Railsea by China Mieville

I’ve read a fair amount of China Mieville’s work, and I really love him, and this might be my favorite thing yet? His worlds are always fascinating, his language is always adventurous, and his politics are always on point, but this book balances beautifully.

Every book has a thing, and this is his Moby Dick book, but more than that too. It’s his seafaring adventure book. We know some of the tropes, but there are plenty of curveballs and subversions. But it’s built of something recognizable, especially early on. There’s a monomaniacal one armed Captain searching for “her philosophy,” a huge off-white mole. Stuff like that sets the stage for a fresh adventure. Here it’s the story of Sham, a young orphan, who joins a mole-train as an apprentice doctor. He isn’t actually that interested in doctoring, but attracted to the world of salvage, finding and figuring out what to do with the technology left behind from a society that collapsed long ago, one that could be our own. He gets caught up in a wild adventure that leads him to the end of the known world and even further. It’s a real treat.

His worldbuilding is so good, and always in service to the story. I was trying to explain why Mieville is one of my favorite writers, and got talking about how he doesn’t like Tolkien, and the different way he approaches worldbuilding. He doesn’t build words for the sake of building worlds, he doesn’t set up systems or rules. His world building is so intricate and fascinating, but it’s also very lively. It’s loose, and always serves the story, never foreclosing possibilities.

He doesn’t use the word “and” anywhere in the book, only ampersands. At first it’s just a weird tick, but then it gets explained as part of the world, and that’s just so cool. That’s the sort of detail that makes his work so cool. The prose throughout is really fun, talking to the reader knowingly, teasing about when different characters are going to return and daring us to guess about where the story is going. It’s playful without getting too cute.

The political dimension is really well done too. Mieville is a socialist, and this viewpoint is always somewhere in his books. Sometimes it can be very buried, where it’s not entirely clear what point he’s making. Other times it can be a little bit too on the nose. Here everything is well integrated, the plot and the world and the politics all serving the same story.

This is the first thing of his I’ve read that is categorized as young adult lit, and I wonder if that’s part of why everything works so well, if writing for younger people made him more conscious not to over complicate things. I wasn’t aware it was YA when I started it, and it’s doesn’t talk down to the reader at all. It’s YA because it’s about young people, but it’s smarter than a lot of novels for adults.

This is Mieville at his best. It’s magical, whimsical, and brilliant. It’s tons of fun and made me think a lot. An absolute blast.

middle school jams

it’s getting close to two in the morning, and I’m listening to Stadium Arcadium, which is objectively a Bad album, but it does have some damn good songs. It’s far too long — anything that takes up two CDs is simply too long, even if it’s all good music that’s too much music at once. And this is not all good music! some of it is the opposite of good, and a fair chunk of it is mediocre. but like, “Dani California,” that’s a tune. it was on the radio a couple weeks ago, and we were watching music videos earlier tonight, and I remembered that it had a great one. that was one of the first music videos I ever remember watching. I was in middle school, and we were using laptops for something, and the school had youtube blocked, but not google video. I definitely didn’t get all of the references at the time, but it was still pretty entertaining. I want to make a playlist of all my middle school jams. this era of Red Hot Chili Peppers is the furthest outlier from what I’m into now, what I’m the least likely to admit to digging. I own my emo stage of Panic! and their ilk. I have no shame about Green Day being my punk rock gateway drug. Death Cab, the Killers, Franz Ferdinand were all signs of what was to come, things that fit in with my current listening if they come up on shuffle. I don’t know what to make of this Chili Peppers album. back then the Cities still had an alt rock station, which I listened to more than the Current. it played the singles off this album all the time. there was a summer where I swear to god every second song was either “crazy” or “steady as she goes.” it wasn’t a bad summer at all. Drive 1-0-5. they played some good stuff. and then, like, fucking Guster or whatever. stuff that I can’t call good, but does have a certain nostalgic appeal. it’s not shame I’m feeling, but just — I know better now, alright? I need you to trust me, I really do know better, I make better decisions than this. I mean, the evidence might contrary, what with the listening to Stadium Arcadium when I really should be sleeping. but I swear, most of the time I listen to much cooler shit in the middle of the night. this is just a throwback. a lot of the stuff from my life is stuff I’d never want to return to in a million years, I was kind of miserable back then. but this is a decent song. it made me happier when I was in like seventh grade? I don’t want to google the year. I bought the CD from the Borders on Snelling. it’s all just a throwback. I’m not going back there — that Borders hasn’t existed for four years now. this song can still make me happy now, if I let it.

Stone Butch Blues — Leslie Feinberg

I’m going to ask a really useless question, but go with me for a minute: As queer readers, what do we want? I see this variations of this question all the time, it’s something I’m constantly asking myself, discussing with my friends. We want representation, obviously, but there’s more to it, we aren’t desperate for scraps any more. So often I see people saying that they want happy books, that they want drama, and romance, and tropes, and excitement. No more stereotypes, no more tragic endings. No more sad books. Or at least a lot of people say they don’t want sad books.

I say fuck that. I don’t want boring books. I don’t want hollow books. Leslie Feinberg’s novel Stone Butch Blues is the opposite of that.

This is not a happy book. I don’t know if I’d call it sad, but it definitely isn’t pleasant all the way through. It’s dark. There’s violence, both sexual and institutional, there’s depression and injustice. There are bad romances and failed friendships. There are parts that are really hard to read, both because of the terrible things happening to Jess, and because of the emotional turmoil.

It’s still an incredibly important book to read. I understand why people say they want to read happy queer books, but I’m not interested in the way it throws out books that are heavier. We should have both as options. Feinberg is writing about an important part of queer history here. This is a past that we’re living with. This book covers the shift from an older butch/femme paradigm to lesbianism influenced by second wave feminism and the beginnings of modern transgender identity. The conflict between these different sorts of overlapping identities is something I think we need to look back at and be aware of today. There is no right way to be queer, it’s important to recognize the varieties of ways people understand themselves and want to be understood.

It’s true that there is violence and the hate, but also the community. There desire to keep going, even when things seem impossible. Giving up is not an option. This is a story of queer reliancy, and why it’s important to keep on living. Even when things are hard there is the possibility to rebuild and start over and make new friends, to fall in love again.

I read part of this for school, and we only talked about the gender/sexuality aspects, which are obviously at the heart of the book. But there is also a lot about labor activism, and the connection found between the different sorts of injustice. Solidarity is a major theme of the book, and very inspiring.

For myself, as a queer reader, I want two things: possibilities and hope. A story can be bleak, it can be heartbreaking, but at the end I want a sense that the world is capable of change, that there are beautiful things, that there are good people. For me queer means something vast and constantly evolving, and that’s the sort of thing I want to find in queer books — not just queer characters, but queer spirit.

The Raven King

I’m trying to think about a book series that I enjoyed more that I want to write about less, and nothing is coming to mind. The Raven Cycle has a lot of issues, but I don’t want to analysis them because if I don’t pick it apart too much I enjoyed them. There are lots of things that are super enjoyable! She also sort of doesn’t know what she’s doing when she’s writing about race and class! And some of the plot bones never completely make sense! But there are still some things I loved.

Right now I don’t want analysis. I want to be happy. I want other people to read them, and then for us to have conversation and decide what we’re going to do with the ways the books let us down. They’re really enjoyable reading even when they stumble, mostly because of really great characters and a quirky sense of humor. The prose surprises me sometimes, in a good way, taking chances and doing fun things.

I didn’t write about the first three books when I read them, so here are some general thoughts about the series:

  • It reminds me of Marauders era fan fiction. Like a lot. It’s a similar world of boys in school uniforms navigating privilege, homoeroticism, and magic.
  • Blue is such a good character. She’s an incredibly sympathetic reader stand it, but amazingly still seems solid, not too twee. It’s borderline, but ultimately she’s relatable and I love her. She reminds me of myself and my friends at this age.
  • Blue’s grownups are amazing. So often books about young adults have absent or unaware adults, but Blue’s mother and the other women in her household are incredible. They’re honestly one of my favorite part of the whole series.
  • Ronan is exactly my kind of trash. I have a character type, and he’s it.
  • I don’t have anything to say about the plot? At all? It mostly makes sense? Some beats are really obvious, there are a few good surprises. When you’re reading it’s all super compelling, which is what really matters, even if things get a little ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ looking back.
  • There’s romance! Multiple romances! And I enjoyed all of them, and the fact that Blue’s mom got an interesting well drawn love interest too, not just the kids.

pep talk

I haven’t been blogging at all. I feel like a failure. That isn’t what I want to get out of having a blog. I write things on the internet for validation — look, other people liked the words I put together, they gave it a star. This is also why I tweet. This is why the hockey blog isn’t very satisfying. I should blog more, and then people would have an opportunity to love me. That’s a horrible motivation.

I’ve been reading a lot lately, and I feel good about that. Sometimes the ratios get thrown off, the amount of energy I spend writing compared to the energy spent reading or working a human being. I feel good about my ratios right now, it’s just that none of the writing has been blogging, it has all been nonsense. I’m proud of that nonsense, but I need to do this too.

I keep track of all the books I read. I used to use Shelfari, but that’s dying, and the export to goodreads was a useless joke.Now I have a spreadsheet with almost everything I’ve read in it. It’s reliable data going back to January 2010, with a lot of what I read before then filled in. It’s pretty impressive. I’ve read thirty-something books already this year, which is nothing to sneeze at. There are ten I haven’t blogged about.

A bunch of movies too, and some albums I think I’d like to write about, and pictures from May Day I kind of want to post. I have all sorts of things to say. But I keep coming back to the books. There are books on that spreadsheet that I have no memory reading. There’s a date read, and a number between 1-5 of how much I liked it, but I don’t actually remember anything about the book. A lot of these cases are comics, which is okay, I read a ton of mediocore comic books in high school, whatever the library had. I’m okay with forgetting some of this. But some of the titles are just? I’d have to google to see what was going on, and maybe I’d find something cool, but it’s sort of sad. I’m too young for these sorts of holes.

So book reviews. I read a lot, and I remember books more if I write about them. There’s a meaning behind the method. A reason. I need to remind myself of that and get writing. Sure, the affirmation of strangers on the internet is fun, but I’m doing this for myself as well, for my own good. Hopefully this pep talk will work.