Sunday, February 19, 2012

Chime, by Franny Billingsley - SPOILERS

One of the things I really love about having bought an e-reader is that my public library does e-book loans: I don't have to pack the baby and all his infrastructure to schlep downtown to get new books to read. I can just get them online - ones from publishers who are willing to do library e-book loans, anyway. (Get with the program, recalcitrant publishers. Your problem is not getting me to buy books - it is getting me to buy your books. Libraries help me decide who gets my book budget.)

Chime is one of the books I read a good review of, but its Kindle sample didn't wow me enough to overcome my most recent resolution to hit the library more instead of impulse buying. (A resolution inspired by the purchase of a book I turned out to really not like: I could have spent that money on a good book. Rage!) Chime did look interesting enough to check out, though.

Overall, I liked it: it's the story of Briony, a girl who lives in a swamp full of enchanted creatures, with a mentally challenged sister who needs a great deal of care. Briony hates her life; she hates her sister; she hates herself.

Unfortunately, both the thing I liked best about this book, and the thing that I liked least, are medium-sized spoilers. So this is a spoiler post. Sorry.

What I liked best was that it's really a story of the aftermath: this is what happens to the beautiful daughters after the evil stepmother has been defeated. I read Among Others last year, which was blurbed as that kind of story, but it didn't live up to it, for me - the main character's life after defeating her villainous mother was mostly disconnected from that conflict; you never even find out what the villainous mother's evil plan was. (Unless I missed it. But come on, if you can miss that, something's wrong.)

Chime did aftermaths much better. Briony narrates, and tells you how good her stepmother was to her, how much she loved her, Stepmother this, Stepmother that, but Stepmother's dead, and it was not a suicide, she would never do that. You can tell Stepmother wasn't on the up and up, though Briony insists otherwise. Briony clearly has some Issues.

Over the course of the book, you watch Briony heal: she gradually obsesses less about taking care of Rose, letting other people help; she starts resuming old hobbies she'd abandoned; she starts making new friends and reconnecting with old ones; she stops hating herself for failing to constantly hate herself. What she's consciously concerned with is another problem entirely - the swamp is being drained, and its magical denizens are seriously not happy about that - but what's going on in the background, all this time, is Briony getting better.

What I liked least about the book is that, in the end, it turns out Briony has always known about Stepmother being evil, and about her defeat, but just... forgot? Blocked it out? Rewrote her own memories to protect herself? I didn't quite buy that part.

But I loved that the primary villain had already been defeated, all this time - but her evil works remained, poisoning the lives of her victims, and that this, too, needed resolved.

Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey (Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham)

Leviathan Wakes was really, really good.

It's billed as space opera instead of hard sf, but the sciencey parts simultaneously made me happy and bummed me out, in an I-will-never-be-able-to-write-anything-this-good sort of way. The authors didn't blaze new trails in Science Gimmicks; they mostly took known space science and addressed how human behavior would change if you had to live with that all the time.

Space dwellers don't have a habit of nodding, for example; because you can't see that through a space suit, they use hand gestures instead. They disagree with dirtsiders on whether air and water are considered renewable resources - and that's the spark of the war, when one of the Belt's ice haulers gets blown up by an unknown-but-probably-Martian ship.

There are two point-of-view characters in the story; Holden, an Earthborn survivor of that ice hauler, and Miller, a spaceborn noir-style detective. I wasn't especially interested in Miller until he offered up his opinion of Holden's public broadcasting of what happened to his ship: "He just declared war on Mars for us." In the Belt, Miller explains, people don't fuck around when it comes to the resources one needs to survive. You do a half-ass job on critical station maintenance, you're likely to get airlocked; shoot down a ship carrying water for the Belt, and the Belt shoots back.

I'm kind of down with that. Miller's practical cynicism appealed to me, even though I wasn't interested in the space detective shtick at first. The more Miller scoffed, the less I liked Holden's idealistic approach to any crisis at hand. Although the authors write, in the afterword, that they meant Miller and Holden to be at the extreme opposite ends of the spectrum on how they deal with bad guys - discreet airlocking versus information-wants-to-be-free negotiations - with both characters being right, and both being wrong, it seemed to me that Miller's approach was more right than Holden's. Or, at least, more effective in these particular circumstances.

This is also the kind of book that I think my husband would really enjoy (also because of Miller - I think my appreciation for that sort of brutally effective badassery came from my husband originally), but loaning it to him is difficult because I only have the one Kindle, and I selfishly want to keep it to read more books. I'm probably going to wind up buying a print copy to shove into his hands.


Kindle DRM pisses me off. DRM is not the reason loaning this book to my husband is difficult - the lack of a second e-reader is. BUT. My cousin has a Kindle, and so do my sisters. I can't loan the book to them, either; the publisher has disallowed loaning on this title. That's the case for almost all the e-books I've bought so far. And the few that I can loan, I can only loan once - if I lend it to my cousin, then I can't lend it to my sisters when she returns it.

I could also froth at the mouth about mandating that only one person can access the book at a time, which is unavoidable in print but an artificial restriction in e-, but I won't (much). I can almost see it being a reasonable precaution for transitioning into an e-book economy, even though crippling the greatest strength of the format - increased access - pisses me off. I suppose a one-person-at-a-time, limited-term loan is how they distinguish between a loan and an unpaid permanent gift.

But I find the once-or-not-at-all loan limit unforgivable. Why can't I loan it to as many people as I like, just as in print? Why is there a restriction on exposing more people to the material, to tempt them into buying their own forever-copies, or other books by the same author? That's just stupid. Do they think all my friends will just buy all my favorite books on my say-so, because I like them? Do they think I'm willing to buy a new copy for every friend I want to make read the book? Stupid. And I can't even count how many books I bought because somebody introduced them - or their author - to me through a loan. I'm sure it's most of my library. There is no way they're making more money by restricting loans than they would be by enabling them. It's idiocy, and it's offensive.

So until the loaning policies change, I'll be making an extra effort to buy in print - or DRM-free from non-Amazon sources, if available - for anything I suspect I'll want to share with my family.

Of course, I could resolve this whole issue if I were to just break the DRM and pass on the file anyway. Ironic, that these supposed anti-piracy measures are the only things that actually tempt me to piracy.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Making my own Kindle-readable files

In the abstract: wouldn't it be nice to write a book, and pop it up on the web for people to download and read? (Ha ha! That would be work.)

In the more immediately practical: I'd like to make a recipe collection for myself.

I've got a little wooden box for recipes on 3x5 cards, but that doesn't really work well for me. And my laptop is nice for getting web recipes, but it takes up a good third of my counter space, and it goes into a dimmed-screen power-save mode almost instantly upon being left alone, which means I have to wash my hands every damn time I want to look at the recipe. I want to try my Kindle, which uses less power (none, actually, if you don't turn the page), hibernates less frequently, and takes up less counter space. If I could make a Kindle-readable file of my favorite recipes - the ones I've hammered out well enough that I'm not editing them anymore, anyway - I could have a nice compact personal cookbook that I could also share with my cousin whenever she asks for a recipe.

The easy part of this would be writing up the recipes; Kindle will read .txt files. But I want to be able to index them, too, so you can just click at the table of contents to get to a specific recipe. So the file needs to be a .mobi. My first attempts to create a file with links in Open Office and then convert it from .rtf to .mobi with calibre didn't work, so I went hunting on the web.

There's apparently free .mobi creation software, Mobipocket - but when I went to the download page, it says it requires Windows. That's a problem for me and my MacBook. Maybe I didn't look hard enough, but I couldn't find another .mobi maker.

But there's also free .epub creation software, Sigil. Kindle doesn't read .epub - jerks - but calibre converts between .epub and .mobi pretty handily. And I found a basic tutorial on how to make a table of contents in Sigil, which would then carry over through the conversion process. I downloaded the software, made a little test file ("Chapter one - blah blah blah; page break. Chapter two - blah blah blah."), converted it and stuck it on my Kindle - and voila! It works!

I made a quick cookbook file with the recipes I've been most bothered by lately (and I named it "How To Serve Man"), and used it yesterday. It was nice. It was a fairly quick recipe - cocoa brownies - and the Kindle didn't hibernate on me at all while I was making it. The biggest problem I had was that the ingredients were on one "page", and the instructions were on the next, so if the instructions said "add the flour" and I'd forgotten how much flour I needed, I would have had to wash my hands and turn back a page. I do not consider this a big problem: I could fix it easily by writing the amounts into the instructions. Also, the instructions for this one were simple enough that I actually hadn't left the ingredients page, anyway.

I'm pleased with the experiment. And editing the cookbook isn't hard - the basics of Sigil are really user-friendly - but the fact that I'll have to go through Calibre to make a new .mobi file out of it every time I make a change will make re-compiling it a little awkward. I mean, only two minutes worth of awkward, but nonetheless.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

"Science fiction for girls", which isn't

So I saw this article - 10 Great Science Fiction Books For Girls - and my immediate reaction was a cross between Are you fucking kidding me and You expect me to believe a female compiled this list?

The Windup Girl? Seriously? I'm gonna name names here: The Windup Girl was the third book in that insulting/hurtful line-up I mentioned in another post. This was the one that broke me, because it wasn't just a casual, thoughtless, dead-girlfriend-as-motivator: it was a well-written book which I admired structurally, but which featured really fucking hurtful graphic rape scenes, written from the victim's perspective well enough to put you in her head: that could be me. It's going to be years before I can even read this author's young adult books - he is too skillful, and I do not trust him not to hurt me. I would never recommend this book to a girl. I would have serious reservations recommending it to a woman.

Along the same lines: The Handmaid's Tale? Really? A book about the complete subjugation of women, against which they are as helpless to fight as they were to prevent it, is great reading for girls? This is not a book I'd give to my hypothetical daughter while she's still young enough to consider a "girl". This is not a book I'd give her to teach her about who she can be, what she can accomplish, or what she can hope for from life. This is a book I'd give her when she's ready to learn about what she needs to fucking fear.

And four of the books on this list - Dune, Stranger In A Strange Land, Ender's Game, and Frankenstein  - aren't on it because they're particularly interesting to girls. They're on the list because they're Classics Everyone Should Read. Here's what the article authors have to say about that:
  • "We don’t think girls should only read books about girls";
  • "Though the female characters in this novel aren’t particularly inspiring, we think the story is weird, brilliant, and universal enough to creep slowly into just about anyone’s head";
  • "Since it’s the world’s best-selling science fiction novel and all, we think there have to be at least a few girls behind this book. "
  • "...and hey, it was written by a woman."
Give me a break. Put it on your "Classics Everyone Should Read" list, not on a "For Girls" list. It's not the same thing.

Six of the books were written before I was born, and I'm well past girlhood. How old would you say a "girl" is right now? Let's say 18, tops (an arguable figure, as the line between girl/woman depends on experience more than age, I think): that means today's girls were born in 1994 or later, which puts eight of these books as written before they were born. Sure, some books age well, but there is a serious difference between the issues girls face today and the issues their mothers and their grandmothers faced. And you're not going to find help on dealing with any of those issues in something written by Heinlein or Card, who are not noted for their advanced views on women's role in society.

My personal list for "10 Great Science Fiction Books For Girls", off the top of my head, would have included Lois McMaster Bujold's Cordelia's Honor or Anne McCaffrey's Harper Hall of Pern trilogy - but you know what? Born in 1994 or later. This is not my generation, their issues are not mine: the oldest of them could, just barely, be my daughters. While Menolly breaking the Harper Hall's glass ceiling still spoke to me when I read it in 1993 - I, whose mother had been living a glass ceiling story - I suspect today's generation would find more relevance in the stories in which the glass ceilings are already lying in pieces at their feet. It's certainly not a perfect reflection of reality, but it's a better reflection of the reality we're currently striving to achieve for them, the reality they'll be working towards as they grow (as the initial breaking of the ceiling was something my mother was working towards for me). So Harper Hall should probably be #11 on the list: bonus material. (Although, can you count the Harper Hall trilogy as science fiction, when they're heavier on Pern's fantasy elements than its sf ones?) Would Cordelia's Honor still make the list? Possibly; I'll have to think about it.

But I bet that a lot of the books that really ought to be on such a list are more recent publications. For example, John Scalzi's Zoe's Tale is a better candidate for the list than any of the titles I've just been bitching about - dude specifically wrote Zoe's Tale with his pre-teen daughter in mind. Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games, maybe? I'd be willing to bet that most of the best "for girls" science fiction books are currently being shelved in Young Adult and/or marketed as "dystopias" instead of "science fiction", and I haven't explored those as much as I could. I'm feeling a need to look now.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Thirteenth Child, by Patricia Wrede

I really loved this book, and its sequel, Across the Great Barrier. Like Summers at Castle Auburn, they're ones that I keep thinking about fondly, and seriously consider re-reading Right Away rather than Eventually. (I've nibbled at Summers, and did re-read Thirteenth Child pretty soon after.)

Thirteenth Child is set in 1800s America, where the frontier is filled with magical monsters instead of Indians*. It's an alternate universe, but not the sort where one thing changes and everything else diverges from that; it's always been different, and always been similar. Washington and Jefferson were still presidents; Jefferson and Franklin were wizards; the Civil War still happened, but thirty years sooner; slavery still existed, but apparently Africa was by and large still powerful enough that they were the ones to colonize South America.

The main character is Eff; she's the thirteenth child in a family that was trying for a seventh son, because the father is himself a seventh son. The seventh son of a seventh son is a powerful magician. Unfortunately, the common wisdom is that the thirteenth child is, at the least, bad luck; some people (like Eff's uncle) even believe them malicious. It doesn't make for a happy childhood for Eff, until her family (minus the oldest, grown children) moves to the frontier, where nobody knows how many kids there were or what order they were born in.

But Eff still knows. She's constantly questioning her own motivations: is this the sort of thing I would do if I were starting to go bad? It's really interesting to watch Eff and her twin, Lan, grow up under the influence of What Everybody Knows about thirteenth children and double-seventh sons.

And I liked the American setting. It really felt like an American fantasy rather than a European/medievalish one, and that's a nice change.

* This is the only thing that disturbs me about these books: no Indians. Their massacre is one of the great American sins, and it bugs me that it's eliminated in this alternate history not because the colonists chose a better path, but because the victims don't exist. Did I miss them? Do they exist in the world, and merely weren't involved with these particular stories? Are they supposed to not be around because the monsteredness of middle America held them West? Whatever the reason, their absence bothers me.

Of Blood And Honey, by Stina Leicht

Of Blood And Honey was a good book; I enjoyed the mix of fairies vs. fallen angels in the middle of the 1970s Irish/English conflict.


About two years ago, I read three books in a row that dealt with women in a manner that was insulting or hurtful to me; it gave me a strong aversion to stories with predominantly male casts, where the female characters were just there as accessories to the males - trophies, victims, dead girlfriends to provide motivation for the hero's Psychotic Mission Of Vengeance. Books where a single strong female lead might exist, only to get raped and/or killed later; books where the text says a woman is strong, but in practice she just gets kidnapped and needs rescued.

This book hits those notes. Reading this was like poking an old wound to see if it still hurts. Yep. Still hurts. It's not as enraging as it was immediately after that one-two-three punch, but it's still annoying: a good story spoiled.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Does it come in threes?

Just this morning, feeding the baby and thinking about books and writing, I idly wondered how Daniel Abraham goes about constructing his stories; so far, everything of his that I've read has been really well done, and something I feel like I could study and learn from. But that's the kind of thing that might be a little creepy to ask (I am getting a little more aware of common Wannabe behaviors I should avoid), so it was just an idle thought.

Then I open up my RSS feed and see that the dude is starting a series of blog posts on just that topic. Cool!

Also this morning, I was going through my wish lists and checking to see if there were any 2011 titles I really wanted to read but hadn't yet, in case they made the open slots on my Hugo nomination ballot. I was also checking my public library to see which books (2011 or not) I could borrow, especially in Kindle format. One of the 2011 titles I'd been interested in, Of Blood And Honey, was in the library, but only in print. I debated getting in the car, but I procrastinated.

And then I open up my RSS feed tonight and see that the Kindle ebook for Of Blood And Honey is temporarily free! Cool!

I wonder what I should wish for next?