book review: the stars are legion

The reason I went back to Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha stories a while back was ’cause I was getting antsy waiting for our library to get copies of her new space opera novel The Stars are Legion. Now I have read it and it was just as gooey and intricate as I’d hoped.

Legion is a group of biological worldships surrounding an artifical sun. There are many layers to these worldships and ruling dynasties for each one. Zan is a soldier who begins the novel being put back together after an attack on a neighbouring world. She has no memory, but a strong attraction to Jayd who tells her that everything is tense but fine. Even the half-memory Zan has of murdering a baby is part of the plan, apparently.

And hoo boy are there plans in this story. Because Zan has no memory she’s piecing together what it’s all about along with the reader (in among the spray-on space-suits and fighter attack runs mounted on spacefaring slugbeasts). After a few chapters we also start following Jayd, who’s working on some crazy manipulative scheme against the ruler of their own worldship. She tells Zan she’s in on the plan but Zan doesn’t remember it and might fuck it all up. Other people have guesses about the plans but they’re keeping Zan in the dark to use her as a weapon (’cause Zan is a brutally effective soldier).

Then as the schemes are unfolding, boom boom boom Zan is killed (in a sudden but inevitable betrayal) and her body is recycled. Spoiler alert: Zan isn’t actually dead and then begins the quest up from the centre of the world back to the surface where all the political machinations we’re just getting used to are happening. This is where I really loved the book because it takes the simple set-up and then shows how big a world is and how surface-based civil wars are kind of just the equivalent of White House cabinet shuffles to get ignored by the people who don’t live that life. It takes it a bit more towards a fantasy-novel quest narrative as Zan comes closer to reclaiming her memories, but by the end we do get back to the worldships hurtling through space, don’t worry.

I tried to explain this book while I was in the middle of it and it was difficult; I got immersed in the details of womb-swapping and blood-drinking bonding rituals and cephalopod guns and not knowing exactly where it was going made it hard to see the big picture. Once you’re done though, it works really well, and what appeared to be chaotic was merely complex.

If you like big scifi stories and can handle technology being mostly biological (which does make for a lot of mucous throughout) I heartily recommend The Stars are Legion.

book review: infidel

Years ago I read God’s War by Kameron Hurley and then went a long time before reading anything by her again. Then last year I read The Mirror Empire and was blown away and have become a Hurley fan. Our library doesn’t have her new space opera book yet, but I do have the rest of the Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy so I gave Infidel a whirl.

It had been a while since I read God’s War, and I was a little unsure if I’d be able to slide right back into its sequel, but the uniqueness of the setting hooks right into the details you’d thought forgotten and I was right back in it. I love how brutal and gruesome the world of this series is. Nyx is still a ruthless assassin who is hard to kill, but she’s getting old and doesn’t have the kind of team she used to. There’s a lot of action, tonnes of bugs stitching people back together and getting shat out as bloody waste. In Infidel they go to a less war-torn country where the brutality of the characters plays in huge contrast to the polite bourgeois society that’s profiting off the war tearing everywhere else to shreds.

It’s great, pulpy action and I won’t be taking as long before reading the end of the trilogy.

UPDATE: I finished the trilogy with Rapture and yup it was similarly good.

storytime review: chu’s day, stop snoring bernard & mattoo let’s play

This week I hosted two preschool visits to the library on consecutive days. They were the same adults but different kids (mostly – a couple were there both days). I liked that arrangement because I got to directly fix things that went less well the first time through.

So here are the books I used. Neil Gaiman’s new picturebook Chu’s Day was our opener (after our welcome to storytime rhyme). It worked well with both groups, who really got into the “Ah ahhh ahhhh… No.” conceit. The only problem is that the “bad things that happen” probably require a bit closer examination to really admire the art. And the ending seems to leave kids wanting more.

I tried using Never Take A Shark to the Dentist the first time, because the cover was really attractive to the kids. The book ended up being a little high-concept for 3-4 year olds, but it was super easy to skip pages when that became apparent.

Stop Snoring Bernard worked really well in both groups. I got the kids to help with the snoring noises and in each group someone had one of those Cosby moments when they told everyone about one of their family members who snored. They also got to name some zoo animals, which helped keep everyone involved.

We did Shapes That Roll in the first session, but it was our last book and I think it would have played a bit better with more time to really get into all the shapes and explore them a bit. As it was we just kind of went with the rhyming.

In today’s session I replaced a couple of the less well-received books with a couple about trying very hard to be quiet. Mattoo, Let’s Play is about a loud little girl with a pet cat who forms a bond once she learns that some animals are best attracted by being quiet. We also did Read to Tiger which is about a tiger being very distracting when you’re trying to read. Everyone had fun making the loud distracting noises.

We did a dinosaur song both sessions it all worked out pretty well. Even the kid who was mad he wasn’t there to see a puppet show was unsullen at the end (that could have been because he was finally able to leave).

I’m going to try doing a few more of these types of storytime post-mortems because of something I took away from Miss Julie’s blog post where she mentioned:

In a profession that’s supposedly dominated by women, I find it sad that the librarians who get the most attention are mostly men (and, admittedly, some women), men who very rarely write about honest, simple, day to day issues in librarianship.

She goes on to discuss how technologists get all the “rockstar” status in our profession and no one cares about the bloggers who write practical things about doing the feminized work of dealing with kids. Since I’m guilty of writing the odd impractical technology rabblerousing bit, I want to make sure I’m also blogging some of these more practical day-to-day things too. It’s part of that whole advocacy for the importance of libraries and librarians thing to show that the non-technological stuff is important too. So here we go.

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: the knife of never letting go

In our YA Services class last week, Eric brought up Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go as a YA dystopia that’s much better than The Hunger Games. I borrowed it after class and wasn’t disappointed.

Todd is a month away from his 13th birthday, which is the time in Prentisstown you become a man. The thing is that in Prentisstown there are no women, and he’s the last boy left. Oh and also everyone can read everyone else’s thoughts all the time (it’s called Noise), including animals (Todd’s dog says “Todd!” a lot and “Poo!” – but is still less boring than the sheep who just say “Sheep!”). And Prentisstown is the last outpost left on the planet after the Spackles – the alien inhabitants from before the colonists arrived – caused all of this terribleness with their bioweapons.

But then Todd finds something in the woods whose thoughts he can’t hear, and he learns how misled he’s been.

Ness’ worldbuilding is excellent. There are so many things that make you go “How does that make sense?” but through careful revelations of what Todd didn’t know because he’s still a kid when the book starts that makes the horror of Prentisstown (and of the world in whole) much more gripping. Todd and Viola (the strange thing he found in the woods whose thoughts he couldn’t hear is a girl) engage in this huge voyage and the stakes feel really high. Also, I loved that he doesn’t love his dog from the beginning.

My only complaint is that the ending is so cliffhangery to make you want to read the next book, it’s a little offputting. I mean, I borrowed the next book, but manipulation into reading a trilogy kind of bugs me.

Other than that this is a great read, especially about the effects that violence has on people. No violent act in this book is just a tossaway thing, which I love.

book review: the diary of anaïs nin (vol 1. 1931-1934)

After years of searching (not exhaustively) used bookshops I found a copy of the first volume of The Diary of Anaïs Nin for $3.50 Northampton, MA in April. I was quite pleased. I refrained from reading it while I was in the States or back home so I had a reason to bring it with me to Australia so my girlfriend could also read it when she arrives.

I read the diary slowly and I’m glad I did. It would have felt disrespectful somehow to blow through it, when Anaïs so clearly poured so much into the diary. It’s about a few years of her life in France and features Henry Miller, a couple of psychotherapists, her estranged father and endless ruminations about art and how life should be lived.

I write about little things because the big ones are like abysses.

There’s so much in here about being an artist, about the pull to live and to write about life. There are people who embody those pulls, and because it’s a diary you’re pulled along with Anaïs as her opinions of them change without seeming predestination. She refers to the diary, to writing in it as her opium, and she sets down lies and sees so clearly.

The thing the diary didn’t answer was where her money came from. This is something I’ve been thinking about more since reading Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing, where he was very critical of fiction that didn’t acknowledge the economic realities of human existence. She has a beautiful home and by the end of the book she’s paying to have Tropic of Cancer printed, but you don’t get a sense of how that happens. There are other realities she’s much more interested in than how to pay for her dinner (or her psychoanalysis). It’s outside the dream.

If I delved into the history of the diary’s publication I wouldn’t be surprised to discover this is a heavily-edited version. It’s not as sexual as you might expect, though still filled with feeling. She was kind of an amazing woman.

book review: triplanetary

Oh how I hated this book. I get that EE Doc Smith was writing Triplanetary in a different time. It was the 1930s. This is pulp science fiction. The heroes are supposed to be square jawed and the women should be plucky but dependent. I knew that’s how this kind of science fiction was back then, but actually reading it was intensely aggravating.

There isn’t a true human emotion in the entire story, just resolute action without thought and “scientific” reveals that come out of nowhere and casual genocide. Seriously, at one point the hero escapes from a zoo-cage-ish kind of prison and then proceeds to murder everyone in the city with poison gas. Everyone! And he had an antidote but only used it for the human who got caught up in the gas as well. At the end of the book the humans and aliens can still be friends despite the millions of lives lost because they killed millions of humans too. And they all laughed and had a beer because everyone was a good ol’ sort anyway (and the woman commented on how the aliens were still kind of gross).

It was aggressively stupid and ham-handed and I hated the whole thing. I get that books like this are ancestors to books I like, but I need someone to recommend me better 1930s pulp sci fi if I’m going to develop an appreciation for it.