Charlie Jane Anders’ debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky is great. The main characters start off as a couple of weird kids, one who talks to birds and another who builds a two-second time machine, and the story is about how they, well, interact is a clinical word, but it’s an appropriate one. Each of them embodies a different way of looking at the world off-kilterly, one through nature-magic and the other through mad-science.
It’s really good, but don’t expect it to feel realistic. For the first third of the book I was unsure why this wasn’t marketed as a more science-fictional Eleanor & Park. As kids there’s an assassin sent to deal with them but he’s not allowed to directly kill minors so he becomes their guidance counsellor and becomes really well-liked in that role. Then there’s a time jump to adulthood and the fate of the world starts to become an issue (and it loses some of that YA romance feeling). Later in the book it feels much more like The Magicians, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Makers or Seveneves.
One issue might be its optimism in the face of the end of the world, like there’s going to be an escape valve that we’ll actually all be okay. I think it walked the line well, but your mileage may vary.
I enjoy reading books that feel like I could have written them. The books I truly love are ones I could never possibly write, but it’s fun to read a book that fits so well with your own experiences sometimes.
Corey Redekop’s Shelf Monkey is a story about a lapsed Mennonite on the run for crimes against purveyors of shitty literature. It’s set in Winnipeg and is about the people who work in libraries and bookstores and are aghast at the taste customers display in choosing things to read. The villain of the book is a caricature of supermarket self-help book pushers, and the heroes form a book-burning cult. Only terrible pieces of shit books, and everyone really gets off on it.
It’s a decent little book. I think it’s a little less relevant to the culture of the 2010s than something like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, but that’s because it still seems to be treating broadcast television as an important cultural force rather than the internet. It’s a little Palahniukish, and the opening few chapters led me to expect more fragmented experimental storytelling than it actually delivered (eventually it settled into a pretty standard epistolary novel). I definitely recommend it to the book-lovers and more importantly to those people who make sure to peel the Oprah’s Book Club stickers off their copies of Steinbeck.
One of my friends did a list of her top 12 books from 2012 for her library. I saw her list and went, man, we read very different stuff. I’d heard of four of her books and read none (though a few are in my interminable and not written down anywhere “to read” list). But here’s my list of books I really liked that were released this year. All the links go to my reviews if you want more information than might be conveyed in the specific prize each won.
- Best book about art: The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan
- Best book about love: Ask The Passengers by A.S. King
- Best book about politics: The Five Nations of New York by Brian Wood (Technically this is only the end of a much longer tale spanning many years of story, but it was a damned good ending.)
- Best book about sex & politics: The Complete Lockpick Pornography by Joey Comeau (Technically these are older books than 2012 but putting them together in one volume, as was done this year, makes the experience different enough to make the list.)
- Best book about war: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi
- Best book about mechanical bees (with spies): Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
- Best book about giant moles (with philosophies): Railsea by China Miéville
- Best adaptation of a book: A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Hope Larson and Madeline L’Engle
- Best adaptation of that feeling you get from the best episodes of the Twilight Zone into a book that isn’t really an adaptation at all: The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire
- Best book about a society I would no-shit never ever ever want to live in: Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
- Best book about high school (with ghosts): Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks
- Best book about books (with immortality, data-visualization, friendship and epic fantasy quests): Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
What were your favourites?
There are a great many things to love about Robin Sloan’s novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. A great many things. What I love best about it is how perfectly “now” it feels. It’s a book I will use to say “this is how 2012 felt to me.”
The narrator of the tale is a designer who can’t get work because of the economy, and takes a job as the night clerk in a 24-hour bookstore. It’s a weird bookstore though, with three storeys of tomes (and to the delight of library-nerds rolling ladders for access) in the back which are arranged in no clear order and have eccentric people coming to trade for them. And these eccentric folk must be kept track of and observed, written about in the log for each shift. So yes, there is the old and odd to this story.
And then a woman who works at Google walks in (the bookstore is in San Francisco) and the story becomes this beautiful melding of all that old weird stuff with data-visualization schemes and parallel processing power to break codes and dreams of the Singularity. Plus of course the digitization of books.
Put it together with a fantasy novel overlay, that has our narrator using the D&D character name of his best friend since they were 12 when he needs him to really do something and I’m in heaven.
It’s about the intersection of these worlds of tradition and innovation, design and shortcuts that make it amazing. If you liked Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, there are echoes here, but it’s mostly in the shared nerd culture aspects. It’s a much less heavy tale. The narrator doesn’t take all the robes and mumbo-jumbo or the Googlarchy so seriously as anyone in The Magicians would. It’s more like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
It was a quick read. It didn’t change the way I thought about the deep mysteries of life. But it was so damned enjoyable.