Monday, October 12, 2015

Station Eleven

Title: Station Eleven
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2014
Rating: 7.5

Review: This novel showed up in many "best of" lists at the end of last year and has been patiently waiting for me to get to it. The story begins with the lead actor in King Lear dying on stage in Toronto from a heart attack. A day later, the Georgian Flu pandemic begins and wipes out most of the North American population.

Most of the story takes place 15-20 years after the events described in the first chapter. The Earth has lost much of its technology and people live in small segregated settlements. Most of the events revolve around a traveling troop of musicians and Shakespearean actors who move between the settlements and perform.

Station Eleven seems very much like a set of character sketches rather than a novel. The plot elements are pretty thin, but the relationships and views of the characters is what really defines the book. It was an easy read and didn't drag, but at the same time it felt like the point of the book was to reveal the connections between a set of people and places rather than to tell a cohesive story or explore the consequences of a large dystopian event.

What makes this book a bit different from a bunch of other post-apocalyptic novels out there is its emphasis on art as an important factor in post-apocalyptic recovery. The traveling troop's motto, taken from Star Trek, is "Survival is not sufficient" and showing that is something Mendel works very hard at in the book, though in my opinion she isn't entirely convincing. On the other hand, I did like the fact that she takes a fresh approach and doesn't dwell on descent into lawlessness.

Another interesting element in the novel is one of the main characters' obsessions with two graphic novels that she is given right before the world collapse. Kirsten tries to find out everything she can about them, but they are by an obscure author and there isn't much information out there. This part of her quest feels very authentic to me and I liked the way that story line is tied up at the end.

Altogether, I enjoyed reading Station Eleven. The author's writing style is smooth and the characters are well drawn, so even despite some flaws in the plot and world-building, it was an enjoyable and insightful book.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Nature of the Beast

Title: The Nature of the Beast
Author: Louise Penny
Series: Inspector Gamache, book 11
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2015
Rating: 7/10

Review: I went to a somewhat remote cabin for a few days of vacation and couldn't think of a better getaway reading book. Louise Penny's latest installment is once again set in the remote Quebec village of Three Pines with its atmospheric locations and eccentric characters.

Despite his retirement from police force, Armand Gamache does quite a bit of legwork on the case to figure out the murder of a local 9 year old boy.

This is certainly not the best book in the series -- it feels like Penny hasn't quite made up her mind on where to go next with the series yet. It's reflected in her main character's indecision on what to do next with his life after all the crazy events in book 9. But the mystery itself was interesting enough and I enjoy this style of cozy mystery with the characters I like. Basically, it was an enjoyable vacation read, but I am looking forward to a new bigger plot arch happening in the future books.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Documents in the Case

Title: The Documents in the Case
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace
Genre: Mystery
Published: 1930
Rating: 7/10

Review: I received The Documents in the Case as a birthday gift. I've never read anything by Sayers before, though I've heard of her Lord Peter Wimsey series. This book is not part of that series, but rather a standalone mystery taking place in the late 1920s.

The most interesting part of the novel is the format in which it's written. The case is put together through the letters that various characters write to each other. At the heart of the novel are Mr. and Mrs. Harrison who lend rooms to two young men: Harwood Lathom and John Munting. The first part of the story is told through the letters of Harrison's housekeeper, Agatha Milsom, to her sister. Later, it turns out to be a case of unreliable narration.

I found the first part of the novel quite enjoyable. But then the letters switched to those of Mrs. Harrison and I found her style just painful to read. While it does a good job exposing her character, I just found myself slogging through that part of the story. Eventually, the narration switches again and my pace picked up once more.

What's interesting is that there isn't so much a whodunnit type of twist in the story. It's pretty obvious from the start who did it. It's much more of how was it done and how do we prove that, story line. That's interesting, but didn't feel quite as dramatic as some of the modern mystery fiction. On the other hand, it didn't feel as cliched either. Altogether, it was a fresh reading experience, with a solid plot, and some interesting story telling devices.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Martian

Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2011
Rating: 8/10

Review: I've heard a lot of buzz around The Martian after it got released by the mainstream press in 2014, but didn't actually pick up and read the book until I saw this xkcd comic.

The premise of the story is pretty simple. Mark Watney is a part of 6-person astronaut team sent to collect research data on Mars. Due to circumstances, he gets left behind on the planet with no way to leave or communicate, but with enough life support and food to survive for some time. The book heavily focuses on the how-to of the survival mechanics.

Maybe it's the engineer in me, but I thought the book was great. It's hard to say there's that much happening in the book besides the description of how Mark manages to rig and debug various systems to make things happen, but those things kept my complete attention the entire time I was reading.  The descriptions felt quite realistic (except maybe for a couple of small things) and Mark has a great voice and a sense of humor that allows the reader to be drawn into the book that doesn't really have any dialogue.

We also get a glimpse of what's happening meanwhile on Earth and it was kind of interesting that despite being set in near future (e.g. to make travel to Mars by men possible), there is absolutely nothing futuristic about the Earth portion of the story. In fact, I would say the Earth parts of the story were the weakest by far. It was somewhat difficult for me to swallow that Earth would spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to save one man off of Mars.

All in all it's a thoroughly entertaining book and one I would definitely recommend to anyone who enjoys tinkering with things or space travel. There's also a movie version coming out later this year, so that might be fun too.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Eat Pray Love

Title: Eat Pray Love
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Genre: Memoir
Published: 2006
Rating: 6.5/10

Review: I took a few days vacation and went to Seattle. I finished reading Ancillary Sword on my flight over there and needed something new to read. The apartment I rented had a bookshelf full of fiction, so on a whim I decided to pick up Eat Pray Love.

The only thing I knew about the book before starting was that there's a movie with Julia Roberts and that it's "empowering" women's fiction. Not my usual genre, but I was in the mood for something off the beaten path.

Overall, it was both more fun and less fun than I expected. The story is a memoir of a single woman (Elizabeth herself) living in Italy, India, and Indonesia for a year total and her experiences there. The story begins by catching up the reader on the writer's state of mind and relationship history. Her voice is pretty entertaining and I generally enjoyed her anecdotes. On the other hand, I didn't really find her particularly easy to relate to. She sees things so differently from me that rather than pull me into the book, her inner dialogue just sort of made me quizzically look at her psyche from the sidelines.

The Italy portion was pretty fun though -- descriptions of food made me totally hungry and wishing I was in Italy. I also really enjoyed her language acquisition stories and comparisons. This part of the book was probably my favorite.

The next part of the book describes Elizabeth's experience living in an Indian ashram, practicing yoga. I do yoga myself as an exercise activity, so I have a little bit insight into it, but I don't practice it as a worldview. This part of the book involves Elizabeth searching her soul, meditating, and singing a whole lot. From my view as a reader, it's a duller portion of the book, though there are some interesting tidbits here as well.

After India, Elizabeth ends up in Bali, studying with an old mystic there. Once again, not a whole lot happens, but at least she's mostly emotionally stable for this part of the book, which is pretty nice. There are also some characters in this part whom I enjoyed reading about. The mystic that she studies with is one of them -- he really colored this part of the book for me.

All in all, this was a reasonably interesting book to pick up randomly. Some fun anecdotes, but also pretty slow in parts. Eh.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Ancillary Sword

Title: Ancillary Sword
Author: Ann Leckie
Series: Imperial Radch, book 2
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2014
Rating: 9/10

Review: This is the continuation of the story in Ancillary Justice; Ancillary Sword follows Breq to Athoek station. There Breq is seeking to make contact with Basnaaid, sister of Leutenant Awn in order to make reparations for Awn's death. However, since Anaander Mianaai appointed Breq as a Fleet Commander, she almost immediately ends up involved in the station's politics.

I really enjoyed the character development in this story. In particular, the way Breq relates to all the personnel on her ship and her evolving relationship with Lieutenant Tisarwat. It's a pleasure to watch Breq put it all together.

There are lots of socio-political themes in the book as well. Racial exploitation, segregation, political activism are all woven into the story. There are multiple races in a complex relationship with each other and the author masterfully puts it all together without bogging down in backstory or long info dumps.

In fact, the plot itself was pretty straightforward and moved at a good pace. There's a really good balance between action and exposition and the book is nicely tied up at the end. All-in-all, I thought this was even better than the first in the series and I am looking forward to Ancillary Mercy coming out in October.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Giver

Title: The Giver
Author: Lois Lowry
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 1993
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: I guess my reading lately falls into "books I should have read in high school, but didn't" category. I've heard so much about The Giver, but I've never read anything by Lois Lowry until now.

The book starts with a preface by the author talking about his experiences with this book and the upcoming movie (which I guess already came out and has 36% on rotten tomatoes, so I am not watching that). If anything, the preface set my book expectations even higher than before.

I have to admit that upon finishing the book I was a bit disappointed in its simplicity. The story follows Jonas, a boy in the future apocalyptic society. There is a bunch of set up done to illustrate how Jonas' society, family, and relationships work and to get us close to the character. When Jonas turns 12, he is chosen as the next Receiver. The Receiver is someone who will carry the burden of societal memory about the past on behalf of the whole settlement.

It's a neat idea and it was written long before the rest of apocalyptic YA that followed, but the plot of the story really doesn't have much to speak of. There's a small twist with what felt like a rather weak resolution to me. Nevertheless, I am giving this book a pretty high rating because it was sufficiently entertaining, held my attention, and had enjoyable characters..

Behind the simple prose, hides a more sophisticated idea of what it means to be free and whether being happy and ignorant is better than being informed and miserable. The mechanic of Jonas' releasing memories is also pretty interesting. It's a quick and worthwhile read, but probably one I would be more likely to recommend to a younger reader.