Imperial Radch #2: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Read: 22 March, 2017

Ancillary Sword continues the story of Breq, now in command of her own ship, as she tries to protect the planet Athoek from the brewing civil war.

My mind was thoroughly blown after Ancillary Justice, so I had to stop reading. I knew it’s a trilogy, but it was just so good that I couldn’t imagine how the story could possibly move forward without being a huge disappointed. Since Justice‘s resolution is so satisfying as is, I was ready to stop right there. Yes, you read that correctly – I was ready to abandon the series because it was just too good.

But after a year, a review convinced me to give Sword a try and, peeps, it totally holds up.

In some ways, I even liked Sword a little better. For one thing, the main players and context are already established, so there isn’t that “new fictional universe” disorientation. It also does away with Justice‘s time hopping.

In other ways, I didn’t like it quite as much. More characters are shown to be single-faceted – baddies to be defeated. Raughd, in particular, was rather disappointing.It worked at first, to have this super charming, socially privileged, universally liked person putting people down in private and destroying their sense of self worth. There was a lot there to explore. But then Raughd started to play out more obviously, and became more of a caricature, and she became less interesting because of it.

But this is an extremely minor complaint. I still have one book to go, but I feel comfortable enough to recommend this book whole heartedly. It is mind blowing, thoughtful, well written, and absolutely fabulous.

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    A Series of Unfortunate Events #3: The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket

    Read: 13 March, 2017

    How fortuitous that we finished this book on the 13th!

    I’m not sure if the series is just growing on me or if Snicket is hitting his stride (or, perhaps, a mixture of both), but I really enjoyed this one! It has amazing passages like:

    “Stealing, of course, is a crime, and a very impolite thing to do. But like most impolite things, it is excusable under certain circumstances. Stealing is not excusable if, for instance, you are in a museum and you decide that a certain painting would look better in your house, and you simply grab the painting and take it there. But if you were very, very hungry, and you had no way of obtaining money, it might be excusable to grab the painting, take it to your house, and eat it.” (p.136-7)

    Even though the stories are a bit formulaic (kids are handed over to a new guardian, Count Olaf appears in disguise, no one believes the kids, guardian dies, Count Olaf traps the kids, the kids unmask Count Olaf, Count Olaf flees), each one is still different enough to feel fresh and interesting.

    The stories are dark, but my kid is finding it titillating (possibly hereditary, given my own obsession with Edgar Allen Poe at his age). They’re funny on a kid level as well as an adult level, making them fantastic family read books. And, lastly, they’re wonderful at initiating teachable moments (and handle the teaching themselves quite often, such as when the narrator explains new vocabulary).

    Kid and I are both really enjoying the series.

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      Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

      Read: 8 March, 2017

      This is a difficult book to review because, of course, it wasn’t written for me. What I get out of it, what I think of it, is fairly beside the point. And there are many other reviews of far far more value than whatever I could say.

      As I was reading, I tried to think of this book’s use as a primer for, say, white teenagers. It’s a bit fast paced, with references and allusions coming from every direction. This book was not written to be some white kid’s 101, so the points aren’t argued, the references aren’t explained. The intended audience is passed all that already. But, still, even though a lot would fly over a white kid’s head, there’s a lot there that should stick.

      It’s a beautiful, powerful, brutal book. And it is so, so timely.

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        Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

        Read: February 26, 2017

        A young Russian dreams of flight, but everything crashes and burns in the familiar Soviet style.

        This novel has a lot going for it. I enjoyed the absurdist imagery of the criticism – the sham within a sham that so perfectly captures Soviet Russia. A few of these images (such as the one in which Kissinger kills the bear) are haunting, and will probably stay with me.

        Overall, though, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much. I’m not sure if I’ve just been tired lately and haven’t had the concentration to read it properly, or if the translation fell short, or if the writing itself is flawed… or maybe it’s a combination of all three. But I found the narrative to be a bit disjointed. Sometimes things would be happening and it would take me a while to figure out what and why.

        I also never connected with the main character. Despite the fact that we’re in his head, his voice just isn’t that strong. We’re told the story of his life, but with a remove that prevents the emotional weight from really making itself felt. Even when his mind circles around particular images, and I could sense the significance (the little trapped pilot, the bear), I never knew why these images were significant to Omon. From my bird’s eye perspective, I know that the trapped pilot is foreshadowing, and I know that the bear represents the common people in the USSR, but Omon doesn’t seem to draw these conclusions. So why does he keep the pilot? Why does he think of the bear? It’s that lack of distinction between what the reader knows and what the character knows that made it difficult to connect with Omon’s humanity.

        It’s a fine book, an interesting read, another example of absurdist social commentary. The “sham within a sham” aspect was particularly biting. But, overall, this one just didn’t do it for me.

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          A Series of Unfortunate Events #2: The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket

          Read: 24 February, 2017

          A solid follow up to Bad BeginningThe Reptile Room follows the Beaudelaire children to a new home, and to new horrors.

          The jokes and tone are very consistent with the first, so people who didn’t enjoy Bad Beginning really shouldn’t bother. As it was, we liked it quite a bit. My kid loves the titillation of the horror (which is only just barely stylistic enough to qualify as “for kids”), while I’m enjoying the dark humour in the narrative style.

          I love that the series explicitly uses – and even explains – literary techniques. Just as an example, there’s some dramatic irony in Reptile Room that the narrator actually names and explains. It’s such a wonderful way to introduce my youngling to concepts, not to mention to some bigger vocabulary. Plus, “herpetology” is terribly fun to say.

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            The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin (Jamey Gambrell, trans.)

            Read: 13 February, 2017

            How appropriate to be reading this as my home is slowly buried in snow…

            This is a very Russian novel. It’s bleak, it’s unkind, and it’s fantastical. That 50 horse power sled? Powered by 50 miniature horses. Don’t bother with this book unless you’re a fan of depressing Russian absurdism.

            As it happens, I am, and I enjoyed Blizzard. 

            Spoiler talk ahead: The absurdisms don’t really add anything to the story. I picked this book up because of the promise of Russian zombies, but there are no Russian zombies. The zombie plague could have just as easily been whooping cough.

            In a way, it reminded me of the movie Stalker, which builds up all the dangers of the Zone, describing how they kill, but then there’s no pay off. The goal is reached without incident, and the travellers decide they’d best not make use of it, and they go home.

            That’s what happens here. The zombies are played up throughout the story. Again and again, we hear of their inhuman claws and the the way they burrow underground to pop up on the other side of barricades.

            Do the zombies ever do this? Do they ever even appear? Of course not, because modern Russian story telling hates its audience, and hates Chekov’s gun.

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              Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

              Read: 12 February, 2017

              There’s a man no one remembers, a young woman who holds a piece of paper that she can’t put down, a boy whose absent father suddenly reappears and reappears and reappears… It’s really just your average Night Vale day.

              I’ve somehow managed to have never listened to the podcast. I know, I know, I’m just not really a podcast sorta person right now. But many of my friends listen to Night Vale and post quotes and tweets and such, and I’ve always found them the perfect combination of funny, insightful, and weird.

              So when I found a Welcome to Night Vale audiobook at my local library, I figured I’d give it a shot – helpfully in a more familiar format.

              And I really enjoyed it! Night Vale does a fantastic job of ‘hyper-reality’. Details of the story are absurd, but they’re also true, they are subjective impressions rendered literal. The character of Josh is the perfect example of this: a teenage boy, his body assumes a different shape every day – some days he has skin, some days he has a carapace – but no matter what form he takes, his mother always knows him.

              I loved how inclusive and refreshing the book is, too. Josh has a crush on a girl and he has a crush on a boy, the only explicit couple in the book are gay men, and the plot revolves around an absent father who is a perfectly nice guy but just not a good father. The central relationship that emerges from the plot is a friendship between two women. It’s just wonderful.

              I see quite a few negative (and negative-ish) reviews complaining about how the narrator’s voice carries over into a print, and I can see that. The narrator’s intonations and pauses added a great deal to the story. And that’s not particularly surprising – these characters were made for a podcast format.

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                The Naturalist by Alissa York

                Read: 11 February, 2017

                After the death of the titular naturalist, his wife, her companion, and his half-Brazilian son from a previous marriage decide to complete the planned expedition to Brazil. As they travel, all three must work through their grief – their grief at the naturalist’s death, as well as the long ignored griefs of their past.

                Reading the set up, it’s hard to imagine a book more perfectly tailored to me. We have a Canadian author writing about a 19th century Quaker exploring the Amazon. It’s like York specifically set out to write a novel just for me!

                And, for the most part, it delivers. I loved the sprinkling of Portuguese dialogue (and was surprised by just how much I could understand, thanks to my background of French and two years of Spanish classes in high school!), and the descriptions of the jungle were really interesting.

                Where it fell a little short was in the characters themselves. Rachel is set up to be torn between her very conservative religious background and the freedom offered her by her bold mistress, but the conflict seems largely resolved by the time the story starts. We get a bit of it in flash backs, but that’s about it.

                Paul should be a very interesting character. He is mixed-race, and severed from his mother’s culture through her death in childbirth. In addition to this, he is the son of a passionate naturalist but not being particularly into biology himself (a conflict that becomes even more interesting when we discover that his father’s passions had put him in opposition to his own parents as well). It all should be very compelling. And there are glimpses, but he ends up spending so much of his time passively reading his father’s journal while we get too little of how he is processing what he learns.

                Iris is mostly kept at arm’s length, but I’m okay with this. It would have been nice to see her journey more intimately, but we only ever see her through the eyes of others. Still, given her importance to Rachel’s character arc, this does somewhat work – especially since evidences of Iris’s own arc are present in how she is described. She’s left up to the reader to translate, just as she is translated by Paul and Rachel. She could easily have been the main character of this book, but I’m okay with the way she is distanced and, to an extent, objectified by the others. It works.

                This isn’t a book with a big climax or epiphany. It’s a journey, characters grow in the course of it, and then it ends. My only complaint is that, while the journey part was interesting, it overwhelmed the character parts. We saw too little of our main characters, too little of how they react to experiences and discoveries, and we don’t get to see much of their growth. While some of that is because York chooses to imply their feelings through descriptions of their physical actions, a lot of it is because it just doesn’t happen. Too much of their development happened off-screen, before the plot began, and we only learn about it after the fact. That, combined with an over-reliance on flashbacks near the beginning of the book, holds it back from shining.

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                  A Series of Unfortunate Events #1: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

                  Read: 10 February, 2017

                  With the kid wanting to watch the new Netflix series, it seemed about time to read A Series of Unfortunate Events. I hadn’t read it before (I was a little too old when it came out), so this was new for both of us.

                  It markets itself as a dark and depressing story, which it is. Mostly by telling us so. The writing style itself is a little too melodramatic to really be taken seriously, but it works well as a “baby’s first gothic” (in the Mysteries of Udolpho sense).

                  The book has a fairly strong narrator, who will break the fourth wall fairly frequently to comment on the story, or to explain what a word means. Sometimes these explanations are great, as when the definition is tailored to the specifics of the situation in which the word was used. Sometimes, though, it’s more of a straight definition, which is helpful for my five year old, I guess, but sucks the humour right out of it. On the whole, though, I do enjoy visible narrators, and I found that the interjections were usually quite funny.

                  I like that the children each have a thing to differentiate them – Violet is the inventor, Klaus is the reader, and Sunny likes to bite. But unless the children are actively doing something that fits within their area of interest, they seemed somewhat interchangeable (well, Violet and Klaus, anyway). It’ll be interesting to see if they become stronger as the series wears on.

                  As for the plot itself, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Readers are amply (and strongly!) warned that this series is all about terrible things happening to children, but I didn’t think it’d jump right into child brides. Still, it was a legal thing to access their fortunes, fine, but I was reading through a cringe for much of the book, silently chanting to myself “please no wedding night jokes, please no wedding night jokes…” Until, of course, one is made. It’s quick, it’s in passing, I’m 100% sure that my kid didn’t pick up on it, but this kiddie book straight up mentioned child rape, and I’m pretty not comfortable with that.

                  All in all, I didn’t find this book to be spectacular. It was entertaining, funny at times, and I can see the gothic imagery being very memorable for younglings.

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                    Time Quintet #1: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

                    Read: 30 January, 2017

                    “It was a dark and stormy night.” 

                    I read this book with my five year old. Our copy is ancient, with yellowed pages and a taped up spine, and my sister’s name printed in pencil in the front cover. It all seems so fitting for a book about love and family.

                    The story is a little disjointed, with ideas and events thrown in almost haphazardly, and the ending is rather abrupt. But on the way, it trusts in children’s intelligence. It doesn’t weaken its vocabulary, it doesn’t hide from tough concepts. At five, my son was unfamiliar with many of the references, but thanks to this book we’ve now spent hours listening to Bach and Beethoven and looking up paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. I even got the opportunity to explain the basics of relativity! The best children’s books challenge their audience, and without talking down to them.

                    The central message of love is an important one. I barely got through the last ten pages with tears streaming down my face, and that was a teachable moment too.

                    The book isn’t perfect, but it’s easy to see why it’s a classic.

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