Posts tagged with "recommendation" - 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> Blog recommendation: MFA in a Box 2011-03-18T10:41:06+00:00 2011-03-18T15:49:50+00:00 <p>My first advisor in <a href="" target="links">graduate school</a> had a huge influence on me. I had several fabulous teachers in the program, but working with <a href="" target="links">John Rember</a> set the foundation of my writing life. He got me to state with confidence &#8220;I&#8217;m a writer&#8221; and taught me that being a writer is a <a href="" target="internal">continuous state of being and seeing</a>, not something you just do when you write. The books I read at his behest and discussed with him in my correspondence semester helped give definition and certainty to things I had felt as instinct and hunch: things about the importance of writing, writing as survival strategy, writing as making meaning.</p> <p>John&#8217;s craft talks at the program were also rich and valuable. They were the sort of lecture where you scribble notes intensely, and you can&#8217;t keep up with all of it that you want to get down, and you also want to be writing your own notes about all the things in your own writing and life that hook into what he&#8217;s saying, all the ideas this gives you. Luckily, many of the rich, layered craft talks that he wrote for the Pacific program are now available to me in a more complete and much more legible format than my own scribbles: printed essays in book.</p> <p><a href='' rel='powells-9780982579428'><img src='' style='border: 0px; margin-right:5px;' align="left" title='More info about this book at (new window)' style='border: 0px; margin-right:5px'></a>John has written a writing book, <em><a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780982579428'><span class="caps">MFA</span> in a Box</a></em>, which I am reading. To be honest, I&#8217;m reading it very slowly. That may sound like an odd endorsement, but it&#8217;s an honest one. I started reading the book on the plane to a convention. Every chapter is an essay, one of those rich interconnected thought-weavings that we got to listen to as Pacific students, with the addition of a top ten list at the end of each &#8212; valuable for focus and review, but also often funny. I found, reading on the plane, that when I was done with the first essay, I didn&#8217;t want to read the second. I wanted to write. So I dug out my carry-on and switched activities. On the plane ride home? Same thing. One essay, and then writing.</p> <p>Obviously, this is a rare writing book. I have read quite a few, and I don&#8217;t remember any of them making me want to write <em>that moment</em> like this does. The cover says it&#8217;s &#8220;a <em>Why</em> to Write Book&#8221;, and the evidence says it&#8217;s convincing.</p> <p>So the good news about John&#8217;s splendid craft talks is that you can <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780982579428'>buy the book</a>, and the bonus good news is that you can <a href="" target="links">read his blog</a> while you&#8217;re waiting for the book to arrive. It&#8217;s a relatively new blog that he&#8217;s started in support of the book (hence the name!) and it is chock-full of the stuff John Rember specializes in as a teacher: thoughtful, mordant, lucid non-fiction about things which are important and hard to tackle.</p> <p>Here are some of his posts:</p> <ul> <li><a href="" target="links">Narcissism and Depth</a>, which may obviate or at least mutate two blog posts I meant to write here</li> <li><a href="" target="links">The Wannabe Writer</a>, about stopping pretending to be a writer and actually being one.</li> <li><a href="">A Writer&#8217;s Meta-Narrative</a>, about the stories everyone lives by, not just storytellers</li> </ul> <p>I don&#8217;t think I&#8217;ve ever written a blog post just to recommend another blog before. Maybe John&#8217;s blog isn&#8217;t the blog for you, if you&#8217;re not a writer or interested in writing, or don&#8217;t like hard questions. But I am so glad it&#8217;s there, that someone with so much experience and so much willingness to examine it honestly is sharing in this way. John as teacher is challenging, wise, and dryly, darkly funny. John as blogger is much the same.</p> Zeitgeist in the machine 2010-06-13T00:04:57+00:00 2010-06-13T00:48:55+00:00 <p>You know how you&#8217;ve never heard of something, and then you hear about it seven times in one week? I used to think it was largely psychological &#8212; you wouldn&#8217;t have noticed the extra instances until you had a context and a reason to remark them. (In fact, there&#8217;s a psychological term for this impression: the <a href="" target="links">Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon</a>, a learned psychologist informs me.) But I think it&#8217;s also partly real, an effect of zeitgeist, critical mass of relevance. Or as we now say, of something being <a href="" target="links">&#8220;trending&#8221;</a>.</p> <p>I had an interesting experience along these lines recently. I had seen the cover of <a href="" target="links">Janelle Monáe</a>&#8216;s first album <a href="" target="links"><em>The ArchAndroid</em></a>, but I hadn&#8217;t really registered it until I saw a link round-up on <a href="" target="links">Racialicious</a> with two links to blog posts about her, one of which had an embedded video. Long story short, I ended up buying both <em>ArchAndroid</em> and her earlier mini-album and loving both. (While I mostly use this as an example, I do recommend checking her out: her voice is as versatile as her songwriting talent, and her album is catchy but smart, eclectic but cohesive.) I <a href="">tweeted about it</a>. This was June 7.</p> <p>On June 9, I noticed her <a href="" target="links">uh, imprint</a> had retweeted my tweet, as they do most mentions of her, and that their most recent retweets mentioned that her name was trending. And now <a href="" target="links">she&#8217;s showing up other places</a> I wouldn&#8217;t have expected. The weird part here is that her album came out <strong>May 18</strong>, and it&#8217;s getting this body of attention now. One of the original two articles I read was complaining that no one was noticing her album &#8212; that it didn&#8217;t have &#8216;buzz&#8217;. A week later, I think that&#8217;s no longer the case. And that&#8217;s what is so odd about trending topics. There is now a metric for buzz.</p> <p>It used to be that zeitgeist lived up to its ethereal name (&#8216;geist&#8217; is literally &#8216;spirit&#8217;), but now we have to some extent bottled that genie. As we analyze, capture, track and archive more and more about our lives &#8212; where we go, who we like, what we watch and listen to &#8212; there will probably be other moments like this, when the intangible becomes suddenly concrete. Perhaps some of them will make us nostalgic, but perhaps it&#8217;s a good thing. That blogger complaining that Janelle Monáe didn&#8217;t have buzz was creating buzz. She was one (big) rock hitting more pebbles, and the hillside moved. We can measure this buzz because all of our voices contribute. There&#8217;s something charmingly democratic about it, even if it means the world is that much more mechanical.</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> Reminder: The Midnight Folk have arrived! 2008-10-14T07:27:16+00:00 2008-10-14T07:27:16+00:00 <p>Anyone who was intrigued by my previous post about neglected magical classic <a href="" target="links"><em>The Midnight Folk</em></a> might want to <a href="" target="powells">charge over to Powell&#8217;s and buy it now!</a> The American reissue came out today.</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> Elsewhere 2008-09-22T09:45:32+00:00 2008-09-26T22:18:01+00:00 <p>I&#8217;m on the last day of a long weekend in Portland. I had an excuse for coming here, a high school reunion, but the truth is I missed the place. Missed Powell&#8217;s, rain, Schmizza, my friends&#8230;I even missed things I didn&#8217;t realize were different, like there being squirrels everywhere.</p> <p>So that&#8217;s why I&#8217;ve been less communicative than is my wont: I&#8217;ve bought half a dozen books at <a href="" target="links">Powell&#8217;s</a> (and one at Powell&#8217;s Beaverton), eaten lunch at <a href="" target="links">Pizza Schmizza</a>, browsed the stock and watched the letterpress at <a href="" target="links">Oblation Papers</a>, had a pot of tea at <a href="" target="links">the TeaZone</a>, bought necessities at <a href="" target="links">Fred Meyer</a>, had a Porter or two off the nitro at <a href="" target="links">McMenamin&#8217;s</a> and another pint at the <a href="" target="links">Bridgeport Brewpub</a>. I have gone for many walks, listened while a rainstorm built from shower to deluge, sat about reading companionably with my friends, taken the bus and the Portland Streetcar.</p> <p>All this and the promise of a baby oliphaunt&#8230;huzzah for home!</p> 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> Reading Recommendations 1 2008-09-05T10:18:37+00:00 2008-09-05T10:19:00+00:00 <p>I&#8217;ve been reading a lot of magazines recently, part of my drive to get to know the current spec-fic world (I&#8217;m a huge sci-fi dork, but my reading in the field was long guided by my dad, so it tends towards classic sci-fi.) I have some paper ones, but there are loads of excellent online spec-fic magazines, as well as book publishers givin&#8217; away fiction. I thought I&#8217;d share a few stories I&#8217;ve really enjoyed which are free as little birdies in our glorious intertubes.</p> <p>From the fabulous <a href="" target="links"><em>Clarkesworld Magazine</em></a>:<br /> <a href="" target="stories">&#8220;Her Mother&#8217;s Ghosts&#8221;</a> by Theodora Goss: haunting story about the emotional legacy of totalitarianism (her <a href="" target="links">essay</a> about writing the story is excellent as well.)<br /> <a href="" target="stories">&#8220;Blue Ink&#8221;</a> by Yoon Ha Lee: <em>Clarkesworld</em> often goes in for mindbenders &#8212; this interdimensional battle is my favorite of them so far.</p> <p>From <a href="" target="links">Subterranean Press</a>:<br /> <a href="" target="stories">&#8220;Denise Jones, Super Booker&#8221;</a> by John Scalzi: a superhero riff in the form of an interview.</p> <p>From <a href="" target="links">Apex Books</a>:<br /> <a href="" target="stories">&#8220;Scenting the Dark&#8221;</a> by Mary Robinette Kowal: sci-fi horror story with a blind perfumer as the protagonist.</p> <p>All of these are short reads, and there&#8217;s quite a range between the four. If you&#8217;re not much of a spec-fic reader in general, try &#8220;Her Mother&#8217;s Ghosts&#8221;, which might be described as interstitial. If your day could really use some laughter, try &#8220;Denise Jones, Super Booker&#8221;. Enjoy!</p>