Monday, April 14, 2014

Fables: Vol 1 & 2

Title: Fables: Legends in Exile and Animal Farm
Author: Bill Willingham
Series: Fables, vol 1 & 2
Genre: Graphic Novel
Published: 2011
Rating: 8/10

Review: Since I enjoyed 1001 Nights of Snowfall, I've decided to continue with Fables by reading volumes 1 and 2 of the series. Conveniently, they were loaned to me by a friend to whom I gave them for Christmas.

The premise of the story is that the characters of various fables, having escaped their respective worlds because of The Adversary, now live in two communities. One is in New York proper, where human-looking Fables live and the other one is upstate New York, hidden by spells, Animal Farm.

In Legends in Exile, Rose Red's apartment is discovered completely trashed and covered in blood. Bigby Wolf is the detective on the case with all the tropes of the genre written into the story. I liked the story-telling and all the nuanced pokes at the original identities of the characters. At the end of Legends in Exile, there is also a short story telling how Bigby came to look human and move to New York, which was a nice touch.

The second volume centers its action on the Animal Farm, the community of non-human fables. Snow goes to the community for her semi-annual visit and interrupts the conspirators in the middle of a revolution against their human community. References to Orwell's Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies are pretty fun to see and the ending has quite a bang to it.

I am pretty curious to see how the characters turn out, especially with a certain romance brewing in the story. I just might have to pick up more books in the series.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

This is a Story of a Happy Marriage

Title: This is a Story of a Happy Marriage
Author: Ann Patchett
Genre: Essays
Published: 2013
Rating: 9/10

Review: I came across a review of this book on Book Riot (by the way, they are awesome and I've been enjoying that site a lot since I've discovered it). This is the first book of essays I've read in a really long time. I pick up essays extremely rarely, not because I hate essays, but rather because I rarely hear about essays worth reading. The title on this book caught my attention though and the review was so positive that I bought the book.

I have to say I was totally and completely in love with the author by essay number four. I was slightly less interested in her essays about writing craft, but all her essays dealing with life stories and her relationships were simply phenomenal. They were honest and insightful and generally quite entertaining. My favorite one is definitely The Wall, in which Ann, age 30, decides to train and then takes the entrance exam into the LA police academy. It's funny, it's touching, it's full of neat cultural observations. The titular story This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is also great, telling the story of how Ann meets her future husband and why she finally agrees to marry him after 11 years of dating.

One of the things I enjoyed throughout is Ann's distinctive voice and clear, concise, striking writing style. You can hear her in every one of the essays and you can tell she's choosing her words carefully when she writes. I am now pretty curious to pick up one of her novels, though I barely know anything about them, just based on the quality of writing. And I would definitely recommend this compilation to anyone who would enjoy a very well written glimpse into another human being's life. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Secret Side of Empty

Title: The Secret Side of Empty
Author: Maria E. Andreu
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2014
Rating: 7/10

Disclaimer: An ARC of The Secret Side of Empty was sent to me by the publisher.

Review: The Secret Side of Empty is a story about M.T., a high school senior living in a small town of Willow Falls whose parents brought her into the US from Argentina as a small child. She goes to a private Catholic school, speaks good English, has good grades and close friends. However, her secret status as an undocumented immigrant means she has few prospects after she graduates. And as the school year continues, her future is becoming more and more uncertain.

What attracted me to this novel in particular is the immigrant connection. Having myself immigrated (albeit legally) as a teenager, I was curious to read a novel that would explore this experience. The Secret Side of Empty also touches a number of other topics: poverty, abusive family, first love, and after-graduation choices. The story covers a large range of topics, so many would find something to relate to in M.T.'s story.

I liked M.T.'s character. She challenges herself in school, has a cool best friend, makes money on the side by tutoring, and is pretty self-aware about the problems that she experiences with her abusive father. Everything is going rosy with M.T.'s amazing new boyfriend when she suddenly completely falls apart mid-way through the book. I was a bit surprised and somewhat unconvinced by her sudden depression stemming from her favorite teacher moving away. Maybe I just never had a sufficiently good high school teacher and maybe the teacher moving away is just the final straw, but it felt like a huge over-reaction to me.

The novel keeps a good pace from that point, adding more and more narrative tension until the main conflict is resolved. The writing is pretty typical for YA -- easy to read and gets the story across. I was sufficiently drawn into the plot to finish reading it quickly. I liked the ending, but wasn't particularly surprised by it.

What did surprise me was how much I liked M.T.'s mother. She was pretty amazing throughout and completely unappreciated (in a typical teenage way). Despite being a secondary character, I felt connected to her and wished more of her story made it into the book. On the other hand, M.T.'s best friend Chelsea never actually stepped out of the cardboard for me. She seems more like a prop to M.T.'s story and Chelsea's secret, which comes out at the end, is really a bit of a let down.

Overall, The Secret Side of Empty is a quick and enjoyable read in which many would find something interesting, but not particularly stellar in any given aspect.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

Title: The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches
Author: Alan Bradley
Series: Flavia de Luce, book 6
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2014
Rating: 8/10

Review: The latest installment in Flavia de Luce mystery series has been waiting for me to read it since January when it got released. Despite being pretty excited about the novel, I didn't get to reading it until a few days back. Then, of course, I gobbled up the whole thing pretty quickly and now I am left with the wait for the next book in the series (which I have learned will have 10 books in total).

This particular installment breaks the mold of the previous stories. In the past, each story contained a murder investigation which Flavia would solve. In this story, the plot circles around the corpse of her long dead mother, Harriet. The body is finally discovered after 10 years of uncertainty and brought back for a funeral at Buckshaw.

The tensions are high in the household. Visitors flood the estate. Flavia's cousin Lena arrives with her daughter Undine. A dashing pilot Tristram Tallis flies in on Harriet's plane. Adam Sowerby shows up, and Aunt Felicia is there too. We even get to see Winston Churchill for a brief moment. And in the center of it all, Flavia, trying to cope, and planning her mother's resurrection.

I enjoyed how The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches finally advances the story line to reveal a number of family secrets. Flavia learns much more about her mother and father in this book than she does in the whole series prior and it changes her relationship with the various members of the family. I am quite excited where the author has decided to take the story and will be looking forward to finding out what happens to Flavia in the next book.

In terms of the mystery itself, this is probably the first time where I figured out the identity of the murderer before Flavia does in the story. I am generally happy to let Flavia explain what happened without trying to figure things out myself -- I enjoy her process of doing so. However, this time around the solution just dawned on me a little bit earlier than usual. Or maybe it dawned on Flavia a little bit later than usual. The ending still contains a few surprises and did I mention I want the next book now? Setting my alarms for next year to look out for more Flavia adventures.

Monday, March 3, 2014

City of Dragons and Blood of Dragons

Title: City of Dragons and Blood of Dragons
Author: Robin Hobb
Series: The Rain Wilds Chronicles, books 3 and 4
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2012 and 2013
Rating: 8/10

Review: I've read the first half of this series a few years back and enjoyed it (except for the fact that it was split into two books while being one logical piece of fiction). So I've waited for both of these volumes to get published to make sure I didn't run into the same situation again. I saw them both on sale on Amazon recently and seized the chance to finish the series.

I have forgotten some of the details from the previous two volumes, so it took me a little while to get back into the story again. But once I did, I had no trouble staying with it. I find Robin Hobb is very good at making the reader care about the characters of the story and their lives just kept me captivated in the books.

The books continue telling the stories of the dragon keepers who have discovered the mythical city of Kelsingra and now need to make sure they survive the winter in the Rain Wilds to tell of it. Their dragon's survival is questionable too since the dragons are weak and cannot fly. Many hurdles have to be overcome before the characters can find their way.

Again, the two books were pretty closely plotted. I felt that reading them both one after another was the right way to go -- City of Dragons didn't have a particularly strong ending as a stand-alone book. But at the end of the series I was rewarded with one big wrap-up for all the major story lines. I especially enjoyed the Alise/Sedric/Hest resolution. So very satisfying -- I think the author must've enjoyed writing those scenes. I certainly enjoyed reading them.

This is probably the first epic fantasy I've enjoyed in quite some time. You can always count on Robin Hobb to deliver, so looking forward to her writing more stories in this world.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Name of the Rose

Title: The Name of the Rose
Author: Umberto Eco
Genre: Fiction
Published: 1984
Rating: 6/10

Review: I picked up The Name of the Rose without much knowledge about the book with a vague idea that it'll expand my horizons and put another notch on my "reading belt" of important books. (I really gotta just throw that belt out of the window).

This is a fairly hefty tome of over 500 pages written in first person by an aging monk named Adso in 14th century to narrate a mystery he experienced in his youth at a Benedectine abbey in Italy with his Franciscan master, William of Baskerville.

In the beginning, I found the narrative rather fascinating, if a bit on the slow and wordy side of things. We are introduced to life in the abbey, the characters, and hooked onto the murder mystery part of the book. Brother William approaches mysteries in highly Sherlock Holmsian fashion -- his name is not coincidental, I believe -- and provides sharp observations about people and events at the monastery.

Unfortunately, Adso doesn't have his master's succinct style and goes off-tangent quite a bit. There are literally six pages of text describing the gates of the church at the abbey in such detail that my eyes glazed over and rolled around the back of my head and he still kept going. The author addresses this in his postscript saying that "arias" such as these were traditional parts of medieval age story telling. I can understand Eco's choice to follow the traditions of the style, but to me it means I am going to avoid books written in middle ages and books pretending to have been written in middle ages from now on. Because there aren't any gates in this world that deserve 6 pages of description, in my not so humble opinion.

And yet, the story and characters continued to be sufficiently interesting that I kept reading despite everything else. As the story progressed, another angle was introduced to the narrative, which spoke of the division of church's teachings; heresies; and conflicts between the emperor, the pope, and everyone else. I don't know the first thing about any of these things, but there were plentiful asides and explanations for me to follow, so at the end I did know a lot more about it, but unfortunately kind of wished I knew less of the church's politics and more about who's murdering the monks.

The author's postscript explains a lot about the novel and makes me feel bad for not appreciating the depth of the story and all the historical research involved. It does feel like the sort of book where you could run an English course for a term just to study all the different implications of all the different topics covered. Except that I wouldn't want to be in that class -- it would be much too aggravating to spend even more time thinking of how poorly women are treated by the church or how often church uses religious pretexts for gathering power and wealth at the expense of citizens.

The ending of the book is very fitting and disagreeable at the same time. I felt a keen disappointment in William who was the only character I thoroughly enjoyed throughout and not for his detective failures, but rather for the way he handles the last confrontation. It's disappointing, but at the same time, genius, when you are writing a book about personal failures (oh, and there sure is a lot of those in this novel).

To sum it up, it's not a book to be undertaken lightly, but with merit in both plot and historical detail if you can bear to read that sort of thing for hundreds of pages. I would've probably enjoyed it better if author gave up on the historical and religious aspects of the story and stuck to the murders at hand.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

January Recap

I am a little sad that this January hasn't been as productive in reading as some of the other years. Typically, I get terribly excited with all the best of lists and end up reading a ton in January. I still got excited about the lists this year, but I guess a few largish books are keeping my total count low. Really it's only an accounting problem since I am enjoying myself otherwise.

I finished three books in January:

  1. Wool by Hugh Howley
  2. Dot Complicated by Randi Zuckerberg
  3. 1001 Nights of Snowfall by Bill Willingham
My favorite book was definitely Wool. It has the feel of a book that I'll be recommending to people in the months to come. And I'll probably return to the universe once I get through all the other books I am really excited about and that are waiting for me.

I am currently reading The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I am about half way through it, but it's best characterized as a chunkster, so it might take me more time to finish. I have a feeling it'll make for an entertaining review though.

Well, I am off to nurse my aching calves -- so very sore from skiing, but it was fun!