book review: the girl in the road

One of my coworkers recently did a display in our library called “The One With The Girl” which was full of all these books with Girl in the title (The Girl on the Train, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, stuff like that). Weirdly enough, she missed Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road. But when I spotted it on a non-display shelf the Girl display had been replaced for World Water Day, so I was standing there with a book in my hand and nothing to do but read it. Oh woe. I had to read a book.

I really liked it.

There are two storylines, set in the mid-late 21st century. One is about a woman, Meena, who is fleeing her hometown in southern India because of a snake in her bed, which she is sure was an Ethiopian terror attack targeting her.

The other story is about a little girl, Mariama, in West Africa who stows away on a transport truck taking oil to Ethiopia. She’s looked after by the drivers and by the goddess they meet on the road.

Meena goes to Mumbai to start walking to Djibouti to find the person who killed her parents before she was born. Walking to Djibouti from Mumbai is a thing that might be possible because of the Trail: a multi-thousand kilometre long chain of solar- and wave-energy collector buoys strung across the Arabian Sea. Parts of Meena’s story really reminded me of Life of Pi, but she’s way more prepared, technologically speaking than Piscine Patel ever was.

This is very much a road novel, with the protagonists having encounters and moving along. I really liked it, and the pacing between the continent-crossing and the sea-crossing worked really well for me.

The biggest problem I had with the book is that it is a story about India and Africa written by a white woman from the U.S. Byrne thanks people with names that sound like they come from appropriate parts of the world in the acknowledgements, but I haven’t read reviews of the book by people of the cultures being portrayed. It didn’t seem objectifying or exoticizing to me, but I’m a white dude. I thought it was pretty good with the hijra character from a cultural perspective. But if you are sensitive to the “bad things happen to lgbtq characters” and “lgbtq characters are haunted by loads of trauma” this may be one to avoid.

book review: ask the passengers

In a conversation with a friend I referred to A.S. King’s Ask the Passengers as “a YA novel about a girl who isn’t sure if she’s a lesbian.” And while on some levels that’s a fair description it doesn’t really tell you why you’d want to read it.

Astrid and her family moved to small-town Pennsylvania from New York. In small worlds gossip dominates and reputations are important and fragile, so Astrid and the secrets she keeps (on her own and on behalf of others) make a difference.

Because it’s A.S. King there are also these interludes. Astrid sends love to people flying overhead in planes and we get to read tiny fragments from some of those lives. They aren’t as integral to the story as all the escape attempts in Everybody Sees the Ants, but they were well-done. Astrid is also in a philosophy class (which reminds me of the best class I took in high school) and the idea of Plato’s cave and how it relates to small-world rumours comes up throughout the book.

I’ll warn you. In the end the world does not all come together and sing kumbayah, but King does a great job working within small resolutions and the fact that things can change, incrementally but really, is a big part of what makes her books so good. Quite frankly, if you have any interest in contemporary YA literature, you should read this story of Astrid and philosophy and love.

book review: the complete lockpick pornography

The Complete Lockpick Pornography is two of Joey Comeau’s short novels (Lockpick Pornography and We All Got It Coming) put together in an attractive pink binding that belies all the violence inside.

The first story is about a guy who tries to overthrow hetero-normative society by stealing from straight people. We first meet him smashing a sex partner’s boyfriend’s TV and then stealing a new one to make up for it. He gets involved with a queer team who come up with a plan to break into elementary schools and leave books about gay grandfathers inside. And through all of this the narrator is calling a stranger in the suburbs and asking her questions to try and destabilize her life. Everyone is hurt and angry and trying to make the world better. There’s lots of sex and people trying to negotiate complicated relationships. It’s kind of like a lighter (and non-science-fictional) Samuel R. Delany story.

We All Got It Coming is a much gentler story about two guys in a relationship. The narrator gets pushed down the stairs at his shit job and he quits and tries to find something new to do with himself. He wants to raise hell and be awesome, but the world isn’t going to make it easy. This one is more about responding to violence and being weak and wanting to be otherwise.

They aren’t direct sequels, but I think reading the two stories right after each other works really well. The violence in We All Got It Coming is handled very differently from Lockpick Pornography – it’s much less of a way to blow off steam and maybe think about a little and more something that completely destabilizes a person. Putting the two together gives good perspective on the idea of violence being omnipresent and how control of that violence empowers and disempowers people.

Joey Comeau writes excellently spiky language to get caught in your brain. It’s a great book and I highly recommend it.

bc library conference recap

I spent Friday and Saturday at the BC Library Association conference at a hotel in Richmond, which was kind of a shame because the weather’s been beautiful, but worked out all right since the sessions were interesting.

On Friday I attended a session on Vancouver Public Library’s First Nations Storyteller in Residence program (which won an award on Saturday – the program not the session). This one was interesting as a case-study of how a community-led library program gets developed in collaboration with the communities it’s serving. Originally it was going to be a simple port of the Writer in Residence program but it turned out that what worked for one actually needed significant revamping through lots of question asking and changing behaviour based on the answers.

I also attended a 12 Lightning Talks on Open Access, which was pretty good. The most interesting thing I got out of it was the idea that public libraries could be doing more things with Massive Online Open Courses (like Udacity and others). Then in the afternoon I went to a panel on LGBTQ YA literature which was interesting, especially since it had a couple of authors and an Orca editor on the panel (along with Rob Bittner, organizer of UBC’s Children’s Literature Conference from a couple of weeks ago).

Then I was on the “Ain’t on the Globe and Mail Bestseller List” panel, which had a pile of librarians talking about indie/hard-to-find/frequently-challenged books for 90 seconds a pop. There were books about Dead White Europeans, miniature painting, combining sex & drugs, dropping out of school, butt-plug art, and roleplaying games. Guess which of those was mine.

Saturday I had less freedom in my panels because I was convening a couple of sessions. (Pro tip: if you want to go to BCLA for free, convene rather than volunteer. We got a way sweeter deal than the people working registration desk.) I went to the BCLA AGM, and then convened a session on in-class feedback tools, such as paper-response, clickers and PollEverywhere, which allows for texting in answers that get embedded live into websites. Very cool stuff.

In the afternoon the session I convened was Phil Hall’s talk on Libraries finding a Plan B once the future arrives and the current model of “Libraries are places with information resources” is ruined. He had a lot of interesting things to say about technology trends and the takeaways were that we have to be thinking about this and adapting to it, without being scared that libraries will be gone in our lifetimes.

Finally, Ingrid Parent and Michael Geist gave closing keynotes. Michael Geist talked about copyright and the internet, and how SOPA in the States was stopped and what bill C-11 was like up here in Canada. It was a really good talk.

By the end of the two days my brain was fried and I had to spend the last two days reading X-Men comics to recuperate. I had a good time though. I met some librarians I didn’t know and had a whole bunch more see me booktalk for a crowd (and got some compliments on my performance, which is always nice). Who knows if I’ll be in Vancouver next year, but if I am I’ll go again.