Off-Topic: The Story of an Internet Revolt

Off-Topic: The Story of an Internet Revolt
Off-Topic: The Story of an Internet Revolt by G.R. Reader

Creative Commons License

Last year, HTTP error code 451 was proposed for Internet Censorship. In memoriam Ray Bradbury.

Censorship on the internet, making it into walled gardens, striking down free speech, as the internet spaces becomes silos of data and creative work, all property of corporations.

This book is the live document of what happened in the Goodreads community.

This book was removed a while ago from the GoodReads site itself. Some said it wasn’t “a real book”. That is was a story that was never told.

But the story wanted to be told. People stood up against removal of their words, arbitrary enforcements that remove your speech from sight, against the transformation of a site for booklovers in a site for marketing, against so called rules that enable unwanted thoughts to be struck down and no longer heard.

These are their words, the words of the reviewers and readers, including mine, as part of that community.

The story wanted to be told, and we listened. We put your words together, tied the pages, and made this collection of your words a document of the September/October 2013 protests of Goodreaders to censorship.

I’ve seen people and media ignoring the real extent of the deletions. This book will give you numbers and examples.
I’ve seen misunderstandings of why people object. This book will give you answers.

We have been told long ago, that the internet will become private yards, walled gardens from where only approved speech will be heard. Sooner or later, the private owner “curates” their space from unwanted speech.

When censorship came to GoodReads, this is what happened.

Creative Commons License
This work by Alfaniel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Note: The book is available for free or for download fees, licensed Creative Commons in its entirety, so you can get yourself a copy.

Note #2: In his collection of community reviews, it looks like Mr. G.R. Reader has found around here and has included my review of The Art of War: Corporate Takeover of User Rights.

View all my reviews

Review: Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity

Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity
Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity by Lawrence Lessig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Free Culture, as in Free Speech (not as in “free beer”).

I have received an answer from GoodReads, on my objections to its removals of “not original” content.

Hi Alfaniel,

Thanks for the response. We didn’t mean to suggest that you were plagiarizing another review – our apologies! We should have clarified that we try to avoid users posting duplicate reviews to the point that it’s difficult for other members to find different perspectives about the book. When a book page is barraged with copy-pasted duplicates of a particular review, it can become disrespectful to other members.

If you have any further questions, please let us know.

Sincerely,
The Goodreads Team

First, I thank GoodReads for answering at all. Frankly, I absolutely didn’t expect an answer any longer. My email was sent over two-three weeks ago.

GoodReads would have a point there, if it wouldn’t have removed mark’s reviews. My reviews were the first Hydra copy of mark’s monday’s REMOVED reviews.

“Barrage” with a deleted, non-existent, review?

I think GoodReads only has to revoke the new policy and its enforcement, and civil disobedience may calm (though I’m not so sure about trust).

Then, our netizens won’t have to salvage them and spread them in response.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe GoodReads (or Amazon) is ready to do that.

Past overview

My objections to GoodReads are here:
And then there came the time for non-original reviews.
In short, the phrasing of the review rules implies that they need “original” content from us, because otherwise “it means” plagiarized or using copyrighted material without permission.

The phrasing is bad, the implication false, and the consequences relevant. It’s the copyright misconceptions, yielded by corporations to insinuate against free sharing, that are wrong, chilling, and concerning.

@GoodReads
Thank you for the apology, but it’s misdirected. I just don’t think that it’s me you should apologize to. It’s this lively, well read and opinionated community of readers, from whom you asked for all rights over their work, until you used that power, to strike down free speech, and chill it in this place probably for ever.

Free Culture is about Free Speech.

Reviewing is a creative activity. Reviews are creative work. And creativity lives and breaths only in a free speech environment.

Strike down the essential freedom of the act of writing, and people will revolt, will go in the background, will go elsewhere, but essentially, they will resist you. They’re the authors of their expressions of ideas, GoodReads. It’s only up to them and their peers to read, to write, to review and to judge. To figure out a way to communicate their thoughts in a socially acceptable norm of a sub-community, yes; but up to them.

Not to corporate power.

Creative Commons

This book is the book of a revolution, in the history and philosophy of intellectual property. Apart from writing well, Lawrence Lessig is a lawyer, but I will forgive him for that.

This book is about many things, internet, copyright, sharing, creativity, money, peer-to-peer, piracy, publishing, community. It’s Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed in intellectual property, but adapted to keep copyright and respect authorship. I don’t remember all the things that this book is really about. I’ve read it and I’ve internalized it years ago, and I live in its world.

That’s just me, though. Lets look at GoodReads.

GoodReads is today a 20+ million members site focused on readers, writers, books. Its mission was to be a “site for readers”, a site where people were free to write reviews for books or to use the book as a starting point for their own thoughts, freely flowing.

When the iron fist stroke down, many people objected. But things went as you’d expect: first they came after YA reviewers, as BirdBrian remarked at the time. Then, in only a few weeks, they came after “off topic” reviews, after reviews on GoodReads/Amazon, reviews on pull to published books. And “not original” reviews.

The Hydra movement kept the content online.

What does that have to do with Creative Commons?

Manny’s Hydra initial review and comments essentially amounts to a license to reshare the content freely. It’s not drafted as one; but it is one. This wide permission to reshare the content freely, is what made possible for us, otherwise careful not to infringe or simply to upset, to keep the content online.

It gave the necessary rights to reshare the content to the community. And they kept it, when the original copy was struck down. In the commons of the creative work.

I heard someone recently say that GR is wrong to delete because “it destroys the creative work”. Mmm, yes, indeed, but only if the creative work is under copyright restrictions. Only then, if the unique copy is destroyed, it may mean the work is lost, destroyed, something essential taken from it. Otherwise, it’s just a copy; the original, yes, but just a digital copy, which is so easy today to make. A click and save and upload under another site or account.

Copyright restriction on sharing is the default (in copyright law), and is the heaven of corporations. They like it that way. We have not.

It enables their control through controlling access to that unique copy (or almost unique) we offered them for free. But if the work belongs to the community commons instead, if the community has the rights to share it at their will, then when the corporation censors, someone else can keep it alive.

If only they care about that content, they’ll do it. And GR community cares.

Creative Commons, part 2

Creative Commons licenses were drafted by Lawrence Lessig and other founders of the organization with the same name. The licenses work on the copyright law: you keep your copyright over your work, your legal and moral right to be always recognized as author of your work, and you allow a limited right to share the content, to everyone, under certain conditions.

Creative Commons licenses are the Hydra in legalese. Only, Hydra is also a call for help. To which people answered.

People here are intelligent, GoodReads. They don’t need rules to tell them what they are “allowed to” post, from the corporate power. You could stop striking down reviews not of your liking, and ask nicely instead. I bet no one wants duplicates on the book page, but who cares; we all know that justification is just smoke, to fog the protests.

Talk about the author behavior
(I’m trying to help, GR)

Lessig is a radical, on copyright law and its philosophy. I don’t think I am; I don’t really want to change copyright law itself, but its interpretation in public perception. Lessig argues for a much lesser default copyright term, and even redraft copyright law to allow much more “space” for fair use.

Here’s a better one: the past years he left copyright work and Creative Commons, and entered politics. How boring is that. But he seemed to believe that for the law to change, he has to fight the corruption in politics first. He may be right.

Speaking of fair use. I read something fun: Record Label picks a fight over copyright with the wrong guy.
A record label sent take down notices and threats for a short fragment used in a video, “without permission”. Of course it should be fair use, and it didn’t need written permission. But they spread fear, uncertainty and doubt, by over-reaching claims on their apparent rights. They just didn’t realize they did it to an intellectual property expert!
As the reporter says, when the record label comes against you or I, we’d sure as hell just desist and hope we won’t be dragged in courts.

Now, lets take a look at this Amazon job ad.

We like to think of our forums as a Free-Speech Zone. And freedom works best at the point of a bayonet – or a “Delete Post” button

You may know we’re working to put together the book documenting the GoodReads community protests, The Goodreads Censorship Debacle, take 2. We’re working on and collecting existing reviews for it.

I thought about a critique of this ad, and reproduction of the whole text for it, in an article (maybe for the book, maybe only on my blog, same thing). However, people wonder, can it be reproduced as fair use, or will it infringe Amazon’s copyright? There are only two paragraphs of text; the first is only three lines. The text is not exactly “original” like a poetry or actual artistic expression. We don’t aim for actual profit from the book.

I’m no lawyer. I read US copyright law and the Berne convention, but I don’t know what lawyers can make of it. I *think* reproduction of both paragraphs, in a critical context, should qualify as fair use.
But, I’m John Doe, a dog on the internet. Can I have Amazon lawyers all over, pissed off by the very freedom to share that critique; with infringement claims, even if it’s not infringing?

I’m sorry. I will not make any submission that criticizes both paragraphs of the Amazon ad. Not this one, and not this time.

As for you, Lessig. Kick those guys butt. And welcome back!
It’s getting chilling down here, at the point of a bayonet.

Power through copyright

Copyright accumulation is power. Monopoly kind. GR/Amazon has the rights to do with your content what none of the members of the community possibly can. That’s a position of power.

GoodReads/Amazon owns your work, by holding almost all sub-rights of copyright over all members creative content and library work, and, more importantly, under no conditions for them to respect. Not even recognize your authorship.

The GR ToU is a unilaterally drafted agreement, where they say “all your rights are belong to us; we only leave you copyright itself [actually I don’t think they can hold copyright in lack of a *signed* agreement, but they’re not telling you that!]. We can sell, copy partially or fully, edit, remove, make derivatives of your work in any medium, we can publish it, sublicense it to anyone we please, and we don’t even have to attribute you in exchange. We can also change our terms at any time, and it’s your responsibility to dream *cough* find out about it, otherwise zap”.

There are thousands and thousands of edits to the book database contributed by the community, which we have no right to use elsewhere, because GoodReads forbids our own access to it. They call it “GoodReads data”, and keep it under very restricted walls, their API terms of use. The book database has been built almost like wikipedia, except that the work has been added to GoodReads’ “property”, and not open licensed.
The library of all books of the planet should be like wikipedia. Built by the community, but also freely shared with the community. It’s not here.

Copyright accumulation is power, and it’s an unnecessary power. Companies could live and make profit with much more limited rights on intellectual property, and thereby less power to chill creativity and fairness. They could make money by providing a good service, by being best at what they offer, in a level playing field competition environment. Instead, they entertain the illusion that they need to build themselves a monopoly (of which copyright is central), from your work for free.

Open Source and Creative Commons

Nothing is [only] yours. It is to use. It is to share. If you will not share it, you cannot use it.
(Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed)

A software or content commons is not exactly Le Guin’s anarchy, but it is realistic today and necessary. It’s the community-based answer to monopolies. On intellectual property, free/open sharing is a middle ground between “all rights reserved” and “give up all rights”: “Some rights reserved”. You keep your copyright, and you allow others to share your work perpetually, subject to certain conditions, such as, to attribute you fairly, to share alike at their turn, to use or not use your work in the commercial field.

Free Culture has been the answer of the GoodReads community to corporate enforcement. Because free culture is about Freedom, about Free Speech, first and foremost, and only additionally it’s also free as in beer.

I believe that there is no way any longer, to break or stop the GoodReads/Amazon monopoly. We have to answer it by creating a new place on the internet for this community, a place where software and content belong to it from the start. A place no one can take away from us. No BookLikes or the like, is the answer on long term. They can be bought out.

We have to base it on the principles of freedom, and recognition, and sharing. There are great software libraries out there to help, there are open protocols drafted and implemented. There are already thousands and thousands of people and projects, in community based environments, who work to take internet back from corporations. Book lovers do not have one. Not one both social based and book based, as GoodReads seemed to have been. But we can do it, and, I believe, we must.

The internet is for sharing, and we have to bring back to people. It may take an year, it may take three. But we have to be on our watch for control through copyright. Any commercial venue may be part of it or benefit from the project, except those who try to use copyright to turn our commons itself, software, content, books data, into an “owned property”.

I believe it’s possible, and I believe people can do it. I know I do. It has to use only free and open licensing for code, open protocols and standards for communication and APIs, decentralized architecture, creative commons for content around the project, perhaps non-commercial so that authors can commercialize it through other venues. For content, it seems ok to me. For software, I would not involve with any but free/open licensed work. With any of them, but only them.

My preferred license, as a software developer, is one I’ve seen drafted in a software hub by a lawyer (!), copyleft-next. It’s in the works, drafted with copyright control in mind. It strikes it down, it kills its incentives for the commons. It plays nice with any open license and yet, it uses the history of open licensing to detect the real loophole and close it, in the best way possible under the current copyright law. The real loophole… is more a mentality matter than a legal matter, and it stems from the apparent need for copyright control. From the fear, uncertainty and doubt, spread by big media corporations, that enables ownership over the commons to insinuate. But I digress again. That’s for another review, off-topic as usual on GoodReads, and it’s just my preference; any open license works.

Free as in Freedom

Lawyers. You’d say, who needs them. Well, actually we do. We need those dedicated lawyers who have given their time to draft good licenses, documentation and legal frameworks, who counsel and draft and put themselves in line, for our projects fighting to rebuild the freedom on the internet.

Lawyers dedicated to freedom, as in free speech, and free culture, and free software. Not always as in free beer, but I’ll drink one now for them.

Now, it’s up to us. I’m in.

View all my reviews

Paid Reviews and Non-Disclosure

I hate blatant lying in reviews. Not the fact that a review may be paid per se, but hiding it.

I’ve been initially torn about a particular case, of Brae Wyckoff’s LRP Book Reviews site. Let me come in the open with the facts I know about, here. Make up your own mind.

Summary
I think it’s a good thing that people try new ways to assist indie authors, because there is a need, these years, to create new business models, new ways to tackle the complexity created by the multitude of books being published today, by the advent of the internet, by the technology creating ebooks so easily.

But, in the end, I don’t think we have anything new in LRP business. It’s as known and old as paid reviews under the guise of dishonest lack of disclosure. Your opinion may vary, let me know of your arguments then.

The backstory
LRP Book Reviews belongs to the publisher of this book, and it’s run by the author of this book, Brae Wyckoff. The site offers, apparently, a service to authors: for like 20 bucks per review, LRP finds a reviewer for your book. The author’s money are money for the reviewer to BUY the book (like a “standard” customer…), plus 10 bucks extra for writing a review.

LRP intermediates the exchange and take its cut; it assures that the author doesn’t know his/her reviewers beforehand. Authors know the text of the review, and refuse to have it posted on their book if they don’t like it.

Function of your optimism for the human race (also known as naivete), you might want to believe the practice can be honest so far, if all stars align right. I did want to see all sides here. Although, the refusal of the review is tying the hands of the reviewer. I assume they promise contractually that they’ll never post the review. With all good intentions, I think they’ll feel pressured if they review badly more than once.

The core problem
Unfortunately, there is more to this.
LRP Book Reviews has no policy of disclosure to readers that the reviews are paid for.
The reviewers for LRP will NOT disclose that they’re paid for their review.

I’ve checked the website, there is no information about a policy on disclosure. It could be easy, just say that they’ve worked with LRP and paid for writing their reviews.

But then, I found out that GoodReads and Amazon don’t allow paid reviews on their sites.
From the LRP website:

the review will be posted on Amazon and Goodreads.

My conclusion: the reviewers via LRP will pose in normal customers/readers of the book (!), and don’t disclose they receive their money back for the book, and monetary compensation for writing their review.

Honesty and legality
I think the ethical issue here is the main problem. But, as far as I know, this is not only an ethical problem. Non-disclosure of monetary benefits contravenes FCC guidelines.

That’s why we see reviews on GoodReads, state if the book was received for free for an honest review. The reviewer discloses that information. The reason is common sense: readers have to be informed.

Speaking for myself, I do not believe LRP and their reviewing contractors disclose *THIS*: their affiliation with LRP, and monetary compensation received for writing the review. I would be happy to be proven wrong, but I don’t see how: they couldn’t “offer” packages for reviews on Amazon and GoodReads if their reviewing freelancers would disclose honestly their monetary benefits.

What do you think?

In the media…
I’ve recently seen this article on paid reviews:

http://spinsucks.com/communication/fake-reviews-fined-pr-firms-beware/

My personal suggestion for LRP is to make a clear policy on disclosure, and post the contracted reviews on their own site, not on GoodReads.

I believe that if you’re honest to your readers, they will make their own mind about this situation, and that’s fair. A disclosure would be for example, like “look, our reviewers have been paid for my time to write this review, no matter what they write in it”. Explain all you want, why you think it’s “good”. Convince people, if you can; but be open about it.

Let the community around you decide. In an informed way.

Note to GR/Amazon (on GoodReads site): this is in relation with the book
Frankly, I’ve been asking myself what I believe, knowing the background of LRP and Brae Wyckoff, about the GoodReads reviews for the fantasy books of the author himself. I enjoy fantasy, and I wanted to know others’ opinions. I’ve looked over the reviews, to figure out if they sound canned or not. The result is, I haven’t seen any that seems illegitimate.

I think LRP may have been created after most of these reviews have been posted, both on GoodReads and on Amazon, so they have no connection with the (newer) paid reviews business.

I have started to read the first book in the series of the author, but I’ve been put off by the use of the language. I was thinking to come back to it some other time.

Though, I don’t know if I will come back. I support self-publishing, independent publishing, small publishing houses at most, and I’d love to have time to read and in particular take time to review in depth self-pub works, to find the gems in the sea, the well written, well edited, worthy of a try.

Random, independent, community readers and reviewers, are the next gateway between authors and readers. Which is why I don’t know if I’ll come back to this book.

The unethical business of LRP attacks the very foundation of community reviews.

View all my reviews

The Art of War

The Art of War
The Art of War by Sun Tzu

I have posted this text as review of The Art of War on my GoodReads account.

The Art of War against corporate takeover of user rights

“If you don’t pay for the product, then you’re not the customer, you’re the product”, media analysts have told us plainly a long time ago.

Be that as it may, the GoodReads experience has both common and unique features. The past years have seen MySpace raise and fall, Facebook shamelessly mocking users privacy and still going on, Twitter changing their API according to the phase of the moon and keeping personal data hidden from users, Google purging G+ of “fake names” (that’s pen names for us, booknerds!) and so on so on.

These corporations have taken over the internet. You, the user, receive a service for free, to relate with your friends, to keep your personal photos, to share your thoughts on the books you’ve read. You’re targeted by advertising, your personal data is being stored on the company’s servers, and, sooner than you think, you’re dependent on these companies because of social networking, because you made yourself at home into a sub-community with your friends and preferred groups or reviewers. While you can get away (easier or harder), you leave behind content, topics, friends, functionality you got used to.

Your Content and Social Interaction Is Belongs to Them.

These corporate services keep control over users in three ways.

1. Proprietary service
The software is on the company’s servers, and nowhere else. It’s not available to users, no one knows how it works and what and how is data processed for storage, for reading (private data), for security and logging, for auditing, for removals.
2. Over-reaching ToS
Under the excuse of needing it to function or to defend their business, the company takes more rights for itself over user content than actually necessary. GR ToU is particularly misleading because it claims all sub-rights of copyright, while telling users that they keep copyright (it’s true, but they took all rights to do anything with the content, anything at all). The ToS is also contradictory and impossible to abide by. Really. Since users usually don’t read the fine print, they assume common sense. Which is not that common after all.
3. Reduced inter-operatibility for data exchange
These sites are silos of content under a company’s control. There are more or less features to retrieve your data, and more or less APIs to build alternative clients. On the first, GR stands well, comparing to others. You can send your review to a blog on two sites when you post it, you can export the cvs with your reviews. (only reviews, no topics, no comments, but other sites have nothing). On the second, the API seems relatively poor, compared to what it could provide.

The Art of War against users rights: proprietary service, misleading on copyright, lack of enough inter-operability with other sites or applications.

Aside from common traits shared by any proprietary service, there are essential differences, here on GoodReads.

Community librarians
GoodReads’ mission has been to create a public database of all books ever published. GR has provided the software online, but it is community librarians who have added and maintain this database, their work for free, of tens of thousands of records edits, over the years. GR site has reached its market value through the work of its community.
And it’s this work they sold out to Amazon earlier this year.

A site for readers
GoodReads has been known and advertised as “a site for readers”, to interact and share their opinions in book reviews and group conversations. The site has thousands of well-written, intellectually pleasing reviews, free essays prompted by the book, and opinionated pieces of booklovers all over the world.
Nowadays, the success or failure of a book in the digitized and self-published world is no longer in the traditional, professional outlets alone, it’s in the popularity and free dissemination of information of readers who shared their thoughts on this site.

The value of this site has always been MORE the work of the users, than other services enumerated above. The GR community is not randomly composed of users signing up only for personal interest and personal friends (or marketing), as other social networks. It has been created by working together on the books library, by their reviews, by their blogs.

TODAY…
Some of these reviews are now removed. Bookshelves that remind of the authors behavior are now removed (and others remain). Reviews that inform readers about a children’s book author being convicted of pedophilia (!), have been removed from the site. Reviews that use the book for an essay on GR/Amazon or on the faith of startups, or illogical terms in corporate ToS, have been removed. Reviews re-posting content of the removed reviews have been removed at their turn.
Some of top 25 reviewers on this site are threatened by GR/Amazon with removal of their account. Paul Bryant’s reviews, Manny’s reviews, have been deemed “potentially off-topic” and have been deleted.

…I can see how the issue of exercising corporate control over users content is truly enraging here, on a site significantly made by these contributors. It’s unavoidable we come to this, in my opinion (corporations always do), and GR/Amazon has all keys to the kingdom, but I can see why it’s so disappointing and enraging. Your content is theirs to do as they please, their software works as they want, your choices are take it or leave it.
The internet is no longer for sharing (nor for porn!), it’s for corporations to exercise their control over users.

The Community Power
GoodReaders have started protests all over the place. Many reviews have been posted, in protest, arguing their points against GR/Amazon actions. Many of them have been removed.
Irony and sarcasm abound, in reviews posted the last week, in topics in GoodReads Feedback group, and on remote sites. Many of the reviews have been removed, some of the topics have been closed.
Rounds of ironic flagging have been made; flags claiming to abide by the ToS language in its inept and auto-contradictory “rules” have been sent to GR staff, in the hope they’ll come to their senses. They seem to have missed the irony.

The “war” is going on. Many users have left GoodReads, for BookLikes or other sites. I don’t know how it will end in this event. But I know it won’t last, as long as the internet is corporations playground.

The only solution long term, to corporate control, is to create competitive services based on principles of freedom of users. In all three aspects: Open Source software, same license for content for the service as for other users (or minimal for it to function), and inter-operability of networked services.

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Review: Please Don’t Talk about Me When I’m Gone

Please Don't Talk about Me When I'm Gone
Please Don’t Talk about Me When I’m Gone by David Perlmutter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Short Story Presentation

Cicero Clayton and his gal pal, Suzy Mack, have had plenty of adventures in their fictional version of Halifax. After all, life as a cartoon character should be nothing but fun and excitement, right?

All things may be possible in the world of Cicero and Suzy, but the real adventure won’t begin until their show is cancelled – and that’s exactly what’s about to happen.

 

My Review

The perspective of cartoon characters, when their television show gets canceled.

Some might find this short story humorous. I don’t, though not because it doesn’t have its share of humor. It’s a parody, if you will, of the world of entertainment networks, one that feels sad all the way, shadowing its funny twists.

There is money, narrow mind and ego, corporate power negotiations, threats and ruthlessness. There is no place for quality of a show, for feedback from the audience, for a kid’s fun, in the decision making. Cartoon characters, the last ones out, fight their way and out of their way, for a few minutes on the air.

Note: I have received a copy for free from the publisher, with the purpose of an honest review.

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Review: Sorcery and Scholarships

Sorcery and Scholarships
Sorcery and Scholarships by Ian Isaro
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book Presentation

 

Everyone wishes the ancient prophecy would go away. Pixies commute to work and sirens make mp3s of their songs, yet antique forces stubbornly persist. They want to bring about a war between Light and Darkness in an era when most people just want to cash in on the merchandising.

Aki is struggling to make ends meet and hopes her scholarship can at least earn her a better apartment. Blake refuses to believe he could be something so cliché as a Knight of Darkness. Keisha is pursuing a career in law when she’s told she has no choice but to serve the forces of Light. All of them will be attending the same university, whether they like it or not.

It’s hard to think about dark omens when there’s a term paper due, much less a party that night. But they’d better relax while they can, because after college is only the real world, which is stranger and more dangerous than they could possibly imagine.

My Review

An uncommon book in the fantasy landscape, Sorcery and Scholarships is an on-going trip in a rich fantasy world. Dynamic and complex, the world is too rich to catch in a few words, and it is a setting hosting a saga of magic, youth struggles, destiny and war.

Characters

The new students to Axis University are distinct, well sketched characters. We meet Aki, a girl trying to live on her own and struggling with basic spells to prove herself. Blake, a powerfully distinct character from the start, presented to us as a bearer of Darkness and from his very introductory scene the author shocks us with his behavior. I would rather not give spoilers, so I’ll pass over the details, I’ll just say that not everything is rosy, and that has caught my interest from the start. Then we have Keisha, the smart girl aiming for law school, an overachiever in anything she puts her mind to.

The book is well written on characterization and point of view, though not easy: it switches often the points of view, following the experiences of every of our students. However, thanks to the skillful depiction of the biases of each and the clear distinction between their take on Axis, on their entourage, on the war going on, we have no trouble following them and enriching our experience of the world of Sorcery and Scholarship through the superposition of their perspectives.

World Building

The world is complex, and more than once, at the beginning of the book, I’ve felt it rushing to the reader with many assumptions on history or events we don’t know yet. We have to figure out as we go, the fey, the spites, races we’re dealing with in this world, the magic system, or rather systems, since there are more areas of magic, the prophecy that lies above the events and puts things into motion at the time we enter the world.

The book doesn’t have too long infodumps on magic, still it transmits a lot of information, through part-infodumps. That’s somehow more confusing, because they’re clearly only hanging parts, that we have to figure out how they relate in the bigger picture. The magic system is complex, with many areas and specific characteristics, partially dependent on the native abilities of the student as well as the willingness of their professors to train them. Weird things are happening, and in the course of the story we don’t know much of what or why. Only that it’s a war, a war between Light and Darkness, with many aspects we discover along the way.

Thankfully, the plot is character-driven, and very well done at that. We can easily sympathize and connect with Aki, and likely Keisha, from the start. Twists and surprises keep our interest alive as they move along, we can learn with them as they try to uncover the deeper meaning of what is happening in the university and in the world.

A complex fantasy with a complex magic world, Sorcery and Scholarship is an interesting read. Light, though snappy, switching fast through events, the writing style makes this book a pleasure to read, for the fantasy fans.

Note: I have received a copy for free from the author, for an honest review.
This review is part of Making Connections blog tour.

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Short Review: And They Called Her Spider

And They Called Her Spider
And They Called Her Spider by Michael Coorlim
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What if Holmes’ friend was an engineer, they both lived in a steampunk England, and their story told in a witty style in a fantasy?

They would be Bartleby and James, the fun couple in this steampunk story.

Well written and a light read, the story has been a surprise. I found myself smiling at the tribulations of the engineer, enjoying his use of the detoxification apparatus, in a world excellently sketched with all its steampunk flavor.

This story is now for free on Smashwords, and it makes a good read for steampunk fans, and also an easy introductory read for those curious to try steampunk.

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Review: My Name Is Michael Bishop

My Name Is Michael Bishop
My Name Is Michael Bishop by T.R. Goodman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This fantasy is a RPG-like delightful episode.

The world in which we’re invited is immediately engrossing, we’re in a rich setting with a familiar and yet original feeling. We have sages and priestesses, dark magic and technological contraptions, apothecaries who sell plants for spells, we have lords at their manor, and we have picturesque carriages, and scientific endeavors. We have power of magic and fear and disdain for it. The characters and the world are familiar, they share many elements with the collective imaginary of every well written fantasy story, but the writer adds unique bits: he brings steampunkish golems, creates a distinctive magic system, and a poignant plot, with carefully prepared twists.

The world feels like a role-playing game universe, where immersion is how you step in and stay in all the way.

There are many things done well, the plot matters, characters are believable and likeable, the bad guy will surprise, and the writing flows just right. Sometimes the writing feels almost musical, in its rhythm. Most of all, the world building is exquisitely done, to the point where immersion in the world (more than in the plot) is how the book reads.

This book feels like a RPG. One for which you don’t need instructions, you’re in the middle of it. I almost have on the tip of my fingers the need to type the next scene, move a character, re-enter the manor and reach for the moondrop dew in the sage’s cabinet. In case I’d need it for the spell I will – I mean, my character will, learn. From the spell book, you know. OK. Turn the corner. The two stupid and hilarious guardians are not here yet, psst, I know when I’ll hear them coming, because they never stop talking…

I’m a sucker for RPGs, and My Name is Michael Bishop is an episode set in RPGish world, a well written scenario set in a world I wish it didn’t end.

I recommend this book for any fantasy/steampunk fans, and anyone looking for a great book.

 

Note: I received a copy for free, for the purpose of an honest review.

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Self-censoring and book burning

Over at GoodReads, Manny self-censores his reviews for violating the corporate terms of use.

I have removed this review, which violates Article 2 of the Terms of Use:

You agree not to post User Content that: (i) may create a risk of harm, loss, physical or mental injury, emotional distress, death, disability, disfigurement, or physical or mental illness to you, to any other person, or to any animal.

Looking at the comment thread, it is abundantly clear that the review not only may, but indeed has caused emotional distress to several Potter fans. I would like to offer my apologies to these unfortunate people, who had every right to expect better service from Goodreads.

In the unlikely event that anyone wants to read my tasteless and dangerous piece of writing, they will be able to find it in last year’s published collection, What Pooh Might Have Said to Dante and Other Futile Speculations

All is well, Manny. Yes, the Terms of Use of GoodReads/Amazon can burn down your reviews.
Your book, chapter by chapter.

Luckily we live in times when the download of an ebook and continue sharing by electronic copies are cost-efficient.

Unluckily we live in times when publishers/sites take control of distribution, by copyright law. They retain the ability to burn down your book. Authors cannot stop them, once they sold their rights.

Luckily we live in times when Creative Commons has spread awareness of sharing and free culture. No one can forbid sharing a book anymore, once authors grant a license allowing sharing.

Unluckily there are not yet business models that allow the author to make a living other than by restricting sharing, by copyright law.

We live in interesting times.

Review: Bounty Hunter

Bounty Hunter
Bounty Hunter by S.J. Hollis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Summary

The book is beautifully written, and kept me engaged all to the last minute, in a fantasy world where the author treats jokingly everything, even the apocalypse, with the skill of a great writer.

My advice: ignore the blurb. It starts well, but, to me, it gives the wrong idea in the end about what matters in this book. It comes across as too hyperbolic and doesn’t do it justice.
We can ignore the title, too, while we’re at it. Did you think it’d be about bounty hunting? It’s not.

We’re in an alternative post-apocalyptic Earth. It’s an Earth with witches and aliens and demons, and where magilectricity is the power source for technology. 14 years ago, witches have opened a barrier between universes, and demons have fallen unto our world, wiping most of human race. Kai is a boy witch, in this moment in history when witchkind is not, understandably, very popular. The plot unfolds with many twists, developing characters, building the world they live in, and even change the world as they knew it.

World Building in motion!

World building is intertwined with the twist of events, sketched and increasingly polished as we move along. It’s world building in motion, unlike the static infodumps you commonly find in fantasy stories. The choice of the author on *how* to get us into the world has been surprising to me, because the world of Bounty Hunter is a rich magical world, it has a complexity that I wouldn’t have thought easy to present “in motion”. But the writer draws skillfully every detail at its place, shapes it along with the story, in the points where the plot needs it.

I love the world building style at Hollis.

We are drawn into the world in so many ways, through the eyes of Kai learning his way, through a witty turn of phrase, or lively through dialogue. It’s like the world is out there all around us, and we can look at it as if looking through a window, but we only have time to take a glimpse, then the plot changes, and we move along with it, until we catch another glimpse, and it all falls into place. It makes so much sense embedded in the story as it is, that our glimpses are unforgettable. But we can’t catch our breath, it’s world building on the run. What’s more, the world changes as events happen, it’s not just a background.

I think the sequel will have to have infodumps, and that’s fine, I actually like them. Bounty Hunter is the first book, where characters find the way to start healing their world from the consequences of an apocalyptic event. This healing starts towards the end of the book, I think in the sequel we’ll eventually experience the world at its fullest.

Characters

It’s hard to not like Kai. As clumsy and naive as he is, he’s trying to do what he thinks right and make everyone happy, with an innocence that I cannot but feel sympathetic with. He has the problems of the age (he’s only fourteen), but they only make him so easy to connect with.
Secondary or episodic characters are not so secondary after all, they’re well sketched, which makes the dialogue flow very understandable. Kai’s “uncle”, the team on the bounty hunters ship, are all recognizable individualities. As for Laon, the demon lord, although he appears rarely (more rarely than I would have wanted!), he’s a distinct and very likeable personality.
There are hardly any real “bad guys” in this fantasy. (except a witch queen, but who cares about her). The demons may have wiped most of humanity, but they’re definitely no cliche bad guys. I was thrilled by what we learned about them, from Laon’s first dialogue with Kai to the intellectually delightful episodes inside the demon ship. (did you think you’ll have quantum theory in a children book? You have it, and awesomely written and understandable it is!)

Races and characters form an ethically complex landscape, we’re not in a simplistic good-vs-evil war like too many fantasy books. That’s a really cool thing, it made me identify with more characters, and get involved all along.

Still, a few times through the story, I felt there is a superhero, that Kai’s destiny has a little too much of extraordinary. I think this is my problem with many YA/fantasy books, I’m not comfortable with the super in superhero. However, amazingly, every time I felt that, the next pages restored the balance, and Hollis had a joking take on it at just the right time ™. The perfect bit of joking makes it all fun, loads of FUN.

Writing style

Brisk, funny, lively, the writing style deserves the very special mention. I loved the turns of phrase, the ordinary dialogue or exposition suddenly turned around, with a deliciously revelatory twist. Hollis knows how to tell things differently than you’d expect. I found myself smiling in many scenes, and I’ve been entirely drawn in.

I don’t look at this book as any other Young Adult/Children book. The writing style is great, and it’s great writing that makes a book.
I recommend it for all ages, fantasy fans or fans of science fiction embedded in a fantasy.

 

Note: I received a copy for free from the author, for an honest review.

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