book review: shelf monkey

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.

Broken Hard Drive? by purplemattfish on Flickr https://secure.flickr.com/photos/29601732@N06/3188379971/ - Licensed under a CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0 license

snowden and miranda and the guardian’s destroyed hard drives

As I’m sure others here have been doing, I’ve been keeping up with Glenn Greenwald’s coverage of Snowden’s leaks about the NSA. I’ve been kind of disgusted by the fact that this stuff appears to be legal even though it’s terrible. And that so many politicians have lied about the procedures, though that surprises me not a huge amount. I’m also not fool enough to believe this kind of surveillance doesn’t affect those of us north of the 49th.

But it seems like this weekend the progression of that story got much worse. It seems to me that holding the partner of a journalist under anti-terror laws for his role in supporting journalism is pretty heinous to those of us who believe in intellectual freedom.

It also seems that the UK government going to a news organization’s headquarters and making them destroy hard drives containing information they disapprove of is also fucking terrible.

These are laws created in a democracy designed for one thing being used to attempt to intimidate people who want to get information about our various democracies out there. This is legal but abusive. Gah. Fuck. More cussing.

To me this is clearly an intellectual freedom issue. This is the government telling someone what they are and are not allowed to talk about. This is bullshit.

As a librarian it might not be hitting where I live… yet. I mean, our government isn’t telling librarians what we are and aren’t allowed to have in our libraries, so maybe this isn’t our fight? But the fact that journalists are being disallowed from publishing certain stories is a big problem, and one that will spread. As librarians we can celebrate how we deal with cook challenges in various Bible Belts, but I think we should be doing more.

I would like to suggest that this year when Banned Books Week comes around, us librarians reach a bit further. I’d like to see us celebrating wikileaks cables and articles about Snowden in our libraries instead of merely pointing at the challenged books we have in our collections in a collective fit of smugness.

Books are fine. I love books, but I think celebrating our victories over past challenges is just another way to celebrate the status quo when there’s more we can do. Although, as a friend of mine said today, the baseline in libraries is a bit better:

If the status quo still includes intellectual freedom, mitigating income inequality, etc…sign me up.

Consider this a co-sign.

book review: half lives

When I received an ARC of Sara Grant’s YA post-apocalypse story Half Lives I was kind of interested but figured it wouldn’t be anything too special. That was about right.

There are two storylines to the book. In the contemporary timeline Isis is fleeing a global terrorist attack to a mountain in Nevada where her parents think she’ll be safe. She picks up three other teens on her way and then they shut themselves into the mountain. The other timeline is some indeterminate time in the future where a tribe of young people live on a mountain following the Just Sayings and living their cultish little lives, terrified of the terrorist beasties that are waiting for them out in Vega if they leave the mountain.

I liked the contemporary storyline well enough, though there were a lot of logistical things like spatial arrangements that were vague and suffered for it. There was a crossing the highway bit in Nevada where they were dodging speeding cars and then there were infected people in gridlock that just never made sense to me. I re-read the section to see if I’d missed something but it remained missing to my eyes after the reread. The romance and whatever was all pretty par for the course in a YA novel.

The future timeline was much worse. The big problem for me was the present tense narration and varying third-person points of view. Everything there felt so disjointed compared to Isis’ first-person past-tense narration. The climactic scenes were filled with anti-climax and it was always a little tough to figure out what had just happened (though since there’s nothing really surprising to the plot you can just assume that what you would have guessed ahead of time is what did occur).

So yeah. I didn’t really like Half Lives. There were some good bits, but overall it would be fairly low on my books to recommend, unless someone was specifically looking for generation spanning YA stories, or shifting language YA stories, or nuclear waste YA stories.

books review: the revolution business, the trade of queens

It’s weird that a science fiction series that ends with a huge American nuclear attack on a fantasy world feels like it petered out, rather than built up to a grand huge climax, but that’s how the final couple of books (The Revolution Business and The Trade of Queens in Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series felt to me. I’ve talked before about how each book felt like it was only a small part of a bigger story and the thing as a whole is probably what should be judged. But well, now that I’m done I have to say I can’t really recommend this series. Charles Stross has way better stuff out there.

What I did like about these books was the use of actual American politics in dealing with the revelation of other worlds. The books were set in the mid 2000s and the American administration at the time is used to full effect. There are stolen nukes and terrorist attacks and not creating fictional politicians to deal with that, but using the real characters helped.

Sadly, the story just kind of flops along. Miriam was pregnant with the heir to the throne in Gruinmarkt and then she has a convenient miscarriage and the nobles hide in a refugee camp in the other world, and everything is generally unsatisfying. Stross seems to have had a good time planning out the nuclear bomber wave, and that chunk of the final book was my favourite since the economic thinking from the first two books.

That’s what really got me about this series. The cool concept of these parallel worlds and the realistic way characters reacted to it by figuring out how to make a better living, well that gets lost along the way. Maybe it would have worked better if the books had jumped bigger timeline gaps so the economic stuff had more time to develop. I don’t know.

So my advice is to read the first two books of the series (The Family Trade and The Hidden Family) and stop there.

book review: the surrogates

The Surrogates is a science fiction mystery set in a future where people can sit in the privacy of their own room and teleoperate a surrogate to go out and interact with the real world for them. When you’re operating the surrogate you’re feeling what it feels and doing what it does, but without exposing your real self to danger.

What makes this book great is how Robert Venditti gets into what this would mean for a world. It turns most of our major crimes into property crimes, since a murder of a surrogate is basically like totalling someone’s car. People took up smoking again because all of the carcinogens accumulate in the surrogate’s body, leaving the real you with lungs pink like the insides of babies.

The story follows a police detective on the trail of a murderer who might be a terrorist, and gets at the heart of what this technology means. There’s an anti-surrogate political group, and a murderer who can do things no one has ever seen before. Also, between each issue in the trade paperback there are news reports or advertisements or academic papers that help to flesh out the world (much like you might remember from Watchmen, though there’s no parallel pirate story going on here), which are done superbly.

Venditti and Wendele did a great job with this book. I know there was a movie version fairly recently but didn’t see it. It seems like it’d be very easy to simplify it too much for the sake of good visuals. If the movie’s worth seeing let me know!

book review: planetes (vol. 2)

Book Two of Planetes by Makoto Yukimura was just as good as the first one. Hachimaki gets into the training program for the Jupiter mission and we see him train his replacement on the junk-clearing crew. We meet some of the scientists who will stop at nothing to get people out to Jupiter and some terrorists who want to stop them. It’s excellent science fiction, and I’m very glad there are a bunch more volumes to read.

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.