Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary MercyBefore we start, let me say that this is the last book of a trilogy and as such I am probably going to spoil important plot points for the first two books. If you haven’t read any of these books but are interested in the phrase “person who used to be a space ship”, go back and read the first book, Ancillary Justice, and I’ll see you when you’ve caught up to this one. For those who have read the series, or those who just like to read my ramblings, let’s talk about this last book!

I mentioned when I read the second book, Ancillary Sword, that I loved the first book’s intrigue and subterfuge and fast-moving plot but preferred the second book’s lazier attitude toward the whole gender-as-a-language-construct thing. Interestingly, this book goes back to the high-stakes adventure but also falls back into close scrutiny, not of language this time but of the relationship between a Ship as an entity and its ancillaries or faux ancillaries, leading to a lot of “Kalr Five said, no, Ship said” remarks that are largely unnecessary. So, ups and downs.

We keep the intrigue and subterfuge bits, picking up more or less where the second book left off with the rebuilding of the Undergarden and the political process of smoothing all appropriate feathers to just allow the same people who lived there before to live there again. Ah, the sweet smell of gentrification.

The action part in this novel is driven by the arrival on Athoek Station of Anaander Mianaai, or, you know, part of her or whatever, and Breq’s (our person who used to be a spaceship) desire to have all parts of her dead. To get this done Breq undoes most of the damage that Anaander has done to the various Ship and Station AIs and sort of… liberates them in the process.

That liberation leads to the moral crux of the novel, which is whether artificial intelligence is sort of the same as regular intelligence and how we treat ships (and, say, people) that we view as part of the furniture and the casual, uh, ship-ism?, that all humans participate in whether they realize it or have realization forced upon them.

I enjoyed the heck out of this book, nearly as much as I did the first installment. The balance between action and thinkyness is nearly perfect, save for the repetitive bits and a little bit at the end when everything wraps up (-ish), and of course I could probably read about Breq reading the phone book and find it absolutely fascinating. She’s a person! Who used to be a spaceship! Who used to be a person! Aaaah, I love the conceit of this series.

Ahem. If you’ve read and liked the other books, and especially if you were a little down on the second one for being a bit slow, you will definitely enjoy this book. If you haven’t read the other books, what are you waiting for (besides the library to open)?

Recommendation: For fans of this series, thinky space dramas, and books about human faults sneakily disguised as SCIENCE!

Rating: 9/10 (with partial bonus points for being an awesome series)

Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell

Carry OnYou know, I’m not really sure why I bother try to find other books like Rainbow Rowell’s books, when Rowell’s books are amazing and wonderful and I could probably read a couple of them thirty-six more times each and have the next few years of my reading life covered.

Carry On comes out of one of those beloved books, Fangirl, in which the main character is writing an epic fanfiction called Carry On, Simon, about a Harry-Potter-esque wizard and his Draco-Malfoy-esque nemesis/crush object. Carry On is unfortunately not that fanfiction, which I presume would never have gotten past the editors, but is instead Rowell’s version of what the last Simon Snow book might look like if indeed Simon and Baz discovered their true feelings for each other.

Confused? Don’t even worry about it. The whole book is just so dang adorable you will forget that you have no idea what’s going on.

I won’t summarize the plot, because it’s basically “Insert Standard Harry-Potter-Esque Story Line Here”, but I will say it takes that SHPESL and does some fun stuff with it. The wizarding world gets to have vampires but it doesn’t get Quidditch, instead having the wizards play soccer like normal people. The spells in this world are the best, all based on commonly-used phrases and catchphrases like “some like it hot” “Scooby-Dooby-Doo, where are you!”, and also you have to watch out that your spells don’t go too literal and, say, set everything on fire.

It also does some dark stuff with the SHPESL, giving us a Dumbledore of dubious trustworthiness and also a Big Bad who is far more existentially terrifying than any Voldemort. My bestie and I, who bonded over the Bartimaeus trilogy and its better-than-HP ending, agree that Carry On‘s ending is also obviously superior and obviously more depressing, just as it should be.

And then, of course, there’s the Simon/Baz romance, which is just so perfectly teenagery with the longing and the missed connections and the misunderstandings and the complete insecurity and although I do not miss those days my teenage heart is happy to relive them from the comfort of the future. There is just a little bit of angst over whether Simon is gay or gay for Baz or what, and it’s kind of nice that Rowell mostly gets that out of the way and lets everyone get back to stalking vampires and solving magical mysteries.

Basically, I loved this book, which I read in one sitting, curled up inside on a perfectly nice day. The only problem is that now I’m caught up on Rainbow Rowell again and I don’t even know when her next book will come out!

Recommendation: For fans of Rowell, Harry Potter, and adorable fan fiction.

Rating: 9/10

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl DreamingI had heard all the good things about this book, but I was hesitant to read it because I have an irrational mental block against both memoir and poetry. I know, I know. I’ve had some success lately with memoir on audio, though, so when I saw this was available on OverDrive, read by Woodson herself, and also very short, I figured it couldn’t hurt to give it a try.

It did not hurt. It was actually quite wonderful.

The audiobook definitely helped, as Woodson’s poetry is free verse and so the book sounds like a regular memoir most of the time. But the audio also makes the poetry part so much better because you can hear where Woodson breaks her lines and where she wants the emphasis and I’m looking at the print version right now and it’s just not the same. There are a few poems where the spacing and italics and the white space in the print version have their own sort of gorgeousness to them, but overall I am very glad I chose to listen to this.

Oh, what’s the book about, you ask? Right. Well, it’s a memoir, of course, of Woodson’s childhood growing up briefly in Ohio and then primarily in South Carolina and Brooklyn in the height of the civil rights era.

“I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital
Columbus, Ohio,
USA—
a country caught

between Black and White.”

Those are the first lines of the first poem in the book, and they set the stage for what’s to come. Woodson and her siblings grow up with a Southern mother and Northern father and feel the strain of that geographical divide no matter where they’re living. In South Carolina they live with their mother’s family in their mother’s home, but even their mother is wary of their lives there. As a Northern transplant to a very Southern part of Florida, I was startled to hear these words coming out of my car speakers:

“Never ma’am—just yes, with eyes
meeting eyes enough to show respect.
Don’t ever ma’am anyone!
The word too painful
a memory for my mother
of not-so-long-ago
southern subservient days . . .”

That first part is absolute crazy talk in my neck of the woods, where a forgotten “ma’am” gets even grown adults in trouble. “Ma’am” and “sir” have become so ingrained in my vocabulary that it’s hard to imagine anyone purposely not saying them, but of course it makes perfect sense in the context of the time.

And that’s how most of the poems go — they’re mostly short, some very short, reflections on mostly normal events like moving and going to school and making and keeping friends, but they’re all imbued with history, whether the history of Jacqueline Woodson or her family or the South or the whole country.

It’s a beautiful book and if you are on the fence about it for any reason, please do give it a try, especially in audio. You probably won’t regret it.

Recommendation: For everyone, really.

Rating: 9/10

Black Dove, White Raven, by Elizabeth Wein

Black Dove, White RavenSo continues my love affair with Elizabeth Wein. If she could just write YA fiction about every historical event, ever, I would know SO MUCH world history. I managed to learn new things about World War II in her first two books, but this book absolutely astounded me with all the history I didn’t even know I didn’t know.

See, it turns out that there were not one, but two wars between Ethiopia and Italy, one at the end of the 19th century and one right before the start of World War II. In fact, the second Italo-Ethiopian war may have helped give Hitler the confidence to go invade all the places, because it showed that the League of Nations was really bad at its job. Italy didn’t even bother pretending to play nice, bringing in planes to fight against spear-carriers and dropping mustard gas in spite of a little thing called the Geneva Convention.

Against this backdrop we have the story of Emilia and Teo, the respective children of White Raven and Black Dove, an interracial female barnstorming duo. Emilia’s dad is Italian, Teo’s dad was Ethiopian, and they and their parents lived together in the US until Teo’s mother died in a plane accident. Teo’s mother had wanted everyone to move to Ethiopia, where Teo and Emilia could play together without all the wonderful US racism, so when that option presents itself, Emilia’s mother moves everyone over. Then the war starts, slowly but surely, and things go very wrong.

The novel is written sort of end-first, opening with a letter from Emilia to Haile Selassie begging for a passport for Teo after these very wrong things have happened. Then, through essays and “flight logs” and diary entries we get the full story.

In that story lies all the learning stuff. There’s lots of history, of course, but also quite a bit of sociology. There’s talk about religion and spirituality and their role in each character’s life, and there’s also a look into the prejudices of society. It’s absolutely fascinating to look at racism and sexism and classism in both the US and Ethiopia at this time and see how they intersect. And then of course there’s flying and action and adventure and it’s all so exciting!

I do have to admit that the diary conceit only just barely holds this novel together, as I found myself constantly thinking, “Wait, why is she showing all of this stuff to the emperor? How does she think this particular story is going to get Teo a passport? How is she remembering all this heavy dialogue with such accuracy?” I like the immediacy and intimacy of the diary conceit, and I think Wein does great things with it, but it definitely needed a better frame story.

But, whatever, I loved the heck out of this book and I found myself between breaks thinking, “I hope everyone’s okay! I hope no one dies! Someone’s going to die, but I hope it’s not anyone I’ve grown fond of!” My coworker did not quite understand my concern, but I’m sure some of you do! I cannot wait to see what Wein’s got up her sleeve next.

Recommendation: For fans of Wein’s other work (Code Name Verity I love you!) and also history and planes and excitement.

Rating: 9/10

The Boy Next Door, by Meg Cabot

The Boy Next DoorStop number two on my quest to find an adorable Attachments-like romance novel! This one was recommended by a friend based on the fact that it is told entirely in emails, which make up a large portion of Attachments as well, and probably also based on the fact that it’s super sarcastic. I gave it a shot on a lazy mid-week day off, and ended up devouring it in one sitting.

This is one of those perfect, brain-candy, let’s-not-think-too-hard-today books, which I highly recommend for a lazy mid-week day off. It is highly implausible and ridiculous, but in a delightful way.

Here’s the story: our protagonist, Mel, is a gossip columnist for a New York City newspaper (think Post rather than Times) who is late to work one day because she finds her next-door neighbor nearly dead in her apartment. Mel is primarily concerned with making sure her neighbor’s pets are taken care of, so she shoots off an email to her neighbor’s only known relative, a nephew called Max Friedlander who is a quasi-famous photographer. Said photographer, however, is in the midst of an eyebrow-waggling vacation with a super-hot model, so he enlists his favor-owing friend John to go watch the pets, and more importantly pretend to be Max so that when Aunt Helen wakes up she won’t disinherit her nephew for being the ass that he actually is.

But I said this is a romance novel, right, so of course as soon as John arrives on the scene he knows that Mel is the girl for him and can’t hold off until the charade is over to begin wooing her. He’s not sure how long he can keep up the deception, since not only is he, you know, not Max Friedlander, he’s also a journalist for Mel’s paper’s biggest competitor and also also a member of the Trent family, who are big enough in society that a gossip columnist just might run into them…

Crazy, right? And super snark-tastic, since it is told in emails largely sent between friends and relatives who all have a similar dry sense of humor. But it’s also super adorable, as John and Mel are in fact perfect for each other (they love blues music and natural disasters alike) and they are sooooo cute and you know the whole thing’s going to come crashing down but you’re pretty sure it’s going to be okay but you don’t know how. Ahem.

I only had one problem with this book, and I know I said it’s a don’t-think-too-hard book and I know I was totally willing to go with the identity-switching and I understand that the book was written in 2002, but seriously, these people are terrible at email! They are constantly signing off emails abruptly as though they were telephone calls, as though they couldn’t leave their AOL open for just a few extra minutes to go answer the door or whatever when other emails to them indicate that they are happy to tie up the phone line for ages otherwise. And, worse, they are sending all of their ridiculousness through their work emails (well, John partially excepted) like people who want to get fired. At one point a police officer sends John totally confidential files and warns John not to tell anyone he sent them. SO WHY DID YOU SEND A WRITTEN RECORD OMGWTF. I don’t know, maybe all this made sense in 2002 when I was mostly using my email to send out surveys to my high-school friends, but now that my own work emails are public record I am hyperventilating over here.

Right, so, anyway, other than that longer-than-expected rant, I super duper enjoyed this book. And it’s the start of a series full of snarky email exchanges! Huzzah!

Recommendation: For fans of epistolary novels, wacky misunderstandings, and relationships based entirely on lies.

Rating: 9/10

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth SeasonAfter reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms at the beginning of the year, I knew I was going to end up reading more of this amazing author, but I also knew it would take a while because her books require some serious thinky thoughts, both for the content and the style. I had thought to just read her books in chronological order, catching up to her current book sometime in the next decade, but when I saw the advance copy of this one I just couldn’t help myself.

Let’s just say it’s a really good thing I’ve got almost the entirety of Jemisin’s backlist to go through, because otherwise I might die from the wait for the next book in this series. Give it! Give it now!

There is a LOT going on in this book, so if you’re like my coworker whose eyes glazed over after I got to, like, the third plot point, you may want to just skip this post and move on with your life. Also, a lot of the magic of this book is the fact that you know almost nothing at the beginning and then Jemisin parcels it out to you as necessary, so if you want that experience, skip this post and then go read the heck out of this book and then come back and talk to me about it.

For everyone else, I will do my best to explain.

The world: I guess it’s Earth, definitely a future Earth if so, where there’s one giant continent that everyone lives on that is full of seismic activity. The shakes caused by all this do the normal damage we’re used to from earthquakes, but also every once in a while a huge shake will cause a fifth season, during which the sky is covered in ash and the world is messed up for a good long while before things get back to normal. Also in this world are people who can sense and control seismic activity, and they’re called orogenes or, if you’re feeling offensive, roggas. Most non-orogenic people feel offensive.

The plot: The world is ending, due to one very disillusioned dude. A woman named Essun comes home to find her son murdered by her husband and her husband and daughter nowhere to be found. She sets off to find them. A girl named Damaya, who is an orogene, is given up by her parents and sent to the Fulcrum, a sort of military school for training up dangerous orogenes (read: all of them) to be useful members of society (read: slaves). A woman named Syenite, who is a member of said Fulcrum, is sent off on a dual mission with a much more powerful orogene — first, to clear out a harbor, and second, to get pregnant and make another powerful orogene for the Fulcrum’s use.

The deeper meaning: This book is, as you may guess, about systematic oppression. The dedication in my advance copy is “For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question.” It’s some heavy stuff. If you can’t sess the race metaphor inherent in the orogene’s lives, don’t worry, this world is also obsessed with literal race and looks, with much commentary on how people look and whether they conform to breeders’ specifications (no, really).

The writing: I love it. I love it so much. About a third of the book is written in the second person, and I was iffy about that in the beginning, but you (ha) get used to it pretty quickly. As I said before, Jemisin dishes out most of what I told you very slowly over the course of the whole novel, through the chapters from each of the three women and also through some interruptions from the narrator to explain a few things, although these bits explain nothing and just leave you with more questions. Which is awesome.

Can you be an author fangirl after only reading two of her six books? If not, no worries, I’ll just be over here reading everything this woman’s ever written.

Recommendation: For fans of Jemisin, high-concept fantasy, books that make you think all the thinks.

Rating: 10/10

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

The Paying GuestsIt’s no secret that I love me some Sarah Waters, so when my dear friend Amy picked this book for our book club I was super excited. I looked at the high page count, figured it would take me about two weeks to read it on breaks at work, and started it at the appropriate time.

And then I finished it in one week, on breaks at work, and I was like, oh no, what am I going to do for a WHOLE WEEK while I wait for book club? Thank goodness there are other books in the world!

So yes, it seems like a long book, but it’s a super quick read, at least once it gets going. We start by meeting our protagonist, a Miss Wray, who lives with her mother in England in 1922. The war having taken the rest of their family in one way or another, the Wrays are a bit down on their luck and so have decided to let out most of their upstairs floor to lodgers, or, if we’re being polite, “paying guests.” What a strange way of being polite.

Anyway, said guests, the Barbers are a young married couple who don’t terribly much like each other but what are you gonna do in England in 1922 except stay unhappily married? Well, if you’re a lady in a Sarah Waters book (spoiler? Probably not…) you are going to have a love affair with your lady landlord. A very sexy love affair. Which I read on breaks at work. I rather recommend against that…

Miss Wray and Mrs. Barber spend most of the book sneaking off and having assignations and generally having fun, but then, because again, Sarah Waters, things go terribly horribly wrong and the tone of the book becomes completely different and I kind of actually liked this part of the book better because it had more semblance of plot and excitement but really the whole thing is super great.

I love the way Waters plays with her characters, making them seem sort of one-note at first but then delving slowly into the backstories that have brought them to this place in the novel. I also love how well she sets her scenes; I felt throughout the novel like I knew exactly how the house was set up and where everyone was at a given time so I knew just how worried to be about the things that were happening in one room or another. And, of course, I enjoyed the sneaky history lessons I got here with respect to post-war sentiment, being a lesbian at that time, the English legal system, and especially class structures and conflicts.

There is a lot going on in this book, is what I’m saying, and it’s lovely and wonderful and you should probably go read this immediately. But not at work. It’s weird at work.

Recommendation: For fans of Sarah Waters, lesbian love affairs, and gorgeous writing.

Rating: 9/10