book review: throne of the crescent moon

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.

booktalking mechanique – script and response

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.

book review: mechanique: a tale of the circus tresaulti

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.

book review: akata witch

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.

book review: stories of your life and others

Ted Chiang is amazing. The short stories in Stories of Your Life and Others are practically all amazing in the ways they twist your brain into new ways of seeing. There are stories about the tower of Babel and about mass-producing golems and about angelic manifestations, along with alien languages that don’t work sequentially and mathematics being proven as meaningless. It’s such a fantastic collection I can barely even talk about it, because I’d seriously start recapping the stories to show how cool they are and it’s much better if you’d just read them. If you have any interest in science fiction, you must read this book.

book review: luka and the fire of life

Luka and the Fire of Life is Salman Rushdie’s sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a book I will forever love. Maybe it’s just the glasses of nostalgia looking back at Haroun, giving it more depth than there actually was, but Luka fell a little flat.

There’s still a lot of great language-play going on, and Rushdie is doing his old-school storytelling thing here, which is great. The world of magic that was supposed to be so rich with all the things implied about its vast history was actually rather small and curtailed.

Rushdie also used a video-game device of having extra lives and save points that I understand were an attempt to modernize the tale, to differentiate it from the pre-digital age Haroun, but it felt tacked on and misunderstood and a poor fit for the old-school storytelling on display. In Scott Pilgrim coins popping out of people after he defeats them in a fight works, here the grabbing of hundreds of extra lives at a time seemed to misunderstand the logic behind videogames entirely. I may have complained about Ready Player One being a bit too nerd-pandering, but this is what that feels like when done badly I think.

They also did the whole skipping a bunch of levels in the quest thing, which I’ve seen done more cleverly in Un Lun Dun (and possibly a Neil Gaiman story or two?).

But that’s what I didn’t like and the rest of the book was pretty good. I already mentioned the exuberant language. I loved the Insultana of Over The Top (and could have used more examples of her insults before they soften a bit towards Luka). The use of so many different deities cross-pollinating the World of Magic was great, and Luka’s big speech near the end was wonderful.

Overall I liked the book, but I’d recommend Haroun and the Sea of Stories much more highly.

book review: feed

M.T. Anderson’s Feed was pretty excellent. It’s about a bunch of American teens in the future where the internet (the Feed) gets pumped into your head without all these bullshit devices to deal with. Well no, it’s not about a bunch of teens, it’s about Titus, an upper-middle-class American kid who goes to the moon and meets this girl, Violet.

The voice to the book is great. It’s told in slang that works, and they’re aware of the fashions around them in a way that isn’t condescending. The parents speak like they grew up on text-messaging, except for Violet’s dad, who is a bit of an eccentric professor.

The book-jacket tries to make it seem like they get involved in some big resistance movement, but it’s not like that. It’s a really personal story about young relationships, that happens to be set in a kind of terrifying world. But the characters don’t think so, because it’s just the way the world is. I think the intimate scope of the book makes the larger world (that’s only barely glimpsed) that much more affecting. And I’m not gonna lie to you, the ending is really sad. Heartily recommended.