Category Archives: Reviewing

Artistic Self-Doubt, and then Unexpected Encouragement

Fickle reviewed at SG UnboundBit of a long post, so please bear with me.

Part of being an artist of any kind is dealing with days where you doubt yourself and wonder whether it’s even worth continuing in your chosen field. Today was one of those days for me, a big ol’ pity party about the fact that, because A Fickle and Restless Weapon had been released during the pandemic, it hasn’t reached the number of readers I might have hoped for in the past six months or even made a dent in the cultural awareness of the reading public in Singapore or anywhere else. It’s the thing that’s creative death to any writer, that feeling of utter obscurity.

And so my brain was telling me this story again and again throughout the day, basically convincing me that my career was over and that I just didn’t matter, when two totally unexpected things happened to me.

1. I received an unprompted email from Pico Iyer. Yes, that Pico Iyer. We first met in September 2018, at the Epigram Books office, in a preliminary meeting about a book he was publishing with us, called This Could Be Home: Raffles Hotel and the City of Tomorrow (released in Singapore and the UK in 2019). We apparently hit it off, and have written to each other several times since then. His email today was concerned with the fact that his editor on the book, Eldes Tran (who also edited my three most recent books), has left for Manila, and that I was now his “Man in Epigram” on matters relating to the book and (crossing fingers) any others he might publish with us.

But among all this, he said some very kind and generous things about my own writing, which I’d shared with him some time back, as well as admiration of the fact that I can “soar into other genres and freshly reimagine the world”. It was so surprising and out of the blue, and so so appreciated. I often feel like I’m shouting into a hurricane with my work, and it did my heart so much good to see that someone whom I respect immensely and whose work I always enjoy saw something in my creative endeavours worth praising, just when I needed to hear it.

2. I received another email this evening from Jee Leong Koh announcing that A Fickle and Restless Weapon had been reviewed quite favourably at Singapore Unbound. I immediately opened the link and read with both anticipation and fear, but found that Samantha Neugebauer had done my novel the honour of a fair and thorough evaluation. The fact that she spent so much time examining and picking apart what she appreciated (including an unintended comparison to “John Hersey’s celebrated 1946 New Yorker article-turned-book, Hiroshima, where Hersey’s narrative eye swoops in on several citizens of Japan right before, during, and after the horrific dropping of the atomic bomb”), made me feel seen and respected for my art.

WARNING: the review is unapologetically packed with spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book yet and/or don’t want to be spoiled on the details, maybe give it a miss. If you have read the book or don’t give a shit about spoilers, then click on!

It’s a bit difficult to find a pull quote in a review that gives so much of the book away, but here’s a good one:

“[A Fickle and Restless Weapon] brims with larger-than-life events and heroic actions, but most impressive are the three, imperfect protagonists, trying to figure out their identities in a complex, shifting society. Lundberg’s Tinhau is a vibrant, deadly and creative world, much like our own.”

What a wonderful Xmas present, to be validated and critically encouraged twice on an especially low day. I suppose I’ll keep this writing thing up for a little while longer after all. 🙂

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Filed under Books, Reviewing, Tinhau

Examination of a Review

Strange Mammals ST reviewStrange Mammals was reviewed in yesterday’s edition of The Straits Times (right next to Amanda Lee Koe’s collection Ministry of Moral Panic, which made me smile), and although I appreciate that this may have made more folks aware of the book than before, I’m croggled at how many misperceptions and false assumptions and flat-out lazy pronouncements are littered throughout.

It’s generally considered bad form to respond to reviews, especially bad ones, and when it comes to opinion and preference, I do hold my tongue. However, there are so many inaccuracies here that I feel the need to set at least some of it straight.

The first of these is that reviewer is trying to ascribe the perceived differences in quality (although even these are extremely vague) between the book and my earlier collection Red Dot Irreal to some kind of chronological shift; she seems to assume that RDI was written by an “immature writer,” “a young, frustrated man who was adjusting to his new life in Singapore”. RDI came out in 2011 and Strange Mammals came out this year, so I must have written them in order, right? Um, no.

RDI, The Alchemy of Happiness, and Strange Mammals form a triptych of sorts, in that they collect almost all of my short fiction to date. The stories that were previously published in each book range across ten years of production (and the copyright dates of these pieces are easy to find ); there is a lot of overlap between them, in terms of when the stories were written, so I see them as concurrent books. Many of the pieces in Strange Mammals (if not most) predate those in RDI. So to try and justify any kind of progression or maturation of style or subject matter from one book to the other (especially within the span of two years) is fairly ludicrous.

The reviewer also mentions an authorial tic, in that I use the word “apotheosis” “in almost every story within Strange Mammals“. I went back to the manuscript and did a quick search, and “apotheosis” shows up only five times. I am willing to concede that this is one of my favorite words, and it is a noticeable one, but the fact that it only shows up five times within 60,000 words (which would make its occurrence 0.0083% of the total word count) hardly makes it even close to a most-used word. Even giving the reviewer the benefit of the doubt and going by the number of stories in which the word shows up, we’re still only talking five out of twenty-five stories; 20% is certainly higher than 0.0083%, but it’s still a far cry from “almost every story”.

It’s mentioned that the collection does not have a cohesive theme, like RDI and TAoH did, and I am well aware of this fact, but here it’s presented as a detriment, something that makes the book “a bit disjointed and not quite as satisfying to read as his earlier books.” I will admit that linked short story collections (whether through theme or character) can provide a more fulfilling reading experience, but un-linked collections have existed for a looooong time; much as I would like to take credit, I did not in any way invent this organizational type of book (an example of  one other book like this, published just this past year, is George Saunders’ Tenth of December; I can name at least a dozen others off the top of my head). This detail is presented as if I have not fulfilled a promise, either given through the cover copy or some other publicity material for the book, when, from the time it was announced, I have always referred to it as a “kitchen-sink” collection (which of course takes it name from the idiom “everything but the kitchen sink”), meaning that the contents would be highly varied, their main commonality being that they were written by me. If the reviewer doesn’t like un-linked collections as much as linked collections, it’s a fair cop, but what is not is damning the book because it’s not the book she wanted it to be. (And if she honestly felt that the book was “disjointed,” my next question is naturally going to be, “In what way?”)

Strange MammalsCertain details given (my birthplace, my religious views, my college alma mater, the dictionary definition of “apotheosis”) are simply irrelevant to discussion of the book. As is, frankly, any comparison to Red Dot Irreal. For a review of only 250 words or so, so much real estate is given over to such mundane detritus that discussion of the book on its own merits never actually comes into play. And it is this that is most frustrating; the reviewer spends so much time on stuff that really doesn’t matter and has no place in a book review, or complaining that her unfair expectations were not met, that the whole review becomes ultimately useless. This is something I might expect to see on a blog, but not in the Books section of Singapore’s national newspaper.

Bad reviews I can deal with; I’m a big boy and can handle thoughtful criticism. I’m also fine with gut-level reactions; not everyone is going to like my writing, and that’s okay. But lazy reviewing such as this does a disservice to any potential readers of the book, and to literary discourse in general.

If you’d like to buy Strange Mammals and judge it for yourself, you can find it in the following places (just in time for Christmas!):

Paperback: BooksActually | Books Kinokuniya | Borders/Popular • Amazon | Amazon UK | CreateSpace

Ebook: Smashwords • Nook • Kobo • iTunes • Kindle • Kindle UK


Filed under Books, Reviewing

In Which Jason is Not Interviewed by The New York Times

I’m under deadline to finish writing an 8,000-word short story and a 12,000-word plenary talk cum essay, so today I’m going to perform the time-honored writerly tradition of procrastination and answer a bunch of interview questions instead.

The questions in question (ahem) come from this interview with Neil Gaiman by the New York Times Sunday Book Review (feel free to read Neil’s answers, as they’re guaranteed to be better than mine). The New York Times did not, in fact, interview me, although for the rest of this blog entry I will pretend that they did. Enjoy.

1. What book is on your night stand now?

I just finished re-reading The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov, as part of my quest to read all of the man’s published fiction in two years. This ur-Lolita should be judged on its own merits, but it is nigh impossible to do so; the shadow of Lolita (the book, not the girl) looms largest over all Nabokov’s fiction, and takes many of the plot points from The Enchanter and lets them breathe, lets them happen more naturally. My complete impressions of the book (such as they are) can be found here.

Also included on the night stand: Deathbird Stories (Revised and Expanded Edition) by Harlan Ellison, Kafkaesque edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh, The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories by Andy Duncan, June Fourth Elegies by Liu Xiaobo, Zeroville by Steve Erickson, and Paradise Tales by Geoff Ryman. (A lot of short stories in that list, I’m just now realizing.)

This of course does not count the around sixty ebooks purchased on or for my NOOK, which are patiently waiting for me to get to them.

2. When and where do you like to read?

I’ve had the habit, since I was in middle school or thereabouts, of reading for at least an hour every night before bed. And in the 25 years since, I’ve more or less kept to this pattern. As I may have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, reading helps my mind to calm down after a sensory-intensive day, and is one of the top activities in which I recharge my overloaded introverted brain. I know that I’ll be able to do so uninterrupted for a decent stretch of time, which aids in the relaxation, and gets my body ready for sleep.

This does occasionally backfire with particularly exciting novels that keep me up into the wee hours. But it’s a risk worth taking.

I love to read during the day as well, in pretty much any location in which I’m left alone, but this is difficult with an exuberant two-year-old running around the house or insisting I join her for a tea party or to solve jigsaw puzzles. If I can snatch a few minutes of reading time during daylight hours, I consider myself incredibly fortunate.

3. What was the last truly great book you read?

I recently finished reading The Mirage by Matt Ruff, and it blew me away. The premise of a politically-reversed world, wherein the United Arab States have been attacked by Christian fundamentalists and in response invade the Christian States of America, turns the entire War on Terror on its head. A riveting thought experiment, and a highly enjoyable fast-paced thriller.

I also quite enjoyed Lewis Shiner’s short novel Dark Tangos, which begins as an exploratory love story and then turns much darker (including a scene of meticulously described torture, which forced me to keep reading into the wee hours so that I could get past it, in order to avoid nightmares). Shiner’s evocation of Buenos Aires and his love of tango make this an incredibly compelling narrative, even, and especially, during the less “exciting” parts.

Some excellent essay collections by fiction authors I already love: Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon, Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson, and The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem, all of which I recommend.

But probably at the top of the most recent books I’ve read would have to be Nabokov’s exquisitely absurd Invitation to a Beheading, which sings with all of the things I’ve come to love about his writing. From my overly enthusiastic and loquacious impressions of the book:

O, what a riotously lovely piece of literature! I realize that Nabokov eschews any kind of Kafkaesque influence, but he and Kafka were clearly drinking from the same narrative well in this case. Our protagonist (with the mellifluous moniker of Cincinnatus C.) knows from the beginning the aspects of falsity and absurdity in the world he both inhabits and feels profoundly apart from. Convicted of the epistemological crime of “gnostical turpitude” (in other words, “depraved knowledge”) and sentenced to punitive decapitation, our dear narrator, who seems, on occasion, to psychologically split himself in twain, exists in a state of stultifying stasis, unaware of his execution date or his executioner, until both are revealed toward the end of the book. His reactions to the increasingly bizarre and hermetically implausible events that surround his impending death—largely consisting of his interactions with his unfaithful profligate of a wife, the prison guard, the warden, Cincinnatus’s lawyer, and his neighbor in the next cell—further illustrate his complete frustration with trying to apply logic in an illogical world, a theme Kafka was also quite fond of exploring.

4. Are you a fiction or a nonfiction person? What’s your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?

I’m pretty firmly in the fiction camp for pleasure reading, of the “paraliterary” variety; most non-fiction to me either feels like work or research for my writing (which is another form of work). The main exceptions to this rule are essays by writers of which I’m already a fan (such as the ones mentioned above), but I also was recently bowled over by No Enemies, No Hatred by Liu Xiaobo (a collection of his political writings and poetry), Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (which I’ve already talked about in this blog), and The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry (a memoir that mainly covers Fry’s time at Cambridge, when he met fine folks like Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, and Rowan Atkinson, and immediately afterward, when he started to become successful in television).

I don’t know that I have any guilty pleasures when it comes to books. There are writers that I adore and will follow no matter what they write (a list of which is entirely too long to lay out here), but I don’t feel guilty about reading any of them.

5. What book had the greatest impact on you? What book made you want to write?

1984 by George Orwell has had by far the greatest impact on me. It was the first book that completely gutted me as a reader; the first time I read it as a required text in high school, the last line made me burst into tears. Only true art can have such an emotional affect. I wasn’t as keen on the political elements on that first reading, although they made more and more sense to me with each subsequent re-read (and also made me realize how political the entire novel is, from top to bottom). 1984 showed me the power of writing, and planted that seed of discovering just what I wanted to say in my own writing.

I don’t know if any one specific book made me want to write. Since I was little, I’d made up little stories, and even wrote one down when I was around seven years old in ur-chapbook form, called “The Pulsar NX is Missing!” about ninjas who steal my mother’s car.

6. If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

Other than my own? I’m not quite sure how to answer, as I don’t like the idea of “requiring” anybody to read anything. I’m happy to recommend, of course, but what am I going to do, stand over Obama’s shoulder monitoring his eyes’ movements over the page? That said, what I would very much like to see him read is a bound report of all the abuses committed by the Transportation Security Administration since its inception after 9/11, with page after page of humiliating accounts of innocent airline passengers being terrorized by the TSA, in the hopes that such a massive collation of offenses would finally convince him to abolish the agency.

7. What are your reading habits? Paper or electronic? Do you take notes?

I still vastly prefer books on paper, but more and more and I’m starting to edge into ebook land. After receiving a NOOK for Christmas, I can see the appeal of ebooks, especially if they might be books I wouldn’t necessarily want to keep on my shelves after finishing them (like Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs), or if they’re books I’d have a hard time finding in Singapore.

I never take notes in books. I’ve worked as both a bookseller and as a librarian, and the thought of marking up the pages in a book with pen or pencil makes me physically shudder. The only times I have broken this rule were for books that I taught in my classes, and even then I did so most grudgingly.

8. Do you prefer a book that makes you laugh or makes you cry? One that teaches you something or one that distracts you?


9. Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov, which I stopped at the halfway mark; I found it a difficult, internalized, psychological plod, although I suspect that I might feel differently if I knew thing one about Russian literature. It’s as if, knowing this would be his last major novel written first in Russian (all the ones to follow were originally written in English), he decided to create his love letter to Russian poetry, and to do so in the densest manner possible. I am honestly befuddled by the comments on Goodreads that list it among his top works. It is not surprising at all to me that at the same time as he was writing The Gift, he crafted Invitation to a Beheading, mentioned above; a joyous aside during the creation of such a Serious Work.

10. If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?

There’s a saying that one should never meet one’s heroes, as they will invariably deflate the image one has constructed from hopes and aspirations, but I really would have liked to meet Philip K. Dick. I didn’t get introduced to his writing until I was in college (more than ten years after he’d died), but there was something in UBIK, and in many of his other novels and short stories, that I strongly related to, mostly the idea that the world we know is an illusion, a fabrication, and that we must realize this basic truth in order to see that we are being manipulated. It’s the basic premise of The Matrix (which owes as much debt to Dick as it does to William Gibson and Jean Baudrillard), and it’s one of the core tenets of Buddhism.

11. What’s the best comic book you’ve ever read? Graphic novel?

It’s got to be the ten-volume set of graphic novels that comprise Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. I was a big fan of Gaiman’s prose writing before I made the plunge into his comics work, but this series is such a massive accomplishment, an epic story told in patient beautiful language that upends our assumptions about storytelling itself. One feels after completing the series a sense that the world is both more terrible and more wonderful than we could ever imagine.

12. What do you plan to read next?

The Left Left Behind by Terry Bisson, which is part of PM Press’s Outspoken Authors pocketbooks series. Terry was one of my instructors at Clarion, and I’ve enjoyed his fiction over the years, but it wasn’t until I jumped the gun and read the interview with him in this small book that I realized what a radical activist he was in his youth, and how those political leanings still inform his character today.

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Filed under Books, Introversion, Nabokov, Reading, Reviewing, Writing

Grasping for the Wind

Thumb UpEarlier this week, I got a very nice surprise: John Ottinger III reviewed Red Dot Irreal for Grasping for the Wind. It’s an overwhelmingly positive review, an absolute love letter, and it truly made my day. I’ve been publishing for almost ten years now, and although I’ve tried to build up a thick skin against criticism, it’s always extremely flattering and ego-boosting to see someone enjoy your work so much. This is the first actual review of the book I’ve seen; I was actually starting to wonder if it would get reviewed, despite all the copies I sent out.

However, that said, there are a few things that need to be clarified or corrected here.

1) “Lundberg is currently a professor of English”: I wish this were the case, but it’s not. I was an adjunct professor for SMU back in 2007 (which is where I got much of the material for “Dragging the Frame,” although that story is highly fictionalized), but that was only for one semester. After that, I taught at Hwa Chong Institution (High School Section) for four years as an English teacher. Now I’m not even doing that. The only teaching I’m doing at the moment is conducting writing workshops for BooksActually, and mentoring two young prose writers for the Ceriph Mentorship Programme.

2) “All set in the exotic ‘red dot’ nation of Singapore”: I really did try very hard when constructing these stories not to “exoticize” Singapore, or to paint an unrealistically rosy picture of the country. Instead, my aim was to show life as lived by the people here, whether local or expatriate, in a believable yet fantastical milieu. I might be accused of an overt mysticism in “Kopi Luwak,” which takes place on Bali (the only story in the book not set in Singapore), but this was done for a reason as well, to show how the asshole protagonist has exoticized that tiny island in order to take what he wants from it.

3) “Married to a native of that island nation and father of a biracial child”: This quote was brought to my attention by Lavie Tidhar on Twitter, and while it’s technically true, the wording is a bit problematic. “Native” has colonial Othering connotations, and was often used by the British (and others) to justify the theft and destruction of the property, land, resources, and people they wanted to “civilize.” “Local” is a slightly more neutral word, and would have been more accurate, although Janet is also quite international; she’s traveled all over the world, and went to university for three years (iirc) in the USA. Replacing “native of that island nation” with “Singaporean artist and writer” would have been better, but eliding this fact altogether probably would have been best, as it’s a bit distracting and not really relevant to the rest of the review.

4) “A tale of pirates (known as bogeymen in the local parlance)”: Actually, that’s not quite right. The etymology of the word “bogeyman” comes directly from the Bugis, a seafaring Indonesian ethnic group who were largely fishermen and farmers for centuries. Some of them were also pirates, and they were known to be particularly fearsome throughout the seas of Southeast Asia. Not all the Bugis were pirates, and not all SEA pirates were Bugis. But it was because they were so scary and efficient that they were transformed into mythological monsters by the British sailors who survived encounters with them. Oh, and “Bogeymen” would technically be clockpunk rather than steampunk; in the mid-1800s, steam-powered devices were not yet evident in Southeast Asia, and they’re not in the story.

5) “Oriental history”: Again, some problematic language. “Orientalism” was mostly used to Other the cultures of the Middle East, but this extended to the “Far East” as well, and was almost always used as a term of derogatory contrast to Western culture; the brilliant Edward Said wrote a whole book on this subject. See “native” above.

6) “‘Lion City Daikaiju’ is a flash fiction that is a metaphor for Singapore’s search for a place in the global culture”: Sort of. It’s more of a diatribe against shallow consumerism, materialism, advertising, pandering to tourists, brainless entertainment, and the destruction of history in the relentless pursuit of progress. But mostly I just wanted to write Godzilla story set in Singapore.

Anyway, John could not have known most of this stuff, and I still greatly appreciate him reviewing the book. These are small details, but I hope I’ve clarified them better here.


Filed under Red Dot Irreal, Reviewing

Read an E-book Week!

2012chillThis coming week, 4-10 March 2012, is Read an E-book Week! The purpose of this event is to “educate and inform the public about the pleasures and advantages of reading electronically. Authors, publishers, vendors, the media and readers world-wide are welcome to join in the effort.” One cool way to celebrate is to check out the almost 40,000 public domain e-books listed at Project Gutenberg.

In addition, the e-book distributor Smashwords is running a sitewide promotion:

At one minute past midnight Pacific time on March 4, a special Read an Ebook Week promotion catalog will appear on the Smashwords home page. Readers can browse the catalog and search by coupon code levels and categories. At the stroke of midnight Pacific time on March 10, the catalog disappears.

This sounds like a fantastic idea, and a great way to spread awareness of the e-books obtainable on Smashwords.

So for next week only, Red Dot Irreal will be available (still completely DRM-free, still in multiple formats) ABSOLUTELY FREE OF CHARGE.

In order to take advantage of this special offer, you’ll need to go through the regular process to buy the book, then enter the coupon code RE100 to receive the 100% discount. It’s that easy!

Once you’ve downloaded and read the book, here are some things that you can do to help with the book’s visibility (reposted and revised from an earlier entry):

1. Consider rating the book at Goodreads, and posting a short review. Goodreads is probably the most influential book-related social network right now, and if a book page shows a good number of reader reactions, it can help to gauge interest and possibly nudge a passer-by into trying the book for herself.

2. You can also cross-post your review to Smashwords, the book’s Facebook page, and your own blog (if you maintain one). If you email me the link to your review, I’ll give a thankful signal boost on Facebook and Twitter, and also here at the blog.

3. If you decide you want a physical copy, you can buy it from one of the following places — in Singapore: BooksActually, Kinokuniya, Grapheme Zine Lab; in Europe: Studio Circle Six; and Worldwide in Print-on-Demand: (hand to heart, the POD paperback edition looks fantastic, almost indistinguishable from the original offset-printed book). You can also email me if you would like to buy a signed edition directly from the author.

4. If you really dug the book and want to go that extra mile to help others also find it, you can recommend the book personally to your friends, loved ones, book club, etc. Nothing piques a person’s interest in a book like an enthusiastic devotee!

Any and all pimpage efforts will be greatly appreciated. The goal here is to enable as many people as possible to enjoy the book.

Have a happy Read an E-book Week!

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Filed under Books, Red Dot Irreal, Reviewing

Doctor Nice

Baum Plan coverI just this morning finished John Kessel’s recent collection The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories, a mere three and a half years after the kind doctor mailed it to me (although it only took me four days to read it). I’ve been a fan of Kessel’s since around 1993, when I discovered that North Carolina State University (which I’d just started attending) boasted a science fiction writer in their English faculty. As an undergrad, I sought out his survey classes in Science Fiction and Fantasy, as well as his writing workshops. In my callow enthusiasm, I bothered him mercilessly with questions about SF and writing and publishing, and he largely tolerated my many intrusions, and encouraged me in my pursuits.

When I decided to go for graduate school in creative writing, he was the only person I wanted as my mentor and thesis advisor. During those two years, I learned more than I would think possible about pushing my writing from competent to good (although a writer’s measure of his own writing is always suspect). He also invited me to his house when hosting get-togethers for visiting writers, talked to me seriously about where my career was heading, and made me feel as if what I was doing was valid and worthwhile. Somewhere in there, I stopped referring to him as “Dr Kessel” and started calling him “John.”

When The Baum Plan was published by the always awesome Small Beer Press in 2008, he very kindly sent me a copy of the hardcover (with reversible alternate-reality dustjacket!), and although I pledged that I would dive right in, it sat on my shelf for years. So last week, finally, I pulled it down. I’d read about half the stories already when they were originally published, but I was surprised to find that the other half were delightfully unknown.

The meta-literary sequel to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (“Every Angel is Terrifying), the exploitative relationship of Oz’s working and elite classes (“The Baum Plan for Financial Independence”), and the ingenius Jane Austen/Mary Shelley mashup that sees Victor Frankenstein wooing Mary Bennet (“Pride and Prometheus”) all reinforce Kessel’s dual loves of science fiction and classic literature found previously in stories like Another Orphan (a man transported from the present day to Captain Ahab’s whaling ship in Moby Dick) and “Gulliver at Home” (told from the POV of Gulliver’s wife, left behind while he travels).

His Lunar Quartet (“The Juniper Tree,” “Stories for Men,” “Under the Lunchbox Tree,” and “Sunlight or Rock”) explore his examination of gender roles with the matriarchal Society of Cousins ensconced on the moon. I still hope that one day he’ll write a novel in this universe, one that he’d begun years ago and called Soft Upset (a wonderful working title that refers to the physical disturbance caused by a lunar landing), but if not, these four stories are exemplars of the imagination of alternate societies. “The Invisible Empire” also sheds a fascinating alternate light on feminist enforcement squads who have assassinated President Grover Cleveland, and inflict punishment on men proven to be abusive towards their wives and children.

I was greatly excited to see the return of Detlev Gruber in “It’s All True,” the time-traveling media recruiter encountered previously in “Some Like It Cold,” “The Miracle of Ivar Avenue” and the fantastic novel Corrupting Dr. Nice. Even if we don’t see Detlev again, I hope Kessel returns to this “Moment-Universe” milieu, as it’s always a fun way to explore exploitation, media, and economic politics, although he may have said all he wants to on this score.

“The Snake Girl” (Kessel’s only explicitly mainstream piece, written thanks to a wager with Wilton Barnhardt) and “Powerless” (which is also very light on fantastical elements) don’t have quite the same punch and enthusiasm of his speculative work, but are still skillfully written. And the short short pieces “The Red Phone” and “Downtown” provide an element of wacky absurdity quite fitting for the “story grenade” form.

The only story that left me feeling “meh” was “The Last American,” which follows the life of an influential man who is at times a bully, an abusive soldier, a successful filmmaker, a religious leader, and a politician. Written in the style of a review of a far-future documentary, it is an interesting exercise in direct speculation, but any narrative elements fell flat to me. Still, only one dud among thirteen glorious stories ain’t bad.

The Baum Plan can be ordered in hardcover or paperback from fine bookstores everywhere (though I encourage you to support your indies), or directly from Small Beer Press (which is also great, as the money goes straight to the publisher). The Creative Common-licensed DRM-free ebook version can be downloaded for free (which comes with a great reading group guide).

Last year, Kessel was invited to Fractal ’11, an annual event “held in MedellĂ­n, Colombia that seeks to help bridge the gap between the speed of scientific and technological changes, and the ability of people to adapt.” He gave a fascinating plenary talk titled, “The Future as Mirror: How SF Uses the Tomorrow to Understand Today,” and I just discovered the video for this event today. Enjoy.


Filed under Books, Reviewing, Writing

ARCs: Digital vs Dead Tree

John Scalzi’s latest blog entry, “eARCs: Big Fat PublicityFail,” points to a new tactic Eos Books is attempting to save money on printing and shipping Advance Reader Copies of their books to reviewers: a full-color card with book cover on one side, and scratch-off download code on the other for an eARC of the book.

Now, unrelated to the complicated process just to download the book (which is a bit boneheaded) and to the other publisher he mentions that releases eARCs with a 30-day DRM expiry date, after which, it is assumed, one can no longer read the file anymore (which is even more boneheaded), what I want to talk about is another point that Scalzi brings up: eARCs themselves. I’m not one to criticize eBooks or eARCs in general; I think that they’re fantastic ways to promote and disseminate books along a great distance. However, as a reviewer, I can’t stand them.

I’m lucky in that I’ve been reviewing books for about eight years, and have done so for a few notable publications, which means I have a bit more clout than a n00b reviewer just starting out, which also means that very nice folks at publishers like Tor and Subterranean are actually inclined to send me physical dead tree books in the post, even all the way to Singapore. It’s not cheap to do so, but they know that I can be counted on to review the book in a venue that will guarantee eyeballs, and there will be some level of enthusiasm about the book because I requested an ARC in the first place (my steadfast rule as a reviewer: I only review books that I feel have merit and will enjoy on some level).

Smaller presses have asked if they could send me eARCs rather than a physical copy of the book, for the reason above: posting expense. This is understandable. When Janet and I published A Field Guide to Surreal Botany in 2008, I sent PDF review copies to any blogger who expressed an interest, which, looking at my records, was about 35 people. However, I was also very fortunate to have Merrie Haskell in the US acting as my North American Distributor, and so I sent out almost 50 physical review copies (which were not ARCs, but the way; these were the final printed books) to newspapers, journals, and high-profile bloggers. I included the download code along with the physical review copies so that the reviewers could also take advantage of the digital version.

Looking back now at both lists — reviewers and bloggers — there is a much larger throughput on the reviewer side, meaning that a higher percentage of reviewers than bloggers actually reviewed the book. And the biggest reason for this has to be might possibly be that the reviewers could actually hold the book in their hands and enjoy its aesthetic qualities; this is of course an anecdotal conclusion, but it makes a lot of sense, especially for a book like Surreal Botany, which begs to be caressed. They reviewed the book because they had the physical copy.

Same goes for me as a reviewer. I much prefer to have an actual physical copy of the book in my hands. I do plenty of reading on the computer screen, but it takes enormous effort and concentration to read an entire novel on my computer. As Cory Doctorow states: “The cognitive style of the computer is different from the cognitive style of the novel.” There are an infinite number of distractions that my computer loves to inundate me with, to the point where I just cannot sink into that cozy narrative space that lying on the couch with the book in my hands allows me to do.

So if a publisher insists on only sending me a PDF for one of their titles, I’m very up front about my likelihood of reviewing their book. I appreciate that they sent me the file for review, but amidst all of the other things on my computer clamoring for my attention, not to mention the dozens of actual paper books in my current To-Be-Read pile, I’m less likely to actually read the eBook. Sad, but true.

Here’s the list of eARCs or otherwise free eBooks that I’ve accumulated in the last couple of years (in alphabetical order by author’s surname), almost all of which I have not yet read [ETA: not all of these books I intended to review, but many of them I did]:

A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham
Seeds of Change ed. by John Joseph Adams
Grey by Jon Armstrong
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Windup Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi
My Own Kind of Freedom by Steven Brust
War for the Oaks by Emma Bull*
Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods by Frank Darabont
Content by Cory Doctorow
Labyrinth Summer by Rudi Dornemann
“Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse” by Andy Duncan
Die! Vampire! Die! by Hal Duncan
Surveillance Self-Defense International by Peter Eckersley
Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet no. 22 ed. by Gavin J. Grant et al.
Dubliners by James Joyce*
Butcher Bird by Richard Kadrey
The 35 Articles of Impeachment and the Case for Prosecuting George W. Bush by Congressman Dennis Kucinich
Realms of Fantasy vol. 16 no. 1 ed. by Shawna McCarthy
Why I Love Bees: A Case Study in Collective Intelligence Gaming by Jane McGonigal
The Magician of Lhasa by David Michie
In the Midnight Hour by Patti O’Shea
The Potemkin Mosaic: First Dream by Mark Teppo
Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest*
True Names by Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia
Orthodox Chinese Buddhism by Chan Master Sheng Yen
Dogland by Will Shetterly
Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery
Nefertiti Was Here by Jasmina Tesanovic
The Disunited States of America by Harry Turtledove
Secret Lives & The Situation by Jeff VanderMeer
Farthing by Jo Walton
Starfish by Peter Watts
Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
Speaking Treason Fluently & White Like Me by Tim Wise
Shimmer no. 10 ed. by Beth Wodzinski
Orphans of Chaos by John C. Wright
The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It by Jonathan L. Zittrain
The Last Book by Zoran Zivkovic

* I have read these books already in print form.

Lots of great books, yet they’ve been languishing on my hard drive for months, if not years, unread. The Last Book is the only book by Zoran Zivkovic that I have not yet read by him, for the simple reason that I don’t have a physical copy, and I’m the webmaster for his website, fer crissakes!

And here are the physical ARCs that are currently waiting for me to review for SF Site or other venues:

Makers by Cory Doctorow
Clementine by Cherie Priest
A Short History of Fantasy by Farah Mendelsohn & Edward James
Technologized Desire by D. Harlan Wilson
Imagination/Space by Gwyneth Jones
The Well-Built City Trilogy (The Physiognomy, Memoranda and The Beyond) by Jeffrey Ford

Guess which ones I’ll be getting to first.

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