Saturday, January 31, 2015

[Book Review] Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey / Lori Perkins (ed) (Powell's Books)

I don't like Fifty Shades of Grey (and yes, I have read the entire series).  But then, if you've been reading my reviews, you'll find that I take issue with a lot of romance and erotic novels.  I'm picky about writing style, quality of editing, and the pervasiveness of certain troupes and abusive behavior (note, I am not talking about BDSM as abusive behavior), all of which stand out to me as issues with Fifty Shades of Grey.

The contributors of Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey vary widely in their backgrounds and reactions to the book.  Authors, editors, doctors, educators, lawyers and more have shared their thoughts on Fifty Shades of Grey.  Some loved it, some hated it, but more importantly, they're taking the time to discuss their side, and the different opinions with their evidence are placed side by side for you to read.  Perhaps even more interestingly, the authors in many cases interpret the exact same piece of advice in diametrically opposing ways.

Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey reminds me that love it or hate it, Fifty Shades of Grey has its place if for only the impact it had on the acceptance of explicit novels in the public sphere as well as the publishing industry.  In many ways Fifty Shades of Grey gave the publishing industry, and the wider public, a kick in the pants to catch up with the dirty dirty treasure trove that many of us who spend far too much time online were already aware of.  Dirty, smutty, and often so ridiculously unrealistic that it defies thought.  When it comes down to it, there are definitely some highly inconceivable smutty stories I greatly enjoy.  But then, those stories generally did not result countless of otherwise sane adults to go into a near frenzy that fails to discern the difference between sexual fantasy and real life desires (and safety).  Maybe more people should read Nancy Friday's My Secret Garden?  On the other hand, everyone finds inspiration in different places, and I'm sure we all remember misinformation we're embarrassed to admit we excitedly regurgitated as pearls of sexual wisdom in our younger years.

Honestly, I find Fifty Shades  of Grey to be pretty tame when it comes to sexual content and kink, regardless of how much they boink.  This may be a side effect of knowing that there's a whole lot more out there regardless of where ones personal interests lay.  But please, I really rather not have to talk to you about the porn you're watching on the public computers that could be seen by kids walking by.

In her essay within Fifty Writers, D. L. King defines the line between "erotic romance" and "erotica" as whether or not the story would hold together without the sex.  If you still have a coherent (if less salacious) story after fading to black whenever things heated up, you have an erotic romance.  I like this definition in an otherwise blurry division of category.  I try to keep in mind when I review anything, but particularly erotic romance or erotica, that people come into it from different places, different interests, different backgrounds.  A writing style that repels me may be wildly successful (for example, I've given up on ever liking anything written by Katie McAllister or Sherrilyn Kenyon).

This book is made up of analytical essays, personal experiences, legal analysis, and naughty stories.  We have discussions of fan-fiction, publishing, feminism, romance, writing, pop culture, and cultural norms and morays.  I am however, a bit annoyed at multiple mentions of Librarians banning Fifty Shades without any mention of those who fought to keep it no the shelves.  But of course I'd be annoyed at that.

Laura Antoniou's Fifty Shades of Holy Crap! had me dying of laughter, lambasting not only Fifty Shades of Grey but romance/erotica/porn tropes as well.  Also, there really needs to be a company called "Pacific Northwest Dykes who Make Whips."  I found Sherri Donovan's legal analysis of Ana and Christian's negotiations and contract fascinating.  Arielle Loren's Imagining a Black Fifty Shades writes about the issue of diversity in black female sexual pleasure in mainstream media.

Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey is worth reading if you love or hate Fifty Shades of Grey, and for a slew of nuanced reasons as well.  Additionally, the book finishes with an list of fiction and non-fiction books that may be of interest to its readers.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of NetGalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

[Book Review] Dead Heat

Dead Heat (Alpha and Omega #4) / Patricia Briggs (Powell's Books)

Dead Heat builds upon the world laid out in earlier Alpha and Omega novels, with some from the Mercy Thompson series.

Anna and Charles are doing something for themselves for once, in this case, Charles takes Anna to Arizona on a horse shopping expedition and to meet a long time friend.  But a malicious fae attack threatens the family they are visiting, a family that happens to belong to the local pack's Alpha.

The Alpha and Omega books are more within the realm of romance than those about Mercy Thompson.  While I enjoy a good steamy read, that's never been what drew me to Briggs' writing.  To me, Dead Heat felt more like a Mercy Thompson novel, and I like that.  I also enjoy the personal growth Anna has made over the series, and getting to see her be sassy to dominant werewolves who have no idea how to handle her.  Charles and Anna definitely are still exploring their relationship, their bond, and what it really means to be family.  The main narrative arc is around children, the fae in question presents a risk to children, abuse towards those who cannot defend themselves, the obstacles facing Anna and Charles in having a child, and the risk that a child under Charles' protection would become a target.  The different strands of this arc are well woven together.  There is also a whole lot about horses, choice, and friendship.

Overall, a good addition to the series.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of NetGalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

[Book Review] Gibbon's Decline and Fall

Gibbon's Decline and Fall / Sheri S. Tepper

I first read Gibbon's Decline and Fall in my early teens.  I had never read anything like it before, it.  It starts out reading like a contemporary novel, but slowly slips into the otherworldly.  The story is unapologetically feminist, environmentalist, and philosophical.  It asks questions of the reader.  I was enthralled with Tepper's writing and went on to rip through her body of work.  She has become one of my favorite authors, and I re-read her work, including Gibbon's Decline and Fall, regularly.  I could have chosen any of a number of Tepper's books for Virtual Speculation, others that would have more solidly resounded as Science Fiction or Fantasy, but I went with this one.

Discussion Fodder.
  • Gibbon's Decline and Fall starts in 1959 and ends in a then 'near future' (the year 2000, now 15 years past).  What do you think about the changes (or lack of changes) in race and gender relations exhibited in the story?  How do they compare to real life?  Could the story still take place in a 'near future?'
  • Sophy says "Words are as powerful as weapons, as useful as tools.  They can injure like a flung stone, cut like a knife, batter like a club.  They can open heaven or they can ruin and destroy!"  Do you think this is a true statement or hyperbole?
  • Do we as a culture 'devour' those we see in the lime light?  How do Sophy's experiences as an object of desire compare to those of women who chose to expose themselves to the public (or in some cases, specifically with the male gaze in mind)?  What about Bettiann and her experiences in pagents as a child, then later on while a trophy wife?
  • The women make a pact to not decline and fall.  Do the women decline and fall?  What does it mean to you in your life to (or to not) decline and fall?
  • What do you think of Jake Jagger's "creation" story, and his need for his story?
  • Gender equality is obviously not a new issue, but how do you think it has changed over the years?  How do people like Webster and the members of the American Alliance compare with affiliations like Men's Rights Activists?  What parts of the gender equality struggle in this book feel familiar in your life?
  • Bettiann says "Well, it would be nice to live in a world where women didn't expect to be uncomfortable just because they're female."  Do you feel this is an accurate description of society expectations?  How does it apply to men and the standards they are expected to meet?
  • Sophy is furious at the idea that someone does a task because it is "good for the soul" rather than the right thing to do.  That helping someone in trouble to benefit yourself is exploiting their pain.  Does morality need incentive?  Does the reasoning behind someone's moral action matter more than the results?
  •  What do you think about the statement "That's the reason decline and fall has to be up to our own consciences.  We have such different ideas about what women are.  For instance, in your religion your priests say women brought sin into the world when she bit into the apple, but my people would say man brought sin into the world when God asked who did it and Adam blamed Eve.  Which is the greater sin?  Intellectual curiosity?  Or betrayal?  Scientific experimentation?  Or disloyalty?"
  • Birth control and sex education (as well as lack of) is brought up variously throughout the book.  The idea that using birth control is helping to eliminate groups of people, or "Do it ceaselessly, sequentially, serially, even promiscuously; hear it discussed ad lib, ad nausem on every channel; but do not speak of it applying to oneself.  Taboo."  How does this compare to messages we encounter on local, national, or global scales?
  • How does sexuality (and expressions of it) define our perceptions of masculinity?  What do you think about the statement "Even when you didn't do it, you said you did.  You know, you've got to pretend, otherwise you'd start doubting your manhood, right?  If we didn't have sex and football, what would we talk about?"
  • Ophy describes "advanced" and "barbaric" health care systems, and describes the US health care system as a hybrid, split along economic status.  Do you think this is reflective of the US health care system we have today?  How do we compare to other countries?
  • Which of the vials would you have chosen?  Ruby with mated pairs and one child a decade, topaz to live in a parthenogenic society with the rare men born generations in between, emerald with life as it is now but conceiving only as a deliberate choice, sapphire with the lengthened youth and a quick maturity, or lapis to keep things as they are today?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Speculative Fiction : The Year in Review (Arisia 2015)

The first panel I sat on at Arisia was Speculative Fiction : The Year in Review with Morgan Crooks and Gillian Daniels (mod).

I went into this panel knowing there was no way I'd touch on even half the books I made note of in preparation.  Just listing off titles does not make for a very interesting panel, and does not make for any sort of organic conversation on a topic.  Of course, this being a blog post and not an organic discussion, there will be lists of books.

Our discussion ranged from favorite new title from the past year (a surprisingly difficult question to answer), Utopia vs Dystopia in Speculative Fiction, YA vs Adult, issues with diversity, and what makes for good Science Fiction and Fantasy.  Taking part in the panel made for a fantastic time, and I hope to take part again next year.  A few honorable mentions were made, bringing up books published beyond 2014, in particular the works of Elizabeth Bear and titles published by Angry Robot.  Actually, Elizabeth Bear came up a lot because she has short stories in pretty much every collection mentioned (even if not recorded here).

I should have taken better notes beyond titles mentioned, but since I didn't, you're about to get a whole bunch of book recommendations.

Some notable titles mentioned by my fellow panelists:

The Three-Body Problem / Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu) - a Chinese science-fiction novel that starts in China's Cultural Revolution and comes forward to a today where aliens make first contact through a video game, preparing us for their arrival.

The Summer Prince / Alaya Dawn Johnson - set in a post-apocalyptic, futuristic Brazil where every year young men compete for the honor of becoming the Summer King, and the King must die for the land.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August / Claire North - Harry North dies only to start his life over again with all the knowledge of his previous lives.  One of a handful of people throughout the world who re-live their lives again and again no matter what changes they make.  And then on one of his lives he receives a warning about the end of the world, and it's up to him to stop it.

Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History / Rose Fox & Daniel José Older (eds) - Historical speculative fiction of minority groups and marginalized people.  Sword & Sorcery beyond tales of conquerors and European castles.

Clockwork Soldier / Ken Liu (Clarkesworld Magazine) - Fantastic short story on the ethics of androids and the lines between artificial and living intelligence.

If You Were a Tiger, I'd Have to Wear White / Maria Dahvana Headley (Uncanny Magazine) - The animal stars of Hollywood are locked into a retirement community called Jungleland, while a visiting investigative report attempts to interview Leo, the MGM Lion, and to cover whatever scandal he can dig up for a column.

Monstrous Affectations / Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant (eds) - An anthology of stories about monsters, and what makes one a monster.

Hieroglyph : Stories and Visions for a Better Future / Edd Finn & Kathryn Cramer (eds) - a collection of stories inspired by the idea that good Science Fiction influences scientific discovery and innovation.  Contributors include Cory Doctorow, Neil Stephenson, and Elizabeth Bear.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves / Karen Joy Fowler - A book on human perception, family, and the mutability of memory.

The Goblin Emperor / Katherine Addison - The half-breed Emperor's son is taken from a life of neglect and abuse when his family dies and elevated to Emperor himself.  He must learn to navigate the political and ceremonial world he now finds himself standing alone in.

Some of the titles I brought to the discussion:

Of Bone and Thunder / Chris Evans - No, not that Chris Evans.  Perhaps best described as Lord of the Rings meets Full Metal Jacket.

The Girl With All the Gifts / M. R. Carey - A zombie story like none other.  A tale of humanity, desperation, and evolution.

We Are All Completely Fine / Daryl Gregory - Eventually survivors are expected to return to a normal life, even those who have gone through ordeals that no one sane would believe.  These five survivors are brought together by therapist Jan Sawyer.  Have they truly escaped the monsters, or have they been with them all along?

Ancillary Justice / Ann Leckie - A space opera narrated by someone who has never before been human, or confined to a single body, from a culture that has no language distinction for gender.  Once a starship used in the conquering of worlds, Breq now seeks answers and vengeance.

Lovecraft's Monsters / Ellen Datlow (ed) - Renowned authors have created enhancing and unsettling tales set within the Lovecraftian mythos.

Upgraded / Neil Clark (ed) - A fantastic collection of short stories of humanity and cyborgs.

The Mirror Empire / Kameron Hurley - Neighboring cultures and parallel realities clash in what may be the end of the world.

So many many more titles deserved to be mentioned, but there just wasn't time to touch on all of the fantastic books that came out in 2014.  I absolutely loved the new books by Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Robin Hobb, and Elizabeth Moon.  Honor Among Thieves by James S. A. Corey reignited my love of Star Wars novels, and The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness was a fantastic ending to a trilogy I struggled through.

I need to get myself signed up for the Arisia forums, Morgan and I started hashing out a panel idea for Arisia 2016, and that seems to be the way to get your ideas submitted.  Plus, even I don't manage to get an idea approved, I'd like to take part as a panelist again, and I feel I have a better chance of that if I proactively pursue it instead of being surprised by an email that someone recommended me as a panelist.  No idea who did that for me this year, but whoever you are, thank you.

[Book Review] A Highlander's Passion

A Highlander's Passion / Vonnie Davis

This is a love story of a Scottish bear and a witch.

Sadly, not this type of bear
Also, Bear Scot Fest is a real thing.  This is amazing.
Not exactly this type either, but closer to the mark
The heart of the story is of two childhood friends (Bryce and Kenzie) coming together as soul mates, while they learn to put harsh elements of their past behind them and move forward into a new life.  Throw in an evil (as in signed his soul to the devil for unlimited power) father who needs his offspring's blood (all of it) for a ritual, lots of kilt-wearing dominant men (who happen to turn into bears), a sweet yet spoiled rotten child, and the randiest bunch of adults you'll find outside an orgy, and that about sums up the book.

Personally, this book is not for me.  I found the writing style undeveloped, and I'm still not sure how I feel about the writing of (non-thought and non-spoken) expository text in an accent.  By and large none of the characters really stood out as individuals to me.  Maybe this is because the focus of the story is a witch, but I expected the whole "bear-shifter" thing to maybe be something that mattered in the plot.  Instead what time Bryce spent as a bear really had no impact on anything, except to briefly show that Kenzie loves him in any form.  I also honestly found Bryce's "sweet" child to be a spoiled bossy thing, though when you have a pack of werebears for uncles who give you whatever you want, I guess that's a bit of a forgone result.  Maybe it was just the author going to town with the concept of "kids say the darnedest things" that annoyed me?

This may be a good read for fans of Katie McAllister's books.  I'd recommend this to readers who like contemporary highland romance and paranormal romance with a lot of action but not a lot of depth.

In the meantime, I give you singing & dancing Bears (sorry about the lack of kilts).

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of NetGalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

[Book Review] Bound by Bliss

Bound by Bliss / Lavinia Kent

Previously reviewed in this series:
The Lady Bliss Danser (sister of Geoffrey, Marquess of Swanston from Mastering the Marquess) has a bit of a reputation.  More specifically she's a sneeze away accidentally entangling herself into some scandal or another at any point, and if she did, well, she is a Danser.  When it comes down to it, Bliss finds the notion of marriage rather appalling (if not downright boring).  Why would she want some man who thinks he can tell her what to do when she has the means to live modestly on her own and maybe even travel?  Her brother puts a wrench into her plans, she has the option of marrying her childhood infatuation, Stephan Perth, Earl of Duldon, at the end of the summer, or finding her own fiancee before then.  Bliss is undeniably drawn to Stephen, but the man broke her heart before and now keeps threatening to punish her.

Stephen Perth desires Lady Bliss more than any woman he knows, but he must not only win her heart back, but must find a way to reconcile his darker desires with her chaste innocence.  A man who loves complete control in the bedroom yet is irresistibly drawn to the free-spirited Bliss.  He agrees to help satisfy her curiosity about desire and to help her find another fiancee, if only for the chance to prove to Bliss' (and his own) satisfaction the he is the only man for her.

Bound by Bliss blends historical fiction, romance, and exploration of kink into a racy package. 

Personally, I found Bliss exceptionally innocent (particularly in light of not only gossip but her "dear friend" the Countess Ormande, who had promised to take her to Madame Rouge's "gentlemen's club" (without telling Bliss it was a brothel, or what she used to get up to with Bliss' brother there).  Stephen is rather presumptuous, with little differentiation in his domineering manner when playing with a willing partner or interacting with the lady he is endeavoring to woo (and from who he wishes to hide his kinky side).  The villain of the story is obvious right off the bat (and to be honest, someone who also should be banned from Madame Rouge's along with the Countess), and a bit of a sexual Snidely Whiplash type character.

That being said, Bound by Bliss creatively allows Bliss to explore her own desires, and for Bliss and Stephen to explore each other, making for a very steamy read.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of NetGalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

[Book Review] Upgraded

Upgraded / Neil Clarke (ed) (Powell's Books)
Better . . . Stronger . . . Faster . . . The doctors rebuilt Hugo Award-winning editor Neil Clarke and made him a cyborg. Now he has assembled this anthology of twenty-six original cyborg stories by Greg Egan, Madeline Ashby, Elizabeth Bear, Peter Watts, Ken Liu, Robert Reed, Yoon Ha Lee, and more!
Neil Clarke is the editor-in-chief and publisher of Clarkesworld Magazine. His work at Clarkesworld has resulted in countless hours of enjoyment, three Hugo Awards for Best Semiprozine and three World Fantasy Award nominations. He’s also a current and three-time Hugo Nominee for Best Editor (Short Form).
Upgraded is a phenomenal collection of speculative fiction.  The stories range from investigative mystery to post-apocalyptic, self-discovery to exploration of humanity.  Authors create cyborgs in unique ways and applications.  Characters possess cybernetic parts and enhancements for self-gain, for overcoming disability, for peace, for war, to survive or helpless as the cybernetics subsume who they were.  Some of the stories come across as impossibly futuristic, and others eerily like they could touch on reality in a matter of years.

I highly recommend this collection to readers of speculative fiction, particularly those who like stories of AI, robotics, and cybernetics.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of NetGalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.