My Year of Disney: Quarterly Progress Report #2
On the joys of extremist reviewing

Friday Five: 6 Stunning Reviews from Strange Horizons

Strange-HorizonsA slightly meta Friday Five this week, as I'm reviewing the reviews... but all in aid of a good cause. Every year, the hard-working folks at Strange Horizons host a fund drive in order to a) keep the lights on and b) pay their contributors.* 

There's a nice little reward mechanic as well - when you donate, you're entered into a drawing for nifty prizes.

Like every site I read, I don't agree with all of Strange Horizon's reviews.** In fact, I'd say we're batting somewhere around .500. That said, Strange Horizons' reviews are all well-thought, well-phrased, well-considered and quite often a lot of fun. We may only see eye-to-eye half the time, but I can always appreciate what they have to say.

Without further ado, here are a few of my favourites from the past year, and a bit of wibble about why I like them so much:

T.S. Miller on Will McIntosh's Love Minus Eighty

Hey! I sponsored "a random review" in last year's fund drive, and I'm delighted to see that a) it is a book that really deserved a thoughtful review and b) the reviewer and I both liked it. T.S. Miller talks about how the book is clever, does nifty stuff with the technology, is quite sweet (my word, not his) and misses a trick by not going even deeper: "a very smart novel, but also one full of missed opportunities to reflect". 

Jesse Bullington and Dan Hartland on Lauren Beukes' The Shining Girls

Two for the price of one, and, given the attention paid to The Shining Girls now as a commercial success, Richard & Judy pick, Dagger finalist, etc. etc., it is fun to look back and see what clever people had to say about it when it was first released. Mr. Bullington is filled with praise, and looks at the The Shining Girls against SF's long tradition of time-travel stories. Mr. Hartland finds it a little too polished in places, but agrees that this is a book filled with "verve and skill".

Combining these two reviews was a great idea - although both reviews are mostly-to-largely positive, the reviewers approach the book in two completely different ways, as both science fiction and thriller. The result is strangely prophetic: in our wonderfully post-genre (or at least pre-post-genre) world, The Shining Girls has been bounced around between categories, an example of the confusion that ensues when a book crosses lines or - god forbid - becomes a mainstream success. Just last night I spotted it in three different sections in Foyles.

Abigail Nussbaum on The Arthur C. Clarke Shortlist: Part 1 and Part 2

Brilliant. One of, if not the, best look at the year's "best science fiction". Ms. Nussbaum isn't one to pull her punches, but the joy of reading her shortlist reviews doesn't come (solely) from schadenfreude - it is great to see someone comparing and contrasting all five books in the same breath. Just as, one supposes, the judges need to do.

Ms. Nussbaum also concludes, tongue-in-cheek (I think?), with a wise summary of awards in general: "next year will see a new shortlist, a new discussion, new ways of calling the judges wrongheaded". Which is, of course, exactly why we have awards: to learn about books, to talk about books and to argue with one another.

Nina Allan on Peter Higgin's Wolfhound Century

A very thoughtful, very balanced, very incisive look at one of the year's biggest science fiction releases. Ms. Allan finds much to like in this "intriguing thriller". However, she also interrogates its quasi-Russian setting, not just by looking at the sources and the detail, but also by opening up the larger question: what sort of book is this, and how do we read it? Ultimately she concludes that "it is neither one thing nor the other, that it lies balanced precariously between the kingdoms of History and Fancy and is citizen of neither". Well-researched and insightful and a pleasure to read, focused on the text and its significance to the category (not the author or his intent), I see this as a model review.*** 

Foz Meadows on Christian Schoon's Zenn Scarlett 

"It's like Futurama's vision of redneck farmers living on the moon, but without the irony." A wholeheartedly critical review, but I find it fascinating because Ms. Meadows addresses the issues head-on, including her own expectations. This is a book, she confesses, that she "really wanted to like", but the best she can do for it is deliver a fair, if stinging, assessment.

Layering in my own experience as well, this is a situation I deal with as a reviewer all the time - what do you do when a book doesn't meet your expectations? How do you strike a balance between (unwarranted) optimism and (unfair) disappointment? Ms. Meadows does it, I believe, perfectly - she's open about her own expectations, but marshals her arguments, both positive and negative, with a sort of dispassionate grace. Like Ms. Allan's work, above, this feels like a model review.

Liz Bourke's evisceration of Lorina Stephens' From Mountains of Ice 

It would be unfair for me to leave this off, as this is easily the Strange Horizons review I read (and retweeted) (and laughed at) the most. Another sponsored review, Ms. Bourke was clearly served up a book that not only sounds like it was 100% not to her taste, but also something that was, well, about as close to 'objectively bad' as possible.

The result is hilarious, and it is hard not to feel bad for both Ms. Stephens and Ms. Bourke, as theirs were literary paths that were clearly never meant to meet. I suppose the difference is between this and Ms. Meadows' review, above, is that Ms. Bourke's review is a more artificial situation. I'm not sure this is something I will learn from in the same respect, but I did enjoy the hell out of it. Plus, first and only cat GIF in Strange Horizons' history? I think so.

Have a browse through their site and see what else Strange Horizons has to offer. And if you're impressed by their work (like I am), help them keep going by supporting this year's fund drive.

*Not to beat a dead horse, but isn't it interesting how a site like Strange Horizons bends over backwards to find ways to pay its contributors while massive platform sites run by the world's largest publisher can't even pony up for free books? Just saying.

**Which begs the question, which reviewers do I agree with the most - and the least? I have hunches, but no real answers. I should measure this somehow, except that sounds like a lot of work in order to generate a result that would interest only, you know... me.