Saturday, 31 December 2016

Top Ten Books of 2016!

The Dust Cover Dust-Up concludes with one final battle and a full list of my Top Ten books of the year.


The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin vs. Lila by Marilynne Robinson

At the very beginning of this tournament, I was pretty sure Lila would be there at the end. I knew I love The Shadowed Sun, but wasn't as confident how it would fare. I'm delighted with this final two, both of them truly great books. But it's the one that I knew from the beginning that takes the whole shebang.

Winner: Lila

Top Ten of 2016:

  1. Lila by Marilynne Robinson. This book took my breath away. I only have the experience of reading it after reading the first two books in the same world, but I think it would be almost as powerful without that knowledge. We jump back in time to meet the minister's wife before and after she met him, and it is strong, intricate, and requires an open heart.






2. The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin. Jemisin is very quickly becoming one of my favourite authors, and I read both books in this universe this year. It was the second that got me more than the first, but both are excellent. We return to this world of death magic and its costs, to societies in conflict with no clear lines of good guys and bad guys. A prince fights for an empire with a woman whose role he hates by his side, and whether or not the magic that has been discovered should be used is not an easy question.





  3. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. First novels should not be this good. The synopsis should not read so much like a thriller and yet be the furthest thing from it. An eldest daughter drowns in the lake, and everyone in her family has their own convictions about what happened, trying to piece together answers from what was left behind. It's sensitive and searing, particularly in looking at race and belonging in the 1970s.






4. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. A diary washes up on the shore of a British Columbia island, probably swept away by tsunami waves. A stymied author reads it while struggling with the book she's barely finished, and in a metafictional way, the act of reading becomes part of the narrative of the whole. It's beautiful and delicate, and I loved it a lot.







  5. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The story of how the world changed after a flu pandemic destroyed civilization as we know it, weaving back and forth from before to many, many years after, with theatre and the business of movies in the present, and a travelling Shakespearean troupe and orchestra in the future. Less nihilistic than many post-apocalyptic novels out there, it certainly doesn't offer easy answers, but the emphasis on what connects us really makes it stand out.





6. Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear. I'm not hugely fond of the titles of the books in this trilogy, but I love the books themselves! They are marvellously complex fantasy that is different from anything else I've read. Set in a version of the Mongol steppes, we have multiple cultures at play, particularly in patterns of marriage and the roles of women. And as this is a trilogy that leads inexorably to war, the many women characters let us see that experience through a different lens.





  7. Uprooted by Naomi Novik.  If you've read my reviews, you know I have a mile-wide weak spot for fairy tales. This book surprised me by being as good as it was about one of my favourite topics. (I haven't been a huge fan of Novik's Temeraire series.)  But here she stretches the story being told with the general parameters offered by the fairy tale form, and it's a delightful tale of different kinds of magic and an encroaching wood. 






8. City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett.  Of all the books I read and enjoyed this year, this one was the biggest surprise. I picked it up almost at random, and I had no particular reason to think it would be bad, but neither did I have a reason to think it would be this damned good. What starts as a murder mystery in a city where the gods were slain decades before turns into a fascinating examination of colonialism and the erasure of history.






  9. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie. I was devastated to knock this book out of the competition before the quarter finals, so I'm taking the opportunity to bring it back in now. All three books in this series are great. This just happens to be my favourite of the three, as the examination of power and culture comes into greater focus when you bring sexuality into the mix. It's science fiction of the highest order, looking at an empire disintegrating through a smaller, more localized story.



10. The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman. The other book I'm seizing the opportunity to bring back is this wrap-up to Grossman's tale of growing up and Narnia and magic. I loved the first two of these books that deeply split those who read them, and the third was just as satisfying, bringing several storylines to unexpected and emotional conclusions. We all want a little Narnia, but they don't last. But bacon is also the answer to many of life's questions.

Friday, 30 December 2016

The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

Image result for the rest of us just live hereIn the background of all the TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or any one of a myriad number of YA supernatural romances, there are the kids who are just normal, although with perhaps a higher body count than the average high school class. This is a book about those kids, although actually not with a higher mortality rate - it only seems to be the "indie" kids who actually die, which doesn't really seem right given the source material. (I guess I'm only really familiar with Buffy in this particular genre.)

Each chapter of the book gives a quick synopsis of what the "Chosen" ones are going through at that particular moment, but is about a group of friends who are mostly pretty normal, trying to live their lives even when threatened by fleeing deer or people with weird blue lights in their eyes. Which is nothing compared to the vampire invasion of Aught-Something.

Several of the main characters struggle with mental health issues, and for the most part, that's fairly well done. They are all dealing with almost being done high school and those moments when you know your life is about to change when you go off to college, but you don't really know how, or if any of these friends who feel like they'll be in your life forever actually will be.

The book is mostly an evocation of that time, told by a narrator who has a frustrating home life and OCD issues, although this is OCD as handwashing and repetitive rituals exclusively - it's comparatively rare to see an author grapple with unwanted compulsive thoughts that often go along with that particular diagnosis. In fact, J.K. Rowling is the only one I can think of who makes that attempt. His sister struggles with anorexia. His dad's an alcoholic. And his mom's a politician, which sort of feels like a punchline.

I liked this book okay. Mostly where I had problems with it is that the main character is pretty much an asshole. I mean, I get his mental health issues and anxiety and OCD, but what he chooses to do with those feelings is be an utter and complete jerk to all the people around him, and while they're all kind enough to forgive and forget, I wasn't nearly as ready to cut the character that much slack.

It felt like it might have been more realistic if what he said and did to the people around him ruined one of those relationships irrevocably, and he learned that saying "I didn't mean to say those completely horrible things" isn't actually a get out of jail free card. That you can suffer from very real issues, and still try not to be a horrible human being to those around you.

I mean, he is a teenager. But it was one of those moments where I wanted there to be repercussions for his actions, instead of everyone saying "oh, no, you're always the most caring among us and the centre of our group." That can be true, AND he can have done things that change that.

Because we're in his head, we get to hear the even worse things he's not saying, like how angry he is at the indie kids for feeling so important because they keep dying, and...jesus, asshole. Seriously?

I guess I didn't so much come away from this with a deep picture of life on the other side of the Chosen/Regular kid divide, as much as I came away wanting to dunk the narrator in an ice-cold tank of water until he smartened the fuck up.

I am being harsh. I know I am. My husband doesn't really like the fifth Harry Potter book when Harry becomes a teenage jerk. I don't mind it because he doesn't spend too much time in the jerk territory, just enough to remind you he's a teenager. This feels like that turned up to 11.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2016: The Semifinals!

We're so close now! I may actually wrap this up by the end of the year, which would be an entirely new thing.

 
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki vs. The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin

We're down to books I really loved, and it's difficult to choose. A lot of mainstream fiction made it this far in the tournament, and all books by women. Genre, however, is my spiritual home, and when it's fantasy like N.K. Jemisin is writing, it's hard to top. Both of these are books of great subtlety, but the ways in which Jemisin explores culture and difference in ways that avoid easy villains or heroes (except in on particular case) are remarkable, and I found it challenged, rewarding, and delightful.

Winner: The Shadowed Sun




 
 Lila by Marilynne Robinson vs. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

This is an interesting battle even though I know in my heart which book is going to win. Be that as it may, both of these are marvellously subtle books that are also emotionally devastating. I walked away from both shaken in the very best kind of way. At this point, everyone should read everything in this round. That being said, I knew from the beginning that Lila was likely to bulldoze its way through most of the competition, and so it does. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece, and even more powerful when read on top of the other books in the Gilead world. They build on each other in such subtle and amazing ways. The only thing I'm frustrated by is how few novels Robinson has written - but if what we get are novels like these, then perhaps I should be grateful.

Winner: Lila

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Waistcoats & Weaponry by Gail Carriger

I am really not in a mood to be writing about this book, full as it is of fluff and adventure without real teeth. It's Boxing Day as I'm writing, and the fucking freezing rain outside means I don't get to have Christmas with my family. I'll get to see my Mom in a day or two, but the family occasion with one of my sisters and her spouse is scuppered. We'll try to see them soon, of course, but it's not the same.

Fuck the world.

In the middle of the funk caused by something as impossible to change as the bloody weather, as I impotently rage at it and try not to be depressed because these things happen, after all, I need to sit down and write a book review for tomorrow.

And maybe it's okay that it's fluff. Because honestly, this was fairly good fluff. I'd read two or three previous Gail Carriger books, and I really can't say I enjoyed them. There was a good deal of aggravation running through all of my previous reviews, and at least one or two moments of real anger. If this book had been one of those, this might be one of my more cranky reviews ever, on a book that wouldn't deserve that much ire.

But you know what? I was actually surprised that not only did I not mind Waistcoats and Weaponry, I pretty much enjoyed it. I can't say I fell in love with it, but as a fluffy diversion from the world, it was at least a good one. It had none of the plot twists and unexplained decisions and claims that made the other books get more than a little on my nerves.

Maybe Carriger's getting better as she goes along. Maybe her style of fluff is better suited to boarding schools teaching young ladies how to be spies than the more epic doings of the empire and vampires and werewolves. We're in the same universe, but not the same series, and somehow, that made all the difference.

This is a series about young ladies in steampunk Victorian England with vampires and werewolves and human supremacist inventors, although it's seen as more gauche than anything more serious. These days, that's a particular issue, and is a bit aggravating here. Carriger comes close to addressing inequities in British society, but it stays fairly firmly in the light category.

The girls attend a floating school for intelligence work, and the main character (this is several books into the series, I believe, but it didn't really affect how I read the book) leaves the school for her older brother's engagement ball. While there, she is found by her two love interests - a rich guy who is charming and part of the human supremacists and a young Black man who works firing the coal engines of whatever is nearby and has aspirations to become a werewolf.

One of her best friends, raised by a werewolves but not herself a werewolf, needs Sophronia's help to make it home to her pack. To do so, they end up stealing a vampire-piloted train, and further hijinks ensue with both the vampire drones and the Picklemen (human supremacist inventors) piloting a nearby dirigible.

It's all fairly light, and I wasn't ever really worried about any of the characters, and sometimes that's exactly what you need. I can't say I made me fall in love with Carriger's world, but I'm certainly feeling more kindly towards it than I was before.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2016: The Quarterfinals

All these books have made it into the top ten. Now it just remains to narrow down the order.

 

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel vs. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

It strikes me that both these books are about what connects us as humans, across time and space, to those we've known intimately and those we've never met, and how these webs come into being without us even necessarily recognizing them, simply by being a part of the world. There's a sense of loss and community in both, and this is a more difficult choice than I expected it to be. While acknowledging that both these books are marvellous, I'm going to have to pick...

Winner: A Tale for the Time Being




 

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett vs. The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin

In another piece of synchronicity, in this match-up we have two books that are very much about clashing value systems and the exercise of power in a world where that power has recently shifted, and may shift again at a moment's knowledge. Where magic can help and destroy, and the choice to use it or hide it is not a simple or an easy one. I knew immediately which one I was going to pick, though. 

Winner: The Shadowed Sun




 

Uprooted  by Naomi Novik vs. Lila by Marilynne Robinson

If I'm continuing to look for connections between the books in the competitions this round, this is a little harder, jumping from pure fantasy to a novel that is firmly rooted in life that feels so real you could almost inhale the scents. They are both, however, about women who are a little out of place in the spaces they find themselves, in the houses of men of influence and importance, and try to figure out for themselves what that means. And all apologies to Naomi Novik, but Lila wins this in a heartbeat of dappled sunshine.

Winner: Lila




 

Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear vs. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

It feels weird this year that so few of those going from the quarterfinals into the semifinals are genre fiction, my favourite stomping grounds. But what can I say? I read a ton of amazingly good mainstream fiction by women this year. And as much as I loved The Steles of the Sky and the whole trilogy that it capped, Everything I Never Told You was a delicate thunderbolt of love and distance.
Winner: Everything I Never Told You

Sunday, 25 December 2016

The Last Policeman by Ben Winters

So, the world is going to more or less end in the next year - an asteroid is going to crash into the Earth, and anyone anywhere remotely nearby will be killed instantly, and the rest may die in the ensuing long winter of ash and dark. But in the lead-up to that, how much does society collapse, and how much does it cling to some rough semblance of normalcy? These are the questions Ben Winters is considering in this murder mystery set in exactly the above, and despite a couple of things, it was mostly pretty good. Good enough to keep me reading the series, if not quite good enough to send me out onto the streets telling others to get off their butts and read it too.

First of the quibbles is that I've seen Last Night. This small Canadian movie came out, god, quite a while ago now. (Let me look it up. Hey, 1998, the year my husband and I started dating!) You never know what is going to end the world at 6pm that night (or whatever the time is), but it's certain, and the sun never seems to set anymore. In it, we follow a bunch of people around as they try to wrap up affairs, in a world that has changed but not fallen apart in the long shadow of the knowledge of the end. I am reminded of the character who sits at his desk, assuring customers by phone that they'll continue to have electricity until the end and thanking them for their business.

The main character in this book is a little like that, except with the police. Always wanting to have been a policeman, he's vaulted into being a detective rather quickly. When he finds what looks like one more suicide in a world that is awash in them, he thinks it looks hinky enough to do some further investigating, despite the general feel of the police that they're just keeping the peace and what's one death more or less at this point?

The other thing that wasn't quite up to snuff is that I figured out who the murderer was within probably seconds of meeting that character - they just screamed perpetrator to me. And I say this as someone who NEVER guesses whodunnit in advance. Some people have that gift, I rarely do. (I do sometimes know because I read the last few pages early on, but I am bad at guessing.) So it's too bad that it was telegraphed as clearly as it was (to me, anyway).

However, there were enough pleasures in just reading this book that that was fine. Most of it is, of course, about how people deal with impending mass death, if not extinction, from religion to suicide to drugs, which the U.S. government is cracking down on with disproportionate harshness (although apparently pot has been legalized.)

There are conspiracy theories and risk analyses, as the world waits to find out where the asteroid will land in six months, and that's a good moment to set the book. And it's interesting, even if much of it kept reminding me of Last Night, although without the emotional punch of that last scene with Don McKellar and Sandra Oh. But hey, Winters has two more books to go in the series that are already out, and I'm looking forward to reading them.

I just wish that the mystery part was a little better crafted. I like the idea of a murder mystery in the buildup to the apocalypse. What we get from that part is serviceable but not quite enough to take it to the next level. Which pretty much sums up how I feel about the book. There's nothing wrong with it, and I enjoyed it. It just didn't reach further.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2016: Round Four

We're down to sixteen books, so there will only be one post a round from here on out. Not long now until I reach a top ten list and a book of the year! This is a tough round - almost all of these books are ones I thought would reach the Top Ten (obviously I never stopped to count how many books that would be.)

 
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel vs. Wise Children by Angela Carter

Two books that concern the theatre come up against each other, and both are absolutely delightful. In Station Eleven, we have theatre before and years after the world as we know it ends, while in Wise Children, we have a Shakespearean romp filled with twins and family drama on the British stage. I was so glad to be introduced to both these authors this year, and I'm sure I'll read more of both. However, only one winner, huh?

Winner: Station Eleven




A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki vs. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

This is not really a tough battle, but I do feel the need to say that the book I'm not picking is also really really good, really creepy, and you should definitely read it. That said, of the two, I just have to pick A Tale for the Time Being. It was deeply moving and stretched my brain at the same time.

Winner: A Tale for the Time Being




City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett vs. The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman

These are misty cloudy covers, and if you don't think that I'm mentioning that to put off the moment where I have to choose between these two books, well, then, I don't know what to tell you. Here we have an author new to me, whose rich world and fantasy murder mystery were a complete and delightful surprise. And up against that is the third book in a trilogy that I just simply adored, possibly even more fiercely because they're deeply polarizing books. I don't know how I can choose, but the pit of my stomach keeps giving it to Robert Jackson Bennett.

Winner: City of Stairs





The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin vs. The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin

Two N.K. Jemisin books up against each other! That doesn't seem fair, particularly since they're first and second in the series. Let's start by saying I loved both a lot, but the truth is that it's not a difficult choice. The Killing Moon was excellent, but The Shadowed Sun was even better.

Winner: The Shadowed Sun





Uprooted by Naomi Novik vs. The Sea Thy Mistress by Elizabeth Bear

These choices are going to kill me, sooner or later. (But do look at this and the next three battles and see what author they have in common - I love Elizabeth Bear's work!) I responded so strongly to both of these books, for vastly different reasons. Novik's exploration of fairy tales was astonishingly good and rewarding, while Bear's exploration of pain let me inside someone's head in a way that is rare. I do not want to make this decision. Close my eyes, take a deep breath, and....

Winner: Uprooted




Lila by Marilynn Robinson vs. Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

This is a less difficult choice. I loved Karen Memory a hell of a lot for many reasons, and if you're looking for steampunky goodness, I highly suggest you check it out. However, Lila was the book that broke me this year, the one that knocked me flat on my ass, breathless and stunned. I cannot explain what she gets so right here - goodness knows I've tried and everything I say sounds like I'm trying to use words like a child does to describe something written by a genius. That this is the kind of genius that extends to capturing people in ways I've never seen and putting it on the page in such a way that it demands the reader bring themselves to the work? I just...Lila is just Lila, and I am just enthralled.

Winner: Lila




Image result for afterparty gregory

Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear vs. Afterparty by Daryl Gregory

Phew! It would be just ridiculous if none of the Elizabeth Bear books I loved made it through the round of 16. I can quite easily say that Steles of the Sky beats Afterparty, which I keep saying was good, but not as well developed metaphysically as other Gregory books I've read. Nope, this round goes definitively to the end of Bear's saga of tribes and necromancers and women and war.
Winner: Steles of the Sky





Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng vs. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Sorry, Ann Leckie. This is another book I really thought would be in the top ten (and might still be, since I get to pick two from the eliminated this round to complete it). It's just that my favourite book in the Ancillary trilogy ended up against Celeste Ng's tour de force, and I can't possibly let it go. It has things to say about memory and understanding and material objects that still resonate with me.
Winner: Everything I Never Told You

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Halting State by Charles Stross

Image result for halting state*Spoilers Below*

It's hard to write what I want to about this book without giving away a lot about the plot and the tricks that Stross has up his sleeve. I'm going to go ahead and talk about it regardless, but if you're worried about broad spoilers (nothing too specific, I promise), this might not be the review for you.

Several years ago now, I was involved with an ARG (Augmented Reality Game). In the beta I worked on, we leaned more heavily on the real-life aspects, using the internet to supplement game play, but most of what happened happened in the real world. It was intensive, a ton of work, and a great deal of fun. Two weeks, and we were exhausted. I don't know how you could possibly take what we did and make it for larger consumption, and indeed the next iterations demanded a lot less of the game runners as the game was going on.

Still, having done the small amount I've done in the field, when Stross' story started to move away from an online heist of a digital in-game bank towards the ways in which technology and gameplay permeate our lives, my ears pricked up. I'm fascinated by the process, slightly suspicious of the potential, kind of itching to do it again.

Let's move on to Scotland and this book, then. In an independent Scotland, the digital heist takes place. The local cops are called in, which pisses off some in the company, and forensic auditors from the insurance company are hot on their heels, trying to avoid paying out. One forensic auditor, a European swordfighting enthusiast, hires a local computer programmer to be her guide into the world of the game that was robbed.

The book moves around frequently between four or five different viewpoints, and honestly, for a while, I was enjoying it, but not really absorbed into the world Stross was creating. This was reminding me of his other books that I find somewhat opaque, as opposed to the ones that I have enjoyed a whole hell of a lot. But then when we started to get to the ARGs, and the suggestion that a huge computer-based one might have been co-opted by one or more national security agencies, outsourcing spy work to people who truly have no idea what they've signed up for, not to mention who might be pulling the strings, then it finally clicked for me.

It's a fascinating idea in the sort of way that makes you slightly queasy with how not only plausible but sort of inevitable it feels. If ARGs were to hit the mainstream (and Pokemon GO was the first step in that direction), you start to wonder what's being done with the digital data and traffic, or what might be done, and whether or not you'd ever know about it.

Our ARG had nothing more nefarious in mind that getting people to learn about the War of 1812 while providing an adventure, but the ideas Stross is exploring extrapolate on what little I know in truly terrifying ways. And how do local cops deal with being told to get off the turf of national secuity agencies, when the foes they're fighting might just have very local impacts in addition to large international ones.

So yeah, once this book hooked me, I was well and truly hooked. It took a while, and it was more for the ideas than the characters, but it ended up being a book I was glad I'd read.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2016: Round Three, Part Three


A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin vs. Lila by Marilynne Robinson

I was glad to see that A Manual for Cleaning Women made it as far into this tournament as it did. I was very struck by it, but had no illusions it was going to be there at the end. That's a small consolation now that it's up against Lila, a book that I truly cannot say enough about - or often, anything about. It strikes me dumb with how good and powerful it is.
Winner: Lila





Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie vs. Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

This is a more difficult choice. And it's harder because I think I know which one I'm going to pick, but I feel a little guilty about it. As well as being very enjoyable, Americanah is unmistakably a Capital I Important Book but it's up against a book that was not only delightful from beginning to end, but also came along at a point in the year where I desperately needed something that I could enjoy wholeheartedly. And so I'm going with steampunk, prostitutes and political intrigue.

Winner: Karen Memory





Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear vs. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

And while, by every right, having just chosen one Elizabeth Bear, I should be able to let another one go, particularly when it's up against a Marilynne Robinson book, the author this year who knocked my socks off more than any other. That's not what's going to happen, though. Much to my own surprise, the end of Bear's trilogy needs to stay in this competition more than a book that I loved as well. I don't know if I can explain why.
Winner: Steles of the Sky




Image result for afterparty gregory

Afterparty by Daryl Gregory vs. Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

Now this is another difficult choice, for very different reasons. Usually, I'd knock the kid's book out without a second thought, but there was something so charming about Castle Hangnail that it makes me hesitate. However, even though it wasn't everything I'd ever wanted, Afterparty was such a strong thriller that got close to what I wanted it to that, in the end, the result is the same. I just want you to know that it was harder than it looked.
Winner: Afterparty




Image result for life after life

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson vs. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Oh God. This is the battle I saw coming for rounds, every time dreading it. I read two of my favourite books of the year back to back, and now I need to pick between them early enough that the one that gets knocked out won't be in the top ten. And it's an agonizing choice! Both of these books knocked my socks off, and everyone should read them. That said, I need to consider which of the two I couldn't bear to lose yet.
Winner: Everything I Never Told You





The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien vs. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Oh, thank goodness, an easy choice after that last one. The Third Policeman was fine, but didn't really worm its way into my heart, whereas Ancillary Sword took all the things I enjoyed about the first book and developed them further, narrowing the focus while exploring the universe Leckie had created in intimate ways.

Winner: Ancillary Sword