book review: all the birds in the sky

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.

book review: homeland

I will confess that I put off reading Cory Doctorow’s Homeland for months simply because the story opens at Burning Man. Back when it came out I bought it, put it on my ereader and read the first few pages and went Ugh. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe it’s just the kind of book that needs to be read in summer. In any case this time I was ready for it and really liked the book.

Homeland is the sequel to Little Brother, but in this one Marcus has graduated from high school and dropped out of university and is trying to get by in our modern economy, which gets him involved in politics. There are plot points about leaking politically sensitive materials and surveillance and hacking party politics to reflect what real people (or at least tech-savvy San Franciscans) care about. It’s pretty great, and sadly topical.

The topicality is a big part of what I like about this book. Aaron Swartz wrote the afterword and it’s great. The book did have a bunch of Doctorow’s essayistic explanatory tics (you read a lot about cold-brewed coffee in this book) but it feels more like a novel with excited explanations than a polemic with a plot. But there’s enough information in it to be inspiring.

It’s the kind of book I’d like lots of people to read, not just high school students. It was enough of a kick in the ass for me to finally root my old phone and install Tor on it, so if you measure a book by how it changes behaviour this was a good one.

book review: mr. penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore

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.

book review: the beats: a graphic history

I remember when Harvey Pekar’s comic The Beats came out and it got profiled on BoingBoing and I feel like I’ve seen it everywhere since. I’ve read a bit of Kerouac Ginsberg and Burroughs in my day, so I was interested. Those big three are well represented in a non-hagiographic kind of way. What really made this book for me was the information about all the Beats I hadn’t heard of. There are comics in here about a bunch of people who were also at Ginsberg’s first City Lights reading of Howl, and they are very interesting.

For instance, I hadn’t ever really thought about how anti-woman the big-name beats were until seeing some of this stuff laid out on paper. Having stuff about the women who were also creative forces at the time was really good for provoking at least a Wikipedia-binge or two.

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.

schulz library / ccs practicum final thoughts

post-title chosen because obviously I’ll never think about this again

I’m back in Vancouver after two weeks at the Center for Cartoon Studies and yeah, I really loved it. Working in a special library like the Schulz feels like the kind of thing for me. On my last day Caitlin and I were talking about the pros and cons about working for a small organization: the control over your chunk of things, but also the being pressed into other areas that might not be strictly librarianish.
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book review: little brother

I waited a goodly while to read Little Brother, Cory Doctorow’s Hugo-nominated YA book from last year. More because of the YA-ishness, and also because I understand the political things the book is getting at and don’t need them fed to me in the form of fiction. But. I’m going to be the Teen specialist when I go back to the branch (word on the street is that will be no earlier than February 20th) so I figure I should read some YA books. I guess. The good thing is that Little Brother is pretty good.

There’s a terrorist attack in San Francisco and then the Department of Homeland Security comes in to quash the terrorists by quashing civil liberties and the right to privacy and all that. They set up a secret Gitmo-on-the-Bay where enemy combatants are held without trial. The hero of the story is a 17-year-old who gets caught up in the DHS security net and designs ways to fight back against it. Along the way there are authority figures who try to argue all is good in the name of security, a little bit of teen sex, adventure, waterboarding and manipulated newsmedia.

What it isn’t is subtle. The bad guys are very very bad, be they severe haircut lady from DHS or the vice-principal and his bully-snitch. I hated them. Immensely. It was weird how much of a reaction I had to the casual destruction of privacy and freedom to say stuff. It made my body angry. As I was reading I was flooded with these adrenalin surges when people said their War on Terror equivalents of Freedom is Slavery. So on that level (of pushing my buttons) the book worked. On most levels, really.

Somehow I doubt I’ll be able to get all the girls in the Teen Book Club to read it though.