Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman is a story about two Victorian white men who helped create the Oxford English Dictionary. One of them went mad after the American Civil War and killed a man in England, where he was sent to an asylum. The other was a philologist who had trouble getting meaningful work in his field. Together they (did not) fight crime!
Winchester tells this story very well, with many digressions into the interesting-if-you-don’t-have-to-do-it drudgework of creating a complete record of the English language. Throughout the story he mentions that there are issues to be taken with the OED, the kinds of issues of imperialism and entrenchment of power, but it’s primarily an easily readable celebration of the work these two people (among many) put into this enormous piece of literature.
One thing I didn’t appreciate was how the prologue uses a dramatic version of the first in-person meeting between the two men, but then later in the book it explains how that was americanized bullshit written to sell newspapers in a “too good to check” kind of era. I just felt it was disingenuous to use the story as a hook in exactly the same way. But whatever. It gave me something easy to hang the story on, and got me into it in the first place. Maybe it doesn’t matter that it’s a lie.
This story wouldn’t be remarkable at all if it was being told about Wikipedia. I tend to think of its whole community of volunteers working together on a collection of human knowledge as something new and technological in an internet-only kind of way, but that is also how the OED was built. Contributors included some experts and some random citizens (who happened to be guilty of crimes). Wikipedia just flips the expected ratios of those expected categories.
When I received an ARC of Sara Grant’s YA post-apocalypse story Half Lives I was kind of interested but figured it wouldn’t be anything too special. That was about right.
There are two storylines to the book. In the contemporary timeline Isis is fleeing a global terrorist attack to a mountain in Nevada where her parents think she’ll be safe. She picks up three other teens on her way and then they shut themselves into the mountain. The other timeline is some indeterminate time in the future where a tribe of young people live on a mountain following the Just Sayings and living their cultish little lives, terrified of the terrorist beasties that are waiting for them out in Vega if they leave the mountain.
I liked the contemporary storyline well enough, though there were a lot of logistical things like spatial arrangements that were vague and suffered for it. There was a crossing the highway bit in Nevada where they were dodging speeding cars and then there were infected people in gridlock that just never made sense to me. I re-read the section to see if I’d missed something but it remained missing to my eyes after the reread. The romance and whatever was all pretty par for the course in a YA novel.
The future timeline was much worse. The big problem for me was the present tense narration and varying third-person points of view. Everything there felt so disjointed compared to Isis’ first-person past-tense narration. The climactic scenes were filled with anti-climax and it was always a little tough to figure out what had just happened (though since there’s nothing really surprising to the plot you can just assume that what you would have guessed ahead of time is what did occur).
So yeah. I didn’t really like Half Lives. There were some good bits, but overall it would be fairly low on my books to recommend, unless someone was specifically looking for generation spanning YA stories, or shifting language YA stories, or nuclear waste YA stories.
Chris Beckett’s book Dark Eden felt like it was going to be a lot like The Knife of Never Letting Go when it began. It’s about a small community called Family on a planet with no sun, but warmth comes from the trees that extrude from the ground. They struggle through their lives trying to gather enough food to keep them going another day. Every AnyVirsry they tell stories of Hitler and Jesus fighting over the Juice, and the three companions who came and settled Eden from Earth in their Veekle, and how if they stay right by the Circle when the ones who left for help return from Earth they’ll be able to get them.
Family has been waiting for the people to return from Earth for 160-ish years.
The story begins with 15-year-old (though they don’t naturally talk in terms of years or days, not having a sun, but wombtimes and wakings) John Redlantern asking why they do things the same way they’ve always done them. Why don’t they try to do something new? The rest of the book is about what happens when John Redlantern tries to do something new. Which is cool and the stuff of many an adventure tale. That’s not where Dark Eden stops though.
What makes the book great is that it really gets into what an asshole John Redlantern is, and how he manipulates people, and how that’s a part of the myth he’s creating for himself. It’s done by giving chapters to a number of other characters, some of whom are more aware of the importance of things than others. The moral ambiguity of everything in this book makes almost everyone sympathetic. John Redlantern is the kind of quintessential frontier-pushing explorer, and this story doesn’t just hold that up as a model of what people should be, but how that can break people. Killing a person was unheard of on New Eden, and they had no word for rape.
The other thing I love about the book is how it tries to avoid imposing 21st century Western moral scruples on things. Everybody has sex with everybody, and there are loads of batfaced and clawfooted people resulting from 160 years of breeding from the two people who started human life on New Eden. Sex is really interesting and eventually when things get more tense in Family you can see the germs of patriarchy and sexual control of women start to arise. There’s an incident where a character is almost raped and the way they dance around giving that act of violence a name is so intriguing.
All in all, it’s a great book and also has things to say about how we build the stories of a society and how we use the stories as well. If you’re interested in science fiction you should really give this a try.
Shimura Takako’s comic Wandering Son is about a middle school boy who wants to wear dresses and a girl who looks like a boy. I found the concept interesting, and it was a sensitive exploration of some of these non-binary gender issues, that aren’t played for laughs as in Ranma 1/2. The actual execution just didn’t work for me. I had too many problems distinguishing the similarly drawn characters to really get into the story. I would recommend it to manga fans looking for something in the YA realism vein.
Photo Credit: Gastown Railyards by Evan Leeson
Railsea is China Miéville’s a story about a boy named Sham who is working on a moletrain. A moletrain is like a whaling ship, but in the world of Railsea, there are no seas like we know them, only the loose earth that terrifyingly dangerous creatures (like moldywarpes and antlions) burrow through. This earth is crisscrossed by an impenetrably tangled network of rails that require expert navigation and track switching. The trains navigating the railsea are hugely various, some powered by sails, some by steam, diesel or even fusion. Out in the dangerous earth there are islands and communities, and many wrecked trains to salvage. There’s also the upsky which is poisonous and filled with alien beasts that sometimes drop inexplicable bits to earth for people to find. It’s all kinds of awesome.
Sham begins the story as a mediocre doctor’s apprentice, serving a captain in search of her philosophy, a giant ivory mole named Mocker-Jack that took her arm. Miéville does this thing where this creature she’s hunting is explicitly philosophical at the same time that it’s a physical beast that could crush a train. It’s directly inspired by Moby Dick but is wildly divergent from Herman Melville’s story.
Strangely enough not everyone likes China Miéville’s use of language. It’s filled with words that are made-up but make sense and I am a fan. The book is published as YA and while the language is intricate and ornate, it will knock the right reader’s socks off. Comparison-wise, it’s got similar themes to Ship Breaker, but the language is less straight-forward. The plot is stronger and more direct than Mechanique, which had a similar kind of language/mood.
I loved the hell out of this book and am only sad it’s over and I’ll have to wait for Miéville’s next one.
I don’t like reviewing books I don’t like. It feels rude. So I’m not going to rip into Brett J. Talley’s That Which Should Not Be with great abandon.
This is a Lovecraftian tale about a young man at Miskatonic University who is sent by a mentor to find a book in the town of Anchorhead. In that town he goes to a tavern in a storm and listens to tales of horror from world-weary men. One is a Wendigo story, one is a cultists in Transylvania story, one is an Asylum story, one is a nautical ghost-ship/evil tome story. Then the young hero sails around the world and helps prevent Cthulhu from waking.
The thing about this book is that there wasn’t anything new or interesting done with any of those story-forms. They are all entirely old-fashioned in plotting and language. The language emulation leaves out a lot of Lovecraft’s purple prose, but it does use that formalized stiff diction that makes it sound like it was written a hundred years ago. If you have read any Mythos stuff before (really, if you’ve read any horror story from the last two hundred years) you’ve read the same thing.
The big philosophical problem I had with the book was the power of Judeo-Christian symbols in the face of the Mythos. Not to be a huge nerd about it, but these monsters cowering at crucifixes is completely antithetical to how I see the cosmology of a universe including Great Old Ones. There is altogether too much veneration of Christ in these stories to be effective Mythos tales.
I would not recommend this book to anyone but someone completely new to horror fiction.
Note: I received a free copy of this ebook through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program.
I was one of the first people to get Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon from the VPL but I have to say my anticipation was unwarranted. I was just not a big fan of this book.
It follows Adoullah, an old hunter of ghuls and his sidekick Rassad who is a dervish as they track down the person who created some ghuls (in this setting you can have sand ghuls and skin ghuls and stick ghuls – they’re sort of like zombies, sort of like golems, and eat flesh like ghouls). These ghuls are hugely powerful so they need help. They get help from Adoullah’s friends and they save the city. Huzzah.
My biggest problem with the book was how stilted the language was and how every character’s thought had to be so drawn out in its contractionless dullness. I just couldn’t connect with any of the characters because they seemed like such roleplaying game cliches. It read like flavour text you’d find in an RPG, but drawn out to boring lengths.
The setting was interesting. I would read more stories about this Arabian urban fantasy tale themed world, but I’d rather read about it in more original words.
Little George ran off to join the circus. You might too, when war’s been destroying the world for as long as anyone can remember. Into this bombed-out oblivion, the circus brings magic and beauty and mystery.
Once they had a man with wings.
You see, the Circus Tresaulti aren’t just talented performers, they’re also enhanced, rebuilt by their ringmaster from the wreckage of the world and who they once were. Ayar the strongman has a mechanical spine. His lover Jonah? Clockwork lungs. Panadrome was once a famous maestro but now he’s more pipe-organ than human. The tumblers and acrobats have no bones, just copper tubes to make them lighter, more flexible, harder (but not impossible) to break in a fall.
Little George wants to be a tumbler but the Boss won’t perform the operation. Two acrobats are locked in desperate competition for the wings left behind by the flying man who fell (and died). And the government man, well let me tell you about the government man:
When a particular young boy goes to the circus, and forgets to clap at the tumblers or the strongman because he is wondering if they could be of any use to him, he is a government man.
While he watches them he thinks of an agile militia; a way to prepare convicts before he puts them to labour; a body for himself. Government men are never too young to worry about dying before their work is finished.
Later, his mother will ask him why he didn’t enjoy himself. He will lie that he did. She will believe him; he is an excellent liar.
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine is a kaleidoscopic story about rebuilding beauty from fragments of people. It’s not a straightforward tale; but if you love language that tumbles through misdirection, soars to revelation and never gives up on being a fantastical, emotional, six-million-dollar spectacle, this book is for you.
So that was the script for my booktalk. And a booktalk is supposed to be different than a review; it’s more about enticing and teasing than evaluating. This is how I thought my performance went.
My booktalk was the first one on the docket and I felt very prepared. I went up to the front of the room and launched into my script. I was experimenting with full-on memorization and sadly, it didn’t work as well as I wanted.
During the performance I had my normal responses when doing anything from memory, which is that I had unnatural pauses when I was looking for the correct next word. I always hate that feeling, especially when I’d gone through the talk without a hitch multiple times on my bike ride to class. But that’s how it goes.
Apart from the word-scrambling, I felt engaged with the class. I was making eye contact with people who seemed interested and there were smiles. During the show I didn’t feel like people were bored, and that’s my main concern in a performance situation. I hoped that my pauses came across as getting lost in enthusiasm, my mind and mouth not being synced to the same speed, rather than a lack of preparation.
Immediately afterwards, I wanted to talk to people about it and explain my choices and hear what they thought, so the silent sitting while some people scribbled and others were doing their prep for their booktalks was a little unnerving.
I wasn’t entirely pleased with my performance, because of those pauses to search for the right word which I’d misplaced somewhere in my head. In my closing I re-used forms of “spectacle” twice in a sentence, because I’d lost “emotional.” It had been one of my key sentences to the entire piece and I bungled it.
That said, I felt my script was really good. It hit the right tone for the book, and someone who was intrigued by my performance and the hints of story I was giving them would enjoy the book. If they were looking for something very different they’d realize it and not waste their time with a book they might not like.
Since the audience couldn’t see the script in its ideal form, they may have found the whole thing confusing. The words did do a lot of (intentional) tumbling, and pacing my speech never seems to happen in the moment. Hopefully my enthusiasm for the book came through and won the audience over even if they didn’t have time to parse every word.
This was a different kind of booktalk than I’ve done before and I’m not entirely sure it would be effective with actual teens. It felt too much like a performance and not enough like a conversation, which is how I’ve done them in the past. But if I was doing something this performative in the future and written a deliberate script, I really need to use it. I’m better and more fluent in delivering words I’ve prepared if I have them in front of me. Especially when I’m trying to do something more complex and writerly than a plot summary.
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti is a fucking beautiful book about a circus where to be a real performer you become more machine than human. The aerialists have their bones replaced with hollow copper so they are lighter. The music man is a head and hands built into an organ. There’s a strongman with a mechanical spine, his partner with clockwork lungs, the human trapezes and there was once a man with wings.
There’s all sorts of yearning in this book. Little George (as opposed to Big George, who is one of the human trapezes) is the barker and the character we’re closest to in the book. He wants to be a tumbler but Boss won’t do the surgeries on him yet. There are two acrobats who perform together beautifully in silence and desperate competition to be the next person to wear the wings.
We see a world that’s been struggling through a terrible war that’s ravaged cities far longer than most people have been alive. And we meet a government man who wants to push things forward, make things better for the people,and for that he just might need these people of the circus.
The book has something like 80 short chapters and they flicker around in time. There is a plot-line, a very simple one about the government man, but most of the book is spent learning about the different characters and their histories. We read the origin stories of how these people joined the circus and the nameless crew, and the aside from the plot the central question is about Alec, the man who had wings but fell. And died.
This is a book to read for its language because Genevieve Valentine’s language is beautiful. It’s fragmented and broken as the characters, but rebuilt into something magnificent. Mechanique is nominated for a 2011 Nebula, and it kills me that it’s up against Embassytown, which I also loved.
It’s so fucking good. Read it if you love language and complicated people.
Akata Witch is Nnedi Okorafor’s novel set in contemporary small-town Nigeria. It was nominated for a 2011 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Book (one of the Nebula Awards).
Sunny, the young heroine, is an albino girl with a couple of brothers who’ve moved around a lot in their lifetimes. They’ve lived in the US and visited Europe but now they’re back in Nigeria. Where Sunny learns she’s a Leopard-person.
Leopard people are people in tune with magic and spirits and their true faces. Most leopard people are brought up by parents who are leopard people, but there are also some who are free agents, which is what happens to Sunny (her parents are Lambs – the equivalent of Muggles). As soon as she learns what she is, she’s bound to secrecy about it by her new Leopard peers and teachers.
It’s a good book, but way more interesting for the characters and setting than the plot. There’s a serial killer in their area and Sunny and her friends have to put an end to his nefariousness, but that only really becomes important in the last sixth of the book. Most of the book is about Sunny learning about this strange new world she’s found herself a part of. There’s a soccer match, and they watch a juju fight between experienced warriors, and they undergo a bunch of trials in which the protagonists could have died, but the difference in the stakes between those things never really come through. Even though Sunny is shocked at what the adults could have let happen, it’s hard to be really pulled into what turns into the big conflict. Too much time is spent with Sunny wanting things explained to her, but the rest of the characters feel it’s better to keep her (and the reader) in the dark.
But Sunny is a great character. The worldbuilding (of both the fantastical world and mundane Nigeria) is excellent. I loved the different languages that were used and how the cultures were differentiated. I loved that leopard people are supposed to shun worldly goods and power, but some of them don’t, but everyone has to deal with each other anyway. The politics around everything are nicely gray.
I’d gladly recommend the book for anyone who likes urban fantasy type things, but wants to see some characters and cultures that aren’t already filling the bookshelves.