Imperial Radch #1: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Read: 7 February, 2016

I had heard really good reviews about this book from trusted sources, but what really sold me was the idea of a main character who is all genders (she’s had many bodies, and doesn’t identify as any particular gender). I absolutely loved Left Hand of Darkness for doing something similar, so I immediately put Ancillary Justice on my TBR list and blocked out all information about it.

Months later, when I finally got a copy and set down to read, I’d forgotten what I’d already heard about the book and came to it completely fresh. And it is wonderful.

As I was reading, I kept feeling like my mind was being blown. Not in the sense that I was confused, but the opposite – in the sense that something was suddenly making sense for me, that I was understanding a problem from a new perspective.

The story pretends to be about this quest that I won’t bother getting into, but that’s all just a premise. The story is really about identity – what makes the self? What makes an individual separate, unique? And this theme is explored from many different perspectives in both storylines. Sometimes it includes gender, sometimes not. Sometimes it includes free will/destiny, sometimes not. Sometimes it approaches it from the standpoint of cultural belonging, sometimes from shared mind belonging, sometimes from the perspective of a lone outsider. Over and over again, Leckie picks at this idea of mind and selfhood with an astonishing – and astonishingly unobtrusive – focus (I might even call it “single-mindedness,” but that’s a little too on-point).

The surface quest story reads well enough, though I’m not surprised to see some reviewers calling it “boring.” It’s true that there’s a lot of dialogue and a lot of narrative thinking, and the action scenes – when they do crop up – lack emotional intensity. So I can understand those complaints, even as I disagree very strongly.

The lack of emotion, the distance of the narrator, is something that a lot of negative reviewers have commented on. This is something I found very interesting because it occurred to me early on in my reading that Breq is autism-coded. Over and over again, I felt a comfortable familiarity with how she was thinking, how she was observing and processing the emotions of those around her. And while other readers apparently felt that the book lacks in characterization, I felt like I was getting to know these characters on a deeper level than I usually do in books. It was almost like I could feel Breq or Awn in the room with me as I read. And I connected with Breq’s emotional responses on a very deep level.

I don’t know if Leckie is on the spectrum herself, but she gets it. She completely gets it. And this is the first book I’ve ever read where I felt like the main character was honestly, truly, like me.

The languages of the novel were extremely well done. I enjoyed the immigrant experience of being revealed as different or thought weird because of grammatical errors, and Breq’s struggle to keep track of so many varied cultural traditions. I liked that, though English is used throughout, the narrator indicates when different languages are being used and how translations aren’t always really capturing what was really said or implied.

The Radch single gender – she – is perfectly handled. Despite Breq thinking of all characters as ‘she,’ and despite her frequently misgendering other characters so that they can switch genders several times even in a single scene, I never felt confused about who was talking or acting. Leckie did a wonderful job making sure all agents were clear. The only thing that threw me is that she would sometimes have more than one character speaking/acting in a single paragraph, but I was usually only confused because of the convention. Her labelling held up well.

This is an amazing book. Just to give a single flaw, the Epic Battle at the very end lost some of the book’s usual narrative tightness, and there were some moments where I was struggling to picture what was going on. But that accounts for a very small percentage of an otherwise fantastic book.

I highly recommend it for fans of science fiction and world building, particularly for anyone who is interested in novels that are more thought-experiment than action/adventure-type reads.

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    American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

    Read: 8 February, 2016

    American Born Chinese tries to capture the experience of being a third culture kid, particularly one who visibly stands out from the culture that surrounds them. The story is told in three separate narratives that don’t seem to have anything to do with each other until the very end, where they all collide and it turns out that they were all part of the same story from the beginning.

    The story is one of shame, of trying to change in order to fit in, and of the feelings of anger toward others who are the same but don’t seem to experience the same shame.

    The story was quite well told, and I found it easy to grasp the main character’s pain and the reasons for his lashing out. The artwork meshed well with the story, though I didn’t find it particularly appealing on its own.

    I was glad that the focus was on the inner struggle, and included the lashing out that is so often a part of that. It would have been easy to make Jin more perfect, to make the story all about the things done to him (like the bullying that features prominently near the beginning of his story). But instead, the story looks at his experiences and his reactions, and we see him turn around almost immediately and say terrible things to someone else.

    Jin’s behaviour is frequently atrocious, but it does feel real, and I found that I could easily empathize (especially as a third cutlure kid myself – though without the added ethnic component) with what he was going through.

    I think the book would be best for kids around grade 7-10, particularly as part of a larger discussion on the immigrant experience. I also think that people who grew up as third culture kids might benefit from the book, if only as a cathartic “yes! That’s what I felt like!” sort of experience.

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      The Dresden Files #14: Cold Days by Jim Butcher

      Read: 31 January, 2016

      At the end of Ghost Story, Harry Dresden’s tenure as the Winter Knight began. Now, Mab has given him his first assignment, and it’s a doozy!

      Butcher’s favourite word this book is “oblique.” There was one page where it appeared three times, and it just kept coming up again and again. It was bad enough to be a drinking game!

      Then there was the casual sexism. It’s been toned down over the last several books, but Dresden’s claim that women have up to five levels of conversation at the same time was just ridiculous. Worse yet, it just went on and on, this was only a few pages after Dresden goes to a place where men look for casual sex and has a whole conversation with Titania about how he’s totally okay with the gays because freedom is important. It was so cringe-inducing, and sadly immature.

      But other than that, I enjoyed the book. Dresden’s changing roles keep the series from getting stale. And it’s been interesting to see him do without more and more of his standard tools.

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        A Memoir by Lady Trent #2: The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

        Read: 24 January, 2016

        I’m not a terribly huge fan of dragons but natural history? The Victorian era? Women who find a way to be badass despite the whole of their society weighing down on them? It’s like these books were written specifically with me in mind.

        In this episode, Isabella mounts her first expedition without her husband, and finds herself caught in the middle of a multi-directional political struggle. And, of course, she and her companions make some pretty wonderful scientific discoveries along the way.

        As with the first, this book is pretty much perfect. The characters are strong and come through really well, the pacing is spot on, the tone matches the content perfectly. I honestly can’t think of a single critical thing to say.

        I’m seeing from reviews that many people found the book boring, mostly because it spent so much time away from the dragons. I guess I can understand, and it’s true that Brennan isn’t exactly Anne McCaffrey. It’s hard to see how this series would hold any interest at all for readers who just want dragons! and adventure!

        It is a slower pace, and the dragons themselves are almost incidental to the characterization of Isabella – of her growth, and of her negotiation between the expectations of her gender and the hungers of her personality. But for the right audience (i.e.: me), these books are just glorious.

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          Mothers Who Can’t Love by Susan Forward

          Read: 18 January, 2016

          I decided to read this book after seeing it recommended by one woman who had grown up with a narcissist mother to another. It was described as an amazing book that could really help with understanding those dynamics and learning to move forward in a healthy way. The person making the recommendation also added that it would be very helpful for people who’ve had dysfunctional relationships with their mothers for other reasons.

          Forward begins by covering the different types of dysfunctional mothers – there are the narcissists, the overly enmeshed, the control freaks, the role reversals (who’ve expected their daughters to console and care for them from a young age), and those who neglect or abuse more directly.

          While the examples Forward uses are fairly specific, and I found them to sort of skip over how complicated and variable these relationships can be, she did cover enough examples that I felt I could grasp her point and see the subtle individual shades between her archetypes.

          Once the problem has been defined, Forward moves on to solutions. She begins with a process for identifying and coming to terms with the reader’s specific feelings, which can be far more difficult than it might initially seem! Most of the section, though, has to do with finding, establishing, and maintaining boundaries, despite a range of reactions of events.

          Overall, I found this to be an excellent book. It can be hard to read, especially if the material has personal significance, and Forward herself recommends that her book be used in tandem with a therapist who can help to manage and guide. Still, though, the advice given is practical and thorough, and I think it’s applicable even when parental relationships aren’t quite as dire as the examples given in the book. In fact, I think that the sections on establishing and maintaining boundaries would be useful to anyone.

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            The Dresden Files #13: Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

            Read: 4 January, 2016

            Changes, the last book in the series, ended on a bit of a cliffhanger. Specifically, the main character was shot and died.

            Well, this is Dresden, so it’s not like a little thing like death is going to stop him. He’s back in Chicago for Ghost Story, kicking ass, solving mysteries, saving the world… only, this time, he’s a ghost.

            It’s an interesting premise. The “ghost comes back to solve his own murder” thing has been done before, but you don’t see it too often with the main character of a series, over a dozen books in.

            And it was good to see Dresden have some new challenges for a while. He’s always so powerful that he just blasts through enemies, but in Ghost Story, he can’t. Suddenly, he has to sneak around and let others do a lot of the direct action. And Butcher makes a big deal of this – having Dresden note over and over again about how his perspective has changed, and how he can’t just kill the enemy henchmen anymore because they can’t kill him, so he’ll have to find another way. It was a little preachy, but this is Dresden.

            The action and pacing are as exciting as ever, and I did enjoy all the new discoveries Dresden made about the magical world now that he got to see it from a different angle.

            My only problem with the book (other than the Catholic priest with a KJV on his nightstand – what was that about?) was that nothing that happened actually matters in the long term. His brief interlude as a ghost (no spoiler tags because of course Dresden isn’t really dead) is all about revisiting the repercussions of his choices in Changes. Which fits with the ghost motif, but leaves us with a book that doesn’t really advance the plot. Two baddies come back and are defeated, but we’d thought them both defeated anyway so it’s not like any plotlines are resolved. We get to see the changes in Dresden’s allies, but that could have been divulged differently, and in the next book. And while dying is a pretty big deal in character arch terms, it gets taken back at the end so what was the point?

            Overall, the book felt a bit like a filler episode. Not that I’m complaining, per se, since Dresden is my filler reading when I need something light and fun and exciting. But it would have been nice for there to have been more long term meaning to the events of the book.

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              Inkworld #1: Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

              Read: 19 December, 2015

              When a shadowy man and his horned martin show up, a book binder and his daughter are forced into a terrifying – and wondrous – adventure.

              I absolutely loved this book. It’s long, and it’s slow, and it takes a long time for the reader to really be told what’s going on, and I see that a lot of reviewers didn’t like it for those reasons. But I found it’s slower pace to be quite delightful. It was calm, and there was a certain rhythm to the movements of the characters (to Capricorn’s, away, back, away, back). But, mostly, I just loved having the opportunity to really explore all the different characters.

              Other reviewers complained that the characters in the book almost seem to be patting themselves on the back for liking books – and I do agree that it’s taken to a fairly absurd extreme in the first few chapters, as Meggie tells us over and over again about her and her father’s love for books. That they love books and stories is important to the character development, of course, but it could definitely have used some toning down in the early chapters.

              The premise of the book – that reading with enough passion can make the stories literally come alive – is great fun, and well executed. Funke managed to explore both the joy and the weight of that kind of power, and then brings it all home again by tying it to the art of writing.

              I think that the book would be best for children around 12-14 years old if read alone, because it is a bit of a doorstopper. Though it would work well for younger children as a family read.

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                The Witcher Saga #1: Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski

                Read: 3 December, 2015

                Ciri, princess and heir-in-hiding to a conquered nation, is in the care of the Witcher Geralt, a monster hunter. Over the course of the book, Geralt enlists the help of friends – a poet, two magicians, a university student, and others – to help keep Ciri safe, both from those who seek to use her for politican gain and from her own power.

                I came to the series through the video game, Witcher 3, which I played recently. I really enjoyed the characters and the plot, and the way that the relationships were somewhat unusual for epic fantasy (the way so many characters act with parental affection toward Ciri, for example). So I thought it’d be fun to take a look at the source material.

                I was a little surprised by Blood of Elves. For one thing, Geralt isn’t even in most of the book. Sure, people talk about him an awful lot, but it’s nothing like the game where he’s front and centre. If I had to decide on a single main character, I’d say it was Ciri – she’s present in the most scenes, she is being talked about in nearly every scene she is absent from, and to the extent that the book has a structure at all, it’s about her education and development.

                Oh yeah, did I mention that this book doesn’t really have a plot? There’s certainly nothing like a three act structure. There’s a lot of build up – about Ciri’s destiny, about a possible future war, about the conflicts between human and non-human cultures – but then it just ends. It ends when Ciri leaves the place where Geralt has placed her for her education, perhaps implying that this is her childhood book and that the next book will involve the next stage in her life.

                I remember being around the 200 page mark and trying to explain to my spouse what’s happened so far, and all I could think was “well, Triss met Ciri… and someone appears to be looking for her.” That’s it, in 200 pages, that’s basically the plot.

                But at the same time, I never felt bored. The characters are rich and interesting, and there’s a great deal of exposition on the previous Nilfgaardian war and the possibility that there will be another. And meanwhile, I’m getting to know all these characters, and to care about what will happen to them.

                I quite liked the writing style. I noticed that Sapkowski keeps a lot of the action off-screen, so often we’ll see a character decide to do something, and then we’ll see them having already done it. Or maybe a character will just come on stage having already done a thing. It was well done and interesting, and Sapkowski does clearly know when a thing must be shown.

                I found the writing style to be very slavic, as well, with more in common with, say, Lukyanenko’s writing than Robert Jordan’s. I also had quite a few giggles when characters said things that my Russian in-laws say, or expressed themselves in very similar ways. It was refreshingly different.

                There were some translation issues, but I found them to be fairly minor. I always understood what was meant.

                In conclusion, I quite enjoyed Blood of Elves. I find the world building to be quite interesting, I’m really enjoying the characters, and I like the slightly different take on the epic fantasy genre. I will definitely be checking out the next book in the series.

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                  Percy Jackson #2: The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

                  Read: 13 November, 2015

                  Camp Half Blood is under attack. Thalia’s guardian tree has been poison, weakening the protective shield around the camp, and the only hope is to recover the Golden Fleece. With its healing properties, Thalia’s tree can be restored.

                  I found this book to be a bit simpler than The Lightning Thief, though I suppose that’s mostly because the exposition isn’t necessary. We get much less about Percy’s mother, less backstory, less mystery. Instead, Sea of Monsters is a very surface-level quest narrative: Percy arrives at Camp Half Blood, is charged with finding the Fleece, encounters a few perils on his way, finds it, comes home, the end. It felt very pared down, and rather short.

                  Don’t get me wrong, it did work as an adventure story, it just felt very straightforward. I always enjoy the way Riordan “modernizes” Greek myths, and Circe’s island was particularly interesting.

                  And the book does move the overall plot forward. The reveal at the end, which I won’t spoil, sets up a very interesting storyline. But it took a whole book to get there, and the story did feel very empty. I had fun, but it wasn’t very filling.

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                    Shock Value by Jason Zinoman

                    Read: 2 November, 2015

                    Shock Value tells the story of New Horror, the mostly independent movement in the 1970s to revitalize the genre, breaking from what had become the standard in horror: formulaic monster movies with the occasional gimmick (theatre seats with buzzers!) thrown in. The book tracks a few of the major players, like Wes Craven, Brian De Palma, Roman Polanski, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Tobe Hooper, William Friedkin, George Romero, and Dan O’Bannon.

                    It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the horror genre – so much so that I rarely watch anything else. So much so that Netflix can’t keep up with my consumption habits, even when I’ll happily watch their 1-2 star selections. But I tend to stick to my role of consumer, and I often don’t know the histories or the names of the directors (the catalogue enthusiast part of my brain is already sufficiently occupied by other topics). So it was interesting to me to get a little of the backstory.

                    Unfortunately, Shock Value felt a bit flat. The author hops around from figure to figure, and I think that I would have found it very confusing if I didn’t already know many of the names. Chapters just sort of meandered until they reached their page length, and I didn’t get the sense that they had focus or purpose.

                    Generally, I guess my complaint is just that the book “lacks soul.” It throws out the information, but it doesn’t dig deep, it doesn’t tell a story. The closest it got was in the discussions with Dan O’Bannon, who seems like he could have justified a whole book himself. That’s where Zinoman’s passion peeked through, and I was intrigued enough to look up more information. But for the rest, the writing just felt very flat, telling anecdotes in a detached and almost haphazard way.

                    For fans of horror, the book might still be worthwhile, and there were certainly bits and pieces of interesting information. But it could have been presented in a better way. It’s clear from O’Bannon’s sections that Zinoman does have passion, and I hope he let’s himself show it a little more in future works.

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