My Favorite Reads of 2017

I read a lot of books in 2017, but most of them were graphic novels.

That does feel a bit like cheating, but I made up for it by reading them in high volumes and by tackling a few massive books over the course of the year.

My totals for 2017 were as follows:

111 total books

97 by male authors
14 by female authors

30 audiobooks
64 graphic novels

9 physical
102 digital

The Aeronaut's Windlass The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim ButcherAudiobook, 21 hrs and 46 mins, 2015 — I’m a fan of Butcher’s Dresden Files series, which is especially good in audio form, but I’ve been a little hesitant to try his other books because epic fantasy isn’t my bag. The Aeronaut’s Windlass might have convinced me to give the rest of his stuff a try, though. It definitely has an epic length, but it also has steampunk trappings and talking warrior cats. It helps that it doesn’t fall prey to the clichés of epic fantasy that I remember turning me off when I read The Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth back in the day. The early chapters were a little slow going, but after I dug deeper into the world, it had me hooked. It also helps that it reads like a standalone even though it’s the start of a series.
All Systems Red All Systems Red by Martha WellsDigital, 156 pages, 2017 — This novella has easily one of the best and most compelling narrators I’ve come across in a long time. Murderbot, as they secretly call themself, is a corporate security android who hacked their own governor module so that they could watch endless soap operas and ignore stupid orders from humans. All they want is for the humans to leave them alone, but when danger arises, they decide to help despite their scorn for humanity and general social anxiety. Hijinks ensue, and the humans learn the shocking truth that their security robot is a thinking and feeling being.
American Gods American Gods (Tenth Anniversary Edition) by Neil GaimanAudiobook, 19 hrs and 39 mins, 2011 — I first read American Gods back in 2001 in hardcover. I loved it then, and I’d thought about re-reading it over the years, but it wasn’t until I watched the Starz adaptation that I finally decided to take the plunge. The show is fantastic, but it made me realize that I’d forgotten everything that happened in the book aside from one or two scenes. The show is a pretty faithful adaptation – surreal and rambling and sometimes plotless, just like the book – but it only covers about a fourth of the story. The best parts of the book are still to come on the show, and I loved listening to those parts of the audiobook. I’ve been a little disappointed by the last few Gaiman books I’ve read, but American Gods has only gotten better with age, and the excellent audiobook adaptation elevates it into a masterpiece.
Brother of the More Famous Jack Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara TrapidoDigital, 256 pages, 2014 (first published 1982) — A young British girl comes of age, surrounded by the cleverest family of sarcastic hooligans and ne’er-do-wells ever put to page. They bring her into their orbit for a time when she is young, but after an inevitable heartbreak, she leaves and takes her lumps from the world. A funny, touching slice-of-life that still resonates. I don’t remember where I first heard about this book, but something drew me to it, and I’m glad I read it. Trapido has a flair for characterization and can definitely turn a phrase.
Countdown City Countdown City by Ben H. WintersAudiobook, 8 hrs and 18 mins, 2013 — I loved The Last Policeman and can’t recommend it enough, but for some reason it took me years to get around to reading the second book in the trilogy. In this sequel, Hank Palace is still stubbornly upright in the face of the continuing degeneration of the pre-apocalyptic world and still trying to solve crimes despite the consternation of everyone around him. I couldn’t help but root for him to make right some small part of his doomed universe. An end-times noir that is both tragically funny and absurdly sad.
Extreme Makeover Extreme Makeover by Dan WellsPaperback, 416 pages, 2016 — I’ve listened to the Writing Excuses podcast on and off for years, but this is the first Dan Wells book I’ve picked up and read, and holy shit is it a doozy. Let’s suppose that a cosmetics company accidentally invented an anti-aging crème that has the unintended side effect of overwriting your DNA with the DNA of the last person who touched the crème. Then let’s suppose that the executives at this company decide that DNA-rewriting crème could make them filthy rich, and imagine the worst possible things that could happen as a result of their greed. And then keep reading, because Wells runs through every possible horrible outcome, one after another, with a kind of insane glee. The result is both darkly hilarious and terrifying.
The Flintstones, Vol 1 The Flintstones, Vol 1 by Mark Russell and Steve PughDigital, 170 pages, 2017 — Someone had the genius idea to write a Flintstones comic that takes the characters seriously within the framework of a dark-but-funny social satire, and it works better than it has any right to do. Fred suffers from PTSD after his war service, household objects have existential crises, and consumerism is a newly invented scourge. The art is also fantastic, and it’s amazing seeing the characters drawn in a more realistic style.
The Goldfinch The Goldfinch by Donna TarttAudiobook/Digital, 32 hrs and 29 mins, 2013 — What if Harry Potter was an accidental art thief who never recovered from the trauma of his mother’s death? The protagonist of The Goldfinch goes to live with his shit-head father in the wastelands of suburban Las Vegas and finds himself lost among scam artists and gangsters. The lingering effects of drug use and dissipation from that time haunt him well into his adult years, along with the guilt and paranoia from stealing a priceless artwork. The Goldfinch is a sprawling, tragic, hilarious coming-of-age tale that ends with a white-knuckle heist. I loved the characters, and I loved every minute I spent with them. Although I mostly listened to this one in audio, I did jump back and forth between the Kindle and audio versions so that I could keep reading even when I didn’t have the time to listen. This combination of audiobook and e-book is definitely the best way to read a massive book.
It IT by Stephen KingAudiobook, 44 hrs and 57 mins, 2016 (first published 1986) — IT is another book I decided to read after watching an excellent adaptation. In this case, it was the 2017 movie version, which covers about half of the story, give or take. King is one of those authors that I read voraciously back in high school, but I haven’t kept up with the habit in recent years. IT was worth reading, though. The book has an imposing length, but every page adds up to an indisputable masterpiece. King is writing at the top of his form here, and it’s obvious he knows it. One of the most skillful scenes occurs early in the book, and involves a shift in perspective from one character to another when the power balance changes. I listened to the audiobook version, read by Steven Weber, and it was a pitch-perfect reading. Those 45 hours sped by in a flash, although I did read the last few chapters on Kindle because I was so caught up in it.
The Magician's Land The Magician’s Land by Lev GrossmanAudiobook, 16 hrs and 27 mins, 2014 — The Magicians was a great but flawed book; The Magician King built on that foundation to create something stunning, and this, the last book in the trilogy, brings it all home in excellent form. Quentin does what he can to learn and grow, even if everything he does still doesn’t work out. The Magician’s Land is about coming to terms with adulthood and reality, even if that reality still offers the ability to cast world-changing spells. I loved spending time with these characters and in this world, and the only reason I took so long to read this book is because I wanted to savor it.
The Portable Veblen The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenziePaperback, 448 pages, 2016 — I will be the first to admit that I picked up this book because it has a squirrel on the cover. That drew me in, but the synopsis sold me. Veblen and Paul are a young engaged couple. Veblen spends her free time as an amateur translator of Norwegian texts and Paul is an engineer working on a medical hole-punch for combat-ready craniotomies. They might be in love, but they’ll have to deal with Veblen’s neurotic mother, Paul’s ethically challenging work and Veblen’s obsession with a squirrel that she thinks she is falling in love with. It’s light, it’s funny, and it’s just a little weird.
Spoonbenders Spoonbenders by Daryl GregoryAudiobook, 14 hrs and 2 mins, 2017 — A multi-generational story about the family of a con artist, Teddy, and a psychic, Maureen, who fell in love. When they were young, The Amazing Telemachus Family travelled the talk show circuit to show off their amazing feats, but after a skeptic debunked them on live TV and Maureen died of cancer, the family never recovered. Imagine a family dramedy crossed with con artists and supernatural abilities, and you’ll get the basic idea of this hilarious, wonderful book. As soon as I finished reading it, I wanted a sequel and a TV adaptation. I loved the hell out of the book, which surprised me since I thought Harrison Squared, one of his earlier novels, was a bit disappointing.
Sword of Destiny Sword of Destiny by Andrzej SapkowskiAudiobook, 12 hrs and 47 mins, 2015 — I’ve played bits and pieces of The Witcher games, but I’ve never finished one. Even still, I played just enough for the world and the characters to intrigue me, so I decided to pick up some of the original books that inspired the games. The series starts off with two short story collections before getting into the meat of the “saga” that inspired the games. The first collection, The Last Wish, consists mostly of fairytale retellings, but this, the second collection, is where the world of The Witcher starts getting deeper and more interesting. Characters that will become significant later are first introduced here, and we begin to understand more about what drives Geralt. I definitely enjoyed reading this collection, and the audiobook version is especially good. It’s narrated by Peter Kenny, who also reads most of the Iain M. Banks Culture novels.
Version Control Version Control by Dexter PalmerAudiobook, 18 hrs and 52 mins, 2016 — This one was a slow burn, but that was also true about The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Palmer’s début. At first, Version Control feels like a near-future family drama about grief and marital intimacy, but as you keep reading, you start getting hints about something far deeper and stranger going on. This book does take a bit of patience, but that patience is more than rewarded by the end. It helps that the characters are sharply drawn, and they live in a chilling, believable semi-dystopia with just an edge of satirical social commentary.
The Vision, Vol 2 The Vision, Volume 2: Little Better than a Beast by Tom KingDigital, 136 pages, 2016 — Holy shit, The Vision is so good. Amid all the endless reboots and event series (which I have done my best to ignore), Marvel has still managed to produce some groundbreaking comics over the past few years. Volume 1 was on my list for 2016, and Volume 2 more than delivers on that promise. The entire series is a perfect stand-alone story arc even if you don’t know much about the greater Marvel universe. It’s also incredibly brutal, bleak and thought-provoking.
Wisp of a Thing Wisp of a Thing by Alex BledsoeAudiobook, 9 hrs and 14 mins, 2013 — I love the feel of this series about magic and the secret power of music made by country folk living in the Appalachian region. So far, every book in this series is essentially standalone, although there are recurring characters throughout. I think the best way to describe the Tufa books are as grounded fairy stories told through the lens of magical realism. It helps that Bledsoe is a talented, evocative writer, and the audiobook versions have one of the best narrators in the business thanks to Stefan Rudnicki.
The Woman Who Died a Lot The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper FfordeAudiobook, 10 hrs and 58 mins, 2012 — I’d forgotten how much I loved and missed this series until I finally listened to this, the most recent Thursday Next novel. Fforde fills these books to the brim with weirdness and satire. Most authors would stop after setting up a main character who travels inside novels to solve crimes, but he throws in lifelike humanoid doubles, genetically engineered dodos, time travel, contraband cheeses, authoritarian mega-corporations and much, much more. The sixth book, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, was a bit of an unfortunate misstep, but The Woman Who Died a Lot puts the series back on track. That said, it came out in 2012, and I’m starting to wonder if Fforde will ever return to the series. It doesn’t help that the end of this book definitely sets up a potential sequel. I may just have to re-read these books from the beginning, especially since I finally read Jane Eyre and might understand those references this time around.

The Fire Inside: Heroine Complex

Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn

Published: July 5th 2016
Publisher: DAW
Genre(s): Fantasy, Adventure, Superheroes
Format: E-Book
Length: 378 pages

I love stories about people with mundane jobs who exist in the orbit of someone extraordinary – like a personal assistant to a superhero, for example. It’s a fun mental exercise to think about what that might actually be like, what you’d have to deal with when your job function includes placating a petulant heroine when she isn’t out saving lives and stopping evil.

Evie Tanaka is in that exact position when Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn begins. She’s the mousy, reserved personal assistant to Aveda Jupiter, San Francisco’s Favorite Superhero – previously known as Evie’s childhood friend, Annie.

Evie has no social life outside of work and tries to keep her feelings on clampdown because of a tragedy in her past. It doesn’t help that her mom died a few years back and her father subsequently disappeared on walkabout, so Evie is also responsible for taking care of her bratty teenage sister, Bea.

Evie is just barely holding her life together until Aveda is injured and needs someone to take her place in public appearances. See, Aveda’s superhero powers come from a failed demon invasion that turned into an ongoing demon problem, and she isn’t the only person who was granted powers. Their friend Scott can perform little magic spells, including a glamour that will let Evie impersonate Aveda.

As soon as Evie goes out in public as Aveda, things go off the rails. Demons attack, and Evie is forced to use her own powers – flames that come out of her hands when she is upset or angry. She’d tried to keep them inside like her emotions because she was afraid of what she might do, but as soon as she lets them out, she finds it much harder to keep anything inside.

Heroine Complex is ultimately a story about a closed-off, repressed young woman learning to trust her own emotions and believe in herself. It’s also funny, full of well-drawn characters, and genuinely entertaining.

When I first picked it up and started reading, I assumed that it was a young adult novel, partially because of the cover, but also because of the writing style, which made the characters seem young. However, as I kept reading, it became obvious that the characters were all in their late twenties. Then there was the first of several fairly hot sex scenes, which made me realize that I’d been reading an urban fantasy all along.

This genre confusion didn’t negatively impact my enjoyment of the book, but it did make me wonder why I immediately assumed it was a young adult novel. I really like the cover design, but maybe the cartoony style made me jump to conclusions.

In any case, I’d definitely recommend Heroine Complex. It’s the first book in a trilogy, each of which focuses on a different girl in the group – Evie, then Aveda, and then finally Bea. I’ll probably pick up the next two sometime soon.

REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound

Lincoln in the Bardo: A Tumult of Hauntings

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Published: February 14th, 2017
Publisher: Random House Audio
Genre(s): Fiction, Historical, Ghost Story
Format: Audiobook
Length: 7 hrs and 25 mins

George Saunders is an amazing short story author. I’d put him up there with Kelly Link, Steven Millhauser and Jorge Luis Borges in my pantheon of personal favorites.

However, until Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders had never published a novel. This is a common trait among the short story authors I love; they rarely, if ever, turn their talents to novel-length works.

Lincoln in the Bardo is also unique because of its audiobook, which involves 166 different narrators acting out the massive cast of characters.

Nick Offerman, David Sedaris and Saunders himself take top billing. Voices you’ll probably recognize from movies, TV and audiobooks surround them on all sides. The care that clearly went into the audiobook production easily makes it the definitive version of Saunders’ novel.

At its heart, Lincoln in the Bardo tells a fairly straightforward story. After young Willie Lincoln dies from a protracted illness, Lincoln visits his son’s grave in the middle of the night, setting off a chain reaction that forces the other ghosts in the cemetery to examine their existence (or lack thereof).

Stories about the restless dead alternate with scholarly citations explaining the national attitudes towards Lincoln before and after the death of his son. The ghosts and citations interrupt and build upon each other, blending into long streams of conversation and contradiction. The effect is simultaneously poetic, hilarious and ironic.

And Lincoln in the Bardo is definitely funny, even though it is also filled with stories about incredible tragedy and heartbreak. One of the first ghosts we meet – Nick Offerman’s character, Hans Vollman – spends his afterlife walking around naked with a giant boner, insisting that he isn’t dead, just “sick”.

One of my favorite parts of the book was nothing but quotations describing Lincoln’s eyes; the quotes come one after the other, oftentimes directly contradicting each other on very simple information like his eye color. It’s a subtle way of emphasizing the subjective nature of historical narratives. I often wondered if any of the quotations were from real works or if Saunders invented them all.

I definitely enjoyed Lincoln in the Bardo, and would hold it up as an example of why audiobooks are a fantastic way to read, but I do think it feels a bit like a short story that grew to escape the confines of its word count.

The sheer avalanche of details, both personal and historical, are definitely compelling. I felt like I learned things about Lincoln that I’d never known, and Saunders is a master of characterization with a sensibility like none other. That said, the book felt a little slight thanks to its minimal plot.

Even still, I highly recommend checking out Lincoln in the Bardo, especially as an audiobook.

REALLY LIKED IT

Amazon | Audible | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound

My Favorite Reads of 2016

I love reading Best Of the Year lists even if I don’t always agree with what they’ve picked. After all, a really great list might introduce me to some awesome book, album or movie that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. Even a list full of willfully contrarian selections has some entertainment value. The worst thing a year-end list can do is be boring and predictable.

Of course, reading dozens of year-end lists is completely different from sitting down and trying to write your own. Writing an objectively comprehensive list requires an exhaustive knowledge of your chosen field of pop culture. That level of knowledge isn’t really possible unless you’re an obsessive or write for a living, and even then there’s only so much time in the day.

In my case, it doesn’t help that I’m rarely current on pop culture. My library of unread books is so deep at this point that I’ll never catch up unless I invent a way to freeze time and/or live forever.

That means it makes more sense for me to write about the books that I loved reading in 2016 rather than focusing on ones released this year. Of course, it turns out that a lot of my favorite reads were actually recent releases.

All the Birds in the Sky All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. Anders, the former editor of io9, made her debut as a novelist with this strange, far-reaching story about the complicated romance between an inventor and a witch. Touching, hilarious and weird. By the end of this book, I just wanted those two crazy kids to survive the apocalypse and work things out.
Bone Gap Bone Gap by Laura Ruby. Bone Gap is lyrically beautiful and full of just the right hints of gothic atmosphere and menace. A teenaged boy living in a small town deals with the aftermath of a beloved young woman’s mysterious disappearance, only to discover that something far stranger may have happened.
Crime and Punishment Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This is one of those classics that everyone says you should read, so I decided to finally take a crack at it this year and listened to the audiobook. Turns out I really loved the story, and especially enjoyed the ever-ratcheting tension as the main character tries to live with his terrible actions.
Glow Glow by Ned Beauman. I enjoyed the hell out of Beauman’s earlier novel, The Teleportation Accident, but the two books have very different tones. Glow is a paranoid conspiracy thriller populated with druggies and people living at the fringes of society. The occasional surrealist touches paired with the relaxed pace and laugh-out-loud humor made for a highly entertaining read.
The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. This one came out of nowhere and grabbed me by the throat. It’s dark, hilarious, and full of wild narrative misdirection. It requires a little patience in the early chapters, but pays huge dividends if you stick around for the ride. I want to walk up to people on the street and insist that they read this unsung bizarro masterpiece.
Paper Girls, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Curtis and Matt Wilson. Paper Girls hits the same sweet spot of surrealism, horror and nostalgia that Stranger Things exploited so masterfully, but even in this first volume, it seems clear that BKV and friends are shooting for something much more subversive. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on by the end of the first volume, but I was definitely hooked.
Rachel Rising Rachel Rising, Volume 1 & 2 by Terry Moore. I bought the complete Rachel Rising in a sale on Comixology, and I’m definitely glad that I did. Terry Moore’s story of a small-town girl who is mysteriously resurrected after being murdered starts off small and then slowly builds to something horrifying and apocalyptic. I’ve only read the first two volumes, but I love the gothic tone and Moore’s way with dialogue and characterization.
Stiletto Stiletto by Daniel O’Malley. O’Malley’s first book in this series, The Rook, reads like The Bourne Identity by way of Terry Pratchett, and I loved it. Stiletto manages to live up to that initial greatness even though it changes much of the formula; instead of focusing on the misadventures of amnesiac Myfawnwy Thomas, O’Malley introduces two new characters and turns it into an ensemble piece. It took a little while before I warmed up to these changes, but I ended up loving the book overall.
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. This book is billed as a short story collection, but it’s really a stealthy patchwork novel about loosely connected characters living in and around Chechnya. Each story shifts styles and perspectives, slowly building into a whole that is laugh-out-loud funny and full of sharply drawn characters who are simultaneously comical, ruthless, tragic and sympathetic.
The Unnoticeables The Unnoticeables by Robert Brockway. I literally picked up this book on a whim and read it because of its awesome cover design and blurb. Luckily, those didn’t steer me wrong. The Unnoticeables is gruesome, funny, and occasionally flat-out terrifying. It’s both a Hollywood satire and an apocalyptically nostalgic tale about crust-punks in 1970s New York City. As soon as I finished it, I bought the second book.
The Vision, Volume 1 The Vision, Volume 1 by Tom King, Jordie Bellaire and Gabriel Hernandez Walta. Marvel is doing some of its best work with second-tier characters like Hawkeye, Howard the Duck and now The Vision. In this series, The Vision builds a family for himself and tries to live a “normal life” in suburbia. Things go tragically, horribly wrong almost immediately, and the book traces The Vision’s slow but inevitable downfall while discussing heady topics like existential questions about the true nature of humanity.
Vox Vox by Nicholson Baker. Vox has a simple (now quaint) conceit: a wide-ranging phone conversation between two people on a phone sex line. Although their conversation does occasionally get steamy, the book is more about the real human connection between two strangers who are nothing but voices on a line. By the end of the book, both characters feel incredibly sharply drawn thanks to the glimpses Baker gives us into their innermost private thoughts.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. A family saga with a twist, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is quietly devastating, but it’s also funny and strange and next door to the unreal. Reading it made me misty-eyed more than once, and I always consider that a point in favor of a book. I absolutely loved it.

First Impressions of The Library at Mount Char

The Library at Mount CharScott Hawkins’ The Library at Mount Char is dark, weird and funny. It’s basically the perfect book for me. I knew I was going to love it within a few sentences, and so far it hasn’t disappointed.

The main character, Carolyn, has penchant for brutality that constantly surprises me, too. Where other books would establish that the main character had done terrible things but they were all in the past, Hawkins gleefully undermines those expectations. Carolyn behaves in ways that are utterly inhuman without necessarily making her an unlikable character. Of course, it definitely helps that other characters in the book are much, much worse.

My only real criticism so far is that the book’s cover completely misses the mark. It feels like the kind of cover you’d see on your average literary thriller sent straight to the bargain bin. I’m sure it happened because the book already feels impossible to sell from what I’ve read so far, but it’s incredibly unfortunate because I would not have picked this book up off a shelf without first understanding the completely bat-shit premise.

I’m only about 15% through at this point, so it’s possible the book won’t deliver on its early promises, but who can go wrong with chapter titles like “Buddhism for Assholes”?

Did Not Finish: California by Edan Lepucki

California by Edan LepuckiCalifornia

Author: Edan Lepucki
Published: July 8, 2014
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Genre(s): Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic
Format: Audiobook
Length: 12 hrs and 26 mins

I wouldn’t normally post about a book that I didn’t finish reading, but considering the fact that I received not one but two free copies of California by Edan Lepucki – one from NetGalley, and one thanks to the Ford Audiobook Club on Goodreads – I feel as though I need to at least give my impressions of the five chapters I did manage to read.

California got a lot of buzz when it first came out. The author appeared on The Colbert Report, and Colbert gave it a ringing endorsement. Bestseller status was a foregone conclusion. On top of all that, I tend to enjoy stories that play with the boundaries of genre storytelling, so I was definitely interested in picking up California when it came out.

The basic premise of California focuses on a young couple, Cal and Frida, as they do their best to get by in the California countryside after American society collapses. When Frida discovers that she might be pregnant, the possibility throws everything about their lives into question.

As soon as we got a copy of the audiobook, my girlfriend and I decided to listen to it during a weekend trip. We enjoyed it well enough, but after that trip I rarely found myself in the mood to keep listening. I eked out another hour or two over the next few months, but my interest in the book quickly waned and I finally decided to give up once I realized how long it had taken to read a measly five chapters.

What I will say about the book is that the author’s portrayal of a doomed fear-future Los Angeles hits close to home. It doesn’t seem that far out of the realm of possibility now that I’ve lived in LA for more than a year. I was also slightly drawn to the book’s flashback scenes, which show how life in Los Angeles changed before Cal and Frida left for good.

The problem with California is that it seemed like the most interesting story was happening in the past, and only by proxy. Most of the book’s present-day storyline focused on Cal and Frida worrying about the minutiae of getting by in the wilderness, which quickly wore out its welcome.

Although there were hints of a bit more forward motion coming soon, I just couldn’t work up enough interest to keep listening. Additionally, so much time had passed since I’d started the book that it felt like I was just trying to force it by continuing to read.

Maybe I’ll give California another shot some day, but it doesn’t seem likely. I’ve got several hundred other books in my queue, and they’re calling my name.

DID NOT FINISH
DID NOT FINISH

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley as well as a promotional copy from the Ford Audiobook Club on Goodreads.

Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Audible

Ancillary Justice: I Am Beside Myself and Myself

Ancillary JusticeAncillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Published: October 1, 2013
Publisher: Orbit
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Space Opera
Format: Paperback/eBook
Length: 410 pages

Ancillary Justice is science fiction crammed full to the brim with wild ideas. The main character, Breq, is an “ancillary soldier” cut off from her ship for almost twenty years, but she isn’t exactly human, at least not by the standards of her society, the Radch. The Radch, it seems, were aggressive about expansion over thousands of years. As part of that expansion they captured entire civilizations and turned the leftover bodies into these ancillaries – soldiers that shared a mind with their ships, that were effectively as much a part of their ships as any piece of the hull. Corpse soldiers, to quote a slang term.

Breq, who comes from a ship called the Justice of Toren, has spent the past twenty years tirelessly working towards revenge against Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, who shares one similarity with Breq and other ancillaries: she has thousands of bodies under her control. This, naturally, complicates Breq’s plan for revenge. In the current day scenes, Breq searches for an artifact that will help her carry out her plans while also caring for a petulant drug-addicted former solider who once served on her ship. These alternate with flashbacks to Breq’s time spent as an ancillary soldier on the last planet annexed by the Radch.

Leckie does a great job of slowly revealing more and more about Breq’s past and the nature of the tragedy that befell her ship. She also takes fairly simple building blocks and turns them into fascinating philosophical mind-benders. What, after all, does it mean for Breq’s I to mean the ship Justice of Toren but also all the hundreds of ancillary soldiers in her hold? The narrative is simultaneously first-person and omniscient, jumping from place to place as the ship’s many perspectives build to a greater whole.

Leckie also sets up the Radch society as one that does not distinguish between the genders when speaking. In practice, this means that everyone in the book is “she” regardless of gender. Further complicating matters for Breq is the fact that she has a hard time distinguishing gender traits when in other societies, and tends to use incorrectly gendered pronouns. At first I found this a bit confusing, but once I got used to it, I found myself not really worrying about the gender of characters. Leckie drops hints here and there as to the actual gender of certain characters, but in practice it doesn’t actually matter.

The scope of Ancillary Justice feels simultaneously personal and global; Breq’s actions are deeply rooted in events from her past, but the result of her fight against the Lord of the Radch could have far-reaching repercussions. The world-building is pitch-perfect, and never feels heavy-handed or overwhelming. As soon as I finished this book, I checked to see if Leckie has any plans to continue writing in this world, and she does – apparently this is the first book in a loose trilogy. That said, it feels like Breq’s quest is contained; the end does set up possible future stories, but I couldn’t begin to guess where else Leckie might take the world of the Radch. However, I find that exciting.

I think my favorite part of this book was the way that Leckie took so many truly alien elements and made them feel natural and believable. The characters are human, but a type of human thousands of years removed from our society, and changed in many strange ways. We don’t ever meet any non-human characters, but they lurk just at the edge of the story, menacing and dangerous.

I can’t wait for the next book in this series, and I’ll definitely be checking out Leckie’s short stories as soon as possible.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Indiebound

When is it time to give up on finishing a book?

pages fluttering

People who read for fun (or read at all) each have their own individual way of dealing with a book they can’t quite manage to finish. Some folks stubbornly insist on finishing every book they start, even if it’s a grueling death march towards an unsatisfying end. It’s possible I am biased against this methodology, because I tend to give up on books after a chapter or two if I’m not getting into them.

The problem is that there are occasionally books that I really want to finish for some reason, but I never want to have to force myself to read something. I feel like that’s against my personal reading for fun beliefs system, a religion I founded and observe by regularly updating my progress on Goodreads.

So, a quandary: what happens when I come across a book that I’d really like to finish, that I might even enjoy in short bursts, but that I just don’t find myself picking up to read? What if I manage to read a huge chunk of the book – more than the maximum fifty pages I give most books – but it’s still not clicking for me?

I try not to drop books when I’ve made it too far into them, but it has happened before. I made it 100 pages into Dan Wells’ Partials and just could not bring myself to care about what was happening. I’m pretty sure I read a good chunk of Cinder by Marissa Meyer before I gave it up as a lost cause.

The only books I’m more likely to force myself to finish are review copies, because someone was nice enough to give me a free book and I should repay the favor. Even still, if a review copy isn’t a quick read and I already know I don’t like it after a chapter or two, it’s probably best that I go ahead and skip writing about how much I hated it.

I’ve been known to put down books and try again later when I’m in the right mood. This happened three times with White Noise, which I eventually finished out of sheer stubbornness. Sometimes I’ll stop reading a book in print and try again later as an audiobook. This worked with Heist Society, which didn’t grab me when I first tried to read it but came alive thanks to an excellent narrator.

Right now, though, the book I’m thinking about most is Anna Karenina. I started reading that sucker in December of 2012, and somehow it’s nine months later and I’m only halfway through. I feel like I’ve invested way too much time in the book to give up on finishing it, but it’s also just taking so damn long to read! I keep imagining I’ll sit down for a marathon reading session and make some good progress, but every time I try, I make maybe 1% of progress and wander off to do something else. I’d like to finish the book before I die of old age, if possible.

Will I ever finish Anna Karenina? I think at this point I may have to throw myself a little party if I make it to the last page.

An Epic of Love, String Theory and Donuts: Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Skippy DiesPublished: January 11th, 2011
Publisher: Audible, Inc.
Genre(s): Fiction, Comedy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 23 hrs and 41 mins

As you might imagine, Skippy Dies opens with the death of the titular character, one Daniel Juster (nicknamed Skippy). Skippy dies of mysterious circumstances at a donut shop named Ed’s, then the story jumps back several months to tell the sprawling tale of life at Seabrook College before and after that fateful day. Skippy Dies has a wide-ranging cast of colorful, hilarious and occasionally maddening characters, and the Audible production brings them all to life with a wonderful full-cast recording.

Although Skippy is the catalyst for much of what happens in the book, he isn’t necessarily the main character. Instead, Skippy Dies is an ensemble story with a half-dozen or more plot-lines that weave in and out of Skippy’s life. First and foremost is the story of Ruprecht Van Doren, Skippy’s roommate. Ruprecht is socially awkward, horribly overweight, exceedingly intelligent and obsessed with string theory. At one point in the book, Ruprecht manages to convince his friends to test a device that might open a portal to another dimension if only they can get it into the girl’s school next door.

Then there’s Carl and Barry, two burnouts who start selling “diet pills” bartered from kids with ADHD to girls looking to lose weight fast. Carl is dangerous, psychotic, and hopelessly in love with a pretty girl named Laurie, who is also Skippy’s number one crush. Despite the seemingly huge gap in their social stations, Laurie and Skippy do actually get together at one point in the book, and it only inspires more fits of rage and destruction on Carl’s part.

Murray doesn’t just focus on students, however; he also tells the story of Howard “The Coward”, a Seabrook alum who finds himself back at school, teaching history to the sort of kids he was not so long ago. Howard, who has a loveless relationship at home and terrible guilt from an “incident” that happened years ago, barely holds the respect of his students until a pretty substitute comes to Seabrook and up-ends his life. Howard also butts heads with Greg “The Automator”, acting headmaster of the school, who seems to care more about branding and merchandise than education. The Automator is the kind of subtly dangerous imbecile who tends to rise to the top in management positions out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

All of these characters and more interact in scenes that are hilarious, touching and occasionally even disturbing. Murray weaves mundane events, satire and occasional flights of fancy with such a deft hand that he makes Seabrook College feel like a living, breathing world. The book is simultaneously epic and intimate; filled with lofty ideas and discussions of the nature of reality, but focused entirely on life in a small community in Ireland. Skippy Dies is a huge, long book, but if you have the time, I highly recommend the audiobook version. The full cast recording makes the world of the book feel more real and makes it easier to keep track of the huge cast of characters.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Amazon | Audible | BookPeople | Indiebound

Reincarnation on Repeat: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After LifePublished: April 2nd, 2013
Publisher: Hachette Audio
Genre(s): Fiction, Fantasy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 15 hours, 34 minutes

Life After Life opens with its main character, Ursula Todd, dying as an infant… and then being born again. This time, the doctor arrives in time and Ursula lives, only to die a few years later when she drowns at sea. She is born again and saved from drowning by a man painting a seascape who gets to her in time. Ursula lives her life over and over, never entirely aware of the process. She just gets a strange foreboding feeling that something terrible is about to happen. It isn’t until the end of the first World War, when the family’s housekeeper comes home with a bout of Spanish Flu after a night of celebration, that Ursula begins actively trying to change her fate. Up until this point I was enjoying the novel, but after this series of harrowing deaths I was thoroughly hooked.

Atkinson handles Ursula’s multiple lives with a deft hand, always presenting a slightly different perspective when she returns to familiar ground. For long stretches of time the book is an entirely realistic portrayal of life in England during World War I and II, and the only hints of fantasy come into play when Ursula slowly begins remembering more of her previous lives. Her parents eventually take her to a psychiatrist to discuss her constant feelings of “deja vu”, but that doesn’t stop Ursula from feeling certain she’s experienced things before.

However, Atkinson largely avoids turning Ursula’s life into a tale of her trying to change the future with foreknowledge. For the most part, she lives her life and turns left where she once turned right out of an unconscious desire to avoid horrible death or dreary misery. At one point in the book Ursula finds herself stuck in a loveless marriage so fraught with tension that I began hoping she would die soon so that she could take another crack at life. In another life, Ursula becomes intertwined with the German Third Reich at very high levels and Atkinson provides a surprising and sympathetic portrayal of Eva Braun that only makes those scenes more tense and disturbing as the war descends into chaos.

Ursula takes lovers or gets married, she has a child or she doesn’t, she lives her life and dies and lives again. With each successive life Ursula has a chance to make things right this time, and although that is sometimes true, it is also occasionally true that getting what she wants makes things far worse than they’d ever been before. Atkinson never explains what causes Ursula to live over and over, and the ending is open to interpretation. However, over the course of the story, we’ve experienced a myriad number of alternate Ursula Todds, each with slight variations on the same hopes and dreams, and the result is a deep, layered portrayal of life during wartime, as well as a striking character study of one woman growing up and coming into her own.

I’ve enjoyed previous Atkinson books, but Life After Life might very well be her masterpiece. When I describe it to my friends, I refer to it as “Downton Abbey with infinite reincarnation”, and if that sounds appealing to you, you should definitely pick it up. I also highly recommend the audiobook version, which has a pitch-perfect narrator with a supremely British name – Fenella Woolgar.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Audible | Amazon | BookPeople | Indiebound