Thursday, January 22, 2015

Retold: Six Fairytales Reimagined

Retold is a collection of six re-imagined fairytales published by The Book Smuggers. You can currently download them from their website for free individually or buy the whole anthology for $1.99. Given that I think Ana and Thea who run the blog have a rather good taste in books, I decided to give these stories a try.

Each story includes an author's essay on what inspired them to write the story and an interview with the author. I think that's a really nice touch -- I enjoyed reading these pieces very much.
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Title: In Her Head, In Her Eyes
Author: Yukimi Ogawa
Rating: 8.5/10
Thoughts:  This was the first story I read and it was also one of my favorites in the collection. It's based on the Japanese story of Hachikaduki: A Girl with a Bowl on Her Head. The original tale is actually also included with the subversive one. As one might guess the fairy tale features a girl who wears a bowl on her head all the time. I rather liked the reimagined story: it starts out like the classic, but turns out much darker and much more evil than I imagined. The writing is beautiful and flows well, very well done.

Title: The Ninety-Ninth Bride
Author: Catherine F. King
Rating: 6.5/10
Thoughts: This is a re-telling of 1001 Arabian Nights. I like the idea behind the original story better, even though the author explains her logic behind the subversive re-telling. The writing is a little off from the traditional fairy tale and the themes are introduced in such a modern way as to make them jarring. The author makes it feel like a story on work-life balance of a working mom with a deranged husband. It just didn't work for me, though there were some very imaginative elements, such as the true identity of Scheherazade.

Title: The Astronomer Who Met The North Wind
Author: Kate Hall
Rating: 4/10
Thoughts: This is the story of a child who sets her mind on becoming an astronomer, just like her father is. However, she is not allowed to go out with her father to look for a comet in the sky. Instead she takes his equipment, sneaks off, falls down a hill, breaks a bunch of things, and gets semi-rescued by The North Wind's sister, whom she orders around, and then comes home a gives her father an ultimatum. The author's idea is to show how children can know their minds early in their lives and study STEM careers. I feel like the only thing the story made me think is that the girl is really bratty and what she does in actuality accomplishes nothing other than putting herself in danger. Not a fan.

Title: Hunting Monsters
Author: S.L. Huang
Rating: 9/10
Thoughts: This was my favorite story in the collection. A girl lives with her mom and aunt in an out-of-the-way village and is taught to hunt from an early age. Except, she is told it's really important to distinguish dumb beasts from changelings. Killing sentient human beings who have been turned into animals is murder. Then her mother gets arrested on murder charges and she learns a lot more about her family history.

The story sounds a bit farcical in my summary, but it works surprisingly well. It's a mix of Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast, but with a really strange twist that I very much enjoy. It has a great diversity of characters and the writing felt solid. I would consider buying another story by this author.

Title: Mrs. Yaga
Author: Michal Wojcik
Rating: 8/10
Thoughts:  This is the only story in the collection by a male author, and one I wouldn't guess being written by a man as it deals with a mother-daughter type relationship. Baba Yaga lives in her chiken-feet hut as an immigrant in Canada. She is described in vivid detail and I really like how the author combines fairy tale and modern life (she is preferring an SUV to her mortar and pestle these days). Her ward, Aurelia, is complaining how Mrs. Yaga keeps driving away her suitors by giving them impossible quests. I like how the issue gets resolved, even though the skip at the end felt a little abrupt to me. It's a fun reinterpretation of Slavic myth and it definitely tickled my fancy since I am familiar with the original tales.

Title: The Mussel Eater
Author: Octavia Cade
Rating: 6.5/10
Thoughts: This was an odd tale of a man who is wooing a sea creature by cooking her food. She is a protector of dolphins in the sea and he's human who finds her mussels and cooks them in various ways. I thought the tale might be Italian based on all the cooking: there's olive oil, lots of aromatic herbs, and delicious food descriptions.

Turns out the story is based on a New Zealand fairy tale. While fascinating, what didn't work for me in the tale was the man's motivation. He describes his object of desire in some rather unattractive terms, so it's hard to believe he's trying hard to seduce her when he thinks she smells terrible. I thought the ending was rather fitting, but the plot didn't make much sense to me on its own since I wasn't familiar with the original tale. It made more sense after I read the author's essay -- but I rather feel the original tale would perhaps be more to my liking.

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Overall, I enjoyed this collection. There were some hits and some misses, but it certainly made me nostalgic for more fairy tales. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Looking forward to reading in 2015

I was looking at the last year's January posts where I talked about books I was going to read last year. The list looked as follows:
  1. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  2. Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh
  3. The Mad Scientist's Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke
  4. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley 
  5. What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton
  6. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
  7. Written in My Own Heart's Blood by Diana Gabaldon
Out of these, I've read all but two books. I am still yet to read Ancillary Justice, even though I've already purchased it and looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about. And I completely forgot about The Mad Scientist's Daughter, not sure if I will actually be reading it.

In addition to Ancillary Justice, I now have a new set of books I am looking forward to in 2015. Some of these are releases from the last year that received a lot of hype and some of these are 2015 releases I am anticipating. Without further ado, here's my 2015 reading list.

1. The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. This is an alien invasion sci-fi that seems to have appeared on quite a few best-of lists from last year. I think it'll be interesting to check out some sci-fi not written in North America.

2. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley. This is the next installment in Flavia de Luce's detective adventures. It came out just earlier this month and should be very good fun with the change of scenery from England to Canada.

3. The Thorn of Emberlain by Scott Lynch. The next installment of Locke Lamora adventures is currently scheduled to be released this year.  Of course all the fans have been waiting for this book for almost 8 years now, so who knows if it's actually going to happen.

4. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. I've seen some pretty amazing positive reviews for this fantasy novel. It's supposed to be a fresh take on fantasy with great characters. Even though I haven't been reading a lot of fantasy lately, I might just pick this one up.

There are also a number of other books I am either looking at or considering. Among them, not-yet-read Jo Walton books. I've been reading her analysis of The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear, which were awesome and also making me yearn for the next installment of Patrick Rothfuss's series (probably won't happen this year). I have a set of short stories published by The Book Smugglers that I plan on reading.  I also received Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg for Christmas, which I am going to read soon. Finally, I have the first 3 volumes of the Firefly graphic novel waiting for me.

So many books so little time.

Monday, January 19, 2015

What Makes This Book so Great

Title: What Makes This Book so Great
Author: Jo Walton
Genre: Essays
Published: 2014
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: What Makes This Book so Great is a collection of book-review-like essays written by Jo Walton about various books she enjoys re-reading. All the essays were originally published on tor.com, so if you have sufficient patience for tor.com website interface, you can in theory just skip reading the book and read the website instead (but I am rather glad I didn't because their website lives on the border of clunky and awful).

I discovered Jo Walton a couple of years ago when I read Among Others. I enjoyed it immensely. One particular aspect that was great is the main character's running commentary on the variety of classic science fiction and fantasy novels. What Makes This Book so Great is basically a longer form of the commentary in the novel and written from the first POV of the author rather than the character.

I started this book almost three months ago. It went really quickly at first and I enjoyed reading all the different reviews. But then at some point I just got distracted by another novel I picked up and forgot all about WMTBSG. Since each essay/review is pretty much stand alone, it's easy to read in short bursts. Once I remembered about this book early this year, I finished reading it, though sometimes it was hard to stick to it instead of going off to pick up whatever book the last review was praising.

I consider myself reasonably well-versed in the science fiction and fantasy genre, so I found it really surprising that Jo Walton reviews so many books that I have never even heard of. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised. Most of the books she reviews in this volume are published last century (especially in 70's and 80's) at the time when I wasn't reading this genre yet.

From the books I did have exposure to before, I tried to figure out whether her taste matches mine. As one might expect, this varies. We disagree on Tolkien (I am not a big fan), but completely agree on Luis McMaster Bujold (Walton makes fifteen separate entries on the Vorkosigan saga in this collection). Generally, my to read list is now much longer both from reading this book and all the year-end lists.

Overall, I also enjoyed Jo Walton's writing style and her book commentary. It's embarrassingly fun to read a book about books. One of the things I didn't feel worked as well in the book were the series reviews. It was fun for Vorkosigan where I've already read the series, but for series I haven't read, e.g. Steven Brust's Vlad series, I really didn't want to read about each book in the series individually. I think the details Walton goes into on a per-volume basis are only interesting to those who have already read something in the series.

The nice consequence of reading this book is that now I know about Jo Walton's column on tor.com (which she continues to update) and now I can read her ongoing posts there, though I am still looking for an RSS feed as to avoid visiting the website. I am in progress of going through a group of 15 posts on The Name of the Wind re-read which discusses the finer points of the book's world and I am pretty excited about it (squee!). 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Past and the Future

Today is my 6th year anniversary blogging here. It's been fun. Today I am looking back at the last year of reading and as tradition demands presenting my favorite books of the year.

In total, I've read 34 books last year, which is lower than last year and below the goal I set for myself this year, which was 40. However, I enjoyed the things I've read and don't regret not reading more because making myself read in the hectic days of autumn when things got really busy would not have been productive. Hence, I decided not to actually set any reading goal for the next year. I will read when I feel like reading, and I will certainly not stop reading just because I didn't set a number of books goal, and I will not create stress by trying to reach some arbitrary number of books. So, no reading goals in 2015 beyond maybe having fun.

I read quite a few new releases last year. Of the 34 books, I managed to finish, 12 were published in 2014. There were also many new-ish books: 6 were published in 2013 and 6 were published in 2012. A bunch were the latest installments in the series I've been reading, but some were new to me authors, which I enjoy.

I've been reading pretty diversely across genres. In the past, I usually had a dominating genre for the year, but this year it's much more distributed. There are two new-to-me genres: essays and graphic novels. Both turned out to be really fun and enjoyable and I'll definitely be back for more in 2015. The distribution of my reading looks like this: 6 young adult, 5 science fiction, 5 mystery, 5 graphic novels, 4 fiction, 4 fantasy, 2 historical fiction, 2 non fiction, and a book of essays.

In terms of authors I've read, absolutely coincidentally it turned out to be 50-50. 17 of the books were written by men and 17 were written by women. The books were written by 26 unique authors and 15 of them were new to me (57%), which may be a personal best.

And now, finally to my top 3 favorite books this year:

Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh - A science fiction saga about the future of humanity, relationships, and death. I've been giving this book to all my friends to read as I enjoyed it immensely. my review

This is a Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett - A collection of essays, which I just found absolutely fascinating. In my favorite essay in this collection, Ann, at age 30, tries to pass an entrance exam to enter the police academy. my review

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn - A mystery thriller where the author just messes with your head until you have no idea who is wrong and who is right. It certainly kept my attention throughout and requires no advertising since the movie based on the book came out late last year. my review

I also have several other honorable mentions, which stood out to me this year:

Ready Player One by Earnest Cline is the book I finished last in 2014 and it found the way to my heart through the puzzle and video gaming references. Lots and lots of fun. my review

Looking for Alaska by John Green is a well-written young adult stand alone story featuring the main protagonist who goes off to a boarding school looking for "the great beyond". Plenty of shenanigans ensue, but in typical John Green fashion it all ends in tears (both for the characters and for me). my review

Wool by Hugh Howley is a dystopian science fiction novel where everyone lives below ground in a deep vertical tunnel, called a silo. Imaginative world and excellent characters make this book a very good read. my review

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is a young adult romance novel whose characters I enjoyed immensely and who just managed to evoke the feelings of high school and first romance like no one else. my review

Happy New Year, everyone! I am off to scour everyone else's top of 2014 posts for reading recommendations. Looking forward to lots of fun books.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Ready Player One

Title: Ready Player One
Author: Ernest Cline
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2011
Rating: 8.5/10

Review: I've had Ready Player One sitting on my shelves for quite some time even though people were telling me left and right that I was going to enjoy this book. I admit that people were right and I should have picked it up without any delay.

The book takes place in the near future. Earth is overpopulated, has energy shortages, and a lot of environmental problems. The main protagonist, an 18-year old nerd named Wade Watts lives in the stacks. The stacks are mobile homes, piled 20 levels high, with a whole lot of poor people crowded in them.

Wade goes to school via a VR setup called OASIS -- a virtual world where one can find anything and be anyone. Other than going to school, Wade spends all his waking time studying the life and interests of James Halliday, a very wealthy eccentric who invented OASIS and left a will saying that his billions will go to whomever solved his final puzzle. The puzzle is likely to contain references to movies, TV, music, and video games of 1980's which Halliday grew up with.

Overall, the book is a pretty fast-paced adventure. Wade competes with four other puzzlers and an evil corporation called IOI for the top score to inherit Halliday's fortune. There is plotting and scheming and even a little bit of romance. There's a ton of gaming references and plenty to reminisce about for anyone who was alive during the 80's. The writing is solid and I liked some of the twists towards the end of the book. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys playing video games or self-identifies as a geek.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Why Bother with Bonds

Title: Why Bother with Bonds
Author: Rick Van Ness
Genre: Non-fiction
Published: 2014
Rating: 7/10

Review: This book is a bit off-the-beaten path for me if you consider my reviewing history on the blog. I generally don't read too many financial books (or really financial anything) because it causes me to fall asleep -- one second I was there, and next thing you know I am curling up next to my cat and closing my eyes.

Also, I got this book for the worst possible reason: it was free. Unfortunately, it seems like the promotion is done now and it's $5.99 on Amazon Kindle right now. Yet, even if I got it for the wrong reason, I decided to actually give it a chance and read it.

Generally, it's a pretty basic introduction to bonds. The answer to the question in the title is a bit naive and much-reiterated through the book: stocks are risky, you can lose lots of money on stocks, put some of your money into bonds instead. I was hoping he would address the fact that current bond yields are below the inflation and he does mention it -- but I wouldn't say that he addresses the problem really.

On the other hand, I thought he did a pretty good job explaining the financial concepts in the book. He explains various terminology, how bonds are priced, their yield, what duration means, and how to choose what to buy. Generally speaking, if you agree with his premise that you need to play it safe and diversify away from stock market, I think following his advice on which bonds to buy makes a lot of sense. He promotes either buying Treasury Notes directly, investing in a low operating cost mutual fund that tracks a bond index, or building a bond ladder.

He also mentions bogleheads.com website and forum, which I find has a lot of interesting investing information. Generally speaking, this is a pretty good hands-on practical manual for understanding the basics of how bonds work and picking bonds. On the other hand, you could probably find all of this information online easily -- the value is mostly in organization of the information and accessible reading style. I would recommend it for novices, but I think anyone who has done this research before would find the book a bit slow and repetitive.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Slow Regard of Silent Things

Title: The Slow Regard of Silent Things
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2014
Rating: 6/10

Review: I am generally a big Patrick Rothfuss fan. I loved The Name of the Wind when it came out and I read his blog pretty regularly. He is a really good author who happens to also be an awesome guy (the two don't always seem to go hand in hand -- not to point any fingers, but *cough*orsonscottcard*cough*).

Of course, when The Slow Regard of Silent Things came out, it wasn't really a question of whether to buy it. It was just a question of when I am going to get to reading it (hint: it did not take all that long). The foreword is a bit alarming though: Patrick Rothfuss basically tells the readers of the book that they might not want to buy it. That didn't stop me for two reasons: the first being that I've read the foreword after I already bought the book and the second being that when someone says you shouldn't read something that makes you want to read it roughly twice as much.

I understood from the prologue that it's not going to be a traditional story and that it's not going to advance the plot of the main trilogy. I was perfectly fine with those caveats. It's a pretty short book and I've read most of it in one sitting, but I have to admit Patrick Rothfuss may have been right in his prologue when he said I shouldn't buy it.

I generally don't actually mind books that don't have a plot as long as I am enjoying the characters. But in this case I didn't actually enjoy learning this much about Auri. You know how sometimes you see a crazy homeless guy yelling on the street that you are walking on and you feel a mixture of alarm and pity for them? Well, this is how I felt about Auri in this book. She basically behaves crazily enough in the story to make me feel physically uncomfortable reading the book. And on top of it, I felt like the book passes judgement on everyone who chooses to lead a normal life with some modicum of comfort. Perhaps, I was deriving a message that wasn't truly there, but that's just how I felt upon finishing the book.

Patrick Rothfuss is still a crafty author and the language of the book is quite interesting. He plays with homonyms a whole lot and he can certainly evoke imagery, but it just wasn't enough to turn the book around for me. I am going to pretend this never happened and go back to waiting for The Doors of Stone to get published.