book review: zoo city

Lauren Beukes’ sf noir novel Zoo City is set in an alternate 21st century South Africa where magic works and those who kill get marked by an animal companion (kind of like Pullman’s daemons, but they don’t talk and they’re a signifier of antisocial behaviour). I’m not sure it makes much sense as far as worldbuilding goes, but the characters get you right into things so it doesn’t matter much.

Zinzi is our hero who works 419 scams for shady dangerous people and finds lost things, not people. As befits a good noir story she breaks her rule and takes a good-paying missing persons case and everything goes sideways. There’s violence and lying and the sinister machinations of pop music.

The book reminded me of George Alec Effinger’s Marid Audran stories, which I also quite like. The main difference is that what makes it not a straight up crime story is less about technology & politics, instead Zoo City is our world infused with a bit of magic.

storytime review: chu’s day, stop snoring bernard & mattoo let’s play

This week I hosted two preschool visits to the library on consecutive days. They were the same adults but different kids (mostly – a couple were there both days). I liked that arrangement because I got to directly fix things that went less well the first time through.

So here are the books I used. Neil Gaiman’s new picturebook Chu’s Day was our opener (after our welcome to storytime rhyme). It worked well with both groups, who really got into the “Ah ahhh ahhhh… No.” conceit. The only problem is that the “bad things that happen” probably require a bit closer examination to really admire the art. And the ending seems to leave kids wanting more.

I tried using Never Take A Shark to the Dentist the first time, because the cover was really attractive to the kids. The book ended up being a little high-concept for 3-4 year olds, but it was super easy to skip pages when that became apparent.

Stop Snoring Bernard worked really well in both groups. I got the kids to help with the snoring noises and in each group someone had one of those Cosby moments when they told everyone about one of their family members who snored. They also got to name some zoo animals, which helped keep everyone involved.

We did Shapes That Roll in the first session, but it was our last book and I think it would have played a bit better with more time to really get into all the shapes and explore them a bit. As it was we just kind of went with the rhyming.

In today’s session I replaced a couple of the less well-received books with a couple about trying very hard to be quiet. Mattoo, Let’s Play is about a loud little girl with a pet cat who forms a bond once she learns that some animals are best attracted by being quiet. We also did Read to Tiger which is about a tiger being very distracting when you’re trying to read. Everyone had fun making the loud distracting noises.

We did a dinosaur song both sessions it all worked out pretty well. Even the kid who was mad he wasn’t there to see a puppet show was unsullen at the end (that could have been because he was finally able to leave).

I’m going to try doing a few more of these types of storytime post-mortems because of something I took away from Miss Julie’s blog post where she mentioned:

In a profession that’s supposedly dominated by women, I find it sad that the librarians who get the most attention are mostly men (and, admittedly, some women), men who very rarely write about honest, simple, day to day issues in librarianship.

She goes on to discuss how technologists get all the “rockstar” status in our profession and no one cares about the bloggers who write practical things about doing the feminized work of dealing with kids. Since I’m guilty of writing the odd impractical technology rabblerousing bit, I want to make sure I’m also blogging some of these more practical day-to-day things too. It’s part of that whole advocacy for the importance of libraries and librarians thing to show that the non-technological stuff is important too. So here we go.

book review: lulu and the brontosaurus

Judith Viorst’s book Lulu and the Brontosaurus (illustrated by Lane Smith) is a short chapterbook that feels like a long picturebook, but with more narratorial digressions. I liked it.

Lulu is an obnoxious whiny kid who wants a brontosaurus for her birthday and when she doesn’t get one she goes off into the forest, being a jerk to all the dangerous animals she meets. When she finds the brontosaurus and tries to make it her pet, the brontosaurus makes her a pet. Then she escapes and is much nicer to all the terrible animals, but it doesn’t solve all her problems.

What I especially liked were the metafictional elements Viorst adds in, including an explanation that yes, these days it’s called an apatosaurus but this is her story and she’ll tell it the way she wants. There are also three different endings to the story. The narrator has an impact in the way the story is done and it feels very much like a told story, not a text (much like A Tale Dark and Grimm).

book review: the knife of never letting go

In our YA Services class last week, Eric brought up Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go as a YA dystopia that’s much better than The Hunger Games. I borrowed it after class and wasn’t disappointed.

Todd is a month away from his 13th birthday, which is the time in Prentisstown you become a man. The thing is that in Prentisstown there are no women, and he’s the last boy left. Oh and also everyone can read everyone else’s thoughts all the time (it’s called Noise), including animals (Todd’s dog says “Todd!” a lot and “Poo!” – but is still less boring than the sheep who just say “Sheep!”). And Prentisstown is the last outpost left on the planet after the Spackles – the alien inhabitants from before the colonists arrived – caused all of this terribleness with their bioweapons.

But then Todd finds something in the woods whose thoughts he can’t hear, and he learns how misled he’s been.

Ness’ worldbuilding is excellent. There are so many things that make you go “How does that make sense?” but through careful revelations of what Todd didn’t know because he’s still a kid when the book starts that makes the horror of Prentisstown (and of the world in whole) much more gripping. Todd and Viola (the strange thing he found in the woods whose thoughts he couldn’t hear is a girl) engage in this huge voyage and the stakes feel really high. Also, I loved that he doesn’t love his dog from the beginning.

My only complaint is that the ending is so cliffhangery to make you want to read the next book, it’s a little offputting. I mean, I borrowed the next book, but manipulation into reading a trilogy kind of bugs me.

Other than that this is a great read, especially about the effects that violence has on people. No violent act in this book is just a tossaway thing, which I love.

book review: the golden compass

Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass is another book for my course that I’ve read before. Now, I didn’t really like the second and third books in the series but this one is still pretty awesome (it has a lot less annoying theology to it).

The story follows Lyra, an orphan girl who lives at a college at Oxford. Her uncle is a great explorer of the North and she is a great explorer of the warrens of Oxford. Then people start stealing children and one of her friends gets captured and then she gets to go away with Mrs Coulter, who seems very nice and urbane and sophisticated but is actually quite terrible and she escapes and joins up with the gyptians who’ve had so many children stolen in a quest to rescue them (and deliver this truth-telling compass to her uncle who’s been imprisoned in the north for his researches). There are also armoured bears. It’s four kinds of awesome.

One of my favourite parts of this alternate world they live in is that everyone has a daemon, an animal representing their soul. You talk to your daemon and until you hit puberty it changes shapes. Eventually though it settles into a form that reflects who you are. You might be unhappy with its form, and if so you’re not going to be happy with yourself. There’s a conversation with a sailor (whose daemon is a seagull) about a man he knew whose daemon was a dolphin, so he could never come on land (you can’t be separated from your daemon by much distance and there are huge unbreakable taboos against touching another person’s daemon). I fucking love that shit.

The idea of knowing who you are and having it torn away from you is just about the most personal kind of conflict and stakes you could tell a story about. Yes the adventure is a lot about Lyra being awesome and she’s got a bit of the Chosen One thing going on with her extraordinary ability to read the alethiometer (the titular compass) but I care so much about her and the rest of the characters in this story, who’re all trying to ensure that they can be in control of their selves in the face of giant bureaucracies and powerful people. It’s the most important story.

And I love the ending of the book. I remember it ending right in the middle of a climactic battle, but it’s got a bit more resolution than that before the next books in the series. Nothing is as simple as it might have been and that’s the mark of a story that’s great.

Man, I love this book. Sequels not so much, and I assume the movie was a piece of shit, but this book is great.

book review: the best of saki

Saki (H.H. Munro) wrote a lot of stories. The Best of Saki was my introduction to them. I really enjoyed how cruel they were. No. Not cruel. How unflinching they were. People who were self-important were punished. Animals and children told the truth (and occupied sunrooms). In one story a baby is lost and when the baby is found the parents gush over it as being a miracle and then they find their actual baby and it’s revealed that the first one wasn’t theirs at all, even though they were gushing over it. So the woman who found it has to take it back to the road. I don’t know. Everyone’s just such self-involved assholes. It’s very entertaining. I mean, I can get behind this kind of wit, which feels so different from the Oscar Wilde bullshit that seems so contrived. The cutting remarks in Saki just feel like things smart people would say off the cuff for real. Not like those bon mots that people would pass around afterwards. I guess because these ones tend not to be said for an audience, which is my impression of that Wildean stuff. Maybe I’m completely misremembering how that all worked. Anyway. I liked the black humour of Saki.