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Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Photograph-style image of snowy/icy peaks and flats.Summary:
On the planet Winter, everyone is born intersex, morphing into one sex or the other during their mating cycle.  The Ekumen of Known Worlds has sent a representative, Genly Ai, to make first contact.  The Known Worlds have discovered that they are all related with the same ancestors who colonized the planets years ago.  Genly Ai is at first horrified by the intersex nature of the Gethenians but slowly begins to adapt as he works the political situation on the planet to reach a state of belief in what this one man from his one ship is saying.  A state of belief that is necessary to bring this planet into the Ekumen.

Review:
I picked this up when I saw it on sale at a local brick and mortar bookstore for two reasons.  I’d never read an Ursula K. Le Guin book, which felt like sacrilege as a young feminist scifi author myself, so she was already on my radar.  But why this book?  Honestly, I liked the cover.  It’s such a pretty cover!  So many scifi/fantasy books seem to be set on a hot planet, but this is set on an icy one, and I really liked that.  So when I picked it up, I had no idea that it’s considered to be a gender theory scifi.  It’s presented as a book about a planet totally lacking in gender.  You’ll notice that in my own summary that is not how I present it.  Why not?  Frankly, a gender-free society is not what I found in this book, which was a big disappointment.

The Gethenians really are not a gender free society, and Le Guin also doesn’t present them that way.  It is definitely an intersex society, but it’s intersex people who predominantly present as male/masculine.  Now, in case you’ve never had it explained, gender is a construct and sex is your body parts.  So you could have an intersex gendered female society or an intersex gender neutral society or an intersex gender male society.  The last one is what we have in this book.  At first it seems that this might just be Genly Ai’s misperception (the off-world ethnologist).  He mentions that he can’t help seeing the Gethenians as male, although sometimes he sees more “feminine features” in them.  Perhaps.  But when the narration changes from Genly’s viewpoint to a Gethenian one, we get the exact same presentation of everyone as a gendered he.  There is no gender neutral pronoun used.  There is no perception by the Gethenians of being free of gender.  Indeed, instead of seeing themselves as gender-neutral or gender-queer, they see themselves as male until their mating cycle when some of them turn into women for a bit.  (They also stay female long enough to be pregnant).  Genly points out after a couple of years on this planet that he’s forgotten what it’s like to be around women.  Not what it’s like to be around gender constructs.  What it’s like to be around women.  This is, thus, not a gender neutral society.  It’s a society of male-identifying intersex persons who are free of sex-drive most of the time, and who sometimes grow vaginas/breasts for the purpose of reproduction but for nothing else. It is definitely interesting to see an exploration of this type of society, but it’s decidedly not an exploration of a gender-neutral society or really much gender theory at all.  It is much more an exploration of the sex drive and a world without female-identifying persons. Now I’m not saying this isn’t a valid exploration or that it’s not well-done.  I am saying that the presentation and marketing of this book gets it all wrong, which makes me wonder did Le Guin think she was exploring a gender neutral society and accidentally make an intersex male gendered one instead?  Or did the publishers completely misunderstand everything about gender and sexuality and mismarket her book as something it is not?  I have no idea, but the potential reader should know that they are not getting an exploration of gender and queerness from a famous scifi/fantasy author when they pick up this book.

Moving beyond the queer theory and mismarketing of it, how is the rest of the book?  Well, the imagining of the world is stunning and clearly presented.  The idea that planets were all settled by common ancestors and then forgotten about only to be rediscovered later (very Stargate SG1) is subtly introduced into the plot without an info-dump.  The world of Winter contains multiple cultures and peoples (something often left out in scifi).  The planet even has its own way to mark the passing of time and has evolved to handle the coldness of the planet without Le Guin just copying an Earth culture from a cold area, like the Inuit.  No, this is all a unique way of approaching the demands of the climate.  It’s also interesting to note that different skin colors are present on Winter, showing that a mixed-race group originally colonized the planet, although their bone structure and height has changed with time and evolution.  The world building is so complex that I’m having difficulty explaining just how awesomely complex it is to you, so that should say something I suppose.

The plot is very political.  Genly is here on Winter to get the planet as a whole to unify enough to become part of the Ekumen.  Thus there is typical political intrigue across a couple of nations and various amounts of striving for power.  There’s nothing incredibly unique about this element of the book but it is clearly done and is not completely predictable.

There is an interesting character development where Genly has a friendship that could take a turn for the romantic.  How that line is walked could be endlessly analyzed.  I will just say to keep it spoiler free that I appreciated what Le Guin did with the relationship, and it was a unique one to see in literature.

Overall, this is a richly imagined scifi world where the setting is much more the focus of the book than the more typical political intrigue/first contact plot.  Do not be misled by the marketing to think that this is a book exploring a world free of gender.  Rather it is a male-gendered intersex world.  Thus, it is a book that will appeal to scifi lovers who prefer world-building over plot but don’t go into it expecting a scifi exploration of gender theory.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Harvard Books

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How to Successfully and Respectfully Pitch Your Book to Book Bloggers

January 5, 2012 12 comments

So!  You’re an author or publisher who has discovered the world of book blogging and says, “Hey! That’s a cool new way to market my book!”  Excellent.  We book bloggers love books and most of us view accepting ARCs as a mutually beneficial experience.  We love books, and trust me, if we love yours we will yak about it ad nauseum.  But!  There are basic guidelines to submitting your book to book bloggers that you really need to follow or you’ll start the relationship off on a bad foot.  Since I’m in the interesting position of being a book blogger and an indie author, I thought I’d put together a convenient set of guidelines for all those authors and publishers out there seeking to develop some book blog based marketing of their book(s).

  1. View marketing your book(s) via book blogs as developing professional relationships.  Book bloggers are people too.  Most of us do this as a hobby due to our love of reading.  We can tell when an author or publisher views us as a tool.  Take some time to get to know us by browsing our blogs, clicking through to our twitter or facebook or flickr, etc…  Friend us on GoodReads or LibraryThing.  Trust me.  I can tell from the pitch email if the author/publisher has taken the time to do this or not.
  2. Read the review polices before submitting and obey them.  Most established book bloggers have a set of review policies somewhere on their site, either under contact information or on a dedicated page.  Take the time to look at and read these.  We post them to make everything smoother for everybody.  For instance, on mine I say I do not accept YA.  You may read this and think, “Oh, but mine isn’t like other YA books, I’ll submit it anyway and tell her that.”  No. Do not do that.  Trust me when I say, I do not like YA.  I avoid it. Yours is not special. You are not a unique snowflake.  And besides, why are you wasting your time submitting to someone who already has an aversion to your genre?  The beauty of book blogs is they let you seek out and find your own niche audiences.  The review policies help with that.
  3. Do not pitch a book to us in the comments unless the blogger specifically states she prefers that.  Most established book bloggers have a blog email or a submission form that they use to sort out the ARC pitches, since we really do get a lot of them.  Comments are for interacting with our own readers, not for you to pitch your book.
  4. Find out our name we go by on our blog and use it in the pitch email.  The only thing more insulting than getting pitched a book that we obviously wouldn’t want if the person had read our review policies is if they start the email by saying “Dear blogger.”  Unless my name on the site is “blogger,” don’t call me that!  Our names are usually pretty obvious if you take five seconds to browse our blogs.  For instance, on mine on the right-hand sidebar there is both a Creative Commons license with my name on it and my twitter handle, which is my name.  If you can’t take the time to address us by name, why should we take the time to read your book?
  5. Do not contact bloggers until you have the final copy that you want reviewed ready to send out.  I encountered this problem multiple times in 2011 when reviewing ARCs.  Either the author would send me a copy then send me another copy months later saying, “Oh, this is the newly edited version” or when I posted my review the author would say, “But it’s different now!”  We agree to review the copy you send us.  That’s it.  It is not our obligation to seek out new edits.  Do not submit a book to us that you are not 100% positive is the absolutely positively best you can do.  I know it’s exciting to have finished the first draft of your book, but editing is your friend.  Nothing puts a reviewer in a worse frame of mind than a book badly in need of editing and no amount of you saying “But it’s different now” will entice us to change your review.  This is viral, indie marketing.  Use it to your advantage and don’t send out ARCs until you are positive it is the best you can offer.
  6. State in your pitch email exactly what format of ARCs you can offer.  This again is a time-saving technique that shows respect for the book blogger.  I personally primarily accept kindle-compatible ebooks, but I hate having to email back to a pitch and ask exactly what format is being offered, especially since I don’t like giving out my mailing address unless it’s for a reason.  It will take you a few seconds to type out a sentence saying what formats you have to offer.  Doing this will generate more positivity between you and the blogger.
  7. Provide the book jacket blurb of the book in the pitch email and do not include praise for your work unless someone super famous has said it.  Really. We just want to know what the book is about.  We do not care how much praise your work has gotten unless one of our own favorite authors has said so.  (For instance, I instantly accept anything Stephen King has praised).  I know that it’s awesome your first book got a lot of praise, and that’s great for you!  But we don’t care.  This again goes back to respecting that the book blogger knows what she likes.  Tell us the genre and give us the blurb and maybe throw in one or two really awesome praises you’ve received, but that’s it. Seriously.
  8. Compare your work (if it’s true and applicable) to other books the reviewer has read and loved.  This shows us that you paid attention to our blog and creates a positive association in our minds between you and a favorite book or author.
  9. Include links in your email signature to your blog, GoodReads/LibraryThing presence, twitter, etc…  Not all bloggers will look at this, but some of us will and sometimes it will lead to an acceptance of an ARC that otherwise might not have been accepted.  It’s smart marketing for you and convenient for the blogger.
  10. Once the blogger accepts an ARC, send the copy immediately and thank them for their time.  If you are mailing a print copy, email them telling them exactly when you put it in the mail and thank them.  If you are sending a coupon code or a file attachment, also be sure to thank them in the email.
  11. When the review goes live, do not disagree with it in public.  This all comes down to being mature.  Everyone gets bad reviews, even the famous authors.  It’s gonna happen if you market your book.  But responding aggressively to a negative review either in the comments or via email just makes you look like a childish jerk. Every time.  Be graceful and thank the blogger for her time.  That’s it.  If your work is good, one or two negative reviews are not going to kill it.  Now, if the blogger got a detail wrong, like a character’s name or who published the book, by all means politely correct her, but do so via email.  You clearly have it, and it shows respect for the blogger by not embarrassing her in public.  Most of us will be grateful to you for pointing out the mistake!
  12. If the blogger liked your book, maintain the rapport and relationship.  I honestly hate it when I love a first book in the series and the author doesn’t offer me ARCs of the rest of them.  You have found a reader who likes you and has an audience to spread that love of your work to.  Why wouldn’t you offer more ARCs to her in the future?  Some of my best professional book blogging relationships are with authors or agents whose first pitch I loved who then proceeded to continue to offer me more books.  I want to like the books I read and review just as much as you want me to.  After one positive experience, why wouldn’t you keep that positive rapport going?

Before I close I just want to give a few examples of the types of pitches and interactions that worked really well on me as a blogger in 2011:

  • “In addition to the obvious wolf connection, judging by what you discuss on your blog, I think you would enjoy it.”
  • ” I would be happy to add you to the list to receive a review copy once they are available.”
  • “It’s great to meet you. I just read your review, and thank you so much for all the kind words.”
  • “Let me know if you’d like to review the sequels. I’ll be happy to send them to you.”
  • “Thanks again for your honest and evenhanded review.” (in response to a negative review)
  • “I’m not ‘technically’ self-pubbed, but the publisher I work with consists of about 3 people on staff and have released a total of 5 books which mine is the only one released by them that isn’t written by people who work there.” (I accidentally said a book was self-pubbed when it was indie pubbed)
  • “Thanks again for reviewing. YOU ROCK MY SOCKS OFF! SERIOUSLY!”

You can see from these samples that all of these authors and publishers treated me like a person, thanked me for my work, and were personable themselves.

I really hope you find the tips helpful in your endeavors to market your books! Viva la reading!