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Saturday Shorts: “White Charles” by Sarah Monette

In honor of the review of The Tempering of Men that I’m hoping to post this evening, this week’s short story is by one of that novel’s co-authors, although it has nothing else in common with it at all.

Edgar Bergen should play Kyle Murchison Booth. Someday, when I have a time machine, I will make this happen.

“White Charles” is one of the Kyle Murchison Booth stories, which Monette has described as kind of based on the Lovecraft/Blackwood tradition of horror only with actual people in them. Booth is an archivist at the Parrington Museum, and he’s a little bit empathic and knows a little bit about ghosts and magic – and he has just enough of a sense of responsibility that when horrible things start to happen, he’s the one who has to take care of them. He’s a fragile, nervous little thing, with a core of solid steel. I love him.

In “White Charles,” the Parrington takes delivery of the remains of an old wizard’s library…and the thing that lives in it. Monette does an excellent job of capturing that creepy something-horrible-is-watching-me vibe of the best of classic horror, but she pays attention to the things they never did: people like the museum’s black caretaker, and the desires of the Thing in question. As a horror story, it’s not only properly scary, but a bit of a revelation.

There is a collection of Booth stories, The Bone Key, which which is in its second edition, but you’ll find “White Charles” at Clarkesworld Magazine online. I recommend their audio version as well, it’s spectacular.

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New to Me: Review of An Autumn War by Daniel Abraham

An Autumn War by Daniel AbrahamWhere I got it and why: From the library, since there isn’t a bookstore in town with a copy and I needed it NOW. Third in Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet.

Recommended?: Oh yes. But this is definitely a series you read in order — get the first two first, and look forward to this one.

Review: There is something about these books that causes me to get stuck about halfway through, leave it be for a few days, and then pick it up and drive straight on to the end. I’m not sure if it’s a lull in the action or what, but this is the third time it’s happened. I am so glad I did pick it back up, though, because this book is easily the best in the series so far.

And a warning: we have reached the point where it is inevitable, there will be SPOILERS for the earlier books in the rest of this review.

Some fifteen years have passed since the events of A Betrayal in Winter. Otah is now Khai Machi, responsible for an entire city. He has, scandalously, only one wife, and his only son Danat is sickly. His daughter Eiah, being a teenager, is starting to act out, despite the careful guidance of her beloved Uncle Maati. Into this relatively blissful domestic scene comes Liat, the former lover of both Maati and Otah, with her grown son, who had been raised by Maati when he was small but who is now so visibly Otah’s son that his presence is likely to cause even more scandal. Not as much, though, as the news Liat brings with her: the Galts are going to attempt an invasion.

For centuries the andat, the incredibly powerful beings held by the poets of the great cities, have protected them from the technologically advanced, militaristic Galts, but Galtic General Balatar Gice has dedicated his whole life to destroying the andat. No one, he thinks, should be allowed to have that much power – control over a being who could pull down whole cities with a thought, or destroy the crops of an entire country, or cause ravaging floods and devastation. He has gone into the desert that used to be the old Empire, he has found a poet of his own, and he is going to first destroy the andat and then any possibility that they will ever return, even if that means destroying every one of the great cities on his way.

All of the cover blurbs on this book talk about the amazing ending, which usually puts me off because most of the time, knowing the twist is going to come, I can predict it well in advance. Not so much in this case. The climax of this story hits that perfect combination of exquisite foreshadowing and total surprise – Once you get there you realize there is no way it could have gone any differently, but it was so completely not what you were expecting that it feels like a punch in the gut. In a good way, of course.

Abraham’s characters are exquisite, and as the world becomes more familiar the deeper you get into the series, the characters take their places as the highlight of the book. Otah, Maati, and Liat have all changed so much since A Shadow in Summer, grown both in wisdom and in their flaws, but they’re still deeply recognizable as themselves. It’s the characters who make that ending what it is, because it’s the characters, their drives and disappointments, the whole history of their lives, that make it so inevitable. It’s a wonderful study in how good people can do horrible things in pursuit of good causes, and there is no one, from the Galtic general to the treacherous mercenary, who you can really blame. Everyone is doing the best they can with the options they have, they’re just terrible options. It is, in fact, very like a Greek tragedy; if they were different people it would have gone differently, but they aren’t, so how could it?

In any other series, this would be the end. This book ends with an earthshattering change, but there are possibilities for growth and rebirth still visible. Most writers would have left it there, but there is another book in this series, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Series: The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham

Hot Off the Press: Review of Rope of Thorns by Gemma Files

Where I got it and why: I read an egalley from NetGalley, courtesy of ChiZine press. (Thanks guys!) I leaped at the chance to read this, after reading the first book in the series earlier this year.

Recommended? Absolutely – if you’re okay with huge amounts of violence, foul language, heavy drinking, and M/M sex. (And that’s just one character…)

Review: Okay, this is another one of those books I love so much I don’t know if I can be coherent about, but I will try. I read the first book in Gemma Files’s Hexslinger Trilogy earlier this year, when I spotted it on the shelf at the library and was intrigued by the blurb’s promise of ex-Confederate gay western wizards, and I liked that one, but I *loved* Rope of Thorns.

It’s 1867, the American West, a world slightly different from our own. For one thing, it contains hexes – people who can work magic, frequently violent and nasty (both the magic and the hexes), who live in a constant state of hunger, drawing magic away from their environment and from any other hexes they run into. They tend to be solitary creatures. In Book of Tongues, we meet Asher Rook, a former preacher turned hex after he was hanged for assassinating his commanding officer in the tail end of the Civil War. Now he’s head of his own little outlaw gang, rampaging across the West, taking what they like and killing folk who get in their way. Rook’s lover is Chess Parteger, a gunman, queer and not ashamed of it, red-headed, flamboyant, and nasty. They’re joined by Ed Morrow, a Pinkerton detective, who’d been sent out by his boss to test out a device for identifying hexes before they become dangerous, but who gets sucked in to the gang a little more deeply than he’d expected. Oh yeah, and there’s an ancient Aztec goddess who’s trying to take over the world. She wants Rook as her consort, and she has…plans for Chess, her “little husband’s husband.”

Okay, I’m going to try to discuss Rope of Thorns without giving too many spoilers for the wonderful ending of Book of Tongues. Suffice it to say, Chess is none to happy about how that played out, and Rook is off with his goddess in the newly-built Hex City, while Chess is out for revenge and Morrow is either still following him around or trying to keep him in check.

I love Chess. He’s a wonderful character, full of fire and anger and passion. He changes a lot through the course of the books, but he’s mostly unconscious of it, and it only shows through when he’s called upon to act and does something that surprises even him. The characters overall are great: Ed Morrow still unsure of what he’s doing; Yancey, who rapidly becomes Chess’s female counterpart; Songbird and Pinkerton and the relentless Sheriff Love.

The worldbuilding is glorious too, so deeply believable it seems almost real, like the best of historically-set fantasy. Files’s hexes and gods fit perfectly into the mythology of the Old West that grows in the American psyche. Not just the old stereotypical Hollywood version, either – this series fits right into the modern bleak Western tradition. It reminds me of Deadwood, True Grit, Carnivale. (Lots of Carnivale, actually.) And Rope of Thorns introduces an Apache warrior I hope we see more of in the final book.

The thing I love most about these books is how *fun* they are. I mean, they’re fairly bleak, there’s an apocalypse in progress, and the body count is huge, but Chess is having so damn much fun you can’t help but get carried along with him. I can’t wait for the final book, A Tree of Bones.

Rope of Thorns came out in May – you should be able to find it on bookstore shelves, but if you can’t, order it. It’s worth it.
Book of Tongues came out in 2010.
If you’re interested in the series, I also recommend the author’s blog, where she’s currently discussing a lot of elements of the new book – no spoilers for the new one, but some spoilers for Book of Tongues.

Reasons why I should not be allowed to browse

Things I went to the library for: An Autumn War by Daniel Abraham and How to Marry a Millionaire, both on hold; and to return a book and a DVD that I’d finished.

Things I returned from the library with: An Autumn War, How to Marry a Millionaire, Sasha by Joel Shepherd (book one of at least three, I saw the next two on the New Books shelf) and The Dog of the North by Tim Stretton. (How many of these books were on The List, I hear you ask? Guess. That’s right, none.)

Oh, and the book and DVD I meant to return? Still here. Ooops.

The List

I don’t remember exactly when I started The List. Guessing just based on the content, probably sometime about five years ago, when it became obvious that the inside of my head just wasn’t doing it any more. But bits of it are older than that, of course; some of it goes back probably decades. The To-Read List.

You know how knitters and other crafty people talk about SABLE, Stash Amassed Beyond Life Expectancy? I think I’ve had that for books since I was about twelve. And people keep writing new ones, damn them! I’ll never be caught up. But, in aid of trying to keep the process of attempting to catch up somewhat manageable, I created The List.

It started out life as a text file, but by now it’s blossomed into a whole Evernote notebook. I have notes for reading lists on

The Shelf

The Shelf, an evil co-conspirator of The List

specific topics, notes for recommendations from people I particularly enjoy, notes for texts that are impossible to find that I’ll dig up if I ever have a spare afternoon in the Bodleian. The core of The List, though, is three notes: Books Not Checked Yet, Books Not Readily Available, and Madison Public Library.

Books Not Checked Yet is the first stop for new titles I come across. I see them in the bookstore, I hear about them through a mailing list, I read someone’s review on a blog, and I copy the title and author into my Not Checked Yet note. Then sometime when I have time I’ll start plugging titles into the library catalog. My book budget, you see, really only stretches to books I already know I want to own, new titles from a favorite author or collections of older ones. (Plus part of that budget is for the shelves – I’ve crammed as many bookshelves as possible into my tiny apartment, and my roommate will stage a rebellion if I try to add any more. So I check the library first.)

It’s a simple sort: books the library has go onto the Madison Public Library list. I’d say about 90% of the books I find and want to read are either in the catalog or listed as on order. Books not in the catalog go onto the Books Not Readily Available list. Every once in a while, I sort through the Not Readily Available list to see if the library’s bought them or if there’s anything I really want to buy to read. Out of print books go on a PDA so I have them ready for my regular visits to used bookstores.

The only thing I put on The List is title and author. I usually don’t even bother with a subtitle, so there’s a lot on there I can’t even remember what it is, never mind where I heard of it or why I put it on there. Sometimes I request a book from the library, expecting it to be a novel, and end up with nonfiction. Sometimes I expect historical analysis and get historical fantasy. It’s a delightful exercise in randomness, actually; I dread the thought of The List growing small enough that I lose that element of surprise.

I recently numbered the Madison Public Library list. It currently contains 323 books. The number is constantly fluctuating as I add books and read books, but it grows more than it shrinks. (It went down by two last week, when I checked out Who Killed Wesley Payne and Don DeLillo’s Libra, but it went up by six when I went through my newsletters: Susanne Dunlap, The Musician’s Daughter; Mary Hooper, Fallen Grace; Jillian Larkin, Vixen; Ying S. Lee, A Spy in the House; Carol McCleary, The Alchemy of Murder; and Saundra Mitchell, The Vespertine.)

The List isn’t everything, of course. It doesn’t include books I own, either purchased or received as gifts. It doesn’t include books I know I want to read and won’t forget about, like the new Elizabeth Bear or the last five Nero Wolfe novels I haven’t gotten to yet. It doesn’t include the egalleys I’ve started getting, or the audiobooks I’ve downloaded. But it’s huge, which gives it a certain precedence. (I mean, it’s not as huge as The Shelf, but it’s pretty substantial.)

All of which is to say, if you start seeing reviews with the source listed as The List — now you know.

Conference!

I didn’t really intend for this blog to disappear. (Unemployment is hell on my productivity; I seem to be one of those people who requires at least a little bit of external structure to stop me from playing video games eighteen hours a day.) But now I have some motivation — I write this somewhere in the realm of Pennsylvania/Maryland/West Virginia, on a train to Washington, D.C. for the ALA conference. (And I post this from my room at the end of a long first wander around the exhibit floor.) I guess I figured, if I don’t have a job, I might as well take a productive vacation. Besides, I’ll be visiting family friends while I’m there.

I don’t know that I really have a plan for the conference — I have a huge, contradictory list of things I want to do — but I’ll do my best to blog the interesting parts. After all, what’s the point of having a blog if you don’t share?

(And if anyone out there is at the conference, and particularly if you have a job to offer — drop me a comment and we can meet up sometime!)

Resource review #8: Library Technology Manifesto

Tennant, R. (2007, November 12th). Library software manifesto. Retrieved from http://techessence.info/manifesto.

To wrap up my resource reviews for my LIS644 project on the open source ILS Koha, which has turned into a kind of overview on the state of the ILS today, I thought I’d post Roy Tennant’s Library Software Manifesto, written in 2007 to address the “unhealthy” relationship between libraries and library software vendors. Tennant is one of the leading library technology voices, and although this piece is a couple of years old now, I think it’s still important and interesting.

The Manifesto lists consumer rights — such as the right to use the software you have paid for, without having to pay more for it; consumer responsibilities — such as the responsibility to realize that you’re not special, and the vendor has other clients too; and shared responsibilities — such as the responsibility of mutual respect (at least until one party does something unforgivably ridiculous). I think this kind of approach could be very productive in thinking about changes and implementations to a library’s ILS.

I admit it: I’m a library school student, and my knowledge of the ILS selection and management process is limited to a couple of talks and quite a bit of reading, so I don’t have any real experience with how this works. But there’s a fairly small selection of ILS vendors, and librarians on the whole tend to be less than completely familiar with programming and technology implementation, so some of the problems implied by this manifesto don’t surprise me at all. The overall points made by the manifesto, though — librarians have a right to use their ILS to their greatest advantage, and to have some idea of how it works; librarians have a responsibility to treat the vendors and programmers fairly and without unnecessary acrimony — seem to indicate to me one reason why open source ILS solutions like Koha have become popular in spite of their detriments. When you have full access to the source code of your software, you can use it however you want, and you’re going to have to figure out how it works. When you have to contract out or hire someone to do upgrades or added features, you have a much more direct, less bureaucratic relationship with them. Open source projects can get rid of a lot of red tape that can hinder a good working relationship.

Of course, open source solutions aren’t without flaws — the first comment on the post is from someone mentioning that he feels his experience as a software user isn’t taken seriously by open source developers. The tradeoff with open source, I suppose, is that many developers work on open source projects as a hobby, and their income isn’t affected by users’ dissatisfaction. (Companies like LibLime eliminate this problem, but add the bureaucracy back in… nothing’s perfect.) Obviously this is no way to eliminate problems with the librarian/developer relationship, so the best way forward appears to be the one implied in Tennant’s manifesto: for everyone to know a little bit more about what the other side is doing, and to acknowledge both their own and the other side’s priorities in doing so.

Resource review #7: Survey of Open Source ILS

Riewe, L. M. (2008). Survey of Open Source Integrated Library Systems. Unpublished master’s thesis, San José State University, San José. Retrieved 25 November 2009 from http://users.sfo.com/~lmr/ils-survey/080831-paper-Riewe.pdf.

This paper is a thesis by a San José State University MLIS student, a thing that I am very glad I don’t have to write. Linda M. Riewe, however, produced this document comparing various ILS options via a survey of libraries using both proprietary and open source ILS options. There’s a wealth of information here, on open source generally and on library uses specifically, and a number of very fair comparisons of the pros and cons of proprietary and open source software.

Riewe surveyed 361 libraries who used either Koha, Evergreen or some form of proprietary ILS software, asking them questions about the level of satisfaction with the ILS, how the ILS was chosen, how it was customized, cost and ease of use. She then divides up the libraries into demographic categories by size of collection to compare the data.

Overall: libraries tended to choose open source ILSs like Koha for philosophical reasons, in addition to the lower cost; they felt that the principles of open source were important and should be supported. (The cost of the open source ILS was generally found to be less over time, although initial costs were higher than for proprietary software.) Users of Koha and Evergreen reported slightly higher satisfaction with the system than users of proprietary systems, despite installation and documentation difficulties. This is a valuable survey, on many levels; it offers a snapshot of the open source ILS movement in libraries, and it will be interesting to see how things might change in future years.

Resource review #6: SirsiDynix White Paper Causes Many Tweets

Fitzpatrick, S. (2009, November 11). Open source advocates reject SirsiDynix’s warning about OSS. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/ala/alonline/currentnews/newsarchive/2009/november2009/abramvsoss111109.cfm.

Scandal! Well, kinda. Anyway, it’s jucier than most of what you’ll get when reading about open source ILS implementations, so I was perfectly happy to find this ALA report on a white paper from the Sirsi-Dynix Vice President of Innovation that pretty much proves that open source software is a viable alternative to traditional vendors. (If it weren’t, they wouldn’t be worried about it.)

The white paper itself is extremely negative about open source, although to be fair, it seems to be pretty truthful. Abram emphasizes the small size of the ILS programming community, giving the impression that open source software needs a user base as large as that of Firefox to be worthwhile. The warnings given about open source software are accurate — but they’re the same warnings open source advocates give. Many of the detriments of open source Abram lists apply largely to new software, but neither Koha nor Evergreen, the two major open source ILSs currently available, could really be called new at this point: libraries looking into them now are certainly not early adopters.

The American Libraries article summarizes the library blog and Twitter reaction to the leaked paper, which was generally not too supportive of SirsiDynix’s position. Several bloggers argued that while it might cost more money to train librarians and programmers to get a good open source system running, that training in people is much more valuable in the long run than maintenence fees paid to a proprietary vendor. The article also links to the variety of Web 2.0 tools that are being used to comment on the issue, from a blog post (with moderated comments) to a Google Doc to a Wiki. These documents are fascinating to look at — this is an ongoing debate, and one that will keep many people interested for a long time.

Resource review #5: Koha Blog

Koha blog. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.myacpl.org/koha/.

From the same folks who brought you A Koha Diary is Koha Blog, a resource for modification and customization of the Koha interface. If I were managing a live Koha system, I would subscribe to this blog’s feed and read it every day. (Or, well, as often as it updates, which isn’t very often; it’s much more of an archive than a real day-to-day blog.)

The great thing about open source software like Koha is that, with the right application of effort, you can make it do whatever you want it to. And in the true spirit of open source, the folks at the Nelsonville Public Library are sharing their efforts with the rest of the library community, in simple, straightforward explanations that anyone with a minimum of programming experience can implement.

This kind of stuff (although possibly not these exact tweaks) is also available at the Koha developer’s wiki, but the advantage of Koha Blog is in its simplicity and in the fact that it’s written by librarians for librarians: knowing how to add extra content blocks is useful, but knowing what you’d use them for is even more useful, as in this example.

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