book review: the mirage

Matt Ruff’s alternate history novel The Mirage is about a world where the United Arabian States are the global superpower, America is a factionalized bunch of small countries with dysfunctional despots in charge (including LBJ in America and the Bush clan in Texas) and Israel is in Berlin, far from the Holy Land. The idea is that back on 11/9/2001 Rocky Mountain extremists flew planes into a couple of towers in Baghdad and the UAS launched a War on Terror. It’s an interesting world and a lot of the fun in reading the book comes from the exposition handled through pages from the Library of Alexandria, the user-driven encyclopedia.

Plot-wise we’re following a couple of Homeland Security cops from Baghdad who are investigating some Christian extremist attacks and come to think there’s another topsy-turvy world out there where America is the superpower. Senator Bin Laden wants something out of that other world, and is trying to use our hero cops to get it. The plot isn’t the point here except as a vehicle for the setting.

My main gripe with the book is that the characters seem a bit too willing to believe they’re in an unreal reality. Otherwise it’s a fun puzzle to read through as you see Lebanon as the UAS’ version of California, and Britain as the Iran-analogue. It feels different, less science fictional and more Tom Clancy/fantasy-ish than The Years of Rice and Salt, but they have a number of similarities. Good book and a light read.

book review: captain swing and the electrical pirates of cinderry island

Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cinderry Island is the story of a London constable in 1830 who tries to solve the murder of a fellow Peeler (or Bobby as the police are sometimes known) and gets mixed up with pirates in a flying electrical ship.

Written by Warren Ellis, it’s filled with cursing and scientific emancipatory exultation. Raulo Caceres’ art is dark and bloody. I liked it a lot. One of the cool things they do is have pages with the pirate captain discoursing in prose (over schematic engravings) explaining all sorts of history and background. It’s more effective than putting it in as expository dialogue, and enhances the notion of this being a document of secret history.

I haven’t read enough of Doktor Sleepless, but the two books feel connected. I’m unsure how deep that connection is.

book review: awakening (vol. 1)

Awakening is a detective story that looks like it’s going to be a zombie story. There are people on the street being gutted and chewed on; there’s a crazy woman who swears Cline chemicals is behind it all; there’s a private detective who left the police force after disbelieving that his partner was a terrible person. Okay, that last bit isn’t a traditional trope of zombie stories, but still.

I wasn’t a big fan of the story. It moved very slowly and kept throwing itself around in time without a clear purpose. There were these interjections of the detective’s notes that didn’t add anything to the story, just recapped what we already knew. And the story didn’t get very far in this book (which is an in-character frustration as well).

The art though, the art was great. It has this vaguely photo-realistic mixed with rough as hell woodcuts and silhouettes and the whole thing could have been etched onto the rusted hull of a ship. I could look at this book all day.

It was okay. I wouldn’t strongly recommend it, unless you’re a fan of Ben Templesmith’s art (which this is reminiscent of).

book review: psychotic (powers vol. 9)

Brian Michael Bendis’ comic Powers is about police in a city with superheroes but it’s a bit cartoonier and with more of a wink/nudge to the genre than Gotham Central. I’ve read some of the series in the dark mists of time, so I’m not very steeped in the metaplot, but in Psychotic there’s a serial killer after Powers.

It’s interesting because superpowers have been outlawed at this point, but some vigilantes are coming back with them, making a stand. Detective Christian Walker used to be a Power, and now he’s coaching the new Retro Girl. There’s a great TV interview sequence where the constitutionality of a law against a certain kind of people is brought up, specifically compared to a law against being Latino, which is interesting. Detective Deena Pilgrim is being harassed by an ex-boyfriend, and neighbourhood favourite Power the Blackguard has been killed.

It’s a good twisty little investigation and stuff is set up for future volumes. If the Vancouver Public Library hadn’t cut off my ability to place hold on items for free, I would be seeking the rest of the books out right now.

book review: jar of fools

Jar of Fools is a comic by Jason Lutes about a couple of stage magicians, a conman and his daughter and a barrista. Everyone in the story is kind of a loser, not very good at what they do and haunted by things they couldn’t change.

It’s a very small scale story. There is a change-swapping con early on and it leads to the barrista punching someone and having the cops looking for her, but for the most part the objective stakes aren’t that high. For the characters though, these are the most important things in the world and the sense of sadness and desperation shows through.

book review: ghost box

Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi make a hell of an X-Men comic in Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Box. At this point in the Marvel universe, Cyclops and Emma Frost are an item and the remaining X-Men have moved to San Francisco where they consult with the police. I like dipping into continuity every once in a while to see what the “current” state of affairs is. (Evidently Nightcrawler’s dead! Nooo!)

This state of things is pretty awesome. This is a very Science Fictional story with beautiful, sort of arcane looking art. There’s lots of good banter (not Whedonesque, but the casual viciousness that comes out of Warren Ellis’ brain) and there’s actual discussion of the impact of all the violence they undertake. Ororo (Storm) doesn’t want to kill anyone and hates that she’s in a position of power that she’d have to. Some people do well with that kind of adult power. Some wish they could remember being young. It’s a good story about multiverse hopping, too. And freaky sex between Beast and his girlfriend ends up saving the day. (Beast is awesome.)

At the end of the collection is an issue called Ghost Boxes which explores some alternate versions of this story that didn’t turn out so well. I loved the fuck out of that. An examination of what happens if the pyro burns Cyclops instead of Wolverine. Of what if they just failed? So good. I would love to see more of that kind of stuff in comics.

lwb@ubc carnegie tour

lwb carnegie tour

Librarians Without Borders’ SLAIS Student Chapter (LWB@UBC) was doing a book drive for the Carnegie library in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side this past month. We collected tubs and tubs of books and today went down to the library to give them away. The idea is that the library sets up a table outside on Fridays at 2:30 and gives books away. The library is on East Hastings street, with an alley that’s full of crazy drug happenings and such, so the idea of giving books to people is something I can get behind.

I got to chat with a couple of guys who picked up some books. One was there telling me about the books he’d bought at other places and how he was a great harmonica player who knows all the old Englebert Humperdinck songs “and not everyone can sing those! Spanish Eyes? It’s really hard!” He had a moderate Indian accent, and spoke with the same intensity my step-father does about politics or science, which was a neat bit of cognitive dissonance.

The other guy was complaining about the security cameras the police have up at that corner that can see all the way up to Cambie (which I’m not sure is possible because of the bend in Hastings; he might have meant Carrall) at such resolution that two blocks away they can read your watch. He was also worried about the chips they’re putting in babies now, and how Big Brother was coming to watch us all and lock us away if we’re crooks. “Good thing I’ll be dead before it all happens,” he said, and I managed not to talk about life-extension technologies.

There was also a guy who came up yelling “This is a stickup!” but he was just trying to be funny. I got told off for not buying a guy pizza. I said “Sorry dude” and he said “Yeah, well god bless ya anyway.” But as he walked away he got more angry and said “Maybe Satan should bless you instead.” He didn’t actually swear at me, which was pretty good.

Before hitting the street we got a tour of the community centre from the acting branch head. The Carnegie branch is a weird little branch serving a very specific community, which affects their policies in many ways. There’s a special Carnegie Library card you can get, which doesn’t require any ID. The fines are fairly flexible and while they only have three full-time staff, the part-timers who work there tend to work there a lot, because you need to develop rapport with the people, and not everyone is all over that.

Also, if I heard correctly, all of the books are non-catalogued (ie they don’t have specific representations in the VPL system and are listed basically as BOOK with a barcode). They do this because their loss-rate is so high, they’d constantly be recataloguing things as missing. This way it’s easier to reprocess books, but means they can’t search the computer to see if a book is actually there. It was interesting stuff.

Also in the building is an education centre, a very popular cafeteria, a gym, a theatre, a seniors’ centre and lots of space for people to hang out and play 象棋, Chinese chess. Because this library is also right in Chinatown. So it serves an interesting community. There are also certain barriers to access. At each of the doors there were signs saying that people must behave in a civil and proper manner inside. Randy also explained that meant they couldn’t be intoxicated or on other drugs. These are rules that come from the building being a community centre, and there’s a lot of interesting interplay between the community centre and the library aspects of the place.

I’m really glad I got the chance to go see this, and get the tour and stuff instead of just showing up one day to look around. Good job, library school.