Monday, August 24, 2009

Reviewer Time: Alec and Michael from "Only the Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy"

It would seem that there is an anomaly or a very persistent Murphy Law preventing me from delivering a timely Sunday post. This week it was a mild after night-shift fever, which passed as soon as I went back to sleep. Now apology aside it’s time to check out the latest guest on Reviewer Time. So far I have been presenting well seasoned and established blogs alongside a few blogs from the second generation, around 2008. So for the first time I will present a new, 2009 entry to the world of blogging, namely “Only the Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy”, which has been around since this April. To join me in on the interview is Alec, the founder, and Michael aka ediFanoB, our very own beloved commenter, but back on the blog at hand.

When I started back in April 2008, I did so without a plan, without the traditional ‘where do you see yourself after 200 posts’ game plan, without a very set idea what made me different or a good blog design. My concept of running a review blog seemed very limited and I also happened to be quite unorganized, a top notch trait that remains ever so efficient. So I feel mighty fine, when I see a blog have a decent start and founder Alec manages to do so. From name to design and activity, “Only the Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy” fairs better than I did back in my starting days and certainly becomes known faster than most second and third generation reviewers. For the four months the site has been active it managed to pick 62 followers and earn a BBAW nomination for Best New Blog. To me it seems like a good and tight start.

Content-wise I have to say that not over-active as in a post a day or even more, which I view as positive since it makes lazy and forgetful readers such as myself follow a lot easier, “Only the Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy” offers diversity. Alec and Michael deliver fiction reviews and as of recently even one movie review, which bear their own distinctive structure compared to ones used by other bloggers such as the FBC crew or Kristin at Fantasy Café. I find Michael’s way of reviewing books disturbingly entertaining with the I-have-a-split-personality-disorder vibe, which makes me feel like I am in a King novel for no apparent reason. Apart from these minor oddities these guy’s reviews offer sophisticated breakdown and logical argumentation.

Reviews are paired with extensive and juicy weekly roundups provided by Michael and rants, discussions and open to all questions provided by Alec. Only time will show the evolution of all these elements, but so far the creative brew behind this review blog is a solid formula.

Now let’s proceed with the joint interview.

Harry Markov: Let’s start with the personal questions. As usual you will be required to supply some bio information. Who is Alec in real life and what does one day look like for him? The same question goes for Michael.

Hey Harry. First off, thank you for having Michael and me over for a chat. It is an honor to sit in this hallowed chair and share a bit about myself and the blog. Ok, lets get down to business.

New York is an amazing city and I wish I had the time to explore it all. Sadly, my day job often finishes after the sun goes down and leaves little room for extracurriculars. Monday through Friday pretty much blur into a coherent mass of legal conundrums and bad political jokes. I work as a paralegal in a law firm across form City Hall. The few hours of freedom I manage to snatch after closing down my work terminal are, more often than not, spent in front of my personal terminal working on the blog—my girlfriend Christine is starting to get jealous. That’s the daily routine for you, minus the fairly regular encounters with aggressive subway panhandlers.

Michael: Hello my screen name is edifanob and on the other side of the screen people are used to calling me Michael. I'm a 50 year young/old crazy guy who is a happily married since 1991. I share my life with my awesome wife, my perky daughter who will turn 18 in November, and our two crazy cats Pablo and Lili. We live in a small town near Frankfurt on the Main in Germany. I work as a programmer in the European IT department of a Japanese parent company. A normal day. Hmm. From Monday to Friday = Get up 6 a.m., breakfast and newspaper reading with my daughter, 45 minutes reading a book, shower, go to work (luckily only a five minute walk), return from work between 4.30 and 6.30 p.m., dinner with family, watch TV with family (including a nap on the sofa), Internet from 10.30 p.m to 1 a.m., sleep. On Saturday and Sunday working time is replaced by other activities ( I have unpleasant duties at home like cleaning the cat toilet..)

Harry Markov: In the fun spirit of list-making, please tell us four things that people would probably never ever guess about you. Alec:

* Three college friends and I plan to take over the world. My provisional title is Imperial Duke of Propaganda. I like to think the blog is good practice.
* More seriously, I will be attending law school next year. Wish me luck, I am going to need it.
* I have a pathological disgust of eggplant. No joke.
* I am distantly related (through marriage and four times removed) to the late, great Isaac Asimov.


a) Originally I'm a left-hander. Since I broke my left arm at the age of seven, I'm now ambidextrous. People are always impressed when I use a hammer with right and left hand.
b) Due to several injuries in my youth I was well known in the local hospital. The doctors called me “crash pilot“.
c) I don't like cars and I don't drive. I'm the satnav of the family.
d) I own two stuffed animals. A red dragon which I bought at Hamleys in London and an octopus which I bought in Berlin. They keep me company when I read...

Harry Markov: Now to go nearer known territory, Alec. What’s the origins story behind your site?
I had a dream Harry, and it told me to bring good science fiction and fantasy to the huddled masses. Ha, I wish. In truth, the blog has been a fairly selfish project. It is both a catalogue and a journey; a chance for me to work on my overly academic prose and talk about a genre that I love. Like a lot of blogs, OTB started because I had some free time on my hands after college. Instead of wasting it in virtual realities, I decided to take up something that was relatively productive. Lo and behold, a blog was born. The wonderful conversations that I have had and the relationships I have developed are all icing on a very tasty cake.

Harry Markov: To stray away from the creator a bit. This question is aimed towards Michael. How did you transition from reviewer’s most beloved commenter to a contributor and become involved with “Only The Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy”?

Michael: I expected a question like this. In April 2008 I created my “ediFanoB“ (in the meantime I also use edifanob) profile and signed up GOODREADS. I was looking for a community and a place to maintain my book lists. It didn't take long until I discovered blogs – book blogs. I started with German blogs but the more books in English I read the more I wanted to read about these books. It didn't take long until I „found“ A Dribble of Ink , Pat's Fantasy Hotlist and many more. It was a new world for me and I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to be more than a lurker. I described myself as an active reader. By the time I got in contact with several blogger amongst others Mihai the guy behind Dark Wolf's Fantasy Review and Harry from Temple Library Reviews. And with that I go the opportunity to look „behind“ a blog. I was impressed about the time and work you have invest in order to run an appreciated blog. At this time I posted often my admiration and I always underlined that I will never run my own blog. As this was happening, my blog link list grew and grew. Fortunately I discovered the advantages of google reader, without which I couldn't follow all these wonderful blogs. Within this time I started to add comments which I called “reading impression“ to the books I read in GOODREADS. Beside this I signed up in several online comunities and posted a bit more. Due to my workload, my time commitment varied greatly. The final step began with a mail from Alec on the 10th of May (which is by the way my wedding anniversary). At this time I was open-minded for the next step and Alec „caught“ me with following words:

I see that you post on pretty much every SF/F blog out there and was wondering why you don't have a blog of your own? Is there a particular reason for that or am I just not finding it?
If you are interested I would love to have you post on my blog since you are so well informed. If english is an issue (I see that you live in germany) I would be more than happy to review your articles/reviews prior to posting. Let me know what you think.
- Alec“

I don't won't to bother you with my answer. Only some spotlights: „You couldn't find my blog because I don't have one.“ „I'm the one between blogger and lurker.“ „Of course it is of interest to do a bit more than only writing comments.“ And that's what I'm doing now.

Harry Markov: Why did you choose “Only The Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy” as a name? And how do you determine what’s the best?

Alec: The name was a mistake. When I started the blog I got a bit carried away with reading a bunch of SEO articles and all that nonsense. It could have been worse though, as my first attempt at a title was ONLYTHEBESTSCIFI/FANTASY. Luckily, that test blog got deleted the next day. If I could change the name now, I would probably make it more personal. I could go with “Alec’s Science Fiction Coldlist”, no? Regardless, for better or worse, what is done is done, and the name stands.

There is no such thing as an objective evaluation of a book, especially in speculative fiction. In my mission statement I make it pretty clear that “best” is what I think is best. To be fair, my practices have evolved somewhat since the fateful day I wrote the mission statement, but generally speaking, it still stands. I try and review only books that have impressed me in some way—ones where I have developed an emotional relationship with the characters. The practice eliminates about two thirds of what I read, and biases me somewhat towards character driven narratives, but that’s life.

Harry Markov: Connected with the last question, how did you become addicted to fantasy and sci-fi?

If I had to trace the impulse to its origin, I would say it all started with The Wreck of Zephr by Chris Van Allsburg, a children’s book I recommend to this day given its profound sense of mystery and wonder. Since I was educated in the French system at the time, I also worked with an English tutor twice a week. He introduced me to Roald Dhal, and it was all down hill from there. After that, I plowed through C. S. Lewis and the Lord of the Rings on my own. The coup de grace came when I was given the first three books of the Wheel of time for my 12th birthday. I don’t think I left my room for a month.

Michael: I have been reading books since I learned to read. Around 1975 I discovered that fantasy and sci-fi were for me. I read the German edition of Dune, Lord of the Rings, and other books. From 1978 to 2008 I read the German sci-fi penny dreadful „PERRY RHODAN“. It was only in the nineties that I really became addicted to fantasy. That was the time when I started reading Tad Williams, Robin Hobb, Mark Anthony and other authors whose books have been translated to German..

Harry Markov: Now let’s rewind to the beginning in a barrage of questions. Did you feel it was easy? Was it easy to supply enough books and how were you received at first?

Supplying books has recently become an issue, with my discretionary spending being tight and all. I am pretty sure I could remedy the situation by actually bothering to request review copies and ARCs from publishers, but it somehow feels wrong. I know that it isn’t, that more or less everyone does it, but it just feels… wrong. See, I even have a hard time explaining it to myself.

My initial reception to the blogosphere was, for lack of a better word, awesome. Partly because I had a lot more free time to interact with other bloggers, but mostly because there is just such great energy and momentum behind the launch of a new blog. The SF/F/H community is just a wonderful and eclectic mix of people who don’t hesitate to speak their mind and give you great pointers. Plus, there is all the excitement of learning new technologies—lets just say the first month made for a wild ride.

Michael: Since I started to read and comment on blogs it was a challenge to find quality reading time. And with contributing to the blog, the challenge is growing. Therefore I always look forward to my next holiday because this is the period where I find the most time to read. Books? I read around 50 books per year. I buy an average of 5 books per month = one year = 60 books. That means my pile of unread books is growing and growing. And then I get books at Birthday and for Christmas. Oh, and I win books through giveaways; they just keep adding up. I have around 160 unread books. Even better is my list of books which I want to buy and read: there are 1054 books on the list. But what else can you expect from a book addict...

Harry Markov: What’s your approach to writing reviews, your signature so to say that makes you different from all the others? Can you give a tip or share something insightful about the craft?

Alec: That’s a tough one. First off, I would say that every review is original in that it is a wholly subjective product; there is little if any objectivity in the creation. That understanding has always been at the center of my process. As such, when I write a review, I try to acknowledge that I am publishing a highly personal opinion. This expresses itself, I hope, as candor and forthrightness. More importantly, I get straight to business in a review—I hate fluff and the Star Trek paragraph structure (scientific statement followed by a watered down version of the scientific statement, followed by water). I think you will find, generally speaking, that every word holds significant weight in my reviews, and that a lot of thought has gone into the process. Whether or not this is a winning recipe remains to be seen—get back to me in six months and I’ll let you know.

Michael: Wow! A tough question for a review newbie. So far, I wrote and posted only three reviews. I tried it for the first time last year and I failed, miserably. After this negative experience I tried to mention in comments that I'm not a reviewer. For my second attempt, I read a lot of reviews from different people who used different styles. I was pretty sure that I needed a formal structure that would fit me and my style if I was to try again. Alec has his own style. I read his reviews and I liked his style and the formal structure. I found that it worked for me too. I proceeded to ask Alec if he would post a review of mine and he said yes. So I sat down and wrote my first review and found my own way of filling the structure. This is directly connected with my intentions: My reviews should explain to reader why I read a book. What I liked/disliked. I try to speak in pictures and enrich the review with additional information. Anyway, I'm still learning and, in parts, still experimenting. It is a gripping process. In order to write a review I must be in the right mood; I often listen to music and I always write the first version on real paper. For the following steps I use my notebook (searching information, links and so on). I have only one tip: Don't look at other reviewers. Be yourself. Find your own voice.

Harry Markov: What’s your reading schedule? How do you arrange your day to find time to read and review to keep up relative activity?

: Lack of time is a defining characteristic of the human condition, and I am no exception. I read on the commute to work, which nets me about forty minutes a day, and try to set aside at least an hour and a half a night, before bed. Oh, and Sundays are pretty much reading day. Given the pace at which I read, this gets me through anywhere from 2 to 3 books a week. I try and work out a posting schedule with Michael before the week starts, but that practice has met with little success on my part. Michael, on the other hand, is the ideal of German efficiency and planning; I like to think that we balance each other out.

Michael: That is always a challenge except when I'm on holiday. I always try to read 45 minutes up to one hour in the morning before I go to work. Then I try to steal one more hour in the period between coming home from work and going to bed. Furthermore, I almost always take a book with me and read whenever the opportunity presents itself—like this week where I had to go to the doctor and had to wait 40 minutes, which, of course, I spent reading.

Harry Markov: In retrospect, have you ever done a negative review and how did you handle the situation? Every once in a while a book comes that doesn’t agree with a reviewer and there was a heated discussion revolving around negative reviews and what comes afterwards. Was there any fear of ruining your relationship with publishers?

Any publisher that can’t handle a negative review shouldn’t be in the business. That said, I have only ever written one truly negative review, which was Kay Kenyon’s Bright of the Sky, as I generally just skip books I didn’t like. I have thought about posting blurbs instead of an honest review, but I personally dislike the practice; I am not here to parrot someone else’s opinion, and I have made a commitment to posting only the “best” books.

So far I posted three reviews and all of them have been positive. I used to read books until the end, even I didn't like them. Nowadays I give every book that I start 50 pages to convince me that I should keep going. Believe it or not, there was only one book in the past three years which I didn't finish. I choose my books very carefully. To be honest, I don't want to write negative reviews because I don't want to waste my time reading books I don't like.

Harry Markov: Now, how do you think you and your blog have grown from your first post up until now? Did the formula ever change and can you describe the path of your evolution?

Alec: The wheel of time turns… The blog has most definitely grown since it first began, especially with the addition of Michael’s posts. What started out as blurb like fanboy reviews have morphed into more educated and concise interpretations. I challenge myself with every review that I write, and I like to think that it shows. I initially started out with a bullet point type format: “Highlights,” “Lowlights” “My Take in Brief” ect. I found the structure to be a bit stifling and so have come to adopt a more holistic approach. A review is not the sum of its parts; it needs to be aware of itself, have a destination, and make a point all at the same time—while enticing the reader to follow along. I am not quite there yet, but I am approaching a structure that I am proud of, and feel comfortable working with. Self improvement is not masturbation.

Michael: I think I'm a stimulating force for the blog. Alec and I are an interesting team. We live on different continents. There is an age difference of around 25 years. But we are unified by our love for sci-fi and fantasy books. I think that there is a positive development since I started to contribute. We started with exchange of e-mails. Nowadays we chat several times per week about us and the blog. I also have grown. I'm glad that Alec gave me the opportunity to post reviews. I can also say that we have some interesting ideas for future.

Harry Markov: Apart from enjoying reading the written word, have you ever had any writing aspirations of your own?

Alec: Up until a few months ago, I would have answered in the negative. Recently though, I have begun exploring military science fiction, and it has been an eye opening experience. Think David Webber meets Tanya Huff, with a little irreverent humor thrown in. I am taking baby steps, trying for something that is both light and entertaining, with a focus on character development and good dialogue. I like my output so far, even though it is a bit rough, but like they say, the best thing to do is keep writing.

Michael: To be honest: NO. I know never to say never, but I'm neither a writer nor a salesman. I'm happy to write comments, write a weekly post, write reviews from time to time, and read all these gorgeous books, but that’s where I draw the line.

Harry Markov: Which are the authors you favor and have had most exciting times with and on the opposite spectrum, which are the ones you couldn’t connect with and avoid since?

I wrote a post on those amazing shivers you get from reading, and only three authors have ever done that for me. That said, they aren’t necessarily the ones I enjoy most. Lately I have been really into David Gunn type close quarters military science fiction. Tight, focused, and packed with action. The experience is similar to watching transformers; you go for the cool robots, the explosions, and sexy actors. Oh, and Joe Abercrombie is totally awesome, I laughed for a good long while after stumbling across his Tolkien joke… the guy just has a great sense of humor.

Michael: How can I say something about authors when I know so few! I favor a lot of authors and the list is still growing, with those both new and old. Here is a selection in no specific order: George RR Martin, Robin Hobb, Tad Williams, Mark Anthony, Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, Greg Keyes, Lynn Flewelling. Anyway I'm a big fan of long series. And no, I didn't read the Wheel of Time. I tried but I gave up after 80 pages. I must admit that in the meantime I began to enjoy to read stand alone books.This week I got my copy of BEST SERVED COLD by Joe Abercrombie and I can't wait to read it.

Harry Markov: What are your personal pet peeves when it comes to the speculative fiction genres? Is there a tendency for these pet peeves to resolve?

I harbor the common prejudices. I generally dislike YA and UF, hate anything with dragons (with very few exceptions), can’t stand vampires, and will not read anything where there is a half naked person on the cover. I am a stickler for internal consistency, and I will often put down a book if the author spams the dues ex button or uses the word ‘luck’ too often. Hmm, now that I just excluded over 70% of all speculative fiction, I guess you could say I like everything that’s left. As for resolving my totally unjustified biases… nah, I like them just the way they are.

Michael: I have a few general pet peeves. Nothing related to a specific genre. I'm no friend of the rating and ranking of book because it tells me nothing about a book. As I mentioned before I'm a member of GOODREADS. There you have a rating up to five stars. Most of the books I read get five stars. This just express that I liked the book. I prefer reviews which tells me something about the style and the writing. Also a list of pros and cons is highly welcome. But I appreciate most when a reviewer can explain to my why he/she read and liked the book. After reading blogs for nearly one and a half years, I can tell you from experience that sooner or later you will prefer to read reviews from people who share your tastes.

I think I found my solution: I don't care about ratings and rankings. And this should be the solution for everyone.

Harry Markov: What do you think of self publishing? This is a very interesting topic as of late with the numbers of authors self-publishing on the rise and the treatment they receive not only from reviewers, but the whole book publishing community including readers.

I obviously love the idea and have read a number of great self-published novels (after getting my arm twisted a little). I do have some reservations on the subject though. The main problem for me is trust. I trust the big name speculative fiction imprints to deliver quality material a high percentage of the time. Since I am working with a small budget, to maximize my enjoyment and minimize my risk, I am pretty much forced to read books from imprints that I trust. The percentages are just not the same with self-published material; for every great self-published novel that I receive, I get at least nine that read like an angsty teen’s Live Journal. Nevertheless, the relationship between good self-published material and the review blogging community is hugely symbiotic—it’s a clear feedback loop. I have no idea where the relationship will end up, but I see it as a hugely positive one.

Michael: I think it is a great opportunity, especially if you publish in ebook format. But I must admit I'm a real old fashioned book lover. For me a book is a book when it is made of paper and you can smell the printer's ink. Beside this there are so many unread books waiting for me that I don't have time to look for self-published books.

Harry Markov: Do you think there are still areas fantasy has slipped that you would like to cover in other mediums? And how far do you think the fantasy/sci-fi culture will enter mainstream? This I ask because art purists denounce fantasy and sci-fi on a regular basis and yet they keep coming back full speed ahead.

We are mainstream, people just don’t realize it yet. There are more science fiction movies scheduled for release in the next year then there have ever been, and their numbers at the box office are through the roof. It’s all about numbers my friend, and in this case the numbers tell us that science fiction and fantasy are both sexy and popular. More importantly, the line between speculative fiction and purportedly mainstream works is so blurred its practically nonexistent. Admittedly, the book industry is a little behind the curve but that is because they are structured around the idea of difference; they are protecting their turf and I don’t blame them.

Harry Markov: Also there has been much denouncing of urban fantasy in pretty much the same vein mainstreamers give fantasy and sci-fi the cold shoulder. Where do you stand in this matter?

Alec: Urban fantasy should be taken outside and shot. I have even organized a book burning for anyone that’s interested. More on point, like I hinted at in the previous question, everyone needs an other, and for science fiction and fantasy that other is urban fantasy. In my opinion, the issue is also a bit clouded by jealousy, but that’s a whole other interview Harry.

Michael: If you don't like it, then don't read it. The best example is my family. My wife loves urban fantasy (J A Ward, Charlaine Harris, Stephenie Meyer, just to name few authors). I like Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series. That is markedly different urban fantasy. But we respect each other and we are far beyond mocking one another’s reading choices. The opposite is probably true when we talk about what we read. I somehow can’t shake the feeling that the denouncing of urban fantasy is an artificial discussion in order to arouse attention.

Harry Markov: I am not sure what a closing question sounds like at this topic, so you are free to some some closing words on your own regarding reviewing.

I want to thank you for the interview Harry, it was a real eye opener for me and a great chance to put things in perspective. You really do a great job here. Since I am fairly new to the review-o-sphere I don’t have any parting words of wisdom. I’ll just wish everyone a good day and happy reading.

Michael: I'm still surprised at my personal development from April 2008 when I signed up for GOODREADS until now, where I contribute weekly to a blog. Everything is possible... even for book addicts.

Harry, thank you so much for the „challenge“ of answering your questions. At the beginning I had the declared intention of answering every question in a precise way, and not letting myself get carried away. But, the older I get, the more bubbly I get. I hope I didn't depart from tradition with my partially meandering answers.

1 comment:

ediFanoB said...

It seems that we either wrote to much or we are extremely boring. But I know that some people (Harry, Alec, my wife and myself) read and liked it. Anyhow it was insightful for us and it is another brick in our teamwork.

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