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REVIEW: Ancillary Justice

ancillary-justiceAuthor: Ann Leckie

2013, Orbit

Filed under: Sci-fi

Find it at Goodreads

This review refers to the audiobook version of this novel.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 5
Depth..... 9

I’d heard nothing but rave reviews about this book since its publication six months ago. When I finally started it this past week, I was immediately discombobulated. That’s because I’d heard literally nothing else but raving praise; I hadn’t heard, for example, what it was about. So let’s start there.

The main character and narrator is a sentient spaceship named the Justice of Toren. It belongs to the Radchaai, a barbaric race of people whose entire economy depends on invading other planets, killing or enslaving their people, and then laying claim to their natural resources. Of course, since the Justice of Toren is a Radch ship, the narrator finds the zombification and murder of their enemies to be a normal and not horrifying occurrence. At least, that is, until it’s forced to do something awful and kind of wakes up.

Interspersed with this storyline is another following Breq—one of Justice of Toren’s ancillaries—some 25 years in the future. The usual way of life for an ancillary (or “corpse soldier”) is that they are human bodies entirely controlled by the artificial intelligence of the ship they belong to. They think as the ship, but feel what each of their dozens of bodies feels. Breq, however, has become separated from Justice of Toren and is pursuing an ex-captain of herself (I think) along the way toward obtaining a supremely powerful gun that might or might not kill the Lord of Radch.

Got all that? I’m not sure that I do, and that’s part of my problem with this book. 
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Programming note: the end of Book Radar

When I started writing the Book Radar column, almost three years ago, I was working at a bookstore, spending a fair amount of my weekly time paging through catalogs of upcoming releases, and marking the books I was interested in. The column was a natural byproduct of all that casual research.

In the time since, I stopped working at the bookstore and stopped having access to both the catalogs and the spare time to idly flip through them. Instead, I’d pull interesting books from Kirkus, which handily laid out reviews for all the books coming out in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, Kirkus changed their format, and you can no longer sort out upcoming books, and I can’t find a similar website that will let me research a Book Radar column in less than eight hours.

So I’m retiring the Book Radar column, and instead we’ll continue to highlight interesting books in the Week’s Best Book Reviews feature, it’ll just be after they come out. (And no, this isn’t the world’s worst April fool’s joke.)

REVIEW: Words of Radiance

[This high fantasy novel is the latest C4 Great Read. Find the first book in the series here.]

words-of-radiance

Author: Brandon Sanderson

2014, Tor

Filed under: Fantasy

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 10
Depth..... 8

[This review is entirely spoiler-free. Maybe even to a fault.]

I picked up The Way of Kings, the first book in this series, almost at random, looking for a long audiobook. The Way of Kings clocked in at over 45 hours, and after finishing it, I pre-ordered Words of Radiance, and when it came out earlier this month, I ripped through all 48 hours in eighteen days.

Sanderson is a rare talent, and this series is a rare accomplishment even for him—I’ve read the first books of two of his other series, and they don’t compare. In short, I’d recommend this book to just about anybody, but especially to those who like Game of Thrones, or Lord of the Rings, or any other epic fantasy. 
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The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 3/20/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]

 

broken-roadThe Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh FermorReviewed by Katherine A. Powers at the Barnes & Noble Review.

The recently (posthumously) published travel memoir finishes a trilogy of books that cover a trip taken 80 years ago, when Fermor was a teenager. Fittingly, the ineptitude of memory to do justice to the past is one of the book’s big themes. Otherwise, this is what you’d expect: the final book by a legendary travel writer. The Wall Street Journal also reviewed it, featuring a bit more personal history.

 

Long Man, by Amy GreeneReviewed by Ron Charles at the Washington Post.

Charles contemplatively reviews this seemingly slow-paced book about a small town in 1936 that becomes doomed to slowly flood when Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority dams the nearby Long Man River. Against that backdrop, a young girl goes missing and her mother desperately searches for her. Charles calls it “an engrossing blend of raw tension and gorgeous reflection.”

 

The Wherewithal, by Philip SchultzReviewed by Adam Plunkett at the New York Times.

Plunkett simultaneously disembowels this book, and seems impressed by its power. It’s an illustrated novel in verse about various horrors witnessed by a young Polish man during World War II. Plunkett describes its lyricality as “almost mock-poetry” and says it functions poorly as both a novel and a poem. Yet, the theme of the book is that such art and artifice becomes meaningless or worse in the face of such widespread trauma. I honestly can’t tell if Plunkett winds up recommending The Wherewithal or not.

 

In brief: Colson Whitehead maintains his membership in excellent standing at the Pretentious Writers Club. … Russell Brand continues to rail against all institutions except those that pay him.The LA Times’s spring books preview. … Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl sounds like a book full of intense realism, often too much for comfort. … It’s a “silver age” for older writers (beware puns ahead). …

REVIEW: Galveston

galvestonAuthor: Nic Pizzolatto

2010, Scribner

Filed under: Thriller, Literary

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 3
Depth..... 7

I don’t know what happened to Nic Pizzolatto, but I’m sorry about it.

This is the most distressing novel I’ve ever read. I don’t mean it’s the most violent, although there is some gut-churningly intense violence. I mean the effect of reading this novel is that of having a heavy weight of despair slowly suffocate you. By the end, I was emotionally exhausted and long since ready for it to be over.

That’s not such a far cry from Pizzolato’s more well-known work, HBO’s True Detective, which airs the final episode of its first season on Sunday. That show might be the finest mystery drama I’ve experienced in any medium. It features a tangled mystery at its core, but with a bleak, bizarre, and disjointed telling of that mystery. True Detective’s characters are outstanding, simultaneously unlikeable wrecks of humanity, and fascinating, magnetic alter-heroes boasting a uniqueness rarely seen in a police procedural.

While Galveston has a few of the same tics, and a lot of similarly great prose, as True Detective, its premise isn’t nearly as captivating and its ending is more devastating than satisfying or anything else.
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Books Radar: March 2014

[This monthly feature is a brief look at interesting upcoming books. These are not reviews, these are previews; we have not read these books. Follow Book Radar here. Click the title links to find more info about these books.]


Definitely

brunist-day-of-wrathThe Brunist Day of Wrath, by Robert Coover (out 3/25)

Coover stands out as not only a postmodernist experimenter in the vein of Barth and Barthelme, but also a writer capable of infusing his experiments with the warmth and character of more traditional story-telling. Dave talked about Coover’s crazy book about a fantasy baseball league here. And Coover’s foray into genre territory, Noir, was one of my own favorite books of 2010. This new novel is the long-awaited sequel to Coover’s debut, The Origin of the Brunists. It clocks in at a staggering 1100 pages but promises “a scathing indictment of fundamentalism.” And it sounds like a perfect fit for my “really long audiobooks” reading program.

 

blazing-worldBlazing World, by Siri Hustvedt (out 3/11)

Hustvedt’s sixth novel follows a no-name female artist who suddenly gets great reviews when she launches a series of shows under a male pseudonym. Then there’s also a murder involved, and the whole thing is told as a series of found texts. Hustvedt herself is getting great reviews for this book, so it sounds like a risky premise that she’s pulled off.


shotgun-lovesongsShotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler (out 3/4)

The premise sounds like off-the-shelf debut lit novel fare: four friends, having grown up together and moved away, now move back to their hometown and sort through their issues. It’s hard to tell from the flap copy whether there’s a single dark secret they’re uncovering (which wouldn’t be too original, but would be better than the alternative), or just the “strong, American stuff” that usually turns out to be boring. However, I can’t ignore tons of great early reviews, most of which are already crowning Butler as an all-time great novelist. I would settle for a good book.


all-our-namesAll Our Names, by Dinaw Mengetsu (out 3/4)

Speaking of buzzed-about authors, Mengetsu is on just about every “under” list there is: the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 and the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. He’s also been the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant and a whole host of other awards. This new novel has gotten a mixed response, which might not be a surprise for a writer working in the controversial political novel tradition of “Naipaul, Greene, and Achebe.” The book’s about a pair of friend who grow up during an African revolution. Worth a try, at the very least.

 


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The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 2/26/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]

 

burnable-bookA Burnable Book, by Bruce HolsingerReviewed by Ron Charles at the Washington Post.

Evidently this book stars Geoffrey “perced to the roote” Chaucer as the hero of a thriller. The story, rife with murders and prostitutes, revolves around a book that seems to prophesy the deaths of kings. Holsinger is a Guggenheim-winning Chaucer scholar who might just have turned in a legitimately compelling novel. Charles’s review is typically entertaining, though it bogs down a bit through the slightly convoluted plot synopsis—hard to tell if that’s Charles’s fault or Holsinger’s. In any case, if you like Dan Brown’s style of mystery but hate everything about his writing (as I do), this could be the next book for you.

 

Strange Bodies, by Marcel TherouxReviewed by Alan Cheuse at the Dallas Morning News.

Theroux (the son of famed travel writer Paul Theroux) has written a literary-ish novel about the creation of a “mankurt” or a kind of golem. Twists and turns abound; the short review doesn’t quite detail these, but Cheuse does say that “genre-writing for the literary connoisseur,” a proclamation that I find intriguing, but one that should always be taken with a grain of salt.

 

One More Thing, by B.J. NovakReviewed by Teddy Wayne at the New York Times.

Wayne fails to sell me on Novak’s book (a collection of 64 vignettes of roughly 4 pages each), but it’s an amusing review. This was my favorite line: “The melancholy sensibility and verbal élan elevate Novak’s book beyond a small-beer exercise in clever monkeyshines and into a stiff literary cocktail.”

 

In brief: Amtrak now has free “residencies” for writers who like to write on trains. Bizarre but possibly genius marketing. … I’ll bet this guy has already put in his Amtrak residency application. … USA Today is a bit too free with its 3.5 star reviews. … Dan Brown’s Inferno was the best-selling book in 2013. It’s awful. Here’s my podcast review.

REVIEW: Dominion

dominionAuthor: CJ Sansom

2014, Mantle

Filed under: Historical, Literary, Thriller

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 5
Depth..... 7

I’m still on my audiobook kick, and I’m still sorting potential titles by length. Dominion weighs in at a solid 21 hours, or just over 700 pages in print. In an odd way, that’s its downfall: length. If this were a short novel, or better yet a short story, its side-story plot arc would be interesting, if still not worth all the world-building. As it is, this is a very well-written alternate history novel that manages to realistically document a quite boring back corner of an epic war.

The premise, or at least the advertised premise, is a great one. In 1940, in real life, when Neville Chamberlain stepped down as prime minister of Britain, Winston Churchill became prime minister, and led Britain and the free world to stand up against the Nazis.

In Dominion, when Chamberlain steps down, Edward Halifax is made prime minister instead. Halifax immediately surrenders to the Nazis and Britain becomes a territory of the Third Reich. Churchill goes into hiding and leads a far-reaching Resistance against the occupation of the Nazis. The first chapter of the book depicts that pivotal moment in history with vivid realism and gravitas befitting it.

Unfortunately, that’s almost the only time we see Churchill in the entire novel, and it’s the last time the actual action in the book matches up with the enormous scale invoked by writing an alternate history of World War II.
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The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 2/5/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]

 

triple-packageThe Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, by Jed Rubenfeld and Amy ChuaReviewed by Hector Tobar at the L.A. Times.

Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother rose to controversial fame on its simple, racist thesis that “Chinese mothers are superior.” Now Chua has teamed up with her husband to controversially explore racism in another book, this one about why certain “national-origin groups” are more successful than others. Tobar gratifyingly dismantles this drek, which he calls “sloppy” and “shallow.” It’s a fun ride.

 

For Today I Am a Boy: A Novel, by Kim FuReviewed by Jiayang Fan at the New York Times.

The only precious son in a Chinese-American family of daughters desperately longs to be a girl. That’s a simple but surprisingly compelling premise.

 

The News: A User’s Manual, by Alain de BottonReviewed by Ian Jack at the Guardian.

De Botton retains credentials both as an approachable modern “philosopher” (by publishing yet another slight volume about a narrow subject) and one of the world’s most condescending assholes (that subtitle, blech). Jack wrangles with him well, taking him to task for Gladwellian simplifications and obfuscations, ultimately finding it propagandish and far from thorough.

 

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, by Jennifer SeniorReviewed by Andrew Solomon at the New York Times.

I’m not sure exactly how useful parenting books are to childless people—probably about as much use as my set of Perfect Pushups are to me. Still, the review is a bit interesting. It seems Senior’s book takes a semi-historical view of parenting, tracking the time when children went “from being our employees to our bosses” as she writes. I take exception to the notion that parents are happier than people without children, but Senior does caveat that they are also more miserable. Plus, I find the title intriguing. Not enough to, you know, read the book, but intriguing.

 

In brief: Well, it’s been 5 months since the last Joyce Carol Oates novel, time for a new one. … Marilyn Stasio calls Isabel Allende’s mystery novel “ungainly,” “eccentric,” “thoroughly charming,” and “a lot of fun to read.” … A film institute is publishing Charlie Chaplin’s novel sixty years after he wrote it.David L. Ulin writes about William S. Burroughs on the occasion of his 100th birthday. … That guy from the office wrote a book of stories (not him, the other guy… no the other other guy).

Book Radar: February 2014

[This monthly feature is a brief look at interesting upcoming books. These are not reviews, these are previews; we have not read these books. Follow Book Radar here. Click the title links to find more info about these books.]

 

Some craziness around the holidays (including a Boston blizzard that caused me to miss a flight to a wedding) prevented me from writing the January version of this column, so let’s catch up this month.


Definitely

barkBark: Stories, by Lorrie Moore (out 2/25)

New stories by Lorrie Moore, one of the funniest living writers, period. I don’t even have anything else to say in this blurb, because I didn’t bother to read anything else about the collection before I put it in the number 1 spot for the month. If you’ve never read Moore, start with Self-Help. Maybe the funniest and most original debut story collection ever.


badluck-wayBadluck Way, by Bryce Andrews (out now)

“Mine might have been a simple, pretty story, if not for the wolves. In late July, they emerged from the foothills . . .” That’s a hell of a first line. This memoir about life on a Montana ranch sounds like a ragged modern western. Sold.


annihilationAnnihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer (out 2/2)

I’m not on board with the first volume of a trilogy weighing in at a scant 208 pages. Why not write one 600-page book? It stinks a bit of squeezing three books’ worth of money out of a single book’s worth of writing. But I can’t ignore the early reviews, which are uniformly glowing. The story follows a secret expedition to a geographically vague location called Area X, where many previous expeditions have met their doom. There are colorful characters, including a leader with hypnotic powers, and a bizarre landscape to tackle, featuring such things as a fungus spore that bestows ESP. All in all, a decidedly supernatural, and probably highly stylized, tale of espionage and conspiracy.


dominionDominion, by CJ Sansom (out now)

I’m not usually one for speculative fiction, but this WWII alternate history—in which Germany won, the UK is a willing Third Reich territory, and Winston Churchill leads the resistance—sounds epic enough to be fun. And it’s available on Audible, which is my new kryptonite.



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