Posts tagged with "review" - Faerye Net 2013-05-27T19:37:06+00:00 Felicity Shoulders Bring Up the Bodies 2013-05-27T19:37:06+00:00 2013-06-03T03:55:34+00:00 <p>I am off series books. It&#8217;s been so for a time: my &#8216;to-read&#8217; list on Goodreads is a shocking 260 books long, and might be longer if I hadn&#8217;t preserved it by the expedient of a &#8216;to-maybe-read&#8217; list. Series addiction would send the thing spiralling out of control.</p> <p>But here I am, finishing <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9781250024176'>Book Two</a> and <em>chafing</em> for the next. How did I get here? (Besides the exemption in my series fear for audiobooks, that is!) I have a sneaking fondness for <a href="" target="links">Booker winners</a>, so I was curious about Hilary Mantel&#8217;s <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780312429980'><em>Wolf Hall</em></a> already. The only thing I knew about it other than its Bookerness was that it and its sequel, <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9781250024176'><em>Bring Up the Bodies</em></a>, were about the reign of Henry <span class="caps">VIII</span>.</p> <p>Now, I was rather interested in the history of the Tudors as a child, due largely to feminist-schoolgirl awe of Queen Elizabeth, but also due to morbid-schoolgirl fascination with messy history. I didn&#8217;t even realize at the time what messy history Henry <span class="caps">VIII</span> was following! Now, Henry&#8217;s story, his desperate quest for a legitimate male heir, seems to me haunted and beset by that of Edward IV, whose legally flawed marriage(s) created such a succession crisis. (See Josephine Tey&#8217;s <em><a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780684803869'>The Daughter of Time</a></em> if you need convincing that Edward IV&#8217;s overactive tendency to put a ring on it, not any evil of Richard III&#8217;s, overthrew his little son.) Anyway, I had a very shallow sort of knowledge of Henry VIII&#8217;s reign, just enough to school my family in &#8220;Divorced, Beheaded, Died&#8230;&#8221; and explain which queen was which when we visited England when I was 13. In college I learned a bit more by taking a class on Medieval and Tudor History of England.</p> <p>I never went in for the recent fad on Tudors, however. There&#8217;ve been some very successful book series and movie adaptations as well as the <span class="caps">HBO</span> &#8220;Tudors&#8221;, but I couldn&#8217;t summon much interest. Elizabeth, after all, is appealing to me &#8212; complicated, cagy, iconoclastic and independent. Henry <span class="caps">VIII</span>? Choleric, wife-killing Henry? Just a stage-setter, an interesting little soap opera backstory for my heroine. So it&#8217;s possible I came at <em>Wolf Hall</em> with precisely the right degree of ignorance and knowledge: broad background in the Wars of the Roses and the Reformation, enough knowledge of the course of Henry&#8217;s marriages to appreciate foreshadowing and see the other shoe about to drop, but enough ignorance to be constantly surprised.</p> <p>Mantel has chosen her hero so well: Thomas Cromwell, a low-born but brilliant man who rose to stand at Henry&#8217;s right hand. I haven&#8217;t read up on what&#8217;s known of his life yet (that might mean <span class="caps">SPOILERS</span>!) but he is a wonderful character for a smart, thoughtful novel (or two, or please soon, three!) on Henry VIII&#8217;s struggle for an heir. He&#8217;s an outsider but not: born in England but educated all over Europe. This allows him to see Tudor English customs as non-transparent, to show them to us and remark on them, without losing any credibility as a character truly of his age. He isn&#8217;t blindered and constrained to the life of the court, so this isn&#8217;t the familiar, gossipy soap-opera version of Henry VIII&#8217;s court intrigues.</p> <p>Thomas&#8217;s life story is interesting, and his upwards social trajectory is appealing to a modern reader who is unlikely to believe in the divine right to rule or the intrinsic superiority of noble blood. His background in Europe and his interest in the Tyndale Gospel and the reformation of the Church make Thomas a big-picture thinker. And somehow, despite my semester of Medieval and Tudor history, this big picture is one that hadn&#8217;t really sunk in. Henry&#8217;s desperate need for an heir (and obligatory assumption that the fault was in his women, <a href="" target="links">not in him</a>) was not only a catalyst but an <em>opportunity</em> for many. Henry&#8217;s easily mocked desire to cast off his first/brother&#8217;s wife constituted a huge challenge to papal authority at a time when many were already chafing to throw off Rome&#8217;s yoke. Thomas Cromwell, early (and secret) Protestant, smuggler of banned texts, reader of the Gospel in English, is the perfect character to lead us through this foment. This is not just about Henry&#8217;s heir or Henry&#8217;s bed: this is the end of the Medieval. This is the cusp of a new world.</p> <p>Mantel writes beautifully but often simply. Her style here, third person present and relentlessly Cromwell-focused (until the second book, she routinely uses &#8216;he&#8217; to refer to Cromwell whether or not there has been another masculine antecedent, which can be a trifle confusing,) serves the story well, lending immediacy to these centuries-old events. The narrative inhabits Cromwell so thoroughly that his asides, his incidental associations, become part of the fabric. His memories, images or words, bob back up in my consciousness a week after finishing the book, as they bob back up throughout the first and second book. I can&#8217;t wait to hear his voice again in the third.</p> <p>Also, how sinister and wonderful is the <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9781250024176'>second book</a>&#8217;s title? Bring up the bodies, bring up the bodies, bring up the bodies&#8230;</p> My favorite reads of 2010 2010-12-13T22:33:10+00:00 2010-12-15T09:41:20+00:00 <p>As usual, I read very few <em>recent</em> books last year. (In fact, one of my favorite reads was the <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9781570623950'><em>Tao Te Ching</em></a>, so that shows you how far back I sometimes reach for reading material.) So here, regardless of original release date, are a few more of my favorite reads of the year, along with excerpts from my reviews:</p> <p><em><a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9781400095209'>Half of a Yellow Sun</a></em> by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: A sweeping novel set before and during the Nigerian-Biafran war of 1967-1970. <a href="" target="links">&#8220;Each of the point-of-view characters, who differ in age, race, gender and class, traces a believable and human arc&#8230;.Adichie tells a complex and disturbing story with a large, vivid cast, and draws it to an ending that feels true. A remarkable book.&#8221;</a></p> <p><em><a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9781569471425'>Breath Eyes Memory</a></em> by Edwidge Danticat: <a href="" target="links">&#8220;This book started out as a quiet little story, and ended up thundering so loud I had to fall to my knees. It has similar extremes of gentleness and brutality, sometimes intermixed in a way that is so, so human.&#8221;</a></p> <p><a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9781594489259'><em>The Ghost Map: The Story of London&#8217;s Most Terrifying Epidemic</em></a> by Steven Johnson: Perhaps my most timely read. I took it off the &#8216;to-read&#8217; list because it was the Multnomah County Library&#8217;s &#8220;Everybody Reads&#8221; book &#8212; for once, I was a joiner and I liked it! <a href="" target="links">&#8220;A fascinating nonfiction book about cholera, Victorian London, epidemiology, scientific breakthroughs, social patterns, and more. As that suggests, this book ranges quite a bit in topic and scope, but the transitions are excellently accomplished, so that the reader&#8217;s mind happily follows the author from bacteria to waste removal systems and back again, forging unexpected connections and learning as it goes.&#8221;</a></p> <p><em><a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780547394602'>The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America</a></em> by Timothy Egan: Seeing him speak at Wordstock made me finally heed my family&#8217;s call for me to read this book. <a href="" target="links">&#8220;Come for the amazing stories of survival and inferno, stay for the perspective on the history of the American West, the Forest Service and conservationism!&#8221;</a></p> <p>None of the books I read this year <a href="" target="links">bowled me over</a> sufficiently to join my list of all-time favorites, but these were solid, finely crafted books I enjoyed reading. I hope I read even more next year &#8212; I have such a stack to enjoy!</p> Mass Effect 2: Scorecard 2010-12-11T17:14:30+00:00 2010-12-11T17:14:55+00:00 <p>In my fine tradition of <a href="" target="links">playing games long after they come out</a>, I finally played through <em>Mass Effect Two</em> a few weeks ago. As that link I just threw attests, I loved <em>Mass Effect</em> with the force of several exploding suns. That&#8217;s right, <strong>several</strong>. I&#8217;d be embarrassed to find out, let alone disclose, how much time I&#8217;ve spent playing that game. And that was despite its flaws: the annoying vehicle and exploration issues, repetitive planetside encounters, inventory of doom, et c.</p> <p>In the <a href="" target="links">first post here</a> I went over why <em>Mass Effect</em> is so incredibly awesome. In <a href="" target="links">another post</a> I outlined my hopes, as a storyholic player, for the sequel.</p> <p>I didn&#8217;t focus too much on the gameplay quibbles for <em>ME1</em>, and that means I won&#8217;t focus too much on the way they fixed most of that stuff right up. They did fix the interminable off-roading over nearly undriveable terrain in order to do very repetitive planet missions; they did streamline inventory and equipment management. In general, they made the game much less granular. In some cases, like inventory, this delights, while in others it perturbs (the new, less driveable vehicle has no visual indication of its damage level or shield level. &#8220;Volume of klaxon&#8221; is not a system I embrace) and in others it&#8217;s likely to be a matter of opinion (fewer skills is simpler, but it does reduce the breadth of tactical options.)</p> <p>That sort of game crunch aside, I&#8217;d like to assess how they did on my four suggestions (and suggested titles!) from that long-ago post. <!--and then vent the long list of comments which I mostly refrained from unleashing on Twitter, both out of pity and out of late-adopter self-consciousness.--></p> <p>My requests:<br /> <strong>1. Plot-fanciers like to change the world.</strong><br /> <strong>2. We like our interactions to affect character actions.</strong><br /> <strong>3. Use your backstory to more effect.</strong><br /> <strong>4. Animate some object interaction.</strong></p> <p>Did they implement them?<br /> 1. Oh, heavens, yes. It would have to have been a shallow universe not to notice all the stuff my Shepard did last time, and this is not a shallow universe. There were at least whispers or news reports about all my doings &#8212; heck, even my non-doings were noted (I couldn&#8217;t get the <em>Bring Down the Sky</em> expansion to work, so apparently the sky was brought down.) They are making the world even more rich and multifarious, which just makes you hungry for <em>Mass Effect 3</em>. Huzzah for consequences!</p> <p>2. They made the squad member rapprochement I used as an example before into a game mechanic, so I guess so! The relationships Shepard had with her ME1 squaddies did create lots of fun results in this game. I mean, I don&#8217;t know how it would have been different if I&#8217;d played through with a more Renegade Shepard in ME1, but the interactions with former squaddies mostly seemed rich. Mostly.</p> <p>3. See #2. They&#8217;ve made the squad members&#8217; histories a big part of the game. As for the history of the universe, well, I think that ties in pretty well, too. If I see one more &#8220;a civilization used to live here but they are <span class="caps">ALL</span> <span class="caps">WIPED</span> <span class="caps">OUT</span>&#8221; planet description, I may cry. As for the big moral questions like the Genophage &#8212; they are plumbing the depths of those issues.</p> <p>4. Yes, they animated some object interaction. Not always well &#8212; while Shepard was wondering where in this large universe the Powers that Be had hidden her boyfriend, she took a few of the proffered drinks, and let me tell you, that animation is hilariously bad &#8212; but they did it. The world seems more endowed with useful objects: not just those you can actually interact with, but those the NPCs interacted with before they were (hey, it&#8217;s <em>Mass Effect</em>) slaughtered. Space coffee machines! Space TVs! Heck, we now have our very own space toilets. Men&#8217;s, Women&#8217;s, and Shepard-only. It&#8217;s the little things, you know?</p> <p>My titles from the previous post:<br /> <strong>Mass Effect 2: Now with 20% More Seth Green<br /> Mass Effect 2: Kill More Things, Take More Stuff<br /> Mass Effect 2: James Bond vs. Spectres<br /> Mass Effect 2: Commander Effing Shepard Beats Up Everyone<br /> Mass Effect 2: The Search for Liara’s Daddy</strong></p> <p>They fulfilled several of these &#8212; I think that was more than 120% the previous Seth Green levels. Joker forever! &#8212; and hinted at several of the others. (Okay, black tie garb does not a Bond make, but I said &#8216;hinted&#8217;.)</p> <p>In general, <em>Mass Effect 2</em> has done a fabulous job of continuing the narrative and deepening the universe of the first one while excising some of the things even die-hard Shepards like myself found incredibly annoying. Combat is smoother: taking cover works more intuitively and consistently, and my squaddies don&#8217;t run around with &#8220;press A to talk&#8221; on them, messing up my targeting. I love some of the new mechanics: the opportunity to do Paragon or Renegade actions as interrupts gets you very engaged during interstitial scenes. The new upgrade system is more sweeping, less fiddly. The game throws some amazing twists your way. There&#8217;s a lot of stuff here I wasn&#8217;t expecting. And there are a lot of fun in-jokes and touches for geeks like me, up to and including the stirring song &#8220;I am the very model of a scientist-salarian.&#8221;</p> <p>This game still knows how to throw out geek references without sounding like they&#8217;re slavishly copying the latest hip thing. Example: <em>Starcraft II</em>&#8217;s attempt at <em>Firefly</em> fan-service was to make a previously non-cowboy character into one, with horrible accent, and ape its soundtrack instrumentation. <em>Mass Effect II</em> does stuff like name a colony &#8220;New Canton&#8221;. Subtlety, people. Subtlety and remixing creativity allows you to have a race in your game that lives in a nomadic fleet after losing their homeworld to an AI race they themselves created, and not have it seem a cheap <em><span class="caps">BSG</span></em> ripoff.</p> <p>The game is not perfect (but then again, what is?) Some of the loss of tactical crunch was regrettable, especially the winnowing of biotic powers that move the adversaries around. As I said, while I appreciate not having to drive over endless mountainous terrain, I don&#8217;t like the new vehicle at all. As is unavoidable in these games, a few important character choices are made for you, which feels unfair when other characters cast those choices up to you. I already wrote about the way the new breadth of potential romances makes you feel <a href="" target="links">harried and beset, and I suggested a social networking solution</a>. This game felt a little shorter than the first, which means it felt a little less replayable &#8212; but we&#8217;ll see.</p> <p>They even improved on some of the things they already did well: I think the soundtrack was better, and the voice acting is even more fabulous (it was already the best I&#8217;ve heard in any game save perhaps <em>Uncharted</em> &#8212; perhaps they used more multiple-actor recording sessions this time?). The cosmetic customizability of the armor adds a layer to the character-customization process they carried over. Changing the Captain&#8217;s Cabin from a useless room to a retreat that holds a few useful interfaces and accumulates souvenirs was inspired.</p> <p>In general, this <em>Mass Effect</em> amply fulfilled the promise of the first: grand, epic space opera with lots of opportunity to affect and shake the world. Complicated politics, characters you can care about, fabulous performances. There were things I really wanted to do, faces I really wanted to punch, that I couldn&#8217;t &#8212; I&#8217;m assuming those will be forthcoming. I cannot wait for <em>Mass Effect 3</em>, and I&#8217;m already a little sad that that will be the last installment. I want to save this universe again and again.</p> <p>P.S. Alenko spoiler: <font color="white">Saving humanity had better count as &#8220;things settling down,&#8221; Bioware. Shepard wants her boyfriend back.</font></p> Inception 2010-08-03T15:22:23+00:00 2010-08-06T10:26:10+00:00 <p>So, since I started using <a href="" target="links">The Twitter</a>, I haven&#8217;t posted a lot of extremely short bloggets. That&#8217;s why I haven&#8217;t blogged about <em>Inception</em>: I didn&#8217;t really have anything more to say than I put in <a href="" target="links">this tweet</a>:<br /> <blockquote>Apart from bits of expo-rich clunky dialogue (&amp; mild Zimmer) Inception was <span class="caps">FANTASTIC</span>. Best movie I&#8217;ve seen in a while. Don&#8217;t read, just go!</blockquote></p> <p>I didn&#8217;t want to give you spoilers. Or information of any sort. I went in totally without knowledge (I knew it was sci-fi, who directed and who starred. That was it.) and that felt perfect.</p> <p>But I felt like it was worth reiterating in a shockingly content-free way for my blog readers who may not be on Twitter: <em>Inception</em>. Very good. So good I wondered while still in the foyer of the theatre whether there should be a cooling-off period or I should just add it to my list of favorite movies right away. So good <a href="" target="links">Kyle</a> and I spent 13 loooong pages of instant messages discussing and praising it the other day. So good I don&#8217;t really care too much that Hans Zimmer did the soundtrack (on first watching. It may really bother me on second watching, we&#8217;ll see.)</p> <p>So please, do as I say: read nothing about the plot or premise, just go see the movie. If you like that sort of thing. And by that sort of thing, I mean Christopher Nolan, science fiction, or movies that are awesome.</p> Favorite Two Books of 2009 2010-02-08T12:44:57+00:00 2010-02-08T12:50:17+00:00 <p>I&#8217;m not a terribly decisive person, as anyone who can remember movie reviews here, which used a scale from 1-10 <em>in half increments</em> can attest. Thus it should surprise no one that I had a tie for &#8220;favorite book&#8221; of 2008, between <a href="" target="links"><em>The Blind Assassin</em></a> by Margaret Atwood and Virginia Woolf&#8217;s <a href='' title='Mrs. Dalloway at' rel='powells-9780156628709'><em>Mrs. Dalloway</em></a>. I rather like the two-spot system. It allows me to be indecisive, and after all, rating books is so vicious. Reviewing them is hard enough &#8212; rather like trying to capture the taste of a fine coffee in words &#8212; but rating them is so final and arbitrary. Choosing two is perhaps no less arbitrary than choosing one, but it seems more friendly. And, in theory, two favorites allows me to have variety in my choices (although 2008&#8217;s two lushly penned literary novels about characters&#8217; hidden internal lives may not prove that point.)</p> <p>You may wonder why I am posting 2009&#8217;s favorite books in February. But since, as I <a href="" target="links">posted yesterday</a>, I don&#8217;t read in a timely fashion, my posting habits should shock no one.</p> <p>Last year, my two favorites were:</p> <p><a href='' rel='powells-9780007149827'><img src='' style='border: 1px solid #4C290D;' title='More info about this book at (new window)' align="left" hspace="20"></a> <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780007149827'><em><strong>The Yiddish Policemen&#8217;s Union</strong></em></a> by Michael Chabon.<br /> This is the first thing I&#8217;ve read by Michael Chabon, tho&#8217; several of his works are on the list. One of the things I loved about this book is how it started small, acquainting me with the details of the alternate-history setting, and reveling in the synergy of hard-boiled style with Yiddish words and fatalistic humor. Then it opened out, and out, and out.</p> <p>It works as a murder mystery, and an alternate history. It&#8217;s well-paced, beautifully built, and has an ample helping of intrigue and danger. But by the end the stakes are higher, and the meaning greater, than I ever would have guessed from the simple joys of the first few chapters. It had me weeping. The characters, even archetypical Detective Landsman, are vivid and likeable. The writing is witty, if occasionally over the top. It&#8217;s just a splendid, unique story.</p> <p><a href='' rel='powells-9780316005401'><img src='' style='border: 1px solid #4C290D;' title='More info about this book at (new window)' hspace="20" align="right" ></a> <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780316005401'><em><strong>The Player of Games</strong></em></a> by Iain M. Banks.<br /> This is the second book I&#8217;d read by Iain M. Banks (now I&#8217;ve read three) and it really cemented his place in my esteem. It&#8217;s a smart, almost virtuosic science fiction novel set in his Culture universe. It&#8217;s about societies, the power of culture and language, and yes, games. The writing is very precise, the characters believable even when they are unpleasant. The settings are imaginative &#8212; in one case, both giving me my first suspicion that Iain M. Banks is a fellow geology geek, and one of the strongest attacks of <a href="" target="links"><em>sensawunda</em></a> I can readily recall. (Banks&#8217;s work is fairly sensawunda-intensive, I&#8217;d say.) Most of all, it is, as I said, smart. The plot, themes and subtext are all honed and working together. It&#8217;s as impressive as it is enjoyable.</p> <p>I was actually rather shocked to realize this book was written in 1988. I didn&#8217;t notice anything that dated it at all. I&#8217;m pretty sure this book &#8212; its layers of meaning and insight, its intricate plot, the mindblowing settings and sense of scale and space &#8212; will stick with me for years to come. Thank you to Michael for recommending it to me and <a href="" target="links">Ryan</a>, and to Ryan for buying it and leaving it within easy reach.</p> <p><em>Postscript: Man, look at those covers. Different, striking, communicative. I especially love the Banks cover.</em></p> Top Ten Reasons You Should Be Watching "Life" 2009-03-26T22:23:49+00:00 2009-03-26T22:25:01+00:00 <p>A while back, I started watching <a href="" target="links"><em>Life</em></a>. There were two reasons for this. One is that all the episodes that then existed were free online at <a href="" target="links">Hulu</a>. The other reason is Damian Lewis, who played Winters in <em>Band of Brothers</em>, and, along with Ron Livingston, made me feel very conflicted. Is it wrong to crush on actors when they&#8217;re playing real people who are as old as my grandpa and portraying important historical events? Oh, the conflict.</p> <p>At any rate, I was hooked on <em>Life</em> immediately, but didn&#8217;t spread the news. I think I was obscurely ashamed of the show, mostly because it is weird. It&#8217;s a good weird, though. A very deliberate weird. So, I&#8217;m letting the world know: if you&#8217;re not watching <em>Life</em>, you should be.</p> <p><strong>Top Ten Reasons You Should Be Watching <em>Life</em></strong>:</p> <p><strong>10. It&#8217;s not like every other cop show.</strong> Since the premise (cop Charlie Crews gets sentenced to life for triple murder he didn&#8217;t commit, then gets exonerated and insists on being a cop again as part of his settlement) is a little far-fetched, so is everything else. The murders, suspects and situations are zany, often surreal. It&#8217;s not a cop show that could be set anywhere but LA. It&#8217;s not a cop show you could confuse with any old procedural on the air.</p> <p><strong>9. Crews&#8217;s silly amounts of money.</strong> And the silly things the show does with it, like the musical chairs with Charlie&#8217;s car.</p> <p><strong>8. Cinematography.</strong> Ryan can tell you more about this, but it&#8217;s not shot like any old show, either. Nice light, interesting angles.</p> <p><strong>7. No goddamn inter-partner sexual tension.</strong> Yes, Damian Lewis and Sarah Shahi are both hot. Yes, the viewing public will probably enjoy that. No, the writers are not using it to create constant, stupid sexual tension like every show for the last twenty-plus years of television. Hallelujah!</p> <p><strong>6. Surprises.</strong> They&#8217;re not shaking up the formula every week or pulling a Joss every season, but there are enough people getting shot or starting relationships that you didn&#8217;t expect that you stay on your toes.</p> <p><strong>5. The music.</strong> Ryan says the <span class="caps">DVD</span> doesn&#8217;t have the same music as the aired episodes (I believe Hulu does) but it tends to be unusual, good, and add to the episodes in an intelligent, fun way.</p> <p><strong>4. The supporting characters.</strong> Often mystery shows that have to present a new cast of suspects and victims every week fall into shorthand, but this show doesn&#8217;t rely on that. They depict different parts of a very diverse LA every week, and the characters are idiosyncratic, varied, human. Some of the recurring characters are played by great actors like Adam Arkin and (Saffron/Yolanda/Bridget) Christina Hendricks.</p> <p><strong>3. Sarah Shahi.</strong> Danni Reese could have been a simple straight-man cop character, but Shahi does a fabulous job of depicting her with layers and edges.</p> <p><strong>2. The writing.</strong> There&#8217;s the cop banter over the weird cases, Charlie&#8217;s ongoing attempts to view his odd life through Zen, his off-kilter questions to suspects, and his unquenchable passion for fruit. It&#8217;s unexpected without trying too hard. It&#8217;s droll without being dumb.</p> <p><strong>1. Damian Lewis.</strong> He&#8217;s a fabulous actor. I mean, I like Hugh Laurie as much as the next Wodehouse addict, but Damian Lewis&#8217;s American accent is the best I can recall hearing from a Brit. And his delivery of all the great lines in #2? Pitch-perfect straight-faced hilarity. His character is complex and winning.</p> <p>Of course the show has its weak points. Everything does. I am not 100% convinced they had cemented the entire backstory/conspiracy before they started writing it, and there are some conceits and characters in Season 1 they ditched by Season 2. But it&#8217;s a good show, only getting better. Go watch <em>Life</em>.</p> The Blind Assassin 2008-09-26T22:10:10+00:00 2008-09-26T22:43:37+00:00 <p>I haven&#8217;t made a habit of reposting my book reviews from <a href="" target="links">book cataloging websites</a> here (I now review everything I read for the first time.) However, I just finished reading <a href="" target="links"><em>The Blind Assassin</em></a> by Margaret Atwood. Now, I have read another book this good recently: I perused <em>Mrs. Dalloway</em> this Spring. However, I had been prepared for <em>Mrs. Dalloway</em> &mdash; everyone told me how fabulous that was. Everyone told me <em>The Blind Assassin</em> was good, but it blew me away.</p> <p>So, here is my review, also posted on <a href="" target="links">LibraryThing</a> and <a href="" target="links">Goodreads</a>.</p> <blockquote>I&#8217;ve already been an Atwood admirer for a few years, but <em>The Blind Assassin</em> is too gorgeous to merely <em>admire</em>. I love it. Where it isn&#8217;t exquisite, it&#8217;s precise. It moves expertly between the dry, the brutally truthful, and the passionate, and brings the keenness of the author&#8217;s eye to them all. Atwood describes both the elusive and the everyday with a transforming grace.<br /> <br /> All that is merely on the level of prose, of paragraph. Her narrator is human, complex, and honest. The other characters are interesting, Laura chiefly so, of course, and I appreciate the way Iris acknowledges and interrogates her own inability to do others&#8217; characters justice. I particularly appreciated the way that Atwood drew us into the book with the mystery of Laura, and then gradually made us (well, me, at any rate) fonder and fonder of Iris. A beautiful literary bait and switch.<br /> <br /> All this and a compelling plot. Really, if I try to think of something wrong with this book, the first thing that swims to mind is that it&#8217;s more than a little intimidating to a young author. My consolation is that she was 61 when it was published. I still have some years to practice.</blockquote> <p>Here are some quotes from the book:<br /> <blockquote>She stubs out her cigarette in the brown glass ashtray, then settles herself against him, ear to his chest. She likes to hear his voice this way, as if it begins not in his throat but in his body, like a hum or a growl, or like a voice speaking from deep underground. Like the blood moving through her own heart: a word, a word, a word.</blockquote></p> <blockquote>Was this a betrayal, or was it an act of courage? Perhaps both. Neither one involves forethought: such things take place in an instant, in an eyeblink. This can only be because they have been rehearsed by us already, over and over, in silence and darkness; in such silence, such darkness, that we are ignorant of them ourselves. Blind but sure-footed, we step forward as if into a remembered dance.</blockquote> <blockquote>You want the truth, of course. You want me to put two and two together. But two and two doesn&#8217;t necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind. The living bird is not its labelled bones.</blockquote> I love Mass Effect 2008-09-11T10:54:58+00:00 2008-09-12T10:22:02+00:00 <p>I have been playing <a href="" target="links"><em>Mass Effect</em></a>. Yeah, yeah, it came out last November and I didn&#8217;t play it &#8216;til August. I&#8217;ve never claimed to be hip or with it.</p> <p>I don&#8217;t really go in for Computer RPGs in a big way. I enjoy the occasional <span class="caps">CRPG</span> (last one I recall was <em>Neverwinter Nights</em> &mdash; like <em>Mass Effect</em>, by Bioware), but in general I find them too scripted, too limited, and, well, fundamentally based on aesthetics I don&#8217;t enjoy. <em>Mass Effect</em>, on the other hand, is based on an aesthetic I grew up in, one I can wallow in with great pleasure: <span class="caps">SPACE</span> <span class="caps">OPERA</span>. Yes, my friends, <strong>I have saved the universe.</strong> And I enjoyed it, too.</p> <p>One of the most fabulous things about <em>Mass Effect</em> is&#8230;well, there are a lot of ways to finish that sentence, but I started it intending to talk about gender. While the default hero, featured on the cover and demo cut-scenes in all his stubbly glory, is Commander John Shepard, the player can also play pre-made Jane Shepard, or make a Shepard from scratch. Since all the in-game chatter refers to the protagonist as &#8220;Commander&#8221; or &#8220;Shepard&#8221;, you can put whatever first name you like in there, and the face-generating interface gives far more freedom than I&#8217;ve ever seen in a game. You&#8217;re stuck with the body of John/Jane Shepard, and there&#8217;s only one voice track for each, but you can run a pretty full gamut of human appearance. (I don&#8217;t recommend trying to make Shepard look like someone in particular though. I tried to make myself for fun and found that my top lip to bottom lip ratio is not an option and, for that matter, that my mouth appears to be narrower than the preset minimum. Sheesh!)</p> <p>Other customizations exist too &#8212; relatively minor, but it&#8217;s nice that your character gets to have a past, and you have some input into what that past is. Namely, you get to choose from three childhoods and three career moments as well as choosing your character class (from the fundamental mix of fighting, tk and tech spheres that the game uses.) Hell, if you&#8217;re female, you can choose whether your character is straight or gay. Sort of. In play. Let&#8217;s not get too far into the political implications or economic advantages of Johns being assumed straight and Janes bicurious, or other associated baggage, shall we? I&#8217;m doing my geekthusiasm thing right now.</p> <p>Moving on to plot and gameplay: the plot is suitably epic, with a few small twists. The plot really inhabits the gameworld, which is fabulous. Some questions about the setting are actually answered by the plot. In addition (and this is why plot and gameplay get one paragraph) the plot pieces are more or less nonlinear, part of the free-play part of the game. You can sit down and decide, &#8220;Hey, I feel like tackling more of the main storyline,&#8221; and zoom your ship over to one of the plot planets, or you can decide to kill things and take their stuff (mostly side-quest style) by exploring the rest of the planets. I like that freedom in time and space when I am playing a game. Conversations are handled by a <a href="" target="links">now famous</a> interface that allows you to choose the drift of Shepard&#8217;s response. Combat is real-time shooter (well, third person shooter) but allows you to pause to use abilities, command your squaddies to use abilities, and even look around/aim carefully. And last but not least, for getting around on forbidding planets, there&#8217;s an <span class="caps">ATV</span> (despite its armaments, I think &#8216;tank&#8217; implies treads) that is so idiot-proof I can drive it, even though driving in video games usually feels to me like one of those nightmares where I&#8217;m driving but can&#8217;t reach the pedals or see outside the car.</p> <p>A note on squaddies &#8212; they actually gave the secondary characters&#8230;character. If you care, you can gab it up with your dudes between missions, and occasionally the two squad members you can bring with you will interact (like on <a href="" target="links">the admittedly slow</a> elevators), which can be amusing. Tip for squad interaction: I think humans are chattier (must be that curiosity aliens keep remarking on) so one human and one alien squad member seems to be a good formula for fun. If you&#8217;re lucky, you&#8217;ll find a combination where they don&#8217;t get along well, and you can have some snark with your galaxy-saving. (<em>environmental noise</em> A: What was that? What was that? B: Don&#8217;t have a panic attack, I&#8217;ll protect you.)</p> <p>The last thing I want to say about <em>Mass Effect</em> here (I could go on and on) is that the atmosphere and production quality are both splendiferous. The music is really good, the voice acting is astonishingly good (Seth Green is my pilot? Armin Shimerman is on the galactic Council?), including, crucially, Shepard&#8217;s voice. (At least, the female Shepard. I have only played the male Shepard for a few minutes out of curiosity.) And wonder. They have remembered wonder, which is crucial for space opera. Stop running across a bridge in the Council&#8217;s space station and look up, at the lakes and parks curving away with the circular hull of the Presidium. Stop your <span class="caps">ATV</span> on a ridge on an alien moon and look up to see the vast scarred planet and eldritch star burning in the sky. Who wouldn&#8217;t want to save this universe?</p> The Midnight Folk 2008-08-25T08:56:44+00:00 2008-09-26T22:21:20+00:00 <p>The other day EMeta mentioned <a href="" target="links">in comments</a> how inexplicable it is that Gene Wolfe isn&#8217;t a household name. Here is another one of those inexplicable oversights of the book world: <a href="" target="links"><em>The Midnight Folk</em></a> by John Masefield.</p> <p>This book sat on my shelf for years unread when I was a child, one of a few red-banded paperbacks like E. Nesbit&#8217;s <em>Three Children and It</em> that had materialized there unseen, like untorn books in Colin Craven&#8217;s sickroom. I often picked it up and put it down again in favor of more known quantities (for I was a great rereader) in spite of the cover, which sported a young woman on a <em>horse</em> inexplicably hovering in the night sky!</p> <p>Whenever it was that I finally opened it, I could have kicked my previous selves for putting it down unread. It is charming, brimming with adventure, and written with a seamless confusion between the real and magical realms. Its charm is partially in its hero, Kay Harker, who writes himself a letter at one point (an assignment from his supercilious governess) that runs:</p> <blockquote>My dear Kay,<br /> I hop you are quite well.<br /> I hop your friends, the cats, are quite well.<br /> I am quite well.<br /> Please give my love to Ellen. I hop she is quite well. We have a nice dog here, but he is norty.</blockquote> <p>If that doesn&#8217;t have you saying &#8220;hop you are quite well&#8221; and &#8220;norty&#8221; (naughty) for the rest of your life in sheer delight (as I do) then you&#8217;re constituted quite differently from me.</p> <p>John Masefield was the Poet Laureate of England for a while, and the book is quite enjoyable to adults (who, in our degenerate age, are more likely to understand Kay&#8217;s horror at Latin lessons and French conjugation). Its challenging habit of hopping from a reality where witches convene on brooms pilfered from the Harker family house to one where Kay&#8217;s guardian, Lord Theopompus, holds forth is engaging and wondrous. The common thread in both worlds is the lost fortune said to have been stolen and hidden by Kay&#8217;s seafaring forebear. With the help of various magical personages and the friendlier local cats and foxes, Kay tries to find out the truth about the treasure (and his family&#8217;s past) before the greedy coven of witches and wizards can beat him to it.</p> <p>In short, this book is a strange, idiosyncratic delight with a twisting historical mystery, a cast of bizarre characters, and a charmingly disobedient protagonist. It deserves a place on the bookshelf of every book-loving child and child at heart. However &#8211; and this is why I write this blogget &#8211; it is largely unknown in our era and has long languished out of print. 108 people on <a href="" target="links">LibraryThing</a> own it, and only 21 on the more populous <a href="" target="links">Goodreads</a>. When I discovered that my childhood copy had gone missing, my mother quietly looked for years before buying a 1959 printing over the web from New Zealand and presenting it on my 19th birthday.</p> <p>However, these dark days are coming to a close. <em>The Midnight Folk</em> is being reprinted, available September 30 <a href="" target="links">according to Powell&#8217;s</a>. I encourage everyone intrigued by this blog post to pick up a copy (but not to read the spoilerish Publisher Comments) at once &#8211; preorder if you like! It&#8217;s a book that deserves a wide and loving audience. I hop it shall do quite well.</p> Goodreads vs. LibraryThing 2008-08-12T12:44:42+00:00 2009-02-16T13:58:58+00:00 <p>I first mentioned my two book-cataloging affiliations in the <a href="" target="links">&#8220;Against Friendship&#8221;</a> social networking post:<br /> <blockquote>From there, I also got into LibraryThing, which sadly seems to be superior but is not getting the new membership gestalt goodreads is.</blockquote></p> <p>I thought it was time to revisit the topic and really dig into the pros and cons of the two sites. Now, I do realize there are other book-cataloging websites &#8211; many. But it&#8217;s ridiculous enough to use two, so I haven&#8217;t tried any others.</p> <p>The first thing to address is, why use a book cataloging website at all? Since this discussion is predicated on <em>my</em> use patterns and preferences, it&#8217;s only fair to set them out. Everyone&#8217;s intentions vary, but for me the benefits have been:</p> <ul> <li>It reminds me to go read instead of messing with the internet.</li> <li>It allows me to access my friends&#8217; opinions (or at least star-ratings) on books when I need them &#8211; when I&#8217;m trying to buy Christmas gifts at 2 am, for example.</li> <li>It&#8217;s helped me develop a practice of summarizing my thoughts on each book I read, which made annotating my grad school reading easy and has, I feel, made my opinions on books sharper and better expressed.</li> <li>It provides a central place to save all my well-intentioned &#8216;to-read&#8217; books.</li> <li>It captures data on my books &#8211; to kibbitz over with my Mom at her yearly-book-tabulation time, to keep track of books borrowed or lent, et cetera.</li> </ul> <p><a href="" target="GR">Goodreads</a> was designed as a social networking site for book-cataloging. Its home page is familiar to users of networks like Facebook &#8211; a log of the recent books added, reviews posted, &#8220;friendships&#8221; established by your friends on the site.</p> <p><a href="" target="LT">LibraryThing</a> was designed by librarians. It&#8217;s centered around the collection of book data, and social networking has only gradually colonized it &#8211; as noted in &#8220;Against Friendship&#8221;, it originally had only &#8216;Interesting Libraries&#8217; and &#8216;Private watchlist&#8217; and now has &#8216;Friends&#8217; as well. Its customizable home page, recently revamped, gives pride of place to a search-box that searches your own library of books. By default, the next item down is your recently added books.</p> <p>That gives you the basic difference between the sites in a nutshell: GR is centered on the social aspects, LT is centered on your books. Still, it&#8217;s more than possible to use them in a very similar way. If I had to choose a word to sum up each, I&#8217;d call Goodreads &#8220;simple&#8221; and LibraryThing &#8220;robust.&#8221; Goodreads&#8217; interface is clean, appealing and fairly self-explanatory, and the conceits of social networking have been widely disseminated, so the bar to new user entry is low. LibraryThing can be more intimidating, its wealth of information necessitating and populating many fields all over the screen.</p> <p>That data, though, is fabulous. Unlike Goodreads, which is committed to a categorization system called &#8216;shelves&#8217;, LibraryThing uses tagging. This encourages the user to find her own ways to use the system &#8211; combining fairly utilitarian and obvious tags like &#8220;own, read, fiction, novel&#8221; with the personal and highly useful &#8220;lent to Grandma&#8221; (and subsequent &#8220;read by Grandma&#8221; &#8211; my Grandma&#8217;s local library closed, you see) or &#8220;Box 25.&#8221; In addition, the basic &#8216;library card&#8217; information for your book on LT is well-designed. If your book has an author, a translator, an editor and an illustrator, you can enter all their names and label the r&ocirc;le of each accordingly[*]. You can, if you like, enter the date you bought or checked out the book and the day you started reading it, the date you finished. Goodreads has, by contrast, only &#8220;date read,&#8221; recently expanded from month and year to day, month, year. On Goodreads, book cover is linked to <span class="caps">ISBN</span>, an often inaccurate shortcut, whereas on LibraryThing you can choose from the covers uploaded by other users or a bunch of pretty blank covers as well as the <span class="caps">ISBN</span>-linked Amazon images. LibraryThing has a great book-adding interface that allows you to type the tags once for one group of book-adds and integrates a barcode scanner seamlessly. They have a versatile batch-edit mode for changes, and you can search hundreds of libraries worldwide as well as Amazon, whereas Goodreads only searches the various Amazon sites. If I&#8217;m going to spend time entering data on my books, I prefer to have complete and accurate information, so LibraryThing wins by a mile on that front.</p> <p>Goodreads is free and runs on ad revenue, whereas LibraryThing is ad-free and free up to 200 books, after which you are asked to pay $10/year or $25 for a lifetime membership.</p> <p>Probably as a consequence of the differences outlined above, LibraryThing has <a href="" target="LT">473,080 users</a> while Goodreads claims <a href="" target="GR">over 1,000,000</a>. This despite LibraryThing being founded August, 2005 and Goodreads December, 2006. For the social aspects (accessing my friends&#8217; opinions when I need them) the population difference makes Goodreads the victor &#8211; vast mobs of my acquaintances signed up for Goodreads (many of them, strangers to each other, at exactly the same time, in fact.) The social exchange Goodreads emphasizes is that of opinions, and therefore there are a lot more reviews on Goodreads in general, even if there aren&#8217;t any from your friends on a particular book. There&#8217;s also a nice feature (I was among the users petitioning for its addition) where you can mark which friend recommended a book to you. LibraryThing, being a little more focused on the collection and cataloging of books, generally has fewer reviews (in all fairness, while they have fewer ratings, they display a nice bar graph of them, which is helpful.) I hereby back up my anecdotal &#8216;feeling&#8217; with data &#8211; I chose the first book my eyes fell on (<a href="" target="lt">The Blind Assassin</a>) and found that on LibraryThing 5350 people have entered the book in their &#8216;library&#8217;, 1328 of whom have given it a star rating, and 79 of whom have entered a review. On Goodreads, it&#8217;s harder to determine exact numbers but I believe 9173 people have entered it, 7272 have given a star rating, and about 700 have entered at least a one-word review.</p> <p>Which brings us to another, more delicate topic. I may sound elitist here, but I&#8217;m not running for office, so who cares? Probably as a consequence of the differences outlined above, LibraryThing&#8217;s smaller population is more serious about books. You see fewer, if any, really stupid or careless reviews, and the discussion groups (which I don&#8217;t really do much with on either site) seem to have lively, literate discussion.</p> <p>So, returning to the reasons I use these sites, we see that both are equally good at reminding me to go read, at developing my reviewing skills, and keeping track of my books to read. Goodreads is better for showing me my friends&#8217; opinions on books, and LibraryThing is lightyears better for capturing data on my library. Goodreads has been good about adding features, which has improved the site experience for me and captured more information, but they&#8217;re still far behind LT, and I really wonder if they should try to catch up. There are some limits they would have trouble shedding &#8211; they are really wed to the &#8216;shelf&#8217; model for example, too wedded I think to swap it for tags, and adding tags on top of shelves would be klugey and make it more confusing for new users. If they try to make their site robust, they will sacrifice the simplicity and accessibility that have made them successful.</p> <p>For me, <a href="" target="LT">LibraryThing</a> is the clear winner. It&#8217;s versatile, and allows me to capture all the data I might ever want about my book collection and reading, the first time it comes up. It is fun to explore other people&#8217;s book collections, see library similarities and see the trends and recommendations that so much data produce. (Thanks for getting me started on it, Miss Thursday!) I keep up on Goodreads though, because the social aspect <em>is</em> fun, and I like to see what all my friends and classmates are reading. So I am doomed to keep both accounts, but I hope this blogget helps someone decide which one fits <em>their</em> book-cataloging needs.</p> <p><b>Update, 9/7/2008:</b> As I recently discovered while browsing a used bookstore in Mountain View, LibraryThing is quicker and easier to use on the iPhone, which surprised me.</p> <p>*<b>Updates, 2/16/2009:</b> Goodreads has added multi-author and customizable role support to their book data, although it is not as integrated and easy as LibraryThing&#8217;s. They have added an experimental mobile version of the site, which loads more quickly. Current numbers of users at each site can be viewed by clicking through the links in the relevant paragraph above. On a personal note, Goodreads has risen in my esteem somewhat: they are very responsive to user input and requests, which can lead to quick improvement. I still use both, and plan to continue doing so.</p>