calissa: A low angle photo of a book with a pair of glasses sitting on top. (Mt TBR)

Octavia E Butler, Gerry Canavan, Earl Grey Editing, books and tea, tea and books

Published: November 2016 by University of Illinois Press
Format reviewed: E-book (mobi)
Genres: Non-fiction
Source: NetGalley
Available: Publisher (print and electronic) ~ Abbey’s ~ Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Book Depository ~ Booktopia ~ Dymocks ~ Kobo

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I began writing about power because I had so little, Octavia E. Butler once said. Butler’s life as an African American woman–an alien in American society and among science fiction writers–informed the powerful works that earned her an ardent readership and acclaim both inside and outside science fiction. Gerry Canavan offers a critical and holistic consideration of Butler’s career. Drawing on Butler’s personal papers, Canavan tracks the false starts, abandoned drafts, tireless rewrites, and real-life obstacles that fed Butler’s frustrations and launched her triumphs. Canavan departs from other studies to approach Butler first and foremost as a science fiction writer working within, responding to, and reacting against the genre’s particular canon. The result is an illuminating study of how an essential SF figure shaped themes, unconventional ideas, and an unflagging creative urge into brilliant works of fiction.

As with Letters to Tiptree, I went into this without having read any of Octavia Butler’s work (don’t worry, it’s on my list) and without even knowing a whole lot about her. I feel that approach didn’t work for me quite as well this time around.

I’d been expecting a biography. And Octavia E. Butler is a biography to some extent. However, it is equally concerned with analysing her work. Throughout the book, the author puts forward a theory unifying her work, looking in depth at her significant published and unpublished works and examining how they fit together. This necessarily reflects on her as a person–and in particular her views on humanity–but may not be satisfying for people looking for more details of her daily life. As someone who hasn’t read the stories being examined, I found it reasonably accessible, though I have no doubt it will hold much more meaning for those who have.

Despite the heavy focus on her stories, I still learned a lot about the person. I found the examination of her writing process particularly interesting. Learning about the way she would almost compulsively write many different variations of the same story was intriguing. Her preoccupation with the business side of writing  was also something I think many writers will be able to related to, even if it was amplified by her poverty. This drive to make sales is also shown as being in conflict with what she felt was her artistic integrity; she needed to sell her stories but resented making changes in order to make them more palatable to publishers or the public. Unsurprisingly, she is portrayed as a deeply unhappy person, never satisfied.

The tone tends towards academic and may be considered dry by some. Indeed, the book started to drag a little after a while.

Nevertheless, I found it an interesting read. This will probably appeal to fans already familiar with Butler’s work.

Mirrored from Earl Grey Editing.

calissa: A low angle photo of a book with a pair of glasses sitting on top. (Mt TBR)


Published: November 2015 by HarperCollins
Format reviewed: Hardback, 256 pages
Series: The Hobbit Chronicles #6
Genres: Non-fiction
Source: Publisher
Available: Publisher (print) ~ Abbey’s ~ Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Book Depository ~ Booktopia

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The ultimate celebration of the spectacular battle in the final Hobbit movie reveals in stunning detail the full creative vision of Peter Jackson and the filmmakers, together with extensive commentary from the director, cast, crew, and almost 2,000 exclusive photos, illustrations and visual effects imagery.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Chronicles – The Art of War goes behind the lines to explore how thousands of artisans brought the defining film of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to the screen. More than 1,000 intricate illustrations, stunning photographs and never-before-seen imagery illuminate fascinating insights shared by cast and crew, including exclusive content from the extended edition of the final film. Also included is an exclusive fold-out battle map illustrated by Weta Workshop Designer, Nick Keller!

Even though I didn’t agree with some of the story and directorial choices regarding The Hobbit movies, they were undeniably gorgeous movies. A lot of care and skill went into making them. This book unpacks just how much.

It is broken down into chapters that follow the plot of the movie, beginning with the destruction of Lake-town by Smaug, and moving on through the battle with the Necromancer at Dol Guldur, the fortification of Erabor and, of course, the Battle of Five Armies. Each double-page spread within the chapter focuses on one or two specific elements relating to that part of the story. For example, the chapter on Dol Guldur has sections that focus on the costumes of each of the characters involved in the sequence, the design of the elven rings of power, and the use of dummies within the movie. This provided a great structure to the book, giving it a focus and making it easy to follow.

Creators from across many departments share their stories in the text. This is generally kept to a couple of paragraphs, making it a good book to dip in and out of. One thing I loved about it was the sheer number of departments covered. Any given page may feature a costume jeweller, a digital effects supervisor, a stunt co-ordinator and an actor, or some other combination. Not only does this provide a variety of perspectives on the same scene, but it also highlights how closely the departments were working with each other.

The book makes plain the level of thought that went into every aspect of the movie, and touched on details I hadn’t noticed when watching the film, but delighted the geek in me. For example, Gloin’s full battle armour features the same helmet that his son Gimili would be shown wearing in The Lord of the Rings.

From a design perspective, the book itself isn’t perfect. It had a few typos scattered through it, some of the stills from the movie are quite fuzzy, and some of the imagery is not presented in the best possible way; I found it hard to make out the Nazgul’s dark outfits against the black background. It’s also a giant coffee-table book, so it’s not the easiest to handle, especially if you have bad wrists. However, these were small flaws in what is largely a gorgeous book.

If you are in any way a fan of the movies and you love to peek behind the scenes, this book is definitely worth getting.

Mirrored from Earl Grey Editing.

calissa: A low angle photo of a book with a pair of glasses sitting on top. (Mt TBR)


Published: August 2015 by Twelfth Planet Press
Format reviewed: E-book (mobi)
Genres: Non-fiction
Source: Publisher
Reading Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015
Available: Twelfth Planet Press (print and electronic) ~ Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Book Depository ~ Booktopia ~ Kobo

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

For nearly a decade, a middle-aged woman in Virginia (her own words) had much of the science fiction community in thrall. Her short stories were awarded, lauded and extremely well-reviewed. They were also regarded as “ineluctably masculine,” because Alice Sheldon was writing as James Tiptree Jr.

In celebration of Alice Sheldon’s centenary, Letters to Tiptree presents a selection of thoughtful letters from thirty-nine science fiction and fantasy writers, editors, critics, and fans address questions of gender, of sexuality, of the impossibility and joy of knowing someone only through their fiction and biography.

When Twelfth Planet Press sent me a review copy of Letters to Tiptree, I admit I was a little apprehensive. I’ve not read any of the stories Alice Sheldon published under the names of James Tiptree Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon. I’m not even especially interested in science fiction spanning the late 60s and 70s–though I have felt some pressure to become familiar with this era of canon, much as Renay has commented. So I was a little bit surprised by just how much I enjoyed this book.

Letters to Tiptree is divided into several sections. The first and largest consists of letters written for this collection by authors, academics and fans to Alice, Tiptree and/or Raccoona. There is an impressive diversity of voices here, containing writers of varying backgrounds, nationalities, races, generations, gender identities, sexualities and classes. This diversity serves to showcase the wide impact Tiptree’s work had–and continues to have–upon the speculative fiction community. But letter writing–even when the letters remain unanswered–is a two-way street. I found myself equally as fascinated by what the letters revealed about their writers as what they said about Tiptree. Some clearly had an eye towards their third-party audience, while others were more focussed on the person they were writing to. Some letters were restless and unhappy, while others were breathtaking in their sincere gratitude. Even the anger present in some merely added to the sense that this collection was a beautiful love letter.

Gender and identity are naturally one of the major preoccupations of these letters. It was interesting to see the different conclusions authors came to while pondering what ground–if any–feminism has gained since Tiptree’s death thirty years ago. However, this wasn’t the sole focus of these letters. They also dwelt on some of the other overarching themes of Tiptree’s work, such as class, colonialism, technology and time.

The second section is formed of a selection of letters exchanged between Alice Sheldon and her contemporaries–specifically Ursula LeGuin and Joanna Russ. Sheldon had been writing to these two women under the guise of Tiptree and had formed close friendships with them. When the death of Sheldon’s mother began to unravel the identity of James Tiptree Jr., she was quick to write to them and confess the truth. The letters included in this book centre around these confessions. After hearing so much about the influence of Tiptree on the writers of the first section, it was a delight to hear her speak in her own voice. At the same time, it was heartbreaking because her fear and unhappiness are very evident.

This is followed by a section with a more academic focus, containing a few anthology introductions and excerpts from more scholarly works. I’d been able to grasp much of the context of Tiptree’s work from the letters in the first section, though this did a good job of filling in some of the gaps and expanding the territory a little bit. I found Wendy Guy Pearson’s 1999 paper on Tiptree as a transgender writer to be particularly interesting.

The collection was rounded out with letters from the two editors addressed to Tiptree and reflecting on their experiences of putting the collection together. I liked the way this brought things back to the personal, completing the cycle.

If the aim of the book was to interest new readers in the life and work of Tiptree, it succeeded in my case.

Mirrored from Earl Grey Editing.

calissa: A low angle photo of a book with a pair of glasses sitting on top. (Mt TBR)


Earl Grey Editing will be closed from 20 December until 12 January, making this my last post of the year. I thought I would leave you with some of my favourite reads from 2014. These are not books that were necessarily published this year, just read by me this year. In no particular order:

Books! )

Mirrored from Earl Grey Editing.

calissa: (Calissa)

13554235Published: 2012 by JADD Publishing
Format reviewed: Paperback, 170 pages
Series: None
Genres: Non-fiction
Source: Public library

The Emotion Thesaurus is pretty much exactly what it says on the label. This non-fiction book has an entry for emotions ranging from adoration to worry. Each entry lists a definition of the emotion, as well as physical signs, mental responses, cues that might be given off by acute long-term sufferers of that emotion, cues of suppressed emotion, and other possibly related emotions. It is intended to be a reference book for writers.

This book was mentioned with some derision at one of the Conflux panels I attended so I thought I would check it out for myself. It didn’t take long; the book is fairly slender and features one emotion for every double-page spread. There is a fair bit of duplication between similar emotions–for example, the lists for annoyance and irritation feature many of the same signs.

Judging from the tone, the book is aimed at newer writers and I can see how it could be a useful starting point. However, any writer will still need to consider cultural norms, genre expectations and the particulars of their character. Gillian Polack explores how to give this kind of consideration to dialogue over on the History Girls blog. While the opening chapters of The Emotion Thesaurus are careful to point out this kind of consideration is needed in order to avoid cliché, the thesaurus format makes it easy for those looking for a short-cut. This was the very reason it received criticism at Conflux.

Unsurprisingly then, the book is best seen as a tool: equally capable of producing the beautiful and the dreadful, depending on the wielder. Use with caution.


Mirrored from Earl Grey Editing.

calissa: A low angle photo of a book with a pair of glasses sitting on top. (Mt TBR)
20140624 Reading Instagram

What the Robin Knows is a non-fiction book about studying bird calls and behaviour to gain a better understanding of the natural world. Written by an experienced naturalist and tracker, the book is a wealth of information.

I admit that I was initially sceptical about how useful the book would prove. Being American, Jon Young's experience is largely (though not exclusively) with American birds and the examples he uses are almost entirely American. I rather expected that the writing would be very much keyed to a particular locale and not at all applicable to an Australian landscape. However, I was very pleased to discover that while Young takes examples from a very specific biosphere, the book focuses on broad principles that can indeed be applied to different biospheres. Already, I have found it has changed the way I see and hear birds, even though I haven't yet found the significant amount of time it will take to complete the exercises suggested in the book.

The style was a bit of a weak point. There were times when a sense of smugness crept in and I rather got the impression that Young can be a bit of a show-off. He also had a few axes to grind and even though I agreed with some of them it got a little tiresome after a while.

This book isn't going to be for everyone. As I mentioned earlier, the practices it outlines require a considerable investment of time--especially so, if you live in a different biosphere and have to work out what your equivalent species are. However, this is not a flaw of the book or even of its teachings. Rather, it is the cost specialist knowledge requires. And this is definitely specialist knowledge.

Four stars out of five
calissa: A low angle photo of a book with a pair of glasses sitting on top. (Mt TBR)
Corvus: A Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson was a recommendation from [personal profile] onewhitecrow. The book is part memoir, part natural history wherein the author uses her experiences of rescuing and caring for birds--and corvids particularly--as a way of delving into the biology, symbology and psychology of birds.

That probably makes it sound a bit clinical when the truth is that this book is a deeply personal one, both for the author and myself. Birds are, for Woolfson, not pets but members of the family. They don't live in cages but "houses" which (for the most part) they can get out of if they wish. They play with other members of the family (both human and non-human) and scold guests who keep them up past their bedtime.

For me, the personal lies in an interest in birds and my attempt to negotiate a relationship with the wild birds that come to my feeder. There were many things I related to in the book--such as the panic (and uselessness) of trying to impose human ethics on non-humans and Woolfson's musings on where lies the boundary to wildness when it comes to birds living in an urban environment.

Woolfson doesn't cover up what may be thought of as the alienness of birds--such as the way they can sleep with one half of the brain at the time (and one eye open), the way they prefer to have affection demonstrated as preening rather than patting, and the way they are more keenly attuned to seasons than pets may be. Instead, she uses doses of natural history to both highlight and explain as much as possible. She also acknowledges that while she will never be able to fully understand her feathered family, there is genuine affection and relationship. Their alienness becomes just another quirk, like the cat presenting a mouse, or your significant other insisting on stacking the dishwasher a certain way.

Aside from a love of birds, this book also demonstrates a love of language. The author is from a literary background and it shows in the slow, descriptive start to the book. This is writing to be savoured, though it is not going to be to everyone's taste.

I had no trouble with the transitions between the personal and the natural history, finding it reflective of how my mind works--observing something from my surroundings, then researching the explanation. In the last section of the book, the balance tips a little more heavily in favour of natural history. Here it begins to get a bit more bogged down and doesn't flow quite as well, but she brings it back neatly to the personal in the end.

Overall, I found it a satisfying read that encourages the examination of the current default relationship between humans and birds.


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