Tuesday, April 21, 2015

To Kill A Mockingbird

Title: To Kill A Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Genre: Fiction
Published: 1960
Rating: 8/10

Review: I may be the last person to read this book. Somehow we passed each other like ships in the night -- my school did not have it on the curriculum. With the news of Harper Lee releasing a sequel fifty years after the original publication, I was curious to see for myself what I've been missing.

The story is told from the point of view of a six year old girl nick-named Scout. It's 1933 and she lives with her brother and father in a town of Maycomb in Alabama. From her innocent view, she describes the case her father works on, in which a black man is accused of raping a white woman. Scout's father is assigned to be the man's defense attorney just as town politics are heating up about the case.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a fairly slow-flowing book. Most of the action actually takes place in a chapter or two towards the end, while the rest of the novel focuses on the flow of life and the characters in Maycomb. It's an interesting juxtaposition of kindness and persecution that is shown throughout the book. It also touches quite a bit on racial politics of the time.

I liked Scout's voice as a narrator and it's easy to admire her father for his principles. But there's a wider study of character going on in the book and some of the minor characters became some of my favorites. I really like Miss Maudie, who likes her garden more than her house and takes difficulties in stride. Some of the less likable characters are interesting too, like Mrs. Duboise who kicks a morphine addiction before he death.

To Kill A Mockingbird is slow and thoughtful, but enjoyable. I just might pick up Go Set A Watchman when it comes out in July.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Title: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Author: Haruki Murakami
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 1997
Rating: 8.5/10

Review: My only previous experience reading Murakami was 1Q84, which I thought was a profoundly strange book. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is no less strange, but quite different in style and content.

The main hero is Toru Okada, who is a 30-year old married man, who gets laid off from a law firm at which he works in some errand-boy/clerical position. His wife works in the publishing business and continues to do so while Toru stays at home and tries to figure out what it is that he really wants to do.

The couple owns a cat who goes missing. Toru's wife, Kumiko, hires a psychic to find where the cat disappeared to and sends Toru to the appointment with the psychic. The psychic is an entirely odd character named Malta Kano, who tells Toru that the cat has decided to leave for good, also tells Toru where to find the tie he's been looking for, and declares that Toru's brother-in-law, Noboru Wataya, has raped her sister. Things only get odder from there when Toru gets a house call from Malta's sister, who tells him half of her life story and then disappears. On top of it, Toru gets an inheritance from an old man he used to visit and strikes a friendship with a 15-year-old neighbour.

I will stop re-counting the plot at this point -- to say it's complex is an understatement. There's a whole lot of plot lines and characters who do odd things to various degree. And the strangest thing is that I really enjoyed that.

The book is divided into three parts. I believe they were originally published separately. The first two parts are especially good and kept my attention very well. The last part felt a bit less tightly plotted and more meandering and even stranger than the rest. The ending was not entirely satisfactory. I sort of understood why Kumiko did what she did, but did not understand why she had to publicize it as she did. I did not have the feeling of full resolution, but I guess most mysteries did get resolved at the end.

Overall, it was a really interesting read and one I would wholeheartedly recommend if you enjoy puzzling over people's psychology, enjoy war stories, or have ever felt lost.

Monday, April 6, 2015

When You Leave

Title: When You Leave
Author: Monica Ropal
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2015
Rating: 8/10

Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: When You Leave starts out with a plot that is familiar to all who read young adult fiction. Girl transfers to a new school. Girl meets a boy. They fall in love. So far, it's pretty standard fare. Though there are some complications: they are in different social circles and hide their relationship from all their friends. But the real twist occurs when the boy gets murdered and the girl starts investigating his death.

The book is written from Cass's point of view and feels very authentic. Cass is fallible, confused, and often pretty awkward. She is not brilliant when it comes to investigations. Nevertheless, she persists with her inquiry and eventually figures thing out. Her journey from start to finish is mesmerizing. I had trouble putting the book down until it was finished.

There were other interesting characters in Cass's crew. Her voiceless friend, Mattie and the rest of the skateboarding crew were also quite believable, and each unique in their own way. The least well-written character is probably Cooper, who gets murdered. His motivations for doing various things seem feeble and his whole character comes off like a stock "perfect boyfriend" stereotype.

The plot kept me guessing on who the murderer was for quite some time, though I did figure it out towards the end of the book. All-in-all it was an interesting read and a new take on a coming of age and coming to terms type novel and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Zero Sum Game

Title: Zero Sum Game
Author: SL Huang
Series: Russel's Attic, book 1
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Published: 2014
Rating: 6/10

Review: I took a note of S.L. Huang in the fairy-tale anthology Retold that I read last month. Her story was one of my favorites, so I thought I'd give her novel a try. The premise sounded interesting: a mercenary with math superpower fighting a mind-controlling psychic.

So, I like math and I think math is cool and powerful and you can do a lot of different stuff with math. But this book pushed it well past the point of where I could accept it. There was one thing that bothered me in particular -- being able to do a crazy calculation about bullet velocity and direction is really not enough to dodge a bullet just because you know where it's going. I would have been much more accepting of a math super-power that also didn't turn into a physical super-power of precise motion and crazy strength. As it was, the heroine was pretty ridiculously overpowered and her constant math rationalizations for it made me rather annoyed.

The story itself was a pretty fun thriller type plot, which just kept escalating throughout the book. Drug cartels, mystery government organizations, hackers, and a psychopath with religion all figure into the plot that takes the main crew all around L.A. area. All-in-all, it was rather entertaining, if not entirely believable. I liked Arthur, the P.I. investigating a shadowy organization called Pithica who teams up with the heroine, Cas.

He has some serious reservations about Cas's moral compass and her murdering people left and right and I agree with that. I just wish he didn't eventually decide it wasn't that big a deal after all and strike a friendship. After all, by the end of the book Cas has probably murdered 4-dozen people as a very conservative estimate. Of course, they are all bad guys... Still, sometimes that much violence just doesn't sit well with me.

The other part of the book that could have been better is the writing. It's hard for me to put a finger on what exactly bothered me there, but I could easily tell it's a book by a new writer. I guess it just felt a little sloppy and under-edited.

All-in-all, it was entertaining, but I don't think I am going to pick up the next book in the series. Still, it's heartening to see books with female math ass-kicking superheroes.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Serenity: Leaves on the Wind

Title: Serenity: Leaves on the Wind
Author: Zack Whedon, Geoges Jeanty
Series: Serenity, vol 4
Genre: Graphic Novel
Published: 2014
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: Leaves on the Wind is a meatier and longer story than the previous three. It takes place after the events of the movie Serenity. As with the other volumes, I think this one makes most sense to read only if you are already familiar with the TV show and the movie, many details would be lost on someone who is new to the universe.

The book follows the adventures of Serenity's crew -- with Alliance breathing down their necks. They find some new supporters and get into plenty of trouble as usual. There are 6 chapters to the story and a pretty complete story arch. The illustrations are a bit different, but I found them easy to read and discern what's happening.

At the end of the story there's a cover gallery, which I thought was really excellent. I enjoyed looking through it. Finally, there's a small bonus story following the main one. The story is titled "It's Never Easy" and it's a pretty short skit involving Malcolm and Zoe as main characters. The story is drawn in a very different, more angular and sketchy style. I liked it a bit less than the rest of the volume, but it was quick and quirky, so not bad at all overall.

I was hoping there were more volumes following this, but turns out this is the last one and there's no regular schedule for these. But I am hoping that more might yet get published.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Serenity: The Shepherd's Tale

Title: Serenity: The Shepherd's Tale
Author: Joss Whedon, Zack Whedon, Chris Samnee
Series: Serenity, vol 3
Genre: Graphic Novel
Published: 2010
Rating: 8/10

Review: This volume tells Shepherd Book's life story. It starts at the end and keeps going backwards in a series of flashbacks. It's a pretty thin volume, but also one of my favorites because it explains the back story that I've been curious about for quite some time.

In episode Safe of Firefly, Book gets hurt, but then he gets medical care by showing his ident card to an Alliance cruiser. The viewer never gets to find out why they help him out and that mystery was never resolved until this comic.

This finally goes through Book's backstory, which is a rather twisty path. It resolves a lot of small mysteries about Book that we see in the TV series, but never have an explanation for. So, I definitely recommend this one to those curious about Shepherd Book.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Serenity: Better Days and Other Stories

Title: Serenity: Better Days and Other Stories
Author: Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews. Will Conrad
Series: Serenity, vol 2
Genre: Graphic Novel
Published: 2008
Rating: 7/10

Review: This volume contains four different stories. The first one is called Better Days and seems to be taking place between the end of the Firefly series and the beginning of Serenity movie. Wash and Inara are both on board of the ship for this story. The crew unexpectedly makes a large amount of money from a job. Then they fantasize about how they are going to spend the money.

There are some pretty funny moments there, for example, Jayne imagines himself a captain of a ship and refers to himself as Radiant Cobb. They go to a luxury planet to spend some of the money and of course trouble follows them there.

Overall, there were a few twists in the story, which I found a bit difficult to discern from the pictures. I had to go back and re-examine panels in detail to see what they were talking about. But the story itself was well put-together and the twists made it interesting.

I also enjoyed the full-page artwork in this novel. There are crew portraits spread out between different stories that have a lot of detail and look very well done.

The other three stories in this volume are much shorter. The Other Half focuses on River's increasing involvement with the crew and her use of psychic abilities. Downtime has the crew stuck in a snow storm and again sets up River as an important character. Finally Float Out takes place after the events in Serenity. Three Wash's friends buy a ship together and tell stories about Wash.

The three stories are somewhat disjointed and I liked Better Days best out of the four. Still, there are small reveals about the characters contained in every story, which makes them totally worthwhile.