Wednesday, May 28, 2014

[Book Review] Mastering the Marquess

Mastering the Marquess / Lavinia Kent

Louisa, the widowed Lady Brookingston, has a particular personal problem.  Despite a number of years of marriage to the man she loved, she's still a rather innocent virgin, and with the inevitable future re-marriage, she really doesn't want to explain that to her future husband.  Not only that, but the sex talk her mother gave her was the "lay back and think of England" version, and she never saw her husband completely naked.  Beyond farm animals mating she has very little clue about how things work.

Enter a one night liaison, arranged to privately teach Louisa that there's more to sex than uncomfortable coupling.  Geoffrey, the Marquess of Swanston is a man of particular tastes in private, seemingly very few interests in public, and a strict desire for control in both.  He has no interest in marriage, or really deflowering a virgin, but Madame Rouge entices him into a no-strings-attached one-night affair with a woman whom he cannot forget nor find.

Then their paths cross in their public personas of proper members of society, and with no way to verify the identity of the other participant without risk of scandal.  With a growing attraction tempered by secrets and repressed passion, where will things take them?  And how will the past come to haunt them.

So, the last book where I said there was surprisingly little sex?  I think I found all the missing sex from that book in this one.

If you want a historical romance with lot of sex (plus lust and longing) throughout the entire novel and don't mind largely throwing historical accuracy out the window, this is a pick for you.

Seriously, don't read it if historical accuracy is more important than wild monkey sex.  Side note, if you're interested in learning about historically accurate naughty times I recommend starting with The Steampunk's Guide to Sex (review).

So not only is Mastering the Marquess full of sex, it's sprinkled with somewhat kinky sex (and a lot more longing).  Fortunately, for all his dominant leanings (and trends in romance novels), Geoffrey isn't a complete domineering asshole.  Yes, there's some feelings of possessiveness, but without some publicly acceptable analog to pissing on her leg to claim ownership.  His partner's pleasure matters, and when helping Louisa explore her sexuality he carefully leads her through things and makes sure she is OK with what they do.  He checks in as he pushes limits, encourages her to admit what she desires (and explicitly does not desire), and builds trust.

So, there always has to be some foil, something trying to keep the lovers apart.  They get it on very early on in the book, and tie the knot quite far from the end.  So what's to interfere (besides misunderstanding)?

[Spoiler Alert]

The unhinged and sadistic ex.  She had potential to be a pretty sinister villain, but instead her master plan was for some sort of kinky threesome with Louisa as their victim.  Like "beat and fuck her or I kill you, because we belong together."  Situation definitely scary (and honestly, weird and a little forced), and fortunately the cavalry comes in to mostly save the day, but not after some sexual abuse to Louisa by Geoffrey's crazed ex.

I have a very hard time dealing with forced BDSM scenes, where kink is used as a tool for rape.  Not saying that I find rape easy to deal with, but there is an even deeper level that this sort of sexual harassment/rape profoundly unsettles me on.  Maybe it's because there are people who do hide abuse behind the language and framework of kink?  I can't deal with the movie Spun because of what the main character does to his girlfriend (my now-fiance had a hell of a time with my freakout after we watched that).  So this section of the book, where Louisa is deliberately sexually abused and tormented in an non-consensual BDSM scene was upsetting to me.

[/Spoiler Alert]

I'd say enjoyment of this book depends strongly on personal leanings and inclinations.  As noted, the historical accuracy is questionable (but that's not uncommon either), and the sex is rampant.  Kink is present, but largely they don't go super freak.  If you enjoy the ambiance that historical romances provide this could be an enjoyable read.

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

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

[Book Review] Love Potions

Love Potions / Michelle M. Pillow

Confession time - I'm totally into men wearing kilts (fortunately my soon-to-be spouse is obliging on this as he's discovered quite how comfortable they are).  Combine this with my penchant for reading fantasy and the occasional naughty book, I figured why not take a gamble on Love Potions.  I went in with the assumption that I would encounter a number of romance novel tropes, and worse comes to worse, it wasn't a very long book (under 300 pages).

What I can say about this book is that it has a plot, and it's not simply the quest for putting Tab A into Slot B.  There is magical insta-love, but since magic literally is part of their pairing, it is at least in theme.

Erik is a bit of an idiot at times.  For all that he's a few centuries old, he (and his siblings) have the social graces and impulse control of teenagers, but with the added twist of near immortality and magic thrown in.  It almost goes without saying that there's some level of alpha-male posturing, though it's more a complete lack of realization that anyone would object to his decision (regardless of how much the siblings fight).

Lydia pushes back at Erik, and makes him work for her.  Perhaps she lets him off too easy.  Personally, I'd probably want to inflict bodily harm on him for how he basically fails to listen to anything she says.

There are some good family and friend dynamics.  There is no slut-shaming.  I do appreciate that.

For how much time Erik and Lydia spend ogling and lusting over each other in explicit detail, there's not much sex and it's not very graphic.  Then again, the book is "romance" and therefore not really promising more, it just seemed like there would be.

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

Friday, May 23, 2014

[Book Review] The Buried Life

The Buried Life / Carrie Patel (Powell's Books)

Despite our best efforts, humanity has not completely destroyed itself.  Society was forced underground to survive, and even now that the surface is safe, humanity is now well entrenched in caverns and subterranean cities.  Crisis has changed the shape of society, and while crime still exists, detection technology is advanced, the penalties are harsher, and violent crimes almost never appear among the upper strata of society.

When Inspector Liesl Malone is assigned to the murder investigation of a respected and well known historian she is surprised at the stonewalling and obstruction thrown in the way of solving a crime that has thrown society into a panic.  Then another of society's elites is found murdered, and another, and someone doesn't want Inspector Malone (or anyone else) looking too closely.  Intrigue and deceptions mount as events cascade into conflict and revolution.

The Buried Life was an interesting read.  We have a post-cataclysmic setting with flavors of gaslight/steampunk well integrated into the story.  The plot and characters have layers that are revealed over time without relying on extensive information dumps.  The ending is not expected and there is an interesting theme connected to knowledge, reading, and censorship as a form of control throughout the story.

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

Update: Reviewing Booklikes

About a year ago I started looking for an alternative to Goodreads and came across the very new site, Booklikes.  At the time I wrote that Booklikes didn't quite have everything I was looking for, but that it had great promise and amazing staff.

These days Booklikes is regularly making me happy while I only remain on Goodreads for the forum discusssions of a single book club.  The fall out from the Amazon purchase of Goodreads largely seems that 1. Amazon/Goodreads doesn't care and 2. lots of people have migrated away to other platforms.

Seriously though, Booklikes seems really dedicated to making a platform that its users enjoy, and at having staff that are easily accessible to the users to answer questions and take suggestions.  They have a goal of a new feature ever week, and sometimes release more.  They don't quite have every feature I'd like, but that list is rapidly shrinking as well as introducing features I hadn't really thought about.  They've also publicly declared that what you write is your business.  They will not take your content down off your personal page, the most that will be done is content can be suppressed from feeds.  So that's awesome to me.

Actually, Booklike's stance towards blogger content is becoming even more relevant as Goodreads starts to restrict what people can post in reviews.  Booklikes does support blogging, not just book reviews, which helps support the fact that sometimes when we want to write about books it's not exactly a review, or maybe we want to write a second review to highly changes in our own readings, etc.

On the flip side, Goodreads has started targeting content that addresses the authors rather than the books themselves.  Specifically what can be classified as posts regarding "authors behaving badly" - complementary posts are not touched.  As Booklikes is more of a blogging platform it supports multiple posts on a single book by any member, as well as posts targeting multiple books.  This means if someone wants to write something about, say, Orson Scott Card's politics in relation to his writing, they can.  I really like the flexibility provided and stance of "this is your expressive space."  I pick up on this because I know a number of people who have born the brunt of harassment by authors for posting well reasoned reviews on Goodreads about why they did not like books, and that includes reviews being taken down by Goodreads.

I have begun using Booklikes as more of a social interface than I ever did Goodreads (beyond a book club forum), and have found a number of utterly fantastic reviewers through it.  The site design works better for this aspect of the book review community.  Reviewers also have the option of making private shelves (and reviews), which is nice.  I'm finding it to be a more welcoming environment than I ever found Goodreads (which I started using ~6 years ago).

Some additional reading:
As Goodreads grows up, it can’t please everyone. Should it try?
How Amazon and Goodreads could lose their best readers

On Working as a Technology Services Librarian

Back in December (yes, I know, I took my sweet time turning this into a blog post) I had the opportunity to act as a guest speaker for a class of MLS students on my experiences working as a Technology Services Librarian.  For me this was a pretty exciting opportunity.  I never expected to work in IT.  I know so many people who are utterly brilliant with computers that I just don't measure up.  However along the line I must have picked something up, or maybe some of their brilliance rubbed off on me, and I ended up rather competent with technology.  Additionally, the scope of my job is not one that most people tend to think of when they think of librarians.

A quick caveat, this is written from the point of view of someone in a very public-service oriented position, I realize there are similar positions where the Librarian is back end only.

So, without further ado, here's my (shortish) presentation:

On Working as a Technology Services Librarian


Adventures in turning it off and back on again

Defining Technology Services

When it comes down to it, "Technology Services" is still a nebulous concept.  What do we consider "technology," and what role does it have in library services?


Areas of Expertise

•THE REFERENCE INTERVIEW (but for computer skills)
•Research (focus: computer problems)
•eBooks (and related sundry)
•Creation of Web Content
•Emerging Technology

The "Reference Interview" is one of those skills that serves you well in many situations, as being able to tease out what exactly someone is asking of you, without making them feel like an idiot, is invaluable.  Everyone starts somewhere, and especially those who are looking for digital literacy help, it can be very intimidating to even ask these questions.  This becomes part of both everyday troubleshooting and part of teaching.

Teaching is a part of your purpose, be it introducing new technology to staff or teaching a patron how to use a computer.  Literacy is a huge area of library service, and digital literacy in many ways is just an extension of that.

You're not going to know the answer to everything.  That's where research comes in.  Knowing how to find the right answer is incredibly useful.  Additionally, Library IT positions often end up as part of the Reference department, so good research skills come in handy.

eBooks.  If your library has an ebook collection you are now the go-to person for any questions regarding the platform or devices.  Learn to use it, if you don't have a type of device see if someone will let you borrow theirs, learn about the limitations, and find innovative ways to aid discovery of the platform.  Library ebooks are pretty cool, but they are also largely invisible unless you know to go looking.  They also may have limitations that will not make sense to your patrons, so it is in your best interest to learn about them and the reasons they exist.

You might not be in charge of the website, but chances are you'll end up involved somehow.  Familiarity with popular CMS options, basic graphic design, and good web design practices are useful.

Emerging technology is important to track, not only to stay on top of what patrons may be coming in for help with, but for future planning and growth of the library.

Humor aside, this is a big part of what we do when working on computers.  It really isn't about knowing the answer, it's about knowing how to find the answer (and being brave enough to possibly mess up).


What to expect

  • If something involves "technology" expect to be responsible for it.
  • You are now "the expert" on that new thing.
  • Confusing error reports.
  • Displays of extreme creativity or audacity by patrons.
  • Awkward requests.
Something you'll expect to be asked about, like e-readers, wi-fi, and unjamming the copier.  Other times you will be pulled into a conversation out of the blue on something that has not ever been under your purview, like the security cameras or phone system, but now you are included.

Never used the newest gadget?  You'll get questions about it.  Probably even a few requests for purchasing recommendations from patrons.  Try to stay informed about new innovation, and try to keep personal bias out when helping a patron learn about the differences between options.

Technology is full of jargon, and when you know the words and are the one trying to fix a problem, this is fantastic.  When someone doesn't know how to describe the problem, things get muddled.  Work with your staff, encourage the capturing of error messages, and the creation of detailed error reports.  I've found teaching how to create screen captures very useful in documenting errors.  Use those reference interview skills to tease out what they were doing - did they shut down and restart the program or the whole computer?

Patrons can be incredibly creative.  This can have entertaining and concerning results.  Do you have easily accessible Ethernet ports that are not currently in use?  Someone will use it, so think about your network security.  Do you employ a time-management system on your public computers?  Don't be surprised at the ways people find to by-pass it.

Awkward requests can range from things you will feel terrible about your inability to help to things that you may feel very uncomfortable dealing with.  Sometimes it is simply that someone needs more help than you are able to give them, and it may feel horrible to turn them down.  Other times it may involve the sharing of information that you don't want to know (for legal or personal reasons).  The best advice I can give is to treat every request as politely as possible, and to fall back on library policy as required.

Settling In

  • Learn about what you have inherited.
  • How are patrons using technology?
  • How is the library using technology?
  • How can needs be better met?
  • What are your resources?
Some libraries do have an IT department, some have a distribution of responsibility across a few key staff, some may have previous had a Technology Services Librarian, and others you may be their first.  Get to know the set up, including administrator accounts, and start from there.  Create documentation if it doesn't exist, and build on the existing if it does.

What are your patrons coming in to use the library's technology offerings for?  Maybe patrons just want to play games on Facebook, or taking an online class, or maybe graphic design and photo editing.  Are those demands being met?  Are there areas that patrons regularly need help that could be met by classes?  This is important for the now and for future planning.  The library may put the resources out there, but from there we need to see how they are utilized.

In addition to getting to know the hardware, get to know the staff and their skill levels.  How do the individuals use technology in their day-to-day work?  Can more be done with what they have?  Are there things that are needed or would greatly benefit the library and the staff?

Both as part of settling in and as part of forward thinking, you should always be thinking about how can needs be better met.  Think small and think big.  Learn what your resources are.  What could the library offer?  Maybe patrons what to edit images but Photoshop is too expensive for your library, but there are open source alternatives like GIMP.  How can you upgrade or replace aging and malfunctioning computers within your budget?  Would a low-cost option like a Raspberry Pi work for replacing sluggish Public Access Catalog stations?  Learn about the historical funding sources for technology in the library (Friends of the Library, Kiwanis, grants?), meet the people involved, and search for new possibilities.


Going Forwards

  • Reach out to community groups.
  • Keep everything up-to-date and in working order.
  • Computer skills classes & workshops.
  • Keep an eye on technological trends and innovations.
  • Take things one step at a time.
  • Be a resource for everyone.
  • Plan for the future.

Reach out to the community and to groups within the community.  Having technology in the library is of little use if no one knows it is there (or if they don't know how to use it).

Maintenance of technology is very important, for functionality and security.  Make a schedule for installing updates, remember to physically clean out the computers now and then, and keep an eye on the systems you are responsible for.

Patrons may ask for help, or they might not.  Whenever I've done classes I see a mix of both new and familiar faces, there are almost always attendees who I have never met before.  Attendees may range from  unemployed seeking job skills to members of the library's governing board.

Even if you're not the final authority on the direction the library is taking technology, chance are you will be included in the planning.  Staying informed about trends and innovations helps you support the library striving to meet patron demand and will serve you well in knowing what patrons will come looking for help with.

Take things one step at a time.  Some days you will come into work with plans, you have things to get done, and immediately you are greeted with a panicked "_____ isn't working" and things cascade from there.  Don't Panic.  Take a deep breath and work through it one piece at a time, do triage if necessary to determine what needs to be fixed RIGHT NOW, and what can actually wait, and reassure people that you're on the job.

By your skills set, you are a resource.  Your purpose in the library is to support staff and public.

Technology is changing, make sure to think ahead, and work with your library to meet future demands.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

[Book Review] Some Fine Day

Some Fine Day / Kat Ross

Once upon a time we thought El Nino was bad.  Katrina and Sandy were recognized as historic storms.  Things got worse.  The storms grew, and in desperation humanity retreated underground.  Now the surface is ravaged by continent sized super-storms called hypercanes that have lasted for decades, and the only things able to survive are amphibious-primate mutants that do not look kindly on humans.

Jansin has only known life underground.  Life may be governed by strict rules and limited supplies, but thanks to birth and training, she is among the cream of the crop.  She knows that there is no one left alive above ground, no way for anyone to live above ground in the face of the storms and the decimation of civilization they caused.  About to graduate from the military academy, her life has direction and she wants to dedicate it to protecting the way of life that keeps humanity alive.

Then on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation to the surface her world view is shattered.  Jansin must re-evaluate who she is, and what she believes in, risking her life in the process.

I liked this book.  Jansin is a competent and self-aware character who grows throughout the story.  Additionally, I really appreciate that the relationships aren't instantaneous love, but rather attraction that is allowed to grow and develop.  There is a nice balance between technology, intrigue, and pacing.  Overall a decent read.

Like most stories there are some plot holes.  In particular I have trouble believing that a military organization that relies so strongly on cultural indoctrination would so quickly bring back someone who is clearly traumatized and perhaps even "not in her right mind" (after all, she's claiming those savages on the surface were her friends and is upset that they were killed) without any attempt at therapy beyond the single visit where she throws a bowl of soup at the doctor.  However, overall the plot holes more rely on slight incredulity rather than huge glaring "are you kidding me?" moments.  The ending does frustrate me, I don't like how it chops off at what feels like just a chapter end, but that "what happens next?" feeling may very well be what the author intended. 

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

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Brainstorming - C'thulhu LARP

As I've mentioned previously, I really want to run a LARP inside a library.  As libraries are public spaces while they're open, I am envisioning a one-shot, after-hours game, likely as a lock-in style overnight event (lock-in to reduce issues with security).  Based on space, liability, and environment I will need to at least look into non-physical combat resolution systems.  In many ways Nerf would work well for the indoors setting (for one thing, less likely to knock something over), but sometimes people get a bit... touchy about gun-related things, even neon-yellow, foam dart shooters.  I also recall a one-shot zombie apocalypse survival LARP my friends attended that used tossed 'spell packets' to simulate hand-to-hand combat.

For the environment I'm looking to work within, I think my best bet is to go with a C'thulhu mythos setting.  Well suited to night time adventures, easy to develop a plot that makes use of a space full of books, potentially minimal need for combat, and since we're working with things man was not meant to know - well suited to a one shot with a hard deadline.  I know other systems could work as well, particularly Minds Eye Theater (White Wolf), but I happen to like the C'thulhu mythos.  I also found a whole collection of free "parlor larps" at Shifting Forest, but I'm also hoping to run this for more that 4-8 players.

So I've narrowed things down to an overnight, one-shot, survival/horror C'thulhu mythos setting, potentially contained to a single building, and with potential limitations on combat.  Now on to all the other factors to consider.

Will the game be set in modern times or take place in the past?
C'thulhu mythos games often take part in the first half of the 20th century, which makes for a great way to cut out a number of areas of technology (cell phones, computers, Internet, etc) as well as help immerse players into the setting by creating a space with a distinctly different setting than everyday life.  However, Delta Green is a LARP rules set for modern setting C'thulhu mythos that has potential for this concept.

One of the factors in deciding this may be how difficult it is to hide blatant modernity?  Largely this comes down to hiding the computers, which tend to be present all throughout the library.

Will the game be set in the actual library, or in another?
This of course, will depend in part on the history of the town and the overall setting.  If the town had no library during the date of the game setting, it may behoove me to change what library the game is in.  If we go with Arkham Public Library, there are some fantastic online resources for props, including creating library cards and library book conversion kits.

My thought is that if I go with Arkham the setting will be in the past.  I could go with either modern on historical if I use the library itself as the setting.

I fully intend to bring in books to contain clues, give them spine labels, and file them within the stacks as part of the game.  Likely these books will require custom book covers so they stand out, but there are places throughout the non-fiction and reference sections that would work really well.

Why are we all here?  And why can't we leave?
I currently have two thoughts along this line, and may ultimately do a combination of the two.  The first idea is that something weird has been going on in town and it seems to be centered on the library.  This attracts the attention of investigators, occultists, profiteers, and tourists.  This could still be tapped with the second idea, which is that there was some sort of natural disaster (flooding, 5 feet of snow, etc), and travelers end up taking shelter in the library for lack of anywhere else to go.  This would have the nice advantage of cutting out Internet access in a modern setting and be a good reason to keep everyone inside the building.

I want to limit "locals" as PCs, saving that primarily for NPCs.  I feel there is an advantage of having the players all assume the roles of outsiders, among other things it limits the amount of "home knowledge" of the game setting.

My current line of thinking is that one part of the library could function as a "portal" - allowing for different scenarios to take place in different places all utilizing the same room.

Other questions bouncing around in my head (particularly if/when I secure a place):
  • Budget - generally LARPs charge players to cover costs, however libraries often have restrictions on paid admission.  On the flip side, maybe this could be done as a fund raiser for the library.
  • Target audience - I'm going with adults at this point, though I suppose under the correct circumstances (and permissions from parents) it could be done for teens.
  • Body count - how many people do we build the story to accommodate, and how many people do I need to recruit to help with the running of the event.
  • Monsters - who is the threat?  I'm going to assume there will be dastardly cultists, but what are they trying to achieve, what darkness are they trying to summon?  How can it be defeated?
  • Food - players will need to eat, end of story.  How best to accommodate this?
I have a long way to go, and I've never run a game.  So, working on things, seeing what I can pull together, and going from there.

Resources: - guide to setting up a LARP - props - free parlor LARP scenarios, non-C'thulhu  - this is the setting I've played in - modern setting, United States, secret government agency. - "Training scenarios and scenario guides to prepare agents and friendlies for Delta Green operations." - Cthulhu Live books - Call of Cthulhu (RPG, basis for Cthulhu Live and Delta Green)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

[Book Review] Breaking Free

Breaking Free / Winter Page
Raimi Carter is finally a girl, just like she always knew she was meant to be. At a new school where nobody knows she’s had gender reassignment surgery, she hopes to finally live the normal life she’s longed for, happy in her own skin.

Life is great until she discovers a dangerous bully is blackmailing head cheerleader, Clare Strickland, threatening to reveal her secret: she’s gay. As Raimi fights to free Clare from his clutches, the two girls move beyond friendship. But secrets from their pasts and their own fears of coming out tear them apart—maybe forever. Baring their souls to each other could cost them everything. For two girls trapped and desperately in love, only strength, courage, and trust in each other will help them break free and claim their future.
I want to start this off by saying I am torn in how to rate and review this book.  After finishing I discovered that the author is a high school freshman, and I think writing and publishing this book is a fantastic achievement for them.  I also think that the author did a good job dealing with the core issues of gender identity and sexuality, and that there is an audience that needs more titles like this.
Coming out is scary, even in accepting environments.  Clare is terrified that people learn of her sexuality.  So scared, in fact, that it is established that she has been sexually abused and raped (possibly for several years) by her "boyfriend" so that he doesn't out her.  Once she is outed it is as if someone poured boiling water over a fire ant hill.  Clare becomes the lesbian.  She is ostrasized by the entire student body.  Parents call the school out of fear that their children will be corrupted by her.

Here's the thing about New England - it's not perfect, but it's not a bad place to be gay.  Yes, there are bigots and bullies.  You do hear people use "dyke" and "fag" as insults.  But as a whole this region is known for being rather progressive in certain areas compared to the rest of the company (and to our puritan roots).  Connecticut was the third state to legalize same-sex marriage, with all of New England's 6 states appearing in the first 11 (Massachusetts first back in 2004 and Rhode Island  beaten to 10th by Maryland by a few months), with New York keeping them company for good measure.  Connecticut is also vaguely surrounded by a number of well established gay communities, including in NYC, Northampton, and Provincetown.

Yet Clare spends several years in high school letting someone rape her so she can appear straight (secondary issue, when Raimi brings up that Clare's relationship seems to have some serious consent issues everyone treats it as old news and not something to be addressed).  In fact it's considered common knowledge that she's only with her boyfriend because he has some sort of blackmail over her.  High school is its own personal hell for many people going through it.  This goes way beyond that.  Clare is a smart, well-educated, and wealthy girl with an incredibly amount of autonomy from her parents (namely, they gave her a credit card and don't pay attention to her unless they have to) - but she is unable to ever discover any resources to help her through her array of serious issues.  I did go to a very progressive school, so maybe my experience is biased, but a lot of these resources are almost shoved down your throat as a student.  I'm not sure how she wasn't forced into therapy because someone went and talked to a guidance counselor behind her back.

I think that the author was going for a small town/small minds for her town of Little, CT.  Issues with intolerance can be greatly magnified within smaller communities.  The author has written the town as a place lacking large businesses, and Raimi's mother is considered a rare and valuable asset as a Harvard graduate lawyer (the only thing that I can think of that would really make a Harvard grad in CT stand out is that they're from Harvard rather than Yale), so it seems the intent is to say "small community".  But the school has a large text book store room bigger that sounds larger than some of the small town libraries I know of (and with remarkably little security), which indicates supplies for a sizable student body.  Additionally the high school kegger that Raimi attends has several hundred kids in attendance.  That's a big party.  That is a big party for a fraternity, let alone a bunch of high school juniors and seniors.  So I remain unconvinced that this is a small community.

So while living in a relatively progressive region of the country, one girl outed becomes the biggest scandal since the Lewinsky affair.  Parents start calling the school demanding that she be replaced as captain of the cheerleading squad.  The entire school ostracizes her, turning Clare from the most popular girl in school to a pariah.  I have trouble believing that she is the first person out at her school (or in the town).

Maybe this bothers me so much because I'm from New England.

Raimi is a relatively well constructed character, and that's something we don't see often in transgender characters, particularly in YA fiction.  She has a mixed home life.  Her mother and brother are fantastically supportive, if perhaps oddly absent for portions of the story.  Her father seems to be more characterized by his alcoholism and refusal to accept Raimi's gender than any actual character depth.  However, Raimi has decent depth, and well characterizes the emotional turmoil of adolescence.

However I'm not sure I believe that she was able to receive full gender reassignment surgery as a minor, regardless of how much money her parents were willing to throw at the issue.  Hormone treatments?  Definitely.  Possibly even some breast enhancement (though due to the hormones and the age at which she started, there is a definite amount of breast growth that would have occurred naturally).  But generally there is a long path towards gender reassignment surgery, starting with a minimum of a year of therapy and living out of their gender closet.  What research I've done seems to indicate that doctors are somewhat prohibited from performing vaginoplasty or phalloplasty on minors (note: if I am incorrect on this, I would like to know).

Fact checking does matter in fiction if there is any connection to the real world.  In addition to what I've discussed previously, Clare and Rami go to Colorado for tattoos because supposedly there are no regulations on minors getting tattoos in that state.

From the Colorado state website's section on Body Art:
Body artists cannot perform body art procedures on a minor unless the body artist has received consent from the minor’s parent or legal guardian. Performing a body art procedure on a minor without parental consent is punishable by a fine of $250 for each offense, regardless of whether the artist or studio is located in a county with an inspection program.
Breaking Free does have some strong points, but it also has some noticeable issue.  I'm not going to comment on the ending, beyond that it seems a bit overly dramatic, but there are also some really crazy things that people do.  The book does a good job handling issues of adolescence, as well as abusive relationships and issues of trust.

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

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

[Book Review] The Shadow Master

The Shadow Master / Craig Cormick (Powell's Books)

The Shadow Master is set in an alt history where science is a form of magic that takes a toll on the user.  A plague ravages the land and within the only city free of it's taint two ruling factions grapple for power.  A young man and a young woman with allegiance to opposing families feel they are soul-bound to each other.  Someone is trying to entice a civil war, to let in the diseased, and to raze the city.  The key to the salvation of civilization is in the two lovers, but will it be found in time?

I'm not sure what I think of this story.  It floats between political intrigue and mysticism.  Perhaps due to the nature of two warring clans with unfamiliar names, I spent a lot of time struggling to keep characters straight at the beginning.  In the end only a handful are important enough to remember, and those actually are relatively easy to keep sorted.

There are definite Italian and European influences on the story, but I would be hesitant to state a definite country of origin.  The two great scientists/inventors Galileo and Leonardo are definitely meant to be inspired by historical men that come to mind, though in real life one was born a hundred years after the other's death.

Once I got into the story I started to enjoy it, however with the level of deliberate obfuscation and mystic intrigue I feel that it would be better suited to film than a novel.  As for the end...  you'll have to read it for yourself to make up your mind what is going on there.

I did enjoy the characterization and setting, but had to throw away any niggling bits of history that I actually remember (Social Studies was always a tough subject for me) lest I try to fit parts of the narration up against actual history.  The Shadow Master himself does play a pivotal role, but more as a shepard than as a player, serving to (sometimes very blatantly) push the specific characters to their destiny.

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

[Book Review] Tales of the Hidden World

Tales of the Hidden World / Simon R. Green (Powell's Books)

One of my favorite things about Simon R. Green's writing is his wit.  His Nightside and Drood novels are what got me hooked in the first place, and they deliver action, wit, humor, magic, and intrigue.  I love a novel that is clever, well written, and tongue-in-cheek.  The wit and magic are definitely still there in this collection, but the collection has both dark and somber notes to it that I was not expecting.  The stories are well crafted and engaging, literally spanning from home to far reaching universes.

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

Troubleshooting for Finals Week

Ah, finals week.  The perfect time for "oh my god, why isn't my paper formatting right?"

So in that spirit, I wanted to share two of the problems I've helped panicked students with repeatedly in the past few days.

Problem 1:
You've got this weird, possibly slightly differently colored dead space on the right side of your document that you can't get rid of and is messing up your print outs.  This area is supposed to be where your document "comments" go, and when there are no comments it is supposed to vanish, but sometimes it doesn't seem to want to do that.

To remove that area, go to the Review tab, and then look for the "Tracking" section of your menu ribbon.  It will have the option to Track Changes, Show Mark Up, Reviewing Pane, and a drop down menu.  You'll want to change the menu from "Original: Show Markup" or "Final: Show Markup" to simply the "Original" or "Final" option, and that should suppress the comments area.

Problem 2:
The printer is only printing out every other page of your document (in particular this is for public printers such as in a computer lab or the library).

This one I can't really do screen caps for, because depending on a few things your interface may be different.  Here's the important part.  When you go into the print menu in whatever program you're using (Word, Acrobat, whatever), open up the printer properties, it should be a text hyperlink right near where the printer selection is shown.  Once that is open look for Effects or just hit through all the tabs until you find one that has an option for double sided printing.  Uncheck/turn off/whatever the double-sided printing option.  Chances are the double sided printing for the machine requires manually reloading the pages that have all the odd numbered pages so that it can print the even numbered pages on the backs of those pages.

As a caveat, sometimes public printers do fully support double sided printing, and you do indeed want to use double sided printing.  In that case make sure that the printer properties are not expecting you to manually flip and reload the pages .

Monday, May 5, 2014

[Book Review] Hollow World

Hollow World / Michael J Sullivan (Powell's Books)

When Ellis Rogers is told he has little time left to live, laughter is probably not the response his doctor expected.  Laughter may not be how he expect to react to news of his looming mortality.  But as it turns out Ellis Rogers may have all the time in the world, or if he's wrong, no time at all.

After all, he's lived a good life, with a mind as sharp as ever, but what does he have holding him to this time?  Haunted by his son's suicide, estranged from his wife, and his best friend seems bitterly stuck in the past.  Whether the machine works or not, Ellis is looking at a one way trip, and he's OK with that.

The future is not what Ellis expected, arriving not 200 years, but 2000 years later in a forest seeming untouched by civilization.  And when he finds civilization he discovers that humanity itself has changed beyond his wildest imagination.  But all it takes is one fanatic out of time to threaten utopia, and Ellis will be caught once again between the life he knew and the life that could be.

Hollow World did not turn out to be the book I expected, based on the book blurb I read when selecting this title.
Ellis Rogers is a seemingly ordinary man who is about to embark on an extraordinary journey. All his life he has played it safe and done the right thing. But when he is faced with a terminal illness, Ellis is willing to take an insane gamble. He's secretly built a time machine in his garage, and if it works, he’ll face a utopian world that challenges his understanding of what it means to be human, what it takes to love, and what the cost of paradise really might be.

Ellis could find more than a cure for his disease; he might find what everyone has been searching for since time has begun — but only if he can survive Hollow World.
To me that reads more as if he must escape the Hollow World to get to the utopia than surviving a threat to Hollow World.  Accidental misdirection aside, I found Hollow World to be an enjoyable science fiction novel with well integrated social commentary.  I like the discussion of gender and sexuality that this future brings up.  The one problem I had was that the point of the story was muddled.  At the end everything ties together, but before we get to Ellis' epiphany regarding love the book reads more as if the point is about the dangers of fanaticism and the trap of uniformity.

In a note unrelated to the plot itself, this book has raised my esteem for the publishing house handling the physical edition.  Sullivan talks about the writing and publication process regarding Hollow World in his afterward, and once he made the decision to self-publish the ebook he wanted to retain the ebook rights.  Print-only rights are not something publishers want to purchase these days unless the author has major clout.  Tachyon Publications took his offer, allowing Sullivan to keep the ebook rights while they handle the print publication and distribution.  I think that's really cool.

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

Saturday, May 3, 2014

[Book Review] Alif : the Unseen

Alif : the Unseen / G. Willow Wilson (Powell's Books)

Alif has encountered three strokes of bad luck. The aristocratic woman he loves has jilted him, leaving him with only a mysterious book of fairytales. The state censorship apparatus of the emirate where he lives has broken into his computer, compromising his business providing online freedom for clients across the Islamic world. And now the security police have shown up at his door. But when Alif goes underground, he will encounter a menagerie of mythical creatures and end up on a mad dash through faith, myth, cyberspace, love, and revolution.
When Intisar tells Alif that she is to wed another regardless of their secret marriage contract his heart is broken.  When she tells Alif that she never wants to see him again, his grief transforms his coding into a shield that is capable of identifying Intisar from mere words of text and hiding his digital presence from her permanently.  In a country with one of the world's most advanced digital policing systems, yet no guarantee of running water, Alif has accidentally created a tool that those in power would kill for.  Yet, Intisar has something of value and danger that her aristocratic betrothed desires, something she sends to Alif.  Now Alif is embroiled in a game of cat-and-mouse, on the run from the state police, desperate to keep not only Intisar, but his childhood friend Dina, safe.  His plight and desperation takes him to a man of legend, Vikram the Vampire, and into a world of magic and fable while his country around him explodes into upheaval.

Alif : the Unseen was the April pick for the Virtual Speculation Bookclub and is a book that I strongly recommend.  It is fantastically written, with a different voice than I've encountered before in science fiction or fantasy.  The characters are flawed and believable, the socio-political commentary effortlessly integrated, and the plot, conceived before the Arab Spring, mirrors events we have read about in the news with the addition of fable.

On that note, discussion fodder!
  • Many elements of this book match up with those of dystopian fiction - totalitarian government, citizens subject to invasive spying, secret prisons, extravagant squandered wealth among the powerful and lack of access to running water or functional postal system among the plebians, religious persecution, and strict gender constraints.  Yet, the book was conceived based on current conditions and then current events.  How does this effect your reading of the story?  How would you interpret it if you knew (or know) nothing about the Arab Spring?
  • Do you feel that Alif (and other's) disdain for "their coddled American and British counterparts" are earned?  Does reading Alif have any impact on your views on privacy, censorship, and free speech?
  • What do you take from the differences between Dina and Intisar wearing veils?  "For her to declare herself sanctified, not by money but by God, looked like putting on airs. Even as a pimply fourteen-year-old, Alif understood why her parents were so upset.  A saint was not profitable."  Is Dina a "saint?"  What does it mean that her parents allowed Dina to veil her face even though they were against it?
  • How is language and metaphor used in this novel?  Examples to discuss include the use of Internet handles (Alif, NewQuarter, etc), the importance of names, the concept of encoding a text by translation, the evolution of the original meaning of a word, the difference of thinking in different languages.  How does programming and coding fit into communication and language?  What do you think of Vikram's question, "Is anything real in French?"
  • "Perhaps somewhere deep in the mind was a sort of linguistic DNA, roped helixes of symbols that belonged to no one else.  For days Alif wrote nothing - no code, no e-mail - and instead wondered how much of the soul resided in the fingertips.  He was faced with the possibility that every word he typed spoke his name, no matter what other superficial information it might contain.  Perhaps it was impossible to become someone else, matter what avatar or handle one hid behind."  Even without logic-defying software such as Tin Sari, software exists that can collect and sort data to identify individuals with shocking accuracy.  Typing patterns, word choices, sentence structure, areas of interest.  There are anti-cheating measures that identify you based on your typing patterns and a writing sample for online courses.  How identifiable do you think you are online?
  • How do you feel about online relationships?  Do you have friends that you've never met?  ""Internet friends are real friends," said Abdullah.  "Now that you pious brothers and sisters have taken over half the planet, the Internet is the only place left to have a worthwhile conversation.""
  • What stands out to you about the gender roles and perceptions?  The value of virginity, the certainty that a women arrested will be raped.  What about Alif feeling that Dina is "smart as a man" or admiring her for her strength?  What do you make of Dina's indignation that Alif saying that he "forgot you were a girl."
  • Dina asks Alif, "Why do you get mad when religion tells you that the things you want to be true are true?"  To which he responds, "When it's true, it's not fun anymore.  All right?"  How much is the importance of fantasy that it is fantasy and not truth?  Is fantasy an element of religion?
  • What does it mean when Alif says "Your jinn are real, and this is the fiction."?
  • Do you feel that Dina is a strong character?  What makes her a strong individual?
  • What does the concept of "parallel knowledge" evoke?  Can you think of real life examples?  What about the concept of "a world turned sideways."
  • What do you think of "So the stories aren't just stories, is what you're saying. They're really secret knowledge disguised as stories."  "One could say that of all stories, younger brother."  How about, "Some stories have no morals.  Sometimes darkness and madness are simply that."
  • What do you think of the description of Americans as "Half in, half out.  A very spiritual people, but in their hearts they feel there is something shameful about the unseen."?
  • Is technology alive?  "So happy to see so much dead wire.  Tell me, younger brother, do you get this excited about living flesh?" [...] "I don't care," said Alif.  He tossed his backpack onto a chair at an empty workstation.  "And it's not dead.  It's just another kind of alive."
  • What do you think of the concept of spiritual technology?  About the implications of religious taboo and actions within a virtual world?  What about the metaphysics of religion and technology as discussed by Alif and Sheikh Bilal?
  • What do you think of Alif's decision (and feelings) regarding Intisar and Dina?  Was he in fact "unfaithful" to Dina without realizing it?  Should he have taken Intisar back?  Did he do the right thing?  Do you think he was ever in love with Intisar?

Friday, May 2, 2014

[Book Review] Wallbanger

Wallbanger / Alice Clayton (Powell's Books)

Anyone who's ever lived in an apartment, dorm, or other shared living knows about the joys of thin walls.  Dealing with the frustration of interrupted sleep thanks to one's neighbors almost seems like a right of passage (then again, I was largely an only child, so maybe those with large families are more familiar with noisy 'neighbors').

Caroline's new apartment is fantastic; spacious, clean, conveniently located, all those things people tend to look for in housing.  At least, the apartment is fantastic until 2AM her first night sleeping in her new home when she is woken by her neighbor's enthusiastic nocturnal activities.  The following two nights aren't any better as she is woken again bed frame percussion and introduced to the moans of other women.

Fortunately her neighbor is often out of town, but even if she's not aware of his return, it's always heralded by enthusiastic cries and crashing headboards.  What's a woman to do?  Not only does she have work in the mornings, but she's dealing with the aftermath of some seriously unpleasant assignations that have left her uninterested in dating and with some psychological tangles that prevent her from getting off.  Since Mr. Wallbanger seems oblivious (or uncaring) about the lack of soundproofing, and after one too many nights of interrupted sleep, Caroline beards the lion in its den.

As first meetings go, Caroline and Simon definitely don't get off to a good start.  Simon is arrogant, Caroline enraged, and both a bit frustrated.  But events conspire against them and running into each other seems inevitable, particularly when their best friends pair off.  Social niceties, neighborly encounters, and discovered shared interests bring the two closer together into a close friendship.  Admittedly, you could cut the sexual tension between them with a butter knife, but a friendship all the same.  Do they want to take a risk and try for more?

Wallbanger is a delightful cotton candy read.  It's light, fluffy, and sweet.  There are close friendships between women that rely on closeness, not competition, and actual development of feelings and friendship between Caroline and Simon.  Once they get down and dirty it's fun, sensual, and erotic (if perhaps a bit optimistically athletic).

I like that Clayton tried to add in insights from additional characters to the narration, though I'm not sure how successful I find some of the methods.  I do appreciate the complete lack of overbearing alpha male lust interest, Simon may start off on the wrong foot with Caroline, but he's actually a nice guy.  He gives Caroline her space and refrains from metaphorical pissing contests even when he strongly dislikes her date.  And Caroline doesn't "save" or remake Simon, she accepts him at face value.

Overall an enjoyable read.

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

Link Smorgasbord, April 2014

Transgender Children in Antebellum America
An online exhibit exploring the gender roles and expressions in a series of stories aimed at children in antebellum America.

Why No One Trusts Facebook To Power The Future
To be honest, a number of these reasons are similar to why I don't trust a number of companies to 'power the future.' to Acquire comiXology
So I have no doubt that this will benefit both Amazon and comiXology.  It still makes me wince uncomfortably, and not only because I liked what comiXology was doing as an independent company.

Policies that keep people from visiting their local library
After reading this and noticing a comment on the post in defense of association libraries and questioning some of the policies mentioned, I went and looked at the source myself.  While I think it is definitely important to question of policies are barriers to access, this article seems to have some unfounded accusations.  In particular I can find no evidence on the source page that physical library access is barred to patrons who lack a Delaware ID or library card, and has explicit policies for how one can use the computers as an out-of-state resident and get your own library card (including situations where the out-of-state annual library card fee may be waived).  The barring of meetings for religious purpose is actually quite common in libraries, just as libraries may have restrictions on political use of their space, the idea being to avoid using tax money in support of a specific religion or candidate.

What You Need To Know About Heartbleed, A Really Major Bug That Short-Circuits Web Security
I hope by now you're aware of Heartbleed, but just in case, throwing a link here.  Additionally, you can always go to for the full details.

Some amazing resources on copyright here, as well as a great way to learn more about the various issues on a global scale.

Take Free Online Courses at Hogwarts: Charms, Potions, Defense Against the Dark Arts & More

The Kitchen Library
A non-profit organization that lends out kitchen tools and equipment in Canada.  If it was closer I'd totally consider buying a membership.

Neil Gaiman's acclaimed comic book 'Sandman' returns after 25 years
Sandman is what got me into comics, I am tentatively very very excited about the potential film.  Also, I am super excited about the upcoming publication of "How the Marquis Got His Coat Back" in September.

You Love The Cloud, But It May Not Be As Secure As You Think
Not, as you might think from the title, about the risks of your data being hacked and stolen, but instead on the risks of relying on online storage for your files.

Confronting the Myth of the 'Digital Native'
I think this is fantastic.  Many people who spend time with me have heard me rant about the assumption of knowledge and skill with technology based on age.  It is not beneficial to anyone to assume competency and understanding of technology based on high use of a very limited area.

Hack for Western Mass
This is a local event for the National Day of Civic Hacking.  Provided work does not interfere I'll be there along with some other fantastic people in the area.  I missed out on the National Day of Civic Hacking last year, looking forwards to taking part this year.

Why I Love Hating QR Codes
An intelligent and informative discussion of someone's issues with QR codes.