Monday, January 31, 2011

Book Review: Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse by Otsuichi, Translated by Nathan Collins

This isn't the first time that Haikasoru published Otsuichi's fiction. During their first year, perhaps the most experimental book for the publisher was ZOO, Otsuichi's short story collection. Otsuichi's writing isn't easily categorized as science fiction or fantasy, but is a better fit for horror. Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse doesn't stray from that formula, but whereas ZOO featured his short stories, this book focuses on two of Otsuichi's short novels and a short story. In a certain way, the title is misleading because the most intriguing piece for me is the second short novel, "Black Fairy Tale", but I'll get to that later in the review.

The opening story is "Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse" and it's probably best described as a thriller. Even before I started reading it, I was already deliberating on how there's more flexibility when you're reading a narrative from Japan. While there are certainly thrillers and mysteries wherein the criminal getting away with the crime, Western fiction--and its emphasis on morality--usually gives me the expectation that the perpetrator gets caught in the end. Here, it works in the story's favor that there's no set expectation. Otsuichi knows how to bait the reader by providing suspenseful moments and milking them for all they're worth. "Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse" is an entertaining read, but at the end of the day, it's formulaic; it's an enjoyable thriller, mind you, but obviously so. Which isn't to say it's not without its own saving graces, such as the characterization and the various hints by the author, but at the end of the day, it's not remarkable. Perhaps some readers will be amazed at the moral ambiguity Otsuichi straddles but for me, it's evident that the author is a puppeteer.

The second story is "Yuko" and perhaps the least memorable of the three (probably due to its length). Much like the previous piece, Otsuichi knows how to work his beats, because just as the reader thinks they've figured things out, the author throws in a new element that subverts the narrative. What makes the story work is that the reader is unsure of who they should be rooting for: is our protagonist the heroine or is there more lurking beneath the layers? Because it's a shorter narrative, the story doesn't feel repetitive and each revelation actually matters. And when it comes to the ending, Otsuichi creates a plausible explanation for everything, which is probably what will make or break the story for readers.

The last piece is "Black Fairy Tale" and I mentioned in the beginning that the title Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse was deceptive. "Black Fairy Tale" is longer than the previous stories combined, and in many ways, is more ambitious. But I can understand why Haikasoru chose "Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse" to be the titular story, whether it's marketing or having a thematically tighter piece to hold the book together.

Returning to "Black Fairy Tale," because it is a longer narrative, Otsuichi runs into the challenge of sustaining the reader's sense of suspense and interest. Thankfully, he skillfully manages to make it compelling without feeling redundant. The key to this is how he juggles chronology and point of view. When you first start out, the reader is confused (in a good way) and it's not only later on that the separate pieces start falling into place. I'm impressed at how Otsuichi leaves an impression with his recurring themes: eyes and memory. It creates a story that's not just a mystery/thriller, but evokes elements of science fiction and the fantastique. One of the protagonists, for example, is a girl who suffers from amnesia and she eventually comes to question her identity. Otsuichi tackles this through various methods and in a way that wouldn't work in a realistic novel. The story also evokes a sense of visceral disgust even when the author is not detailed with his descriptions. Various techniques employed in "Black Fairy Tale" are difficult to pull off but Otsuichi manages to successfully integrate them and utilize them to great effect. At the end of the day, it's this story that intrigues me rather than the other two.

Magazine Review: GUD Magazine #6


Disclosure: The publisher sent a review copy for the purposes of this review.

This was originally going to be "just" a review of GUD's sixth issue, but I want to get something off my chest. Some readers--and writers--might have complaints with the more popular genre magazines yet indie publications like GUD is often overlooked. As far as content goes, with every issue, GUD delivers quality fiction, poetry, and artwork/photos, a combination that's slowly becoming a rare breed. When it comes to its contributors, from gender division to cultural diversity, GUD has been quite inclusive. Which isn't to say that each issue is a home run, or that I'm qualified to critically judge poetry and art (I'm more of a prose person), but GUD is doing a lot of things right. On the business end of things, between electronic submissions and a generous eBook system (you get an additional copy to send to a friend), it's a model worth emulating.

Having said that, how does the current issue fare? Since I tend to be a short story reader, it's the fiction that remains memorable for me, even if it's three weeks since I last read the magazine. "As the Wheel Turns" by Aliette de Bodard is a fine choice for opening the publication as it's easily one of the best stories in the issue. Bodard convincingly creates her own myth, the story of a female protagonist and her never-ending clash with two opposing ideologies. The tone and the language sell the story, but it's the characterization by the author that makes me genuinely curious what happens next.

Another story that's impressive is "The Naming Braid" by Lindsey Duncan. Like Bodard, the author convinces us that this is a fairy tale due to her language and tone. Duncan however takes a different route from Bodard; the latter had a simple cast while the former employs a large ensemble. And yet Duncan manages to give each one their proper voice and personality, an Epic and Romance compressed into a short story. This is easily my favorite story in the magazine.

One of the more interesting science fiction pieces I've encountered is "What Happens in Vegas" by Caroline M. Yoachim. While there are some flaws in technique (the story feels too much like the author is explicitly explaining everything), Yoachim nonetheless conveys to the reader the shocking horror of her premise. This is shown through the lenses of her characters and if we didn't come to care for them--or more specifically, sympathize with a crucial key character--the story wouldn't work. But as it is, the division between reader knowledge and character knowledge is integral to appreciating the piece.

There's around half a dozen illustrations here, some are paintings, some photographs, and others somewhere in between. A striking photo for me is "The Smoke" by Bob Evans. The details of this close-up convey the editorial. "Thought Process" by Andy B. Clarkson leaves one with a lot to ponder, while "Generation Gap" by Arthur Wang is brilliant when it comes to the caption.

I'll admit, evaluating poetry is my least-honed skill. This issue of GUD has a diverse set, each one catering to different sensibilities. Yet after re-reading the poems, what impressed me is how narrative poetry is vastly different from the short story, whether it's the compression, the sensibilities, or what it manages to get away with its sparsity. Some have a clear agenda, such as "Crumpled Receipts" by Bryan C. Murray yet due to its form and presentation, it's palatable, entertaining, yet still drilling home its point.

At other times, it's the imagery that wins you over. "Whale on the Roof" by Rose Lemberg, at first glance, seems to include elements that you wouldn't ordinarily combine, yet the poet makes it work and flows organically. It works on multiple levels, giving the reader much to deliberate on.

My favorite poem is "Bridging" by Shweta Narayan. Aside from the very apt title, it's a poem that succeeds in utilizing and combining several techniques quite effectively. Because of its lyricism, this is one of those poems that begs to be read out loud. There is also the fusion of anachronistic elements that conjure a vast setting and cosmology, yet could also be interpreted as a metaphor for our current politics.  Whether we're reading in on a literal level or something deeper, it's enjoyable and poignant.

Overall this is a fairly balanced issue; while there are some pieces that are simply ho-hum or even flawed, there's enough gems to make GUD stand out.

Book Review: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

 

One of the novels that received a lot of buzz last year is Cherie Priest's Boneshaker and after reading the book, it's easy to see why. When you get right down to it, Priest's writing is compelling. The only time this isn't true is in the prologue, which is a sacrificial lamb of sorts. It's exposition of the setting and it's a technique used in other science fiction novels such as Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination. I'd say it's a small price to pay as when you get to the first chapter, Priest immediately ensnares you with the narrative and the characters.

There are two reasons why Boneshaker works. The overt one is Priest's characters. The author manages to strike a balance between her two protagonists: while they're proactive and strong in their own way, they're also not without vulnerabilities. The chemistry between mother and son is played up giving us tension that's emotionally driven and organic, rather than simply depending on external forces as a source of conflict. Moreover, Priest's choice to juxtapose the point of view between chapters maximizes the suspense, as well as giving us opportunities to view the setting through a different lens.

The second reason why Boneshaker works is due to the subtlety in the author's technique. Take for example the first chapter; it's mostly dialogue, or "talking heads" as I'd like to call them, but it's compelling dialogue that immediately conveys the conflict and is as riveting as any action scene. The fact that this goes on for the next few chapters is a testament to Priest's skill in writing engaging conversation.

Another element in Priest's favor is how she continually plays cat-and-mouse with the reader as she dangles an easy solution in front of her characters, only to escalate the stakes by the end of each chapter. There is also the sense of paranoia and alien-ness that she constantly reinforces. Her protagonists are strangers to the city that they are exploring and one of the recurring themes is that they can't fully trust the people that they encounter. It's a successful execution of portraying her characters as outsiders, and that there are ramifications for their ignorant actions.

Last is how Boneshaker fits in with the current zeitgeist. The most obvious is its steampunk elements but as far as the narrative is concerned, this feels natural rather than artificial. There is also the inclusion of zombies but no one in the book calls them as such (and rightly so considering the etymology of the term).

Overall, Boneshaker is a fun book in which Priest's characters come to life and become the centerpiece of the novel. Priest creates dramatic conflict, not through high stakes or epic battles, but through the genuineness of her characterization.

January 31, 2011 Links and Plugs

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Steampowered Lesbian Steampunk Stories edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft

Friday, January 28, 2011

January 28, 2011 Links and Plugs

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 Starve Better by Nick Mamatas

Thursday, January 27, 2011

January 27, 2011 Links and Plugs

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From the mail:
Tessaracts 14 edited by John Robert Colombo & Brett Alexander Savory

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Plug: Weird Tales: New Website, New Submission Portal, Pay Rate Increase

Exciting News for Weird Tales!

Let's Talk About eBooks Part 2

Part 1 here.

Loaning eBooks

The wording on license agreements with eBook readers and eBooks themselves is a bit muddled. On one extreme, you can't loan eBooks or eBook devices to others. This might irritate customers but this is a bigger concern for institutions like libraries. (Here's one interpretation for example.)

Barnes & Noble's Nook and Amazon's Kindle have book loaning book options (Nook|Kindle), one more recent than the other.

The Good: The companies thought about it.

The Bad: The solutions seem to be a step backwards. My analogy is that you have a horse that can run 30 mph. The companies, however, don't want the horse running at 30 mph so they add weights to it, so that it runs at 3 mph. My problem with the book loaning options is that instead of embracing the advantage of the electronic format (the fact that it's digital, easily copyable, etc.), it's crippling it. And remember my last post on how the eBook market revolves around the US and the UK? Here's the quote from the Kindle article linked above:
"Lending can only be initiated by U.S. customers, and recipients won't have access to certain books in certain countries."

January 25, 2011 Links and Plugs

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 Descended from Darkness: Volume II edited by Jason Sizemore

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Essay: eBook Piracy and Copyright in the Philippines

This past week, the “controversy of the week” happens to be eBook Piracy and Copyright. Troisroyaumes and Jamyee Goh have link round-ups in their corresponding websites.

I’m an author so I do want to get paid for my work, whether it’s print or electronic. However, I live in a country where right across the street, vendors are selling pirated DVDs (the fact that Blu-ray never caught on here--or have yet to--should clue you in as to the living conditions here) so to be naive about piracy is ludicrous. In an ideal world, people would compensate everyone justly but the reality is we don’t live in a fair society, nor is the distribution of wealth equitable. That’s not to justify piracy, but it’s there to shed light as to how the current practices and laws can be unfair.

Having said that, when it comes to the Philippines, I find the idea that authors are complaining about eBook piracy funny. Not because it’s irrelevant, but because there’s bigger fish to fry when it comes to infringement on copyright, at least in this country. The entire university ecosystem subsists on photocopying books and textbooks. Back when the Ferdinand Marcos was still president of the Philippines, it was legal to photocopy documents for educational/research purposes. 25 years after Marcos’s presidency, that’s still the practice today (although not necessarily legal to do so), mainly because there’s no suitable alternative. (On a side note, here’s an interesting paper on Copyright Protection for Philippine Publications.) For example, in college, I had an elective on “10 Books of the Century” which includes titles like Ulysses by James Joyce and The Stranger by Albert Camus. Because I wanted to do my readings the legal way, I tried obtaining these books. Suffice to say, I was only able to find half of them at local bookstores (and I did tour all three major bookstores at the time) and it cost me P5,000.00 (around $100.00). To give readers an idea of income in the Philippines, minimum wage here is around $8.00 a day, as opposed to an hour in America. The cost of the books I bought--which is only half that’s required by the class--is easily half a month’s wage, and that doesn’t yet include tuition (or the bigger problem that this is just one elective). Photocopying the said books is still expensive, but better than the alternative.

Over the course of blogging for the past few years, here are some assumptions I’ve encountered when it comes to books:
  • Don’t tell me to go to the library to find a book. There are virtually no public libraries here, and what scant libraries here (public or private) isn’t likely to stock the obscure book--fiction or nonfiction--that I’m interested in.
  • I can’t order books online because they require credit cards. While privileged people here do have credit cards, they don’t dole them out like they do in the US. Filipinos have to fight tooth and nail just to get credit card approval. (In my office alone, several co-workers have been rejected twice by the bank before finally obtaining a credit card.)
  • Even if I do have a credit card, ordering from a site like Amazon is costly, both in time and money. I don’t have free shipping and unless I’m ordering from Amazon Japan for example, it’ll take the good part of a month before it arrives.
  • Local bookstores are limited by their distributor (i.e. Ingram). In the event that their distributor is able to obtain the book, I’m paying a premium price on book orders, and it’s an inconvenient process. (Having said that, I do special order books from local bookstores, because the other three alternatives above aren’t feasible for me, and I don’t like piracy.)

The reason why eBook piracy is getting a lot of flak lately because, well, eBook piracy is familiar to privileged people (and let’s face it, the countries where there’s an economic infrastructure surrounding eBooks are the US and the UK; just look at how long it took Amazon to finally sell an “international” Kindle, or how long Apple started selling iPads elsewhere), unlike other forms of book piracy (not just limited to photocopying but publishing fake Harry Potter novels for example). It can also be monitored to some extent, unlike photocopying (although it’s probably fair to say genre novels aren’t prone to photocopying, especially something like A Game of Thrones, as buying the actual book is cheaper than paying to photocopy the paperback).

But if you want to talk about eBook piracy, let’s talk about it. From an author’s perspective, there was a local writing conference two years ago (apologies but my mp3 links to the recordings have expired) and one of the discussion was around the Google Settlement. One of the consensus was that we authors don’t want Google suddenly taking the rights to our works and then apologizing later (instead of asking permission in the first place) but at the end of the day, it’s the most efficient method of getting our works and our name out there. Related to this is the concept of piracy, and since a lot of authors here don’t really receive significant compensation (i.e. quit our day jobs) for our writing, Cory Doctorow’s adage of obscurity being the biggest threat to an author rings true.

There is also the practicality of fighting eBook piracy. The problem with the Internet is that once it’s out there, it’s almost impossible to take back. That’s not to say cracking down on illegal eBook distributors isn’t possible (it’s been done to a limited extent and there are dead torrent links), but between international laws (whether that of the pirate or their web host) and the difficulty in which authors enforce their own copyright (i.e. personally reporting each instance), it’s an uphill battle. There is one surefire way to make piracy work for you, and that’s the Doctorow model of giving away your work for free online as marketing  for your print book (which actually works for now but as Paul Cornell puts it in his third point, that’s betting against the future).

The problem with discussions of eBook piracy, or simply giving away your work for free, is that it doesn’t affect everyone equally. If you’re popular like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, then it’s mostly a loss to you, since you’re not really after fame but income (to say nothing of the futility of stamping out each and every pirate). To obscure writers, like say a genre writer in the Philippines, it’s probably more of a gain, since we’re not popular enough in the first place to acquire a sufficient following to earn a significant amount from our writing. My friend Lavie Tidhar laments that his books aren’t being pirated and to a certain extent, piracy is a popularity metric; if no one is pirating you, then there’s little demand for your writing.

Another problem is the misconception that eBooks are some sort of “magic bullet”. For example, in local government, at one point, there was a proposal to equip public school students with Kindles to make textbooks “cheaper”, which is ludicrous considering the cheapest Kindle costs $140.00 (yes, actual price might go down if purchased in bulk), while the average price of a textbook here (mandated by law) is around P43.00 ($1.00). $140.00 might not be a significant amount in the US, but it’s definitely equal to a month’s worth of wages, and your average public student isn’t going to be reading 140 textbooks in a school year, to say nothing of actually paying royalties for the eBooks/textbooks (which the government currently doesn’t seem to address). (While on paper this might seem like a great long-term plan for education, there’s no guarantee that students will stay in school for all of four years in high school, and you have to take into account that you’ll be buying new devices every year for each incoming batch.) That’s not to say this proposal is absolutely impossible, but at this point in time when portable eBook readers are “expensive”, it’s not cost-effective.

That’s not to say Filipinos don’t read eBooks, or that they don’t download pirated books. I suspect majority of local readers of eBooks are doing it on either a PC (perhaps a communal one) or their mobile phone. But locally, the eBook market is paltry compared to the print market, which is still the bread and butter of most bookstores and publishers.

Now the other aspect of eBook piracy is customer frustration. Now yes, there are pirates out there who pirate simply for the act of pirating (and gaining some sort of fame for themselves). But there are also a group of pirates who pirate because publishers have certain shortcomings. There are consumers who’d buy the book from the publisher if these shortcomings were addressed, but because that’s not the case, they feel they have no choice but to resort to piracy. This may sound like me regurgitating old arguments why people download illegal eBooks, but let me put a developing country perspective on it.
  1. Is the eBook available? It seems like a fundamental question but not all books are converted to eBooks (or originally published as eBooks). Consumers can’t buy what’s not being sold by the publisher. Sometimes, these are out-of-print books. At other times, these are simply books that the publisher doesn’t want to release as eBooks (for whatever reason, whether it’s because they don’t have the license to do so, or because they don’t think it helps their business). I can relate with respecting copyrights and intellectual property, but some consumers feel that they want the said eBook, and so resort to pirated copies because there’s no other alternative that’s convenient*.
  2. Is the eBook available in my preferred format? Again, seems like a fundamental question, but the problem with the current eBook climate is that there’s no standard format. I hear the Kindle format is the most popular for publishers right now, but guess what, they don’t sell Kindles at retail stores in the Philippines.
  3. Is the eBook available in my country? Do you know why eBooks aren’t taking off as quickly in countries outside the US or the UK? Because they’re not being sold there. You’d think a borderless concept such as the Internet would ignore geo-restrictions but they don’t. I’ve heard lots of complaints that “I can’t buy that eBook because it’s not being sold here,” and at that point, point #3 equates to points #1 and #2.
  4. Can I afford the eBook? Suffice to say, not all nations are equal. This is partially solved by having different prices for different regions (which is the case with some software here in the Philippines) but this problem is interlinked with #3. You can’t price eBooks relative to countries if the rights to them aren’t region-locked (I don’t think publishers are interested in pricing books based on the lowest common denominator). It might also lead to problems of waiting for a local publisher to license the said book (which might be never), or just go for a larger geographic license (i.e. you can sell the book to everyone in Asia...) to one major publisher (possible but unlikely). I honestly don’t know how to reconcile this with #3.
  5. Can I purchase the eBook? What I mean by this is whether someone is actually capable of making the purchase. For example, I don’t have a credit card, so that automatically locks me out of registering at the iTunes store since it requires a credit card (as opposed to Amazon where I can register without a credit card, but I need to own one to make a purchase). One thing I’ve noticed when it comes to various developing nations is that they have different forms of micro-transaction mechanisms: prepaid cards, paying via mobile or landline credit, etc. To limit payments to just credit cards or PayPal is ostracizing the rest of us.
  6. Is the eBook properly formatted? One thing I’ve noticed about some pirates is that they “improve” an existing product: fixing alignment and line breaks in an ePub, adding bookmarks to a PDF, etc. Technically, there would be no market for this (aside from the $0.00 price tag) if the publisher did their job right but there are pirates out there who exist because of this void. This point, I’ve noticed, is the concern of people in privileged positions who have access to the eBooks, as opposed to us in developing countries where #1 - #5 is our main concern (on that note though, don’t publish an eBook that’s unreadable due to horrible formatting).

Having said that, this isn’t a pro-piracy post (I’m also an author after all). I just want to explain the context of circumstances, especially in developing countries which I live in. I can understand authors hating piraters (the people who distribute their books online). If someone interfered with my income, I’d be angry too. There’s a gray area though when it comes to people who simply download eBooks. If they buy your book after illegally downloading it, will you hate them as well? If they donate to your site, or review your book, etc.? There’s no universal--or correct--answer here. Some authors will rage--and perhaps rightfully so--that their book got downloaded, irregardless of whether the downloader eventually bought the book. Others will take context into consideration. I just want to warn that just because your book got illegally downloaded 1,000 times does not mean you would have gotten paid 1,000 times for that work (although yes, it is theft). Some readers, when forced with the alternative, will buy your book. Others won’t. There is no definite statistic (i.e. 10% of readers, 50% of readers, etc.). The only thing you can be certain is that that number is anywhere between one and 1,000.

*Piracy, at the end of the day, is a battle of convenience. I can, for example, order a book from the local bookstore, but if it takes a month for the said book to arrive, it’s inconvenient. There are also situations where it’s impossible to order it from the local bookstore (their distributor doesn’t carry the title).

January 20, 2011 Links and Plugs

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Salon Futura #5

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January 18, 2011 Links and Plugs

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Goblin Fruit Winter 2011

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

January 12, 2011 Links and Plugs

If you can help out the folks at Australia, you can donate here.

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Agatha H and the Airship City by Phil and Kaja Foglio

Monday, January 10, 2011