book review: revenger

Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger is his latest space opera and it is not very good. I often pick up one of his books thinking, “Why haven’t I read one of these in a while?” I was 2% into this one when I remembered.

It’s all tell and no show. Reynolds has characters that are cardboard standups engaging in cliche actions that anyone who’s ever read or watched better science fiction will see coming a million leagues away. In some of his previous space operas I know there’ve been enough good bits that I could deal with the plodding language, but none of that is in Revenger.

I can’t recommend such a formulaic and blah space opera, not when there’s such good stuff happening in the field these days. The Stars are Legion is a zillion times better than this, as is Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy (though that has more of a military sf aspect).

book review: tanglewreck

I didn’t really like Jeanette Winterson’s children’s book Tanglewreck. It’s about a young girl, Silver, who has to find The Timekeeper because the world is being subjected to Time Tornadoes and other anomalies that are fraying the fabric of space-time. There are a couple of villains who want to use Silver to find it. One uses magic and one uses science.

There’s a side story of a couple of thugs searching her house (which is called Tanglewreck) that seems pointless, and there’s a veneer of quantum physics slapped on the notions of time, but they feel like very unconcerned with science interpretations. And [spoiler alert] one character escapes death in a black hole because “love is faster than the speed of light.” It seemed like such clumsy phrasing trying to reveal some great truth. In the end Silver is clever the way the story needs her to be and she’s in 11-year-old love with a boy who lives underground.

All in all a very meh book. Read A Wrinkle in Time instead.

book review: eragon

And we hit the first book for my SFF course that I really didn’t like. At all. I know Christopher Paolini wrote Eragon when he was fifteen so he can’t really be held up to real standards, but the cliched long-winded drivel that made up the novel set my teeth on edge.

The plot is about a farm-boy in a generic quasi-medieval Europe world who discovers a polished rock that turns out to be a dragon egg. He bonds with the dragon that hatches and then his family is killed and he sets out for vengeance with the old storyteller Brom, who just might be more than he appears. He learns to use magic and he has more power than anyone ever. He also becomes a master swordsman in six months of travelling. He also learns to read. There’s a lot of escaping from the evil Empire, and the book culminates in the battle for a Helm’s Deep clone that’s an undermountain city with plenty of room for his dragon to fly around in.

Characters don’t behave like people, but like fantasy novel automatons. There are some good visuals but they’re amateurish and generic. It’s impressive that a teenager wrote it, but just for the fact of sticking to a thing and finishing it, not for anything it makes you think.

I suppose it’s an okay starter fantasy book for kids. I mean, it’s probably not that much worse than the Dragonlance novels I used to read. But it wouldn’t be my first choice recommendation.

book review: about writing

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews by Samuel R. Delany is the best book about writing I’ve ever read. Bar none. If you care about the art of writing and not just “how to get published” this is the book I would recommend without reservation.

The key pieces of advice from the book are fairly pedestrian when laid out: “Don’t overwrite; don’t let your writing become thin or superficial; don’t indulge clichés,” but there’s much more. He talks about what writers should read, and about how story is just false memory, and how the best stories are economic (stories that don’t acknowledge how the protagonists are paying their rent tend to be less satisfying because how we afford things is integral to our experience of life).

Delany discusses about the formation of a literary canon, and about how science fiction, pornography and experimental writing exist as para-literature, but also gets into punctuation and the use of tenses to convey different moods and feelings. He discusses dramatic structure in a way that is incredibly simple, so simple it’s not formulaic. He talks about the poetry of language and what talent is and how it’s different from being able to use the tools of writing. He talks about how to construct a scene by observation, that that’s the writer’s real job, to observe better than everyone else and remember and write it down (which prompted this tweet from my research methods class yesterday).

There’s a lot to this book. I’ve used it already to improve a piece of fiction I’m working on and I will continue to use it since this is about as close as I’ll get to learning from the man himself.

manlibcon 2010 day 2

Tuesday was the day my workplace paid for me to attend the conference, so I wasn’t working. The keynote speaker was Gerry Meek, CEO of the Calgary Public Library system. His talk was on transformative partnerships and the beginning was filled with management-speak kinds of cliches. “We can’t just be A to B; we’ve got to be B to A,” that kind of thing. I almost panicked. Is this what all the conferences I’ll be going to in my career will be like? Bullet. Skull. Brain. But! When he started getting into the stuff that the CPL does to act out these little turns of phrase, it got really interesting.

He was talking about branding our libraries and how we can shape our communities. The branding that the CPL does would terrify our library as inappropriate. They have ads saying “Spent all your money? Come to the library.” and “Cheap and Easy.” They have partnerships with some grocery stores to advertise on their shelves with their “Everything you’re into” slogan. It was interesting. The other interesting bit was how the CPL “applauds bold failures and frowns on mediocre successes” and encourages mavericks within their system, and looks for what their staff is passionate about. That’s kind of the opposite of how our hidebound, terrified of anything bad happening administration works.

Now, I don’t know how it works in practice at the CPL. If I were to hang out with my equivalent from their system, maybe they’d denounce that as just propaganda to boost their library image that has nothing to do with how their employees experience the library. Meek did make a couple of jokes about being careful what you get your staff into, so who knows how it actually plays out. Noble sentiments though.

My next session was Beyond the Newsletter: Social Media Solutions for Library News presented by Carol Cooke, Tania Gottschalk, Mark Rabnett, a crew from the University of Manitoba Health Sciences Libraries. This was talking about how they integrated a bunch of tools so they wouldn’t have to update everything (facebook, twitter, the U of M website, flickr) individually. It was a little more technical than I expected, talking about how they hook their RSS feeds up through different services to update everything. They were big proponents of Posterous. And they talked about the importance of having a policy for the library’s official presence. I asked if they also had a policy about what individual staff members do with their personal accounts on these networks. They thought that made no sense at all. Just like me!

In the afternoon I went to a Manitoba Book Blitz, which was a dozen publishers pitching books. It was interesting enough, but not having the power to actually buy books for my workplace, not terribly useful to me. I felt bad because one publisher was doing her pitch with the author of the book she was pitching there, and she was by far the worst salesperson. Kind of cringeworthy really. He helped a bit. In general though, it was a fun session, with Charlene Diehl being a great host. She was described in the program as effervescent and I have no problem with that description.

Last session was on Designing Dazzling Displays and it didn’t really go well. There were supposed to be two presenters, Dawn Huck from a local publisher, and someone from McNally Robinson, where they do excellent displays. But the second person didn’t show up till 25 minutes in, so Huck was forced into engaging in dialogue with the attendees and she was showing us some things that she does, which was good stuff (she’s more focused on trade shows and the like). But it seemed like she was supposed to be the sidekick to the presentation and wasn’t really prepared to take this lead role. The audience was sharing their ideas and tips and tricks for library displays with all our limits and Huck was kind of just swept along with it. When the bookseller and her boxes of things showed up, she apologized for her extreme lateness, but I don’t think there was really any way she was going to win that room over.

She talked about the things she does for the bookstore and the presentation careened from very basic (arrange books in pyramids so you can see them all, which seemed sort of patronizing) to beautiful but impractical (a 5’6″ dragon built out of wood foil and papier mache for a Brisingr display). She made a chupacabra joke that might have gone over better in a younger crowd filled with geeks (I smiled), but she was talking fast, trying to make up for lost time and she wasn’t getting that bunch back. Especially not with comments about how often she gives things to her graphic designer. I wonder how it would have been if she’d been there at the beginning. It was kind of funny watching a room just be cold to a speaker. This was the only session I heard disparaging things about the next day. But she brought stuff for people to take, posters and things, and there were a few good DIY ideas for risers. I enjoyed the session and did pick up a few ideas, plus learned about why self-healing cutting mats are cool.

And then I went to work.