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book review: the triumph of human empire

I’m reading more nonfiction this year and stuff like The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams is why. I mean, this is a good justification for the trend unlike the dopey baseball book I also just read (but that gave me the difference between a 2-seam and a cut fastball in a way that feels like it’ll stick, so maybe I’m too harsh).

Williams compares the writing and other work by Jules Verne, William Morris and Robert Louis Stevenson with the frame of how the three felt about and responded to the massive shift in how the world worked at the end of the 19th century when Earth’s maps were getting filled in and human empire was everywhere. Williams argues that these writers were sensitive to the idea that the imperial west and its technology was now on its way to pushing up against each other more and more and relying on interconnections and brutality in dealing with those connections. Density was going to build and things were going to get much more complicated and these three wanted to resist the way things were going. Williams doesn’t make them unvarnished heroes or anything; they were still privileged white dudes and were racist and sexist and otherwise problematic in their own ways, especially in regards to colonialism.

The idea that we’re now in a similar kind of era, when we’re anxious about the end of the world through climate change and that it’s something we caused because we couldn’t stop digging coal out of the ground so we could cross huge distances easily, made the whole thing hang together really well. It’s clearly written and doesn’t plod. It’s also nice to have words for some of what I love about Verne and science fiction in general (the distancing mechanisms for the heroes in his geographic romances). I didn’t know as much about Morris or Stevenson, but I was glad to learn.

I had to get this as an interlibrary loan, because our public library doesn’t seem to grab random University of Chicago Press books, but hooray for the interconnected apocalypse we live in where it was possible to snag.

book review: reality boy

Most of the YA books I read tend towards the science fiction end of things. For me that’s a good intersection point, especially since a lot of great SF was written before YA was really a thing, so it can fall in different categories post-hoc. Anyway. The one writer whose non-SF YA books I love and will now buy sight unseen are A.S. King’s. Her newest is Reality Boy.

What I love about this book is how it takes a good hook – the protagonist is a 17-year-old who when he was little was on a reality TV show about misbehaving children where he shat on a bunch of things – and piles on the dysfunction, and makes you see the situation the way he does, but then as the tension mounts and mounts and mounts there’s this understanding that actually, this is more fucked up than a person should have to deal with. Especially a 17-year-old.

King is so good at writing teens who think they’re fucked up and then realize that actually their situation is even more fucked up than they thought, and really it’s up to them to say something. This idea that adults are full of shit and need you to tell them that things are fucked up even if they won’t believe you is, I think, an important message. Even though it’s not written as a “message” novel. There’s something subversive about this, that it is actually well within your rights not to fit in and to be angry at the way the world is, even if other people have it worse.

The story is also hella romantic, with angry teenage true love and fights and a bit of running away to join the circus. It’s an excellent book, even if it is a pretty quick read. Highly recommended.

book review: on stranger tides

Tim Powers is one of those writers whose work I know I like, but don’t binge-read. I don’t know why. But I found a cheap copy of On Stranger Tides in a used bookstore and was happy to pick it up. It’s a story about vodoun and pirates in the waning days of the age of piracy in the Caribbean. Jack Chandagnac is a bookkeeper who is heading to Jamaica to confront his uncle (who stole his father’s fortune). He meets a young woman on the ship and then they’re attacked by pirates.

Events happen.

Jack becomes a magic-wielding pirate trying to save his true love from having her soul ripped out and replaced with the soul of her dead mother by her one-armed father who incidentally needs to head over to the fountain of youth.

It’s kind of awesome. If you like two out of pirates, adventure, vodoun, you should definitely take a look.

You might recognize the title from the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. As I understand it they borrowed enough elements of the plot from this book it was easier to pay Tim Powers rather than risk weird infringement lawsuits, and they aren’t that similar. Basically I’m saying if you saw that movie and thought it was dumb, I’m more than positive the book is better. And for the love of spaghetti don’t read the novelization of the movie thinking it’s this (I don’t know if such a thing exists and definitely don’t want to link to it if it does).

book review: janes in love

Janes in Love is the sequel to The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg. It’s about the group of arty high school girls who are trying to beautify their boring suburb.

There’s a lot less to this book than the first one. There’s an attempt to get a grant and everyone is negotiating romantic problems and generally it didn’t grab me the way the intersection of art and terrorism in the first book did. I mean, it wasn’t bad, but it didn’t make me want to shove it into people’s hands the way the first did.

book review: ax (vol.1)

Ax is an anthology of alternative manga stories. I don’t really read enough manga, so I figure anthologies are a good way to help me find new things. There were a bunch of stories I didn’t like, because they were too crudely drawn or too much florid art/language (which might have been better in Japanese). But there were a few I did like.

Love’s Bride by Yoshihiro Tatsumi: A guy gets possessive about a girl he knows so she tells him to fuck off and he goes to the zoo and falls in love with an ape who truly understands him. I’ve read a bunch of Yoshihiro Tatsumi books before so maybe it’s just familiarity with his straightforward style, but the story was well-done.

Conch of the Sky by Imiri Sakabashira: This one was way more metaphorical and weird, with squids crawling into the sick guy’s futon and then going off on a chase through the dark. The narration and the sinuous but not overdone art really sold it for me. It felt like a fever dream. In a good way.

A Broken Soul by Nishioka Brosis: The art in this story was what I really liked. It felt kind of cubist as the main character discovered his soul was broken.

Enrique Kobayahsi’s Eldorado by Toranusuke Shimada: This is the story of an Eldorado motorcycle found in an uncle’s garage. Toranusuke Shimada draws in a style reminiscent of Joe Sacco and tells the history of these Brazilian motorcycle manufacturers who turned out to have gotten their skills from Nazis. This one probably felt the least like what I think of as manga of the book.

book review: paying for it

Paying For It is Chester Brown’s comic-strip memoir about being a john. It is a fascinating look at prostitution and the arguments for and against it. Brown documents his decision to start paying for sex and each of the prostitutes he visited (with obscuring details) and the discussions he had with his friends about it.

Basically, Brown decided that romantic love was bullshit and why shouldn’t people have sex with people for whom it is a job? His companions tend to be more romantic (or as the cartoonist Seth says in the afterword, they “experience human emotions”). I should clarify; it’s possessive monogamy that Brown feels is the problem. We can have lots of friends, but why only one sexual partner? The afterword is filled with more information and notes about the book, and even if it doesn’t convince you to go pay for sex, it will make you think about the standard shortcut ways of thinking about prostitution.

Reading this book right after Debt: The First 5,000 Years was interesting, since that one was talking so much about how slaves are people who are removed from their social context, and Brown spends a good amount of time in the afterword debating whether any of his prostitutes were sex slaves (he doesn’t think they were).

book review: the dead-tossed waves

When I read Carrie Ryan’s YA novel, The Forest of Hands and Teeth I enjoyed it, partially because of how the zombie story and the escape and the doomed teen romance all worked together. The Dead-Tossed Waves is the sequel (and second book in the series), and I didn’t like it as much. It is entirely possible I am getting zombie-fatigue.

Gabry, the hero of this story is the daughter of the hero from The Forest of Hands and Teeth. I quite liked that there was this generational split and that the reader could see Gabry’s mom with different information than Gabry herself had. The big arc for Gabry is how she goes from a desire for safety and security and following the rules to escape and challenge and doing things she didn’t think possible. I’m glad it got where it was going because I couldn’t stand Gabry’s whininess in the first part of the book.

There’s a forbidden love triangle between Gabry, and two boys: Catcher and Elias. Catcher’s been bitten by a zombie (directly after their first kiss – talk about punishing transgression) which makes romance there difficult. Elias is looking for his sister and is so capable but keeps too many secrets (for no real reason other than the plot demands it).

I was also disappointed that there was so little nautical adventure, considering the title. There were tantalizing mentions of pirates but none actually appeared in a book named for the sea. Maybe they’ll be in the third. The end is set up for a direct sequel, not a next generation kind of thing.

It’s not a bad book. There’s a good clever puzzle Gabry solves using Shakespeare to find their way through the gates in the forest, which I quite liked. It pushes a little hard on the doomed romance angle for my tastes; it feels more like the Edward/Jacob setup than a Peeta/Gale situation, but that’s probably because Gabry feels much more like a Bella than a Katniss, at least early on in the book.