Reading Round-Up: 22nd July, 2016

I recently completed a five-thousand kilometre drive, and spent a bunch of that drive catching up on my to-read list. I’d been hearing, from that Kermit-the-frog-alike who does the ads on NPR’s This American Life, that Audible was some fancypants place to get audiobooks. Turns out it’s a monthly subscription, but they give you one book credit per month and then a well-discounted price on all other audiobooks. It ended up being cheaper than buying all the books through iTunes or somewhere else, and it would be a decent value if you listen to more than one audiobook a month.

Also, when you try to cancel your Audible subscription (I don’t intend to keep doing five-thousand kilometre drives, after all), they offer to discount your subscription rate by 50% for three months. Hot savings tip for all you weirdo literary audiophiles!

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Ann Leckie — Ancillary Sword

I thought Leckie’s Ancillary Justice was pretty spectacular, except for the fact that very late in the book, it became clear the story was going to get drawn out into sequels. This is a universe with AIs that run huge ships and their crews all at once, an emperor who is physically all over the galaxy at the same time, and a human race that is almost unquestionably the bad guys. Lots to love. Like every other genre book these days, it turns out there’s a trilogy. Part two is called Ancillary Sword, and picks up where Justice left off, with Breq (a ship AI who has been constrained into a single human body) taking over as a human captain of a ship. The first book worked well for a lot of reasons beyond the awesome ideas: it was a revenge story, it jumped between present-day and flashback with every chapter, and there was a strong narrative push toward the finish line. So while Justice was paced like a thriller or action piece, Sword plays out like an episode of Star Trek. Its main currencies are political intrigue, socioeconomic metaphors, and interpersonal conflicts. The universe Leckie has built is still fantastic, there are plenty of good ideas and characters on offer, but ultimately the second book felt a little aimless, or at least missing the drive that made the first book so compelling. I still had a good time and will read the third one, though.

 

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David Mitchell — Slade House

I really enjoyed Mitchell’s previous book, The Bone Clocks, especially in its final, post-apocalyptic section. His new little book, Slade House, is a novella set within the same world/rules/parameters of The Bone Clocks, so if you want more weirdo semi-immortal good vs. evil in your life, you can find it here. Slade House is set up as a ghost story, with repeated visitors to the Slade House encountering malevolent forces. For the first three sections, there is a great reveal of information, with each cycle giving the reader a little bit more. By the end, it suffers the same major problems as Bone Clocks, in that it dwells on the rules of the supernatural forces, the lingo, and forgoes the human story in favour of what occasionally borders on Harry Potter fan fiction. Still, it’s compellingly written, most of it is enjoyable in an old-fashioned horror sense, and if you’re a total Mitchell nerd, there’s at least one character you’ll be happy to see again. First-time readers of Mitchell will probably be disappointed with the last section of the book, though.

 

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China Miéville — Embassytown

Holy hell, this starts as one thing and ends as another. Brilliant science fiction set-up: an intergalactic wanderer returns to her “home”, a frontier world on the edge of navigable space. The locals are bizarre aliens with many limbs and “eye corals”, who build biomechanical cities and wares to trade. They also use language in a completely unique way, and our protagonist happens to be a simile within their language. What starts as a reflection on semiotics, with the greatest threat being the introduction of lying into a species that is currently incapable of it, descends at the halfway point into a monster movie. If this turn had happened in the climax, it would have been a horrific, fantastic devolution and appropriately terrifying. Instead, the book turns into a story about siege and attrition, with most of the supporting cast and interesting aspects (intergalactic travel, for example) sloughed off in favour of zombie-like monsters ravaging the human colony. As the monstrous half went on and on, I missed the first half more and more. All in all, plenty of interesting ideas, a fantastic first half, but ultimately disappointing in its shape and construction. The more I read Miéville, the more I think I’m being unfair, trying to get something from him that he doesn’t usually write: his book The City & The City was pretty neat and the right length, and his short story Reports of Certain Events in London blew me away, but neither seem to be his usual mode.

 

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Neil Gaiman — The Ocean at the End of the Lane

This is perhaps Gaiman’s best written prose story. As a fairweather fan of his work, loving his comics (in particular the Sandman series) but often not loving his prose, it’s always a treat to see his fantastic ideas of myth, gods, endlessness, and the interactions between mortals and deities get presented in a sharp, eloquent way. This is as close as Gaiman has gotten to writing a coming-of-age tale, with a misunderstood boy, his new girl friend, their adventures, and a broadening understanding of the adult world, his parents, and his future. The book’s best quality is the real lingering bittersweetness to it, the quiet defeats of adulthood juxtaposed against the enormous mystery of childhood. The three women he meets, a family that might as well be named the Fates, offer just enough otherworldliness but without drowning in unnecessary exposition (looking at you up there, Mitchell). Because I recently listened to Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, I mistook Ocean as being another episodic tale and didn’t recognize the first antagonist in the story (a pathetic ghost creature) as the antagonist, so I felt a bit deflated with the main arc of conflict. Still, in many ways, this story of gods and ghosts has as much to say about understanding the incomprehensible world of adults as any traditional realist Bildungsroman. Worth a read.

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