way to suppress a heresy that is causing calendrical rot at the heart of one of the most important regions of the Hexarchate in the key position of the Fortress of Scattered Needles. Cheris' proposal is to revive the dead and insane Shuos General Jedao and have him plan the attack that will allow the Hexarchate to retake the fortress intact and reimpose the proper calendrical order. This is a daring and dangerous idea: Daring because when he was alive, Jedao never lost a battle, and dangerous because in his final engagement he killed off the enemy and then turned on his own troops, slaughtering them to a man. The part of the plan that Cheris was not really prepared for is that to revive Jedao, he has to be attached to someone living, and that someone turns out to be her, creating what amounts to private a dialogue between the long-dead General and the living Captain (who is pretty quickly breveted to General for the operation). One might think that such an intimate relationship would engender candor, but like pretty much everyone else in the Hexarchate, Jedao plays his cards extremely close to the chest, even with someone who is literally the only person who can hear him. One problem with books in which intrigue is a major part of the plot is that the author runs the risk of withholding too much information from the reader because the characters would withhold information from one another, resulting in a story in which, from the perspective of the reader, things seem to happen almost at random. Ninefox Gambit doesn't quite sink to that level, but it comes close, and when this is combined with the almost inscrutable nature of calendrical math, the events in the book frequently seem almost haphazard.

For all of the exotic trappings, the story itself is fairly ordinary, although it does have some interesting twists: Rebels rise up against what appears to be a fairly oppressively harsh regime, forces are sent to bring the heretics to heel, various players have their own personal agendas they are trying to advance, and there are a couple of betrayals and reversals to spice things up. The heresy at the center of the story is the revival of the Liozh, a seventh faction that used to exist when the Hexarchate was the Heptarchate before they experimented with democracy and the calendar was revised to remove them. It seems notable that both the Liozh heresy and the creation of Kel formation instinct didn't take place until after Jedao had died the first time, but like all things in this book with its ever shifting reality, this is only an impression and there isn't really anything concrete to base that upon. The one somewhat unique question that seems to loom large in the background, but which is only hinted at, is whether it is possible to have anything resembling what we would recognize as a free society in a world in which calendrical mathematics exists. One can only hope this will be addressed in a future installment of the series.

Ninefox Gambit is a fascinating, confusing, and ultimately frustrating book. In it, Lee posits a strange alien society based upon a technology that is fairly off-the-wall and uses this setting to tell a story that feels oddly comfortable. While Lee never quite reaches the point where the story dissolves into complete chaos, the combination of bizarre technology, an alien society that underpins that technology, and pervasive conspiratorial machinations definitely serves to bring it to the brink of anarchy. There is a lot to love in this book, but there is also a lot that seems to simply whirl about without much rhyme or reason. This seems like a book that people either find interesting, or find absolutely intolerable. The real difficulty is figuring out which kind of person one is, and there's really no way to do that short of trying to read the book. That said, I am the sort of person who found it interesting, and as a result, I think it is definitely worth picking up.

2016 Locus Award Winner for Best First Novel: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
2018 Locus Award Winner for Best First Novel: TBD

List of Locus Award Winners for Best First Novel

2017 Clarke Award Nominees
2017 Hugo Award Finalists
2017 Locus Award Nominees
2017 Nebula Award Nominees

Yoon Ha Lee     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, July 10, 2017

Musical Monday - Angie by the Rolling Stones


As I mentioned last week, there are people who I associate with songs, mostly due to their names. Angie, by the Rolling Stones, is one song that fits in that category. I'm not going to explicitly say who this song is associated with in my brain, but it won't be all that hard for most people to figure out.

The odd thing about these associations is that they crop up without my really thinking about them, and most of the time the content of the song is irrelevant - only the use of the name triggers the association. I have no idea what this quirk might mean, but it is kind of interesting to me, because I've never met someone else who has a soundtrack like this running through their head all of the time.

Subsequent Musical Monday: Amanda by Boston

The Rolling Stones     Musical Monday     Home

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Review - Monstress, Volume One: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda


Short review: Maika gives herself over to her greatest enemy to find out about her own past. Things more or less go downhill for almost everyone from there.

Haiku
Nothing but a girl
But maybe so there's much more
A monster within

Full review: The most important thing to know about Monstress is that it is, quite simply, a beautiful book. Yes, it has an intriguing story. Yes, it has a collection of interesting characters. Yes, it has an exotic and almost ethereal setting. But the one defining feature of this book is that it is full of some of the most beautiful artwork to be found in a graphic novel. It is also a brutal and gripping story about a young woman who is more than she seems, and the harsh and unforgiving but beautiful, and at times dazzling, world that she lives in.

As the first book in a new series, Awakening is heavy on world-building and character development, and somewhat light on plot development. That isn't to say that there isn't a story here, it is just that the story is, for the most part, used to give exposition and background relating to the overarching conflict to set the stage for the story of the main characters rather than delving into the stories of the characters in the book. The basic framework is that the world is divided into two regions, one controlled by humanity and the other controlled by the mystical "arcanics" who are essentially a collection of various mystical beings, some of which look almost human, while others have wildly exotic forms. Humanity is dominated by the Cumea, a religious organization of warrior -nuns possessed of mystical powers whose mission seems to be to rid the world of arcanics, while the arcanics are divided into two ostensibly allied groups: The Dusk Court and the Dawn Court. The two sides were at war in the past, but are now settled into an uneasy, watchful peace kept mostly because the Cumea were frightened by a powerful weapon the arcanics used to end the last conflict between the races.

Complicating matters somewhat, there are a trio of other races in this world, the most prominent of which is the sneaky and inquisitive cat race, identifiable by the many tails. The cats believe themselves to be the oldest (and most important) race, although most everyone else in the story seems to think of them as dangerous nuisances who are not to be trusted. One of the interesting conceits of the story is that every so often the book steps away from the narrative for a little time in the classroom with a cat professor giving a lesson on the history of the world and its inhabitants. The other two races in the setting are the beast-like Ancients and the enigmatic and terrible Old Gods. The Ancients seem to bear more than a passing resemblance to ancient Egyptian deities, and their indulgence in human sexual partners is apparently the reason for the existence of arcanics. The Old Gods are Lovecraftian entities, inscrutable and horrific who were driven from the world in ages past, much to the relief of all of the other inhabitants of this fantasy realm.

The opening page of Monstress shows the story's protagonist, an arcanic named Maika, naked and seemingly vulnerable, about to be sold as a slave before one of the warrior-nuns of the Cumea claim her and several other arcanics for sale as "donations". This apparent helplessness is deceptive however, and serves as a metaphor for much of the book. Maika is, in actuality, the most dangerous person in the room, possessed of a secret that makes her a threat to everyone around her. This theme is replicated in several other points throughout the book - the cute and cuddly looking multi-tailed cats are actually crafty spies, wise lore masters, and deadly assassins, the Cumean warrior-nuns despise arcanics and yet depend upon them for their abilities, and so on. Time and again, what is presented on the surface is inverted when one looks below the surface, a fact that looms large when one realizes exactly what Maika's secret is, and what it might mean for both her and the rest of the world around her. One might note, however, that these are only impressions: One gets the feeling that none of the viewpoints in the book are entirely reliable, and some are clearly engaged in outright deception.

Despite being a beautifully illustrated book, Monstress is quite a dark story. The book's tone isn't quite "grimdark", but it is just shy of it. The Cumea are quite ruthless as villains, and there are several sequences that are not merely violent but are over the top in their savagery. What makes these scenes truly chilling is that they are often undertaken by the characters in an almost casual manner - highlighting the fact that for the Cumea, for example, dissecting arcanic children and harvesting their organs is simply another task in a routine day's work. But it isn't merely that the villainous Cumea are given to vicious actions and offhand betrayal of their own, but so are their opponents, raising the question of whether any of the competing factions in this fictional world are actually "good guys". To be blunt, this book pulls no punches when it comes to depicting the depravity to which people will sink if they believe that their enemies are not even people. Even Maika displays an almost shocking level of callousness at times, and of course, the dark secret she holds is deadly to those around her - a fact that she hides even from many of those well-disposed to her, with some fairly tragic consequences. This isn't a story for the faint-hearted or for those looking for some light entertainment. It is a book about a terrifying monster who behaves like a terrifying monster and is still the most admirable individual in the story.

In the end, however, everything about Monstress comes back to the artwork. The story is brutal and dark, the protagonist morally suspect, the villains horrific, and the scenario makes everything seem dire, but it is all done so beautifully that it is impossible not to be carried right into the story. The lush depictions create an atmosphere that pervades the book with an almost perfectly ghastly allure that is both enticing and repellent at the same time. All of the elements of the story are well-done, but without the feeling of desolate magnificence that results from the depicted scenes, the parts would merely add up to an average final product. The artwork, however, elevates this book well above the ordinary, filling it with an ominous sense of dread that is both frightening and delicious.

Subsequent book in the series: Monstress, Volume Two: The Blood

2017 Hugo Award Finalists

Marjorie Liu     Sana Takeda     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Book Blogger Hop July 7th - July 13th: Publius Cornelius Scipio and Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Calvus Both Died Fighting the Carthaginians in 211 B.C.


Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: In one sentence, describe your passion for reading.

"There's a myriad of worlds in there just waiting for you to go and visit them."


Book Blogger Hop     Home

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Review - The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

Essays Included
Persistence and the Long Con of Being a Successful Writer
I'll Make the Pancakes: On Opting In - and Out - of the Writing Game
What Marketing and Advertising Taught Me About the Value of Failure
Taking Responsibility for Writing Problematic Stories
Unpacking the "Real Writers Have Talent" Myth
Some Men Are More Monstrous than Others: On True Detective's Men and Monsters
Die Hard, Hetaerae, and Problematic Pin-Ups: A Rant
Wives, Warlords, and Refugees: The People Economy of Mad Max
Tea, Bodies, and Business: Remaking the Hero Archetype
A Complexity of Desires: Expectations of Sex and Sexuality in Science Fiction
What's So Scary About Strong Female Protagonists, Anyway?
In Defense of Unlikable Women
Women and Gentlemen: On Unmasking the Sobering Reality of Hyper-Masculine Characters
Gender, Family, Nookie: The Speculative Frontier
The Increasingly Poor Economics of Penning Problematic Stories
Making People Care: Storytelling in Fiction vs. Marketing
Our Dystopia: Imagining More Hopeful Futures
Where Have All the Women Gone? Reclaiming the Future of Fiction
Finding Hope in Tragedy: Why I Read Dark Fiction
Public Speaking While Fat
They'll Come for You . . . Whether You Speak Up or Not
The Horror Novel You'll Never Have to Live: Surviving Without Health Insurance
Becoming What You Hate
Let It Go: One Responding (or Not) to Online Criticism
When the Rebel Becomes Queen: Changing Broken Systems from the Inside
Terrorist or Revolutionary? Deciding Who Gets to Write History
Giving Up the Sky
What We Didn't See: Power, Protest, Story
What Living in South Africa Taught Me About Being White in America
It's About Ethics in Dating
Hijacking the Hugo Awards
Dear SFWA Writers: Let's Chat About Censorship and Bullying
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: On Empathy and the Power of Privilege
Rage Doesn't Exist in a Vacuum
Why I'm Not Afraid of the Internet
We Have Always Fought: Challenging the "Women, Cattle, and Slaves" Narrative
Full review: The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of thirty-six essays by Kameron Hurley that mostly focus on what it means to be a woman in "geek" spaces plus an introduction and an epilogue. Many of these essays have previously been published on various online outlets, but they have been compiled here in one place, which has both beneficial and detrimental effects - putting them all together serves to reinforce many of the themes that Hurley hits upon, but it also means that the fact that she reuses some anecdotes and arguments is easy to notice. A few of the essays were written especially for this collection, and those are, in large part, some of the strongest in the volume. Through all of these essays, Hurley delves into a wide array of topics related to writing, life with the internet, feminism, and modern geekishness, with a commentary that is biting, incisive, witty, and insightful.

The essays in the book are grouped into four broad categories titled "Level Up", "Geek", "Let's Get Personal", and "Revolution". Each section deals with a broad topic like "professional writing" or "being a woman and a nerd" or "how to navigate the internet as a woman", although these are not hard and fast demarcations. Not all of the essays neatly fit into one or another grouping, in part because many of the essays have overlapping topics, but also in part because some of the other essays wander down paths that are entirely unique. One minor weakness of the book is that this is a compilation of essays, many of which appeared independently of one another, so there is no real coherent unifying theme, and they don't really build on one another. Rather, each essay mostly stands on its own - and builds its arguments pretty much entirely within the confines of the essay (which leads in some cases to arguments being repeated), The end result is a moderately disjointed final product, but the somewhat scattershot nature of the contents means that the book that does manage to explore a broad spectrum of the topics that Hurley is passionate about.

The first section - "Level Up" - is the shortest, with only five essays, all about becoming a professional writer. Persistence and the Long Con of Being a Successful Writer, is fairly standard essay about what it takes to become, and remain, a successful published author, and seems almost generic in its advice. On the other hand I'll Make the Pancakes: On Opting In - and Out - of the Writing Game, details the unique, and exhausting travails faced by women working in the publishing industry, a theme that recurs in multiple essays in the volume. The most interesting essay in this section, and the one that probably draws most deeply upon Hurley's unique perspective is What Marketing and Advertising Taught Me About the Value of Failure, in which she uses her experiences working in the advertising industry to offer an interesting perspective upon how to achieve success. Both Taking Responsibility for Writing Problematic Stories and Unpacking the "Real Writers Have Talent" Myth are fairly straightforward essays on topics that have been written about by numerous other authors, but like all of the pieces in this book, these display Hurley's personal perspective and are presented with a modest amount of snark, a lot of harsh truth, and a dash of brutal honesty.

The next section is titled "Geek", but most of the essays really zoom in on what it is like to be a woman who is also a geek. This is also the longest section, with the largest number of pieces in it. Essays such as Some Men Are More Monstrous than Others: On True Detective's Men and Monsters, Die Hard, Hetaerae, and Problematic Pin-Ups: A Rant, and Wives, Warlords, and Refugees: The People Economy of Mad Max detail how fiction so often glorifies and celebrates what amounts to monstrous behavior, oftentimes smacking female fans in the face in the process. Hurley's tone through these essays is often not so much "anger" as it is "exasperation", as she notes the few times that a creator has understood the toxic messages that pervade so much fiction and run against that trend, and how these voices are so often simply ignored in favor of the lazy ans sexist version of storytelling that has become so comfortably familiar.

From there, Hurley launches into a series of essays concerning gender in fiction, and how both women and men are presented in problematic ways, starting with Tea, Bodies, and Business: Remaking the Hero Archetype and running through Gender, Family, Nookie: The Speculative Frontier. In this set of essays, Hurley recounts how she fell in love with genre fiction, but how it systemically excludes women and systemically presents men in ways that excuse or even glorify monstrous behavior. The tone in these essays generally runs from "resigned" through "enraged", and in most cases justifiably so. Hurley lays out the problematic aspects of fiction in general, and genre fiction specifically, and then proceeds to flense away all of the tired excuses and half-assed justifications that are used to prop up these problematic tropes and lays bare the sexism at their core.

The key to Hurley's criticism, however, is that she loves genre fiction, and not only wishes it were a more welcoming space for women, but actively advocates for the kind of awareness that would make genre fiction more informed and, one would hope, better. The remaining essays in this section, starting with The Increasingly Poor Economics of Penning Problematic Stories through Where Have All the Women Gone? Reclaiming the Future of Fiction mostly deal with the problems in fictional representations, and why changing these tropes would both improve the fiction itself and open them up to a broader, hitherto ignored audience. The best essay in this group is Making People Care: Storytelling in Fiction vs. Marketing, which is about exactly what the title says: How does an author (or advertiser) get people to care about something. Once again, Hurley draws upon her experience working in the advertising industry and explains how this informs her fiction writing for the better.

For the most part, the essays in this collection are better the more closely they draw upon Hurley's direct experience, and as a result, when taken as a group the essays in the section titled "Let's Get Personal" are probably the best in the volume. In an unsurprising twist, these essays all intensely personal, detailing why she likes the fiction she likes in Finding Hope in Tragedy: Why I Read Dark Fiction or describing the experience of being a larger woman on a public platform in Public Speaking While Fat, or simply reflecting upon what she gave up to achieve the success that she has achieved in Giving Up the Sky. The best essay in the entire volume is The Horror Novel You'll Never Have to Live: Surviving Without Health Insurance in which she details her own health issues and how the healthcare system in the United States failed her as it failed so many others, drove her to make decisions that she would not have otherwise made, and essentially dictated the course of her life for some years. Hurley also maintains that the ACA essentially saved her life and ensured that no one else will have to face these same sorts of issues in the future, an assertion that seems a bit premature given recent political events.

This section also contains the most problematic essay in the volume, titled Becoming What You Hate in which Hurley tackles the subject of the pseudonymous blogger Requires Hate, who also used the moniker Winterfox, but whose real name was revealed to be Benjanun Sriduangkaew. At the time Sriduankaew's alternate identity was revealed, she was an up and coming writer, and what made the revelations notable was that as Requires Hate she had become known for vitriolic reviews of fiction, and also issuing a number of rape and death threats at those she considered to be insufficiently attentive to various issues dear to her heart. In her essay on the subject, Hurley compares Sriduankaew's anonymous online persona to an alternate persona that Hurley herself had created when she was a young woman in which she posed as a male writer. By using this sort of comparison, Hurley isn't really excusing Sriduankaew's campaigns of online harassment, but she is definitely soft pedaling them, and that is something of an issue. One can see why Hurley wants to downplay Srinduankaew's vile behavior as Requires Hate, as she had discovered (and loved) Benjanun's fiction before the revelation of her dual identity was made public. One can also see Hurley's point that several prominent male authors have gotten away with similarly bad behavior. The element that is somewhat disappointing about this essay is that else where in the book - both before and after this essay - Hurley has taken a strong stance against harassment and abuse, but here she tries to elide past it when it comes to Sriduankaew using many of the same rhetorical tactics that she had stridently rejected elsewhere.

The contrast between the essay and the other pieces in the volume is highlighted in stark relief by just the other essays on similar topics within this section such as They'll Come for You . . . Whether You Speak Up or Not and Let It Go: One Responding (or Not) to Online Criticism in which Hurley speaks eloquently about the volumes of hatred and harassment that are dished out to anyone of note online, and especially the extra helping of gendered abuse served up to anyone who dares to be a vocal woman on the internet. The difference in tenor between the essay about Requires Hate and these is almost extreme enough to give a reader whiplash. To a certain extent this is not entirely unexpected - people are more complex than we often like to believe, but it is noticeable. The remaining two essays in this volume When the Rebel Becomes Queen: Changing Broken Systems from the Inside and Terrorist or Revolutionary? Deciding Who Gets to Write History speak to this point, with Terrorist or Revolutionary using Nelson Mandela to illustrate that how someone is characterized is largely determined by who is doing the characterization and when they are doing it, but also that seemingly contradictory labels can be applied to the same person and both be true.

The final set of pieces in the book is titled "Revolution", and while Hurley's feminism pervades the entire volume, it is pushed to the forefront in this section, resulting in a powerful array of essays that not only point out the events that perpetuate the inequities in genre spaces, but also come down hard on their architects. Hurley takes on some of the most notable scraps within the genre community in recent years with It's About Ethics in Dating about GamerGate, Hijacking the Hugo Awards about the Sad and Rabid Puppy "movements", and Dear SFWA Writers: Let's Chat About Censorship and Bullying about the flap over sexism in the SFWA Bulletin. In each of these cases, Hurley uses the events as concrete examples of the push back against women in geek spaces, and casts them quite effectively as an indictment of certain forces within current geek culture. Most of the remaining essays in this section move away from these sorts of geekdom-specific events to deal with similar issues in a broader context, although they are all still sprinkled with nerdy tidbits. As I noted before, the pieces that draw upon Hurley's personal experiences are the strongest, especially What Living in South Africa Taught Me About Being White in America, her account of how living in South Africa affected her view of both race relations and sexism.

The final essay in the volume is the Hugo-winning work We Have Always Fought: Challenging the "Women, Cattle, and Slaves" Narrative, and as one would expect of an award-winning work, it is a powerful piece of writing. Drawn from Hurley's experiences drafting her master's thesis while a student in Durban, the essay takes note of the fact that women made up a fifth of the forces fighting for the African National Congress against the minority-white pro-Apartheid South African government, and then proceeds to explain that this is entirely unremarkable for revolutionary movements. Hurley makes the point, in part, using a metaphor about llamas - specifically scaled cannibalistic llamas - arguing that the stories we have been told about the history of women (and for that matter, men) are not accurate. She details how women have been erased from our histories, both intentionally and through neglect, and how this has served to shape our perceptions of both the past and the present. Although not intentionally written as a summation of the major themes that she hits upon throughout the book, it does an excellent job as fulfilling that purpose and provides the perfect capstone to the collection.

People looking for easy answers, cheerful helpful hints, or friendly banter are likely to find The Geek Feminist Revolution disappointing. People looking to get an uncompromising take on the state of the geek world as seen through the lens of a woman who loves genre fiction, but is unwilling to quietly accept its glaring flaws. Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once said "well-behaved women seldom make history". Hurley is anything but a "well-behaved woman", and this collection of often brutal, frequently illuminating, and always sharply perceptive essays demonstrates that she is unruly in the very best possible way.

Note: The entire volume won the 2017 Locus Award for Best Nonfiction, Related, or Reference Work and was a Hugo finalist for Best Related Work. In addition, the essay We Have Always Fought: Challenging the "Women, Cattle, and Slaves" Narrative won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Related Work.

2013 Hugo Award Winner for Best Related Work: Writing Excuses Season Seven by Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, and Jordan Sanderson
2017 Hugo Award Winner for Best Related Work: TBD

2016 Locus Award Winner for Best Nonfiction, Related, or Reference Work: Letters to Tiptree edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce
2018 Locus Award Winner for Best Nonfiction, Related, or Reference Work: TBD

List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Related Work
List of Locus Award Winners for Best Nonfiction, Related, or Reference Work

2014 Hugo Award Finalists
2017 Hugo Award Finalists
2017 Locus Award Nominees

Kameron Hurley     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, July 3, 2017

Musical Monday - The Lees of Old Virginia by Ron Holgate, William Daniels, and Howard Da Silva


A somewhat idealized and simplified version of the history of the passage of the Declaration of Independence is told in the musical 1776. After some introductions that establish the character of John Adams and the fact that Congress has become mired in indecision, refusing to even consider the question of independence, the story proper kicks off with this scene. Benjamin Franklin convinces the charismatic but somewhat dim Richard Henry Lee to head off to Williamsburg to use his considerable influence to persuade the colony to adopt a resolution in favor of independence. Given that 1776 is a musical and Richard Henry Lee is used in the early going as comic relief, the scene is played for laughs, but it is almost certain that the reality was nothing like this - among other things Richard Henry Lee was probably not nearly as affably dopey as he is portrayed here - he was, after all, one of the most successful politicians of his era. It is, however, true that Lee, at the direction of the Virginia legislature, did propose a resolution on independence.

The song uses a play on Lee's name for much of its humor, and this aspect leads me to my next point: I associate songs with particular people and places. I live in a town named after Lee's family, and whenever anyone says the name of the town, I always think of this song. There are people that I know that I cannot see or talk to without hearing a particular song playing in the back of my head. I don't know if this is a common phenomenon or if this quirk is particular only to me, but it does create an interesting soundtrack in my head.

Subsequent Musical Monday: Angie by The Rolling Stones

William Daniels     Howard Da Silva     Ron Holgate     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Book Blogger Hop June 30th - July 6th: 210 Is the Sum of Eight Consecutive Prime Numbers


Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Name a book that changed your life.

The easy answer would be something like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, both which I read when I was eleven, and pretty much launched my love of fantasy and science fiction to a new level. But while those books have been important in my life, I don't really think they changed it on a fundamental level.

I'd have to say that the books that most changed my life are the books that I read in law school. These books include Bruno Leoni's Freedom and the Law, Richard Posner's Problems of Jurisprudence, Robert Ellickson's Order without Law, Harold Berman's Law and Revolution, and even Richard Epstein's Bargaining with the State. These books fundamentally shaped the way I think about the law and how government works. I didn't agree with everything in these books, and in many cases, I completely reject the conclusions reached by the author, but they do inform how I think about the nature of the rules that govern society. Everything about my professional career has been shaped by these books and the other books in this field that I have read.


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