Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

Amazon has acquired Goodreads. Here’s what I think about that.

Yet another month has come and gone, and yet another pile of books has been added to my “read” shelf. I picked up the pace after February’s lull in reading. Right now, though, there’s a bigger fish to fry – I want to talk about the fact that Amazon has purchased Goodreads.

At this point, I have no idea what to think beyond my general knee-jerk reaction of Amazon = evil. A large part of the appeal of Goodreads was its independence; this acquisition just gives Amazon even more power in an industry where it’s already the 800-pound gorilla. If it turns out that the book reviews I stored on Goodreads will be made available on Amazon’s pages, I’ll pull them. However, I hope it doesn’t come to that, because I like distributing my reviews through multiple channels.

Ideally, I want Amazon to keep a loose grip on the site and leave the current user experience unchanged. I still want to be able to add books to my “to read” shelf, keep track of my current reading progress, and shelve books as I finish them. I use the group and book club features sporadically at best, and although I send messages to other users, I do so rarely. In other words, Goodreads’ social networking features aren’t as big a draw for me as its shelving and library features.

This leads me to another issue: discoverability. There’s been a lot of talk recently about how books have a “discoverability” problem, and how it’s hard for publishers and retailers to connect readers to books they don’t know about yet, but may love if they’re given the right push. Goodreads’ recommendations engine is thus an alluring addition to Amazon’s algorithms, because theoretically it will increase the conversion rate of book recommendations to sales.

I say “theoretically” because I don’t bother with Goodreads’ engine at all. Why should I when I’m inundated by book titles from so many other sources? I get recommendations from friends. I subscribe to a ton of RSS feeds and podcasts, and a few fiction magazines. Whenever a book is mentioned in one of those venues that sounds even vaguely interesting, I add it to my “to-read” shelf.

Currently, that shelf is hovering around 250 books – and that’s not counting all of the other titles I come across but ultimately ignore. I have absolutely no problem when it comes to finding new books to read. (And since the Hugo nominations were announced today, that’s yet another source of really good algorithm-free recommendations to pay attention to.)

Speaking of RSS feeds, the thing that pains me the most about Amazon’s purchase is that it comes so soon after the announcement of Google Reader’s impending shutdown. Goodreads and Reader together were a dynamite combo – both were free, were easy to use, and helped me keep track of interesting things. When Google announced that Reader was closing shop, I scrambled to find a replacement. The idea of trying to find yet another alternative to a perfectly good web service just two weeks later fills me with dread and fatigue. If it were any other month, I’d (probably) delete my account as a form of protest, but this time I’m too goddamn tired, and there doesn’t appear to be a good replacement waiting in the wings. I’m just going to wait and hope that Amazon doesn’t fuck things up.

So what about you? Are you cautiously optimistic? Are you filled with horror? I’d like to hear what you think in the comments.

Goals for 2013

The frenzy of reading and reviewing 40 books in 2012 has passed, but I’m still a little shell-shocked a few days later. 2013 will be a bit different, but in degree rather than in kind. Of course, this can mean only one thing: I’ve upped the ante.

In this case, I’ve decided to read 50 books this year instead of 40.

However, I don’t want to deal with the insanity of writing 50 book reviews. I think this year, I’ll just review a book whenever the mood strikes me, though I do plan to do a minimum of 1 per month.

I’m also going to try to inject more variety into my reading, and broaden my scope away from just speculative fiction. For example…

  • More public domain books/books that form part of the Western canon
  • More books by authors of colour, and/or with protagonists of colour
  • More anthologies written by multiple authors

On top of that, I’m going to keep on doing my slush reading for Electric Velocipede, attend Ad Astra in April, and get back on the horse with my own writing. I might even have the courage to submit something to a magazine or anthology – you never know.

So what are your goals for the brand new year?

Book Review: The Terror by Dan Simmons

Title: The Terror
Author: Dan Simmons
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print (hardcover)

I’ve decided to ditch the “Reading challenge” portion of my book review titles. This was the 12th book that I read this year, and dear Lord, was it a doozy.

About the book: It is 1847. The two boats from the Franklin Expedition to the Northwest Passage – the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror – have been locked within the pack ice of the Arctic for well over a year. However, the steady depletion of coal, food, and supplies is not the only hardship that both crews have to face, for the arrival of a mute Inuit woman has coincided with the predations of a terrible supernatural creature with a craving for human flesh. Now Captain Frances Crozier, the highest-ranking officer still alive on this cursed expedition, has to determine how reach safety while evading both the monster stalking them and the mutinous thoughts growing within his crew.

What I liked: The opening of the book was planned out with care, as Simmons switched between different characters and different points of view. He painstakingly set up the environment and stakes of the story – the ships being frozen on the ice, the crew having the startlingly incompetent Sir John Franklin as commander, and there being barely enough coal to keep warm. I could sense that Simmons was building a strong house, and that he was laying down the planks and foundation with precision. Every chapter, every new development, every switch from one character to another, screamed one word: Deliberation.

In particular, I liked the slow buildup and unfurling of two crucial scenes: The disastrous Grand Carnivale out on the ice, and Crozier’s agony soon afterwards as he gave up drinking cold turkey and went through an agonizing detoxification process, complete with hallucinations and delirium tremens.

Astute readers will note that the Grand Carnivale sequence is an extended reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. I am not so astute, as I haven’t read Poe, but I do read Wikipedia, so I understood the basics of the reference. It impresses and pleases me when an author pays such attention to pacing, structure, and literary allusions. It tells me that the author cares. It also tells me that they take their readers seriously, and expect the same level of care and attention in return.

What I disliked: Despite the respect I felt Simmons was paying his readers, this book was far too long. Reading it was a protracted affair, full of doubt – rather like the Franklin Expedition described within. I don’t know if the book’s length was deliberate in order to exhaust readers, but I suspect that Simmons would not find such a meta-effect unwelcome. However, I also felt a perverse sense of pride as I complained about The Terror book to my friends and coworkers – it felt oddly satisfying to heft this brick up into the air and declare that it was too long to be enjoyable. Ultimately, I finished it by giving myself a goal of reading at least 50 pages during every commute to and from work, effectively making it feel like a school assignment. I’m unsure why it was so difficult to read The Terror, as I read Justin Cronin’s The Passage (which was approximately the same length) last summer and finished it in less than a week.

Another problem was the lack of both a glossary and a character list in the book. There were over 100 men on both ships and the majority of them were referred to by name throughout the text; it would have been invaluable to have a list of all of the crew members, and a glossary explaining all of the naval terms, in order to help me understand who they were and what they were doing. In particular, one early conversation between the various officers of both ships included two participants who were both named John, and the only way to distinguish between the two was that one was referred to as “Sir John” and the other “Captain Sir John.” Trying to keep all of the names straight in this and other instances made me dizzy.

Finally, the closing chapters of the book were a dramatic, abrupt shift. After hundreds of pages of slogging through ice, starvation, scurvy, mutiny, and cannibalism, we move instead into a discourse on Inuit mythology and the origins of the snow-monster. I understand why this was included – you can’t just introduce a crazy man-eating monster in the Arctic larger and more cunning than a polar bear and not expect people to wonder where it came from – but the move away from the Franklin Expedition crew members came out of left field. It also disturbed me that in all of the pages devoted to the viewpoints of the crew members there was no chapter similarly devoted to Lady Silence’s viewpoint. She is an important character, and vital to the survival of Crozier, yet we never experience her thoughts.

The verdict: Simmons has skill – the effort which he takes to establish location and weave together the various viewpoints of the story are obvious – but The Terror was such a slog that my appreciation of it is muted. I spent so much time reading it that to give up on it would have felt like a waste, and would have seriously set back my book review efforts here. This is the first book I read in 2012 that left me sitting on the fence.

Next up: The Steel Seraglio, by Mike Carey, Louise Carey, and Linda Carey.

2012 Reading challenge, book 11: Mort

Title: Mort (Discworld Book #4)
Author: Terry Pratchett
Publisher: Corgi
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of the grand old ladies of fantasy fiction at this point. Pratchett’s prolific output and consistent hilarity have earned him scads of readers. However, until this year, I had never read any Discworld books, and the only book of his I had read was Good Omens, which was co-written with Neil Gaiman. I decided to read this book first out of the entire series based on the Gateway to Geekery recommendation made by The AV Club, one of my favourite culture/media sites.

About the book: Death, the Reaper of Souls, needs an apprentice and decides on Mort, a gangly, naive teenager from the hinterlands of the Disc. Wearying of living without truly understanding life, Death goes on an extended holiday and leaves Mort in charge. Mort, of course, has had only the most rudimentary of training, and unleashes a potentially catastrophic chain of events when he decides to thwart fate and prevent the assassination of a comely princess. As is so often the case with Pratchett, hilarity ensues…

What I liked: Pratchett’s known for his humour, and this book did not disappoint. It introduced me to Discworld with little discomfort, and I felt comfortable amidst the snarky footnotes, anthropomorphic personifications, and judicious small caps. The writing flowed easily, and although the lack of chapter breaks was jarring, I adjusted to it quickly. Also, Death is a wonderful character – it’s amazing how he’s imbued with so much personality despite his nature as a cold, implacable reality that we all must face. The asides and worldbuilding interspersed throughout the novel were deftly done, and certain scenes, like Mort’s solo attempt to fulfill Death’s duties with an understanding witch, were surprisingly poignant.

What I disliked: The lead-up to the ending of the book was rushed and didn’t match the tone of the text that preceded it. Throughout the book, Pratchett clearly explained how Mort’s actions violated the natural order, but the sword-and-scythe fight seemed like a really tacked-on way to resolve this dispute. No other sequence in the book has a similar level of physical action in it, and it seemed out of character for both Death and Mort to take part. In addition, the final revelation that Mort and Ysabell got hitched – and got a new duchy in Sto Helit in the bargain – seemed awfully neat and tidy.

The verdict: Mort was fun, and I look forward to reading other books in the Discworld series to get a sense of how the various puzzle pieces fit together. My fiancé is a big fan of the Night Watch books, and has at least a few ready to borrow. However, I am worried that the other books in the series will have the same ending/denouement problems that this one did. I remain cautiously optimistic about the series so far.

Up next: The Terror, by Dan Simmons

2012 Reading challenge, book 4: On Writing

Title: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (10th Anniversary Edition)
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Rating: 5 out of 5
Format: Print

The name “Stephen King” has by now become a byword for “successful author.” He’s one of those authors, along with J.K. Rowling, that are always cited as the exception to the rule that most writers won’t be able to live solely off the fruits of their writing. He’s ubiquitous. In light of both this and my interest in fantasy and sci-fi, which often encroaches upon the borders of horror fiction, it might surprise you to learn that I didn’t read my first Stephen King book until nearly 4 years ago – that book was Insomnia and even he admits it was a muddled novel. So, what do I think of a book about writing, written by one of the titans of the industry? Let’s find out.

About the book: Part memoir and part instructional manual, On Writing ties together King’s career as an author with more personal facets of his life. In an unusual move, the instructions about writing – arguably the biggest draw – are placed towards the end of the book, and On Writing instead devotes its first half to King’s childhood, adolescence, and attempts to break into the publishing world.

What I liked: From the start of this book, I felt that I was in the presence of someone who made me comfortable and welcome. More than that even, I felt a tremendous sense of self-assurance when I read it. King’s been there before, knows the pitfalls, and is happy to steer you around his memories with confidence. Every time I finished a section or chapter in this book, I told myself, “OK, it’s time to put the book down now.” And then, of their own accord, my eyes would snake down or over to the next page, and I would be held fast once again. This was, literally, the first book of the year that I could Just. Not. Put. Down.

Throughout the book, I got the sense that although writing was something he put effort into, he didn’t fall into the pretentious Byronic-hero hole that so many other authors, both beginning and established, fall victim to. (It’s a hole that I’m only now learning how to crawl out of.) Instead, he made it feel as natural, physical, and vital as chopping wood. If you have enough wood, your house stays warm. If you crank out enough words, you stay warm.

A lot of the time, I judge a book by how vividly I recall the images later, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t expunge from my mind the scene that King describes of having an ear infection as a child – one so intense that his eardrums had to be repeatedly lanced with a needle to drain the pus. I have tried and tried, with no avail, to stop imagining the looming needle coming closer to perforate my own eardrums. That is strong writing.

In the instructional section on writing, King unpacks the metaphor of a “writers’ toolbox” and runs with it. The advice inside is fairly commonplace – know your grammar, remove adverbs, etc – but they’re relayed in such a matter-of-fact manner that they acquire additional heft. He also provides an extremely useful glimpse into the revision process by including a “before and after” sample of his own writing, and then going step by step through the changes he made to tighten up his prose. Revision is an extremely important part of the writing process, but seldom is it actually demonstrated instead of discussed.

Besides all that, look at the cover. It’s got a Corgi on it! I love Corgis. Knowing that Stephen King owns them just makes him even more awesome in my book.

What I disliked: The length – it’s too short! I could easily have read another 200 pages. In particular, the move away from the memoir section was too abrupt, as it stopped nearly right after the acquisition of Carrie,  his debut novel. King did write about his substance abuse problems, but I would have appreciated greater insight on what led him down that path and why he felt he needed to self-medicate. Yes, it’s not a topic that really lends itself to a discussion of the writing craft, but it is something that a lot of writers end up dealing with anyways.

The verdict: I originally gave this book 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. Then I started reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and that book paled in comparison to this one so much that I retroactively bumped it up another star. Whenever I read this book, I felt I was in good hands. What better can be said about an author than that?

Next up: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

Book statistics, genre love, and genre hate

Last week I started an additional side project related to my reading efforts. Spurred on by an article in Salon talking about gender bias in book reviews, I have decided to keep a spreadsheet of my own reading efforts with the intention to derive some nice statistics at the end of the year. Will I end up giving print books higher ratings, on average, than eBooks? What about female authors versus male ones? There are so many questions to ask and answers to seek, and so many ways from which to view this information, that this project is impossible to resist.

Regardless of this, one thing has become obvious despite the small pool of books I’ve read so far this year: I really don’t like crime/detective fiction.

My chief complaints about both Zoo City and Empire State (oddly enough, both published by Angry Robot Books) had to do with their attempts to blend sci-fi/fantasy story elements with crime/detective story elements. The combination didn’t work for me, and in Empire State in particular, I found that the author’s application of sci-fi elements was used to wallpaper over some glaring inconsistencies.

This raises an interesting question, then: do I dislike the crime genre as a whole, the mixing of genres, or just the way those two books handled said mixing? Well, now that I’ve got my handy-dandy spreadsheet, the question will be a little easier to answer come December 2012, won’t it? Assuming, that is, that we don’t blow up in some Mayan calendrical apocalypse.

Anyways.

I read Old City Hall near the end of 2010 and really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that when I went to Word on the Street in September 2011 and told the author, Robert Rotenberg, how much – oh my god, can I tell you what an intriguing character Albert Fernandez is? – he gave me an autographed copy of the book for free.

OCH is about a crime, and one of the main characters is a police detective. Does the book fall, then, under the rubric of crime fiction? Or rather, since many of its most important events take place in a courtroom, should it be classified as a legal thriller? Where does one draw the line dividing genres? In this case, is there even a line to be drawn? I have no idea. All I know is that I found the book’s analysis of coutroom behaviour fascinating, and wanted even more of it.

On top of that, I also enjoyed the movie Children of Men when I saw it, and that was based on a book by noted detective fiction writer P.D. James. Would I like her Adam Dalgleish books just as much if  I tried one? I don’t know. Part of me doesn’t want to read mysteries because my knowledge of the genre is so poor that it will feel like work – the literary equivalent  of eating broccoli (make sure to read at least 5-8 servings per year!). However, another part of me knows that I’m missing out on some amazing fiction because of my own wariness.

This is another issue that I hope tracking my reading on a spreadsheet will be able to rectify: If I can analyze my reading habits and figure out what patterns and holes there are in said habits, I’ll be closer to improving them and to becoming an even better editor.

2012 Reading challenge, book 2: How to Win Friends and Influence People

Title: How to Win Friends and Influence People
Author: Dale Carnegie
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print

My 2012 reading has continued apace. Here are my thoughts on the first non-fiction book I read this year, which I finished over a week ago.

About the book: This was one of the books, if not the book, that launched the self-help genre. The title pretty much says it all. However, the subject matter is deeper than the title suggests, as it also talks about effective leadership skills, and talks about interpersonal skills in greater context.

What I liked: I liked the sense of Dale Carnegie’s voice that shone through the text. Yes, the tone is a tad fusty (the book itself is over 75 years old), but I got a more authentic sense of the author’s voice here than I did when reading other famous self-help books like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or Getting Things Done.

Those other books sounded fake because the anecdotes used to illustrate key concepts were so heavily paraphrased that they ended up sounding like the authors themselves. They also packed a lot of fluff – GTD, in particular, could have been just as useful at half the length. In contrast, How to Win’s chapters were succinct, and the letters and anecdotes that Carnegie quoted really did sound like they were written by other people.

I also liked that this book had such practical information; it contained little jargon or technical-sounding acronyms. Instead, there was just good, old-fashioned psychological insight, the most important of which can be boiled down into five words: people like to feel important.

What I disliked: Yes, the book explicitly states on the cover that it’s all about how to influence people, but I was still uncomfortable with some of the pieces of advice offered – they felt downright manipulative. On top of that, I’m unsure whether the now-dated references to celebrities and captains of industry detract from, or add to, the book’s charm.

The verdict: I liked it, and felt that a lot of the book’s suggestions were practical and easy to implement. It says a lot of true things about human nature, even if the book’s method of attack is flowery and old-fashioned.

Next up: Empire State, by Adam Christopher.

In Need of New Reading Material

Since my last post, the two articles I mentioned have been published. Both are available for review on the “Portfolio” page, and I’ve gotten some nice responses from readers, so I’m quite pleased. The Sustainable Living Magazine articles will continue on a monthly basis; I’ve volunteered to write about solar energy, but I can think of plenty more topics to talk about, given enough time (farmer’s markets in the GTA? watershed conservation? you never know!).

Aside from that, I’ve also finished the short bio for Love London, and have finally finished reading The Good War by Studs Terkel. I’m very proud of that last achievement in particular – it’s a big heavy book about a topic that many my age might consider dull (first-person accounts of living through WWII)  and I haven’t had the mental focus to complete a book that long in some time. I start off with lots of good intentions to read this non-fiction book or that biography (Hello, Traitor to His Class!) and then just lose steam. Since I don’t have a lot of time to read, I’m very proud of having plugged through something all the way to the end. I’m also gathering up my thoughts to write a review about it for Reading As Writers.

I’m still deciding what the next book I want to devote myself to is. There are several technical or educational books I intend to  flip through – I finally bought a copy of Chicago, for example – but I also realize I need to broaden my horizons, start to read just for the sake of reading again, and try to read things I wouldn’t normally read, like genre fiction. Do you want to proselytize in favour of a good mystery series or recommend an up-and-coming author? Suggestions either via email or in the comments section are welcome.