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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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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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REVIEW: Path of Valor: A Marine’s Story

Author: George Derryberrypath-of-valor-a-marines-story

2013, CreateSpace Independent Publishing

Filed Under: Short-Run, Nonfiction

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

Like every other American born around the time Hitler was invading Poland, I have some very concrete memories of World War II. Rationing. Victory Gardens. Kneading a button of yellow dye into a bagful of grease to create “butter.” Rebecca Tansil, my parents’ good friend, looking perky in the uniform of a high-ranking WAVE officer. My uncle John Hammond, Army Air Force, flying 18 missions over Europe. But my only specific memory of the Marines was howling “From halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli” while my elementary school’s vice principal thumped a tiny upright piano during weekly assemblies. (He made every student of Margaret Brent  School #53 learn all the words to all the armed forces’ songs–“shell-shocked,” some whispered.) I even remember how we stumbled, singing the Marine song, when suddenly “in the land and on the sea” morphed into “in air, on land, on sea.”

What a person remembers first and finally about huge global events is probably always made up of details like that, come to think about it. That’s what makes Path of Valor so rich an account.  Every page bears the stamp, the fingerprint, of one individual, H. C. Ayres, and how “Ayresie” experienced the war.  
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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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REVIEW: The White Rail

Author: Clarinda Harriss

2014, Half Moon Editions

Filed Under: Literary

white rail

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

Reading Clarinda Harriss’s fiction is like reading another version of Laura Lippman’s and Anne Tyler’s Baltimores mixed up together, from the genteel dilapidation of old Baltimore to the dangerous underbelly of the city’s streets. The White Rail is a slender volume, precious as a poetry collection, consisting of six stories, all set in Baltimore or nearby.

Harriss is first and foremost a poet, and her stories brim with a love of language, the sound of it, spoken by her characters (“Sista, you got some junk in yo trunk,” a random voice says in “The Vinegar Drunker.); the sounds of words together (“…lesbian sex poems whose I’s and S’s send the readers’ tongues licking and lapping like lascivious lovers.”); she wallows gleefully in their rhymes, their rhythms, the derivation and evolution of words.  Indeed, two of the stories, “In the House” and “Bone to Bone,” might accurately be said to be about poetry.  In both, Harriss considers the tension between the everyday street rhythms of spoken language and the metric requirements of formal verse.  “Bone to Bone,” a weird tale of “identity theft” regarding a Pulitzer Prize-winning black female poet, highlights the tension between vernacular poetry, its jazz rhythms, off-rhymes, and the formal verse structures of the traditions of English literature, Elizabethan sonnets, Metaphysical poetry, etc.  “In the House” might be characterized as doing the same, but with regard to Emily Dickinson and African-American poets.
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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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REVIEW: Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy

Author: David Herrlesharon tate and the daughters of joy

2014, Time Being Books

Filed Under: Poetry

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 10

To say David Herrle’s new book, Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy, is about obsession is a real understatement, but it’s a good enough place to begin.  Herrle portrays and examines the excesses of violence to which lust drives men and the extremes of depravity that our zeal is used to justify.  The deaths of three beautiful women – Marie Antoinette, killed by the peasant mobs in the French Revolution, Mary Jane Kelly, the most comely of Jack the Ripper’s prostitute victims, and Sharon Tate, Manson’s gorgeous moviestar victim – are the focal point of these meditations.  Along the way, Herrle analyzes the nature of beauty and the aesthetics underlying beauty’s effects on our behavior.

But to describe Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy in this way makes the book sound dry and academic when the verse is related in a manic, lyrical speed-freak intense voice and generously laced with Joycean wordplay.   Moreover, the noir superhero ending gives the collection the quality of a dreamlike divine comedy.

But make no mistake, this is an impressively researched effort.  Each of the six sections is prefaced with a handful of quotations, serving as epigraphs, ranging from Moby-Dick to Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit, from Doctor Zhivago to W.H. Auden, and there’s a three-page list of suggested readings at the end that includes Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals (Remember Saul?  The guy Sarah Palin called a terrorist, accused Obama of “paling around” with?), Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, Nietzsche, Blake, Jacques Lacan and a laundry list of other famous thinkers.  Indeed, some of the poems address these people directly.  “President ‘Pontius Pilate’ Truman” addresses Carl Sagan, “Bhagavad Rita” is spoken to Rita Hayworth, “This Is What Democracy Looks Like, Princess de Lamballe”  is addressed to Marie Antoinette’s friend, who was executed by guillotine.
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REVIEW: The Alloway Files

allowayAuthor:  E.J. Roller

2013, New Stein Publishing House

Filed Under: Literary

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

Like Joseph Heller, E.J. Roller has a fine sense of the absurd.  The Catch-22 world she creates in The Alloway Files seethes with the bureaucratic insanity of a city public school system, pointless rules and procedures perpetuated for their own sake, a bleak, darkly humorous landscape against which her protagonist, Ellen Alloway, struggles so as not to sink “all the way” into it, indistinguishable as a drop of water in the ocean.

Roller sardonically describes “the dark gray of the four-lane road, the light gray of the sidewalks, the faded gray of the run-down rowhouses, the rumbling gray of the clouds above, and the ominous gray of the school headquarters behind her.”  And Ms. Alloway? “…her brain had already gone as gray as her surroundings.”  Employed by the public school system, Ms. Alloway has been banished to the “Temporary Reassignment Room,” for reasons that are unclear, even to her.   Like Captain John Yossarian before her, Alloway will nevertheless try to inject a sense of value into this world.  (Significantly, the novel is dedicated to “the un-reformed.”)
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REVIEW: Imperial

Author: George Bilgereimperial

2014, University of Pittsburgh Press

Filed Under: Poetry

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

In her backcover blurb, poet Dorrianne Laux succinctly nails George Bilgere’s new collection (in fact, pretty much all of his poetry), when she writes, “Tracing the arc of the Baby Boomer generation from cradle to grave, Bilgere’s poems paint a picture of American life that is equal parts sadness, matter-of-factness and hilarity….they tackle subjects such as aging, suburban routine, and the rise and subsequent fall of post-WWII America.” Bilgere’s poems are full of nostalgia and regret, but without a scintilla of self-pity or self-delusion.  All experiences in life are fleeting, full of a mix of emotions, from triumph to shame, exultation to repentance, valuable even as they may be ultimately without any real significance.

In “Attic Shapes,” a poem in which he is explaining to his wife (but really asking himself) why he bothers to hold onto the three cardboard boxes full of his dissertation notes, notes he knows he will never consult again, he likens these to other relics of the past, bound for the attic, his boxes of LPs, symbols of yet another period in his life (“my rebel period/of complicated post-adolescent unhappiness”); Bilgere observes that they represent a time “too terrible with loneliness and mystical confusion,/either to hear again or ever throw away.”  Closely observed, like amoeba under a microscope that blossom into dinosaurs, the ordinary experiences in an average lifetime represent so much more than their simple everydayness.

Take this reflection from “Journal,” a poem lamenting the slow relentlessness of aging, when he remembers a time he rented a golf cart, at age 58, noting it in his journal, “recognizing the enormity of this, the sorrow,/the hugeness of the moment in all its beautiful ordinariness/as it leaned so temporally/so irrecoverably against the void.”  This is at once elegiac and comic; he is talking about renting a golf cart, after all!
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REVIEW: Harvest

harvestAuthor: Jim Crace

2013, Nan A. Talese

Filed Under: Literary, Historical, Thriller

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

I’ve been sitting on this review for a couple of months now. That’s in part because I’ve been crazy busy, and in part because I really don’t have much to say about this book. I don’t mean that as a knock, Harvest is a quick and pleasurable read, a historical fiction quasi-thriller by a very talented author. It’s a good book, but in the end a pretty unremarkable one. So apologies ahead of time that this review is as much summary as anything.

Crace’s novel is set in a post-Medieval English barley-farming village, in the days immediately following the yearly harvest. Some youths get a little carried away in the festivities celebrating the occasion, and what was intended as a minor prank ends up burning down the barn of the property’s lord.

Their lord, however, is in the process of losing his rights to the land to an in-law’s inheritance claim, and the new guy is a Sheriff of Nottingham type, who wants to leave his impression upon the peasants swiftly and forcibly. So some drifters found on the outskirts of town are scapegoated, and punished for the boys’ crime.
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