Double Book Review: Books With Weird Titles Edition: Wool and Draculas

Here are two books I’ve read recently, with not much in common other than having weird titles and being released directly to digital.

Wool, by Hugh Howey

Wool is the first in a long series of books about wool about people living in a mostly-underground silo after some sort of apocalypse makes the outside world inhabitable. Their only view of the outside world is through cameras that get dusty over time, until someone is sent out to clean them (with wool), then inevitably succumb to the poisonous atmosphere.

It’s a small book with big ideas. It’s small in its novella length, but also in its limited scope. It follows one character through an intimate story, never straying too far into the larger consequences of it. Yet the small story explores bigger themes of, among other things, truth and beauty.

There’s nothing too new here, but it’s nicely written, and balances emotional depth with hard sci-fi ideas. The second one was also good, but felt more like a tour of the setting to set up future instalments than a story where anything actually happens. Each instalment is only a few bucks and they are released frequently; it’s definitely worth checking out the first one to decide if it’s worth jumping into the rest of the series.

Draculas, by Jeff Strand, F. Paul Wilson, Jack Kilborn, Blake Crouch, and J. A. Konrath

Yeah, four authors. Yeah, Draculas with an S.

When an elderly, dying millionaire buys a skull with sharp, stabby teeth, then proceeds to stab himself in the neck with it, it starts an outbreak of vampires with similar bitey stabby tendencies. That’s the premise of Draculas, in which vampires are slobbering, near-mindless animals with rows of needle-sharp teeth that need blood like we need air. It’s a refreshing take on the played-out vampire trend.

The violence in Draculas is over the top, managing to be both hilarious and disturbing. It’s clear that all four authors had a hell of a lot of fun writing it, which makes it a hell of a lot of fun to read.

There’s not much in the way of plot; this is a summer action movie in novel form. But having no idea who will live or die keeps it interesting enough, especially with the strong characters. I particularly liked Randall, the borderline-challenged lumberjack whose substitution of “vampires” with “draculas” spreads through the characters faster than the vampire epidemic itself. And I won’t spoil anything, but Benny the Clown’s story takes some of the greatest twists and turns.

Despite the police-lineup-sized list of authors, Draculas is one cohesive novel-length story. On top of that, the Kindle Edition of Draculas comes with a bunch of DVD-like extras in it, including short stories by the authors and deleted scenes. Of particular interest to me as a writer, they included the unedited string of emails between authors that got the project going and worked out the logistics of writing it. It’s fascinating — maybe even more fascinating than the book itself — to get that raw look at the creative process.

Anyway, if you’re into monsters with sharp teeth and their intersection with human flesh, give Draculas a try.

P.S. It was almost impossible to write that review without mentioning sparkly vampires.

Advertisements

iBooks, eBooks, and Episodic Writing

Apple announced a new version of iBooks for iPad a few weeks ago, focusing on how it can deliver inexpensive textbooks to students. It’s being pushed as a revolution in education, but does the same update have applicability outside of the classroom?

Aside from the (often gimmicky) interactive widgets and other benefits of electronic books, they offer “current” as another advantage of electronic books. The main idea here, in the context of textbooks, is that a new edition can be distributed inexpensively, without the need to buy a new 5-pound $300 book every year. I see potential for another use: episodic fiction.

Serial publishing is not new. When advances in technology and economy allowed magazines to be widely distributed in the 19th century, it was popular for authors to release long works in short segments. As magazines shifted their focus away from episodic fiction and television replaced that niche, the idea of a serialized work of text started to die (with occasional exceptions, like Stephen King’s The Green Mile). Today, we’re facing more leaps in technology and in the economics of distribution that, I think, have potential to bring serial fiction back.

Imagine this: you hear about an author releasing a story with an intriguing premise. You download the first “episode,” then every, say, Wednesday, you get a notification alerting you that a new episode is out. Either for a small fee per episode (99 cents seems fair) or a flat “season pass,” you get new content every Wednesday for a few months, automatically updated and waiting for you when you open iBooks.

I’m not sure if this is how iBooks currently works (the new textbook stuff, as usual, locks out Canadians), but they seem to be going in that direction with the “books as apps” model. It’s not unique to Apple, either; the same thing could easily be implemented on any other e-reader with minor tweaks. It’s been attempted, but Apple’s app model demonstrates how streamlined it could be1. And in a generation that often prefers TV to movies and Twitter to blogs, maybe we’re ready for bite-sized fiction’s big comeback.

Would you buy a book that updates itself with new content every week? Really, I’m asking, because I have a few stories in the file drawer, and I’m seriously considering experimenting to try turning these tumultuous times into something awesome.


1 Note that Apple’s new updates come with a giant catch: a ridiculous license agreement. The main problem is that if you use iBooks Author to create a work, you can only sell that work through iTunes. It’s equivalent to buying a guitar, then finding an attached note saying you can only sell your music through Gibson’s store. Ridiculous. Hopefully this gets changed, or people realize simple workarounds (change one word in the file using different software; tada! All-new work that can be sold wherever you want).

David Sedaris

I don’t usually admire people. Maybe it’s cynicism or maybe it’s a large ego, but I see the vast majority of celebrities as equals; average people who got lucky.

Yet I found myself in awe of David Sedaris when I saw him perform live on Friday night at Centennial Hall. His way with words was inspiring. His sentences were carefully constructed yet natural, weaved into not-quite-fables that jump and twist yet always feel cohesive.

It was clear that it wasn’t just a well-rehearsed routine. While answering audience questions, he was able to produce pure improvised wit. And while reading from his diary—which was kinda like hearing someone read a blog, except one actually worth reading—he still had enough cognitive resources left to simultaneously ponder and write down notes for improvements to future shows. That sort of mental athleticism impresses me far more than any sports star or guidar shredder.

When I met him at the book signing after the show, somehow, within a minute, he had me confessing how much I cried when my dog Willow died. Then he predicted that I’d get a cat soon. So, you know, he’s not perfect.

Still, it was nice to admire someone for a change.

Podcamp London + Contemplative Goose

On Saturday I attended Podcamp London. A podcamp is a gathering of people interested in blogging, podcasting, social media, and other technologyish internetty stuff. It’s referred to as an “unconference”, because the format is unconventional. There are few rules, and anyone is free to throw a presentation onto the schedule. I guess I count as “anyone,” so I inserted myself into the timetable, and prepared a little presentation.

I talked to a packed room about internet fame, blogging, and how social media and the accessibility of the internet are changing the way creative people do their thing. I was a bit nervous, since I’d never done anything like that before, but I ended up enjoying the hell out of it.

If you wanna see my slides, you can get a clickable Quicktime movie (showing my spiffy slide transitions) here, or a PDF with all my secret notes (ruining the illusion that my witty jokes were improvised) here.

Actual audience reaction. I am mildly amusing.

I got a lot of flattering feedback, and some good suggestions for the coffee blog. From the always-creative Nik Harron came the idea for putting despair in coffee. That is, tears. I wonder if tears of shame taste difference than tears of mourning?

I imagine the former are a little more spicy.

It made no sense btw.

Also: I won a pool for predicting how many dongs would show up in Chatroulette in a 30 minute period (six). I’m like a psychic predicting how many children you’ll have, except it’s how many dongs you’ll see. (See also). It was good times.

There were more substantial thrills to be had, too. The sense of community was palpable. I have another psychic prediction: good things are coming in London Ontario’s future. There is an increasingly-less-underground group of diverse personalities who are passionate about making great things happen in this city and beyond. Upcoming projects like Changecamp London and UnLondon are just a few examples.

Between Podcamp itself and the sloppy after-party, I came across this Canada goose:

I’ve seen him there 3 or 4 times, always just standing there looking at his reflection in the window. He’s, like, a metaphor for life, man. Just staring, all day, pondering his place in this crumbling city. The goose is us, man. The goose is us.


Update May 10 9:30pm: I have been informed (thanks a lot @BillyW64) that the goose stares at his reflection because he thinks it’s his mate that he lost last year. There was a story about him on A Channel (I guess they interviewed the goose to obtain this information). The goose picture is now more sad-deep than intelligent-deep. Man.

Update May 11 3:15pm: Here is the fluffy A Channel story about the goose (thanks @joeradman, you are rad, man). Not sure about the veracity of the story or if it’s even the same goose (mine is in a totally different location). Maybe geese are just vain. Still, it’s sad to think about. There is also a Facebook page for him/her.

Me in Maclean’s. Also: Nuts.

Sooo there’s an article about me in Maclean’s Magazine (April 12th issue, page 62). It goes like so:

Plain old coffee can be boring, so Mike “Phronk” Battista of London, Ont., likes to put “weird things” in his (he keeps a blog about it). [etc.]

Conspicuously absent? The address of said blog. I guess there won’t be an influx of millions of visitors who will buy my crappy merchandise.

Oh well. At least when I’m old, I can brag to my grandkids about my greatest accomplishment. I’ll be all like, “STOP TALKING. Did you know that I was in Maclean’s?”

And they’ll be all like, “WTF is Maclean’s?”

And I’ll say, “It was one of Canada’s most popular magazines.”

And they’ll say, “WTF is a magazine?”

Then I will get angry and rant about the good old days when you had to physically leave the house to get information, then slowly absorb it from paper to your brain, rather than instantly downloading it into your neural implant. Then I’ll graphically demonstrate how the iPad can suck my wrinkly nuts.

Fighting Sexism With Sexism in the Horror Genre?

The British Fantasy Society has recently taken criticism because their new collection of 16 interviews with horror authors failed to include any women. It’s pointed out that there are “a lot” of women who write horror, and of course, Mary Shelley’s name comes up.

On the surface it does appear to be blatant sexism. But I think it’s important here, as with many gender issues, to look deeper and make sure we’re not accusing people of sexism based on premises that are themselves fundamentally sexist.

What proportion of horror writers are female? And of those, what proportion are among the best in their field? This list of the top 20 horror writers of all time does not include any women. Maybe its author is himself biased, but there is no question that serious horror (i.e., not Twilight) is a male-dominated community.

Let’s estimate that, say, one out of every ten serious horror writers are female. And let’s say that, for this controversial interview anthology, its creators had to randomly pick from all of the horror authors worthy of inclusion based on their writing alone (i.e., not their gender). The probability of, by chance, picking 16 male authors, then, is (.90)^16 = .185, or 18.5%.

So not a great chance, but still a chance. In the lingo of science, if lack of sexism were the null hypothesis, this wouldn’t be enough to reject it (i.e., prove sexism). My numbers could be off, but I predict my point is valid: even if no sexism were operating and authors were picked from a pool based on merit alone, there is a non-negligible chance that the collection would include zero females.

One could argue that a woman author should have been sought out for inclusion just to represent her gender in the community. But this is itself a sexist premise. It is proposing that a woman should have been given special privilege based on her gender alone, rather than her merit as an author. It’s the same principle behind affirmative action, and in my humble opinion, horribly misguided. It should be self-evident that the key to eliminating sexism is not more sexism.

What is the key? That is a complex question, but I think it needs to start at the bottom. We can’t force the top of any merit-based honour to comprise 50% of each gender. What we can do is make sure there are no obstacles for women on the road to the top, and that safe passage there is based on merit alone. Even more importantly, we can encourage more women to get on that road in the first place if they want to. Even then, there is no guarantee of a 50/50 split – it’s quite possible that horror simply appeals to men more than women because of some genuine difference between the genders – but any women that do hop on board shouldn’t face any sexist roadblocks.

It’s possible that some sexism occurred in this interview collection (either consciously or unconsciously), but there is not enough evidence to convince me either way. I am convinced that writers should be judged based on their writing rather than their gender, and that knee-jerk accusations of sexism need to be carefully examined lest we make the problem even worse.

Me, Elsewhere

Oh hi blog. You know you’ll always be my first love, but I’ve been writing stuff in other places too.

  • I have a guest post about horror movies over at The London Free Press’s Dan Brown’s Cool Blog Name to Come. It’s kinda deep. Tell me if you agree / disagree with my little assessment.
  • If you haven’t already listened to my very first musical horror story, Thinking About Polar Bears is here. Reviews are in, and it has been described as “eh,” “okay,” and “I could hardly STAND [it]” (though I think that last one was meant as a compliment). I might put a PDF of it up soon. We’ll see.