booklog summary: august/september 2013

Every so often I get far enough behind in my book blogging I just declare bankruptcy and start fresh. This is one of those times. Here’s what I’ve read since my last book review:

  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller: Good post-apocalypse stuff. Realistic but not too depressing.
  • Time and the Batman by Grant Morrison: Kind of bullshit. Can’t remember why.
  • Zoo Station by David Downing: A cold war spy novel set in Berlin. I think I’ve now conflated an article I read by LeCarre into the plot, but I liked it.
  • Lost Dogs by Jeff Lemire: Good rough early work, but man is his current stuff ever better.
  • Poor Yorick by Ryan North: Good, but not as crazy as To Be or Not To Be, which is gonads-out amazing and will get its own review.
  • 20th Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa: I loved this 22 volume manga, even if the end is a little abrupt.
  • Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin: It took me forever to read this book, but that’s just because it’s oppressive and painful like the history it’s based on.
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Really good. Different from Mechanique, more grown-up, but I can’t hold that against it.
  • The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno: Not as Encyclopedia Brown grows up as I wanted deep in my heart, but still more than decent.
  • The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling: Kidbrarian confession time. Before September I’d only read the first Harry Potter book and only knew the rest of them through Wikipedia. I have rectified that (and think the Prisoner of Azkaban was my favourite) (and was a little chagrinned that my MBTI says I’m Hermione when I wanted to be Sirius Black).
    Harry Potter MBTI chart

    Harry Potter MBTI – |

  • The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter: The earlier stuff was more interesting before it got to the states.
  • The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson: A sort of post apocalyptic noir thing in a similar vein to Gun Machine, but not quite as good. Still decently readable.
  • Sorry, Please, Thank You: Stories by Charles Yu: Very good George Saunders-esque short stories. Highly recommended.
  • Penguin: Pride and Prejudice by Gregg Hurwitz: A comic depicting Gotham’s Penguin as a tragic villain. Much better than I expected, but not amazing.
  • The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge: I love love love the Tines (pack mind aliens. The story was fine but the politics got me angry. Totally worth it if you’ve read A Fire Upon the Deep.
  • By the Balls: Jim Pascoe & Tom Fassbender: Noir stories set in Nevada in the late-90s. Good pulpy stuff.

The last book I read is one I really liked and will get a full review later this week.

book review: boneshaker

Maybe if I’d read Cherie Priest’s steampunk novel Boneshaker when it first came out I would have been more excited about it. But something about the confluence of time and self and book did not add up to a really great experience even though I can’t pin down anything about the book that might cause this.

It’s an alternate 1880s Seattle where 15 years ago a mad scientist named Leviticus Blue built a giant drilling machine and accidentally unleashed the Blight, a gas that turns people into zombie-like Rotters. This story is about Blue’s son, Zeke, going over the wall into the Blight-ridden parts of Seattle to find some answers about his father. It’s also about Zeke’s mother, Briar, trying to go find her son and bring him back safe.

The storylines don’t exactly alternate chapters, but we see both Zeke and Briar try to navigate the deadly world inside the wall in their different ways. There are airships and grand railway cars and drugs and big suits of armour and mechanical arms and you see a number of characters from both Zeke and Briar’s perspective at different times.

The portrayal of the Chinese people in the city bothered me. They were inscrutable, or scheming viziers, or mindless automatons or “amazingly bright” with technology and language but treated with casual racist condescension by the heroes. I know the 1880s weren’t a wonderful enlightened time, but there’s enough anachronism in steampunk I think you don’t have to reinforce all the racist stereotypes at once.

It’s a well-put-together tale, but I kind of felt like it was all just a chain of scenes to the end. There wasn’t anything that made me think differently about life or technology or mothers and sons or whatever. For something kind of similar that I loved, I’d recommend Mechanique.

book review: railsea

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.

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.