Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Wrap-Up

The hours are counting down to the end of the year and I am taking stock of what I've read this year. There were plenty of really good books and a few that I enjoyed less.

Here are some of my favorites from this year. I would recommend you each and every one of these books. They are very different books spanning from hard sci-fi to fantasy to fiction, but they are all awesome and totally worth reading!
  1. Among Others by Jo Walton
  2. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
  3. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
  4. Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks
  5. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
  6. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
  7. Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht
Next I crunched some number on the books I read this year. The total number is 32. This fell 10 short of my goal for the year mostly due to the reading hiatus I took in the fall. I also had a rather even distribution of the genres I've read this year. The two top genres were fantasy and mystery ties for the first spot with 6 books each. Next were science fiction and urban fantasy with 5 books each. Next followed fiction with 4 books, non-fiction with 3 books, short story anthologies with 2 books and one steampunk novel. I am pretty happy with this distribution, and especially with the fact that I've read 3 non-fiction books.

On the gender divide, it was an almost even split of 17:15 male to female authors of the books that I've read.  I actually managed to meet my goal of reading 15 new-to-me authors this year, which I am excited about. I hope I will get to meet even more new authors in 2013. Finally, I also met the resolution of reading on book from before 1900 with Three Men in a Boat.

I've also made two other, non-book resolutions in 2012. The first one was to climb a 5.11b cleanly. I blew this one out of the water, no only climbing a 5.11b, but flashing a 5.11c and cleaning several others. This goal was a success and I hope to improve more in 2013. My second goal was to do 20 pull-ups and that was a failure -- I could finally manage a pull-up this year, but I can do 3 at most. Sigh. Pull-ups are tough!

For me, 2012 was a year full of ups and downs. On one hand I was sick a lot this year, with a bunch of unpleasant trips to the doctors and specialists. On the other hand my work has been going well, I've moved to a new nicer place, and I've got two adorable kittens. I hope 2013 holds all sorts of new and exciting books and life events both for me and you. Happy New Year!

Bone Dance

Title: Bone Dance
Author: Emma Bull
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Published: 1991
Rating: 8/10

This is one of the earlier-published urban fantasies from before the era of long stilettos and werewolves that overfills the urban fantasy genre now. Instead it's a novel set in an urban, post-apocalyptic world, full of dying technology that also contains a magical aspect to it, or hoodoo, as it's referred to in the novel.

The main protagonist is Sparrow, whose story is told in first POV. Despite not being an unreliable narrator in a traditional sense, he does hold quite a few surprises. Sparrow keeps his friends at bay and doesn't let anyone in -- if he can help it.

However, strange things are happening. Sparrow is losing his memory for days at a time, he ends up in a number of dangerous situations, and everything is connected in ways he doesn't understand quite yet. The book's pace moves quite swiftly from one chapter to the next and I found this to be a relatively fast read. The plot structure is a bit surprising with two climax points -- but it works reasonably well, though perhaps it's a tad rushed in the end.

Each chapter name is a card from Tarot deck with the interpretation of the card according to different sources, e.g. Crowley, Gray, Waite. I was not familiar at all with these names, but a quick search online told me they were different inventors/interpreters of various Tarot decks. Of course the chapter cards tie into the action that happens in the book and in a way foretell the story.

Overall, it's an unusual and interesting story. There are lots of revelations about Sparrow and his friend, there's the growth of the main character, there are mystic aspects. Altogether, I felt like I didn't quite get all the references to both myths and general popular culture, but I enjoyed the novel.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Time Traveler's Wife

Title: The Time Traveler's Wife
Author: Audrey Niffenegger
Genre: Science fiction / Romance
Published: 2003
Rating: 8/10

I picked up The Time Traveler's Wife at a second-hand book sale for a couple dollars as an after-thought. I've heard of the book before, but didn't know much about it -- I just wanted to avoid getting change from my five dollar bill.

It sat on my bookshelf until the day before yesterday when I decided I needed to read something by an author whom I haven't yet read to help along my 2012 resolution of reading new authors.

This is a rather hefty tome, though mostly due to the thick paper and large print. About 500 pages later, I am done I have to say I enjoyed every page of it. The story is told in first person POV by the two main characters Henry DeTamble and Clare Abshire. He is born with a genetic disorder that causes him to involuntarily time travel backwards and forwards in time. She meets him at first as a little girl during his travels to the past and then again once she is grown.

The entire book tells the story of their relationship and time together. It's not an action-packed affair, but rather a slow revelation of their time together. At times it's too melodramatic and at times it seems unrealistically perfect, but most of the time I felt drawn into the book and feeling the story flow, enjoying the character expositions and just wanting more.

The genetic explanation for Henry's travel in the book was interesting -- however, I am not sure I like the deterministic outlook of the author on time travel. The book tries to convince that nothing you do in the past would change the future, but I felt that in character's shoes I would try a little harder to disprove that theory. Attempt to make a difference. The deterministic aspect of the book just felt a bit too fatalistic to me -- though I am guessing it made keeping internal consistency of the world much easier for the author.

Altogether, it was a really fast read that I absolutely enjoyed despite the fact that this is probably not the book that'll change your life. Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Dog Said Bow-Wow

Title: The Dog Said Bow-Wow
Author: Michael Swanwick
Genre: Science Fiction stories
Published: 2007
Rating: 6/10

This book took me a long time to finish. I started reading it in the summer and slowly made my way through about half the stories before I stopped reading for a few months. Recently I picked it up again and finally finished off the rest of the book. I really don't like leaving books unread even if they are going slowly.

Turns out I am just not a huge fan of Swanwick's style of writing. The stories he writes are very clever. They are layered, they often reference mythology or make fun of established fantasy and science fiction tropes. I thought I would enjoy this book a whole lot more than I actually did. The reason I didn't is that I generally failed to connect emotionally with the characters and the story being told. At the end of the story I might think "Ha, that was cleverly played!", but there was no feeling of wonder and satisfaction accomplishing the thought and that failure to really connect with the reading is really the reason for my low rating.

I imagine if Swanwick's writing speaks to you and you like clever twists in your stories, you will enjoy this book a whole lot more than I did. But for myself, I think Swanwick is just not the author for me.

My favorite stories among the bunch was The Skysailor's Tale and A Small Room in Koboldtown. There were also a number of other stories where some parts of them or twists I found really cool, but I didn't like the ending or didn't connect with the story as a whole -- for example in The Bordello in Faerie the main character ends up serving as the "man for hire" in the bordello and becomes addicted to the life, which is a rather neat reversal of roles that one might expect. However, the details of how that addiction is resolved just felt a bit like a let-down at the end of the story.

 I also didn't particularly enjoy the stories about Darger and Surplus though on the face of it both of them are very unique and interesting characters. There are three stories in the book about them: The Dog Said Bow-Wow; The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport; Girls and Boys, Come out to Play. The last is probably the best of the bunch -- particularly because they both get played more than they make out themselves.

All-in-all, an interesting collection of stories that I didn't enjoy as much as I hoped to.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Naughty in Nice

Title: Naughty in Nice
Author: Rhys Bowen
Series: Royal Spyness, book 5
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2011
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: To help ease my way back into reading after a long hiatus, I decided to pick up the latest book in the Royal Spyness series. The book continues with adventures of Lady Georgiana Rannoch (Georgie) who is sent to Nice by the queen to retrieve her stolen snuffbox. On the way to Nice, Georgie meets Coco Chanel and once there gets tangled in crime, schemes, and parties.

The book kept my attention really well and while it was following the same formula the rest of the books in the series do, I nevertheless found it a rather enjoyable read. There was a good dose of romance, British-isms, and quirky humor to keep me coming back for more. All-in-all a great way to spend a few hours -- comfort reading all the way.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Hammer & Hello, I am Back

I haven't posted since September for one simple reason -- I haven't read anything. But I have some new cute excuses for my wanton abandonment of books:




Yes, kittens can apparently be entertaining enough to replace books for a few months. But old friends (like books) always end up coming back and so I did end up finishing one book this month.

Title: The Hammer
Author: K.J. Parker
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2011
Rating: 8/10

The Hammer is a standalone fantasy novel whose main character is a nobleman's child growing up in exile. What could be more cliche, right? But there's something about the narrative as well as the story itself that sets it aside from countless other fantasy books. For one, the dark tone of the novel immediately makes it clear that the story is not going to be fluffy. There are the continuous incongruencies between the supposed noble state of Gignomai's family and their actual livelihood and behaviour. It's a study of characters who adapt and grow and I ended up enjoying the novel very much. The direction that the novel takes is very different from the typical epic fantasy and I love it when the author can make their point within one tome. There's a grim satisfaction to the ending in this book.

This is the second book I've read by K.J. Parker and I liked it better than The Company. Both share this dark tone and character-oriented plot, but I felt this one was closed out better and had fewer annoying characters. Will definitely be on the lookout for more books by Parker.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

I am Half-Sick of Shadows

Title: I am Half-Sick of Shadows
Author: Alan Bradley
Series: Flavia de Luce, book 4
Genre: Mystery Fiction
Published: 2012

Recommendation: If you liked previous books, you will enjoy this one as well, but don't start the series here.
Rating: 7.5/10

Summary: It's Christmas in Buckshaw and Flavia's ancestral home is flooded by the film crew who will be creating a movie there -- with famous actress Phyllis Wyvern starring in the main role. After half the village comes to see Phyllis perform and gets snowed in, a murder occurs and as usual it's up to Flavia to find the murderer.

Reactions: I picked up the next Flavia book because I expected it to be a quick and enjoyable read and I wasn't disappointed. I read most of the book in one sitting (at 35,000 ft altitude) and enjoyed it thoroughly.

The book is a quick mystery read with Flavia's typical flair and many of the favorite characters making an appearance in the book. The biggest issue with the story is probably the frequency with which murders occur around Flavia -- solving 4 murders in one year without leaving a backwaters English town is a bit over the top in my books. Nevertheless, I suspended both my judgement and my impatience with the Harriet's story not advancing as fast as I would like and enjoyed some of the relationship moments between the sisters present in this book as well as Flavia's antics. Overall, I am very glad I picked this up for the flight -- a perfect book for the job.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Selfish Gene

Title: The Selfish Gene
Author: Richard Dawkins
Genre: Non-fiction
Published: 2006 (1976 original edition)

Recommendation: If you have any inclination for the topic, this is a good introductory book.
Rating: 8/10

Summary: An overview of the theory of evolution from gene-centric point of view. This book expounds on the idea of evolution selecting not the fittest individual organism or group, but rather takes a gene as a unit of selection that's propagated between generations.

Reactions: Biology was one of the subjects I almost completely ignored in high school. The memorization component made it less attractive than chemistry or physics and my background in biology thus pretty limited. Nevertheless, after reading A Short History of Nearly Everything, I thought the genetics was a particularly intriguing topic and so when I came across The Selfish Gene on sale, I didn't hesitate to buy it.

It turned out to be a very interesting book indeed, presenting the theory of evolution in a light that I haven't heard of before. Given this was first published in 1976, I may be pretty late to find out about this, but better late than never, right? In any case the book is well-written and easy to understand without any particular background necessary to understand the arguments.

Dawkins does a good job explaining his theory and the competing theories as well as showing the evidence for his ideas. Often the evidence is based on the studies of a particular species and I thought the case studies made for particularly interesting parts of the book. All in all, The Selfish Gene was a good introduction into the subject and I would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in the details of the theory of evolution.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

September Recap

Worst month yet when it comes to reading. I only read one book this month! I have all sorts of excuses for this -- but I'll save them all and just say that I hope I can get a lot more reading done next month. The one book I did finish reading was Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome and it was a pretty short read, but an entertaining one. Even if it wasn't the only book I've read, it might have made this month's favorite. You can also see Chad's thoughts on the same book since we did it as a group read.

Next month looks to be busy as well -- I will have lots of work, followed by vacation (my only hope for reading time), followed by more work. Not to mention there's fall TV line up coming back sometime in September. Looking forward to the fall :)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Three Men in a Boat

Title: Three Men in a Boat
Author: Jerome K. Jerome
Published: 1889
Genre: Classic fiction

Recommendation: For those whose ironic sense of humor is their primary sense.
Rating: 7.5/10

Summary: A humorous tale of three men and a dog travelling by boat on Thames between Kingston and Oxford.

Reactions: I had a goal of reading a classic novel published prior to 1900 this year and Three Men in a Boat ended up being the book chosen for this purpose. It's one of those books that I've heard mentioned by my friends as well as alluded to in To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis which peaked my curiosity. In addition, it's fairly short -- an uncommon trait in the books of the period -- and thus more accessible.

I downloaded a copy for free from Amazon and read it on my Kindle. Unfortunately the typesetting in the book wasn't great -- the sections inside chapters were merged into the opening sentences, but other than that the reading process was quite smooth. I enjoyed the old-fashioned chapter previews and the entertaining narration of the main protagonist. To give you an idea of the book's style, here's an excerpt:
So George determined to postpone study of the banjo until he reached home. But he did not get much opportunity even there. Mrs. P. used to come up and say she was very sorry -- for herself, she liked to hear him -- but the lady upstairs was in a very delicate state, and the doctor was afraid it might injure the child.
There are a number of ironic passages where the main protagonist essentially ridicules himself when speaking of other people and I enjoyed this type of story-telling.

The biggest issue for me with this book was a lack of any sort of plot. The journey begins and amusing stories are told along the way, but nothing particular really happens throughout their trip. After I finished the novel, I found out through Wikipedia that it was originally written as a serious travel guide -- it's just the humorous passages took over the book. This really explains a lot, for the part of the book I didn't really enjoy were what I considered "asides" on the history of England as associated with a particular location they were passing at the moment. That and the lack of a plot made the book a bit dull in certain points -- but it's certainly the funniest travel guide I have read to date.

Overall it's a worthy read for those who aren't looking for action, but rather enjoy exposition and situational comedy in the books. As for me, I feel that I've filled in a void in my classical reading education.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

July Recap

The summer is more than half-way done. July has been a very busy month for me and August is promising to be even more so. I can only hope I'll find time to read. I do have some motivation since I received a new Kindle cover with a light for my device and I haven't had a chance to use it yet.

I ended up finishing a reasonable number of books in July:
  1. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
  2. Rose of Fire by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  3. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
  4. Heartless by Gail Carriger
  5. The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
My favorite read was The History of Love with A Short History of Nearly Everything surprisingly coming in as a close second. Zafon's short story and the newly published novel definitely take the prize for being most disappointing reads of the month. 

I am now left with some heavier books to read in August, so we'll see how it goes. Adieu!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Prisoner of Heaven

Title: The Prisoner of Heaven
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Genre: Fiction
Published: 2012

Recommendation: For die-hard fans of Zafon only, not recommended for stand-alone.
Rating: 7/10

Summary: A mysterious customer enters Sempere's book shop, buys the most expensive book in the place, and leaves it for Fermin with a mysterious message inscribed on the first page. This mystery of Fermin's past will lead Daniel to revelations about his family and Fermin's past.

Reactions: I was looking forward to this book, but once I started reading, I realized that I didn't remember the previous two books in enough detail to get all the references. The Prisoner of Heaven brings in characters from The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game and reveals more of their past. Perhaps I should have re-read the previous books, but I decided to persevere and to my disappointment found that The Prisoner of Heaven doesn't read as well as a stand-alone novel. One problem is that not enough background was given in the book for me to remember what happened in the other two. The other problem is the lack of a satisfying story arch.

The book is divided into three parts. The first and the last are set in the present, where grown Daniel is the main protagonist and the second part is Fermin's back-story. I enjoyed the second part immensely and consider it the biggest reason I gave above rating to the book. On the other hand, Daniel's part of the story felt incomplete and it was quite clearly just a set up for the next book in the series.

Altogether the compelling writing style and Fermin's story arch made this book enjoyable, while the overall product ended up leaving me less impressed. I am thinking of re-reading the The Shadow of the Wind after this to pick up on the references I missed here and bring back the magic of the book well-written.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Heartless

Title: Heartless
Author: Gail Carriger
Series: Alexia Tarabotti, book 4
Genre: Steampunk
Published: 2011

Recommendation: If you liked the last 3, you will enjoy this one too.
Rating: 7/10

Summary: Alexia is 8-month pregnant and waddles rather than walks around. She cannot stop moving however, since there are attacks on her life, a plot to kill the queen, and zombie hedgehogs around. Lots of mayhem ensues.

Reactions: I decided to keep up this month's book count by choosing a quick weekend read. Heartless absolutely fits the bill by being short, tongue-in-cheek, non-stop adventure. I cannot say that there was anything particularly outstanding about this installment in the series, but it was enjoyable as usual and entertained me well for the evening. This may be the shortest review ever written, but I really don't have more to say without just discussing plot events in spoiler fashion. If you haven't read the series, but a Victorian era urban fantasy with British humor appeals to you, then see my review for book 1.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

The History of Love

Title: The History of Love
Author: Nicole Krauss
Genre: Fiction
Published: 2005

Recommendation: Go for it.
Rating: 8.5/10

Summary: Leo Gursky is an old man, living alone, and taking every opportunity to let the world know that he's still there. Alma Singer is a teenager whose father passed away and whose family has been coping with the loss. On the first glance there is nothing to tie the two narrators of this book together except for one obscure book named The History of Love.

ReactionsThe History of Love was strongly recommended to me by Chad. The majority of my reading is speculative fiction, but this foray into literary fiction was unexpectedly fluid and enjoyable. Krauss's writing style is top notch and the book simply flew by. To give you an idea for the style, I liked the following quote:
Then she kissed him. Her kiss was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.
The story, as one may guess from the title, heavily revolves around various relationships of the characters. Leo's loss of his family and the girl he loved. Alma's loss of her father and her relationships with her remaining family and boys. They are all different, but at the same time connected, and I thought the author did a great job giving depth to the characters and the relationships both.

The aspect of the book that I enjoyed the most and the least at the same time was the plot of the book. The story is revealed through first person narration -- mostly by Leo Gursky and Alma Singer with parts of the history filled in by a 3rd person narrative. At first we meet the characters and most things make sense, but by the middle of the book we start to grasp that something strange is happening and the story is more involved and connected than we expected at first. I will admit to feeling confused as to the connection between the stories by mid-point with the confusion only mounting towards the end of the novel. And throughout we get a series of twists in the plot, some points becoming clear and connections coming out in unexpected ways. The final twist at the very end of the book took me aback though.

In one sense, I love the twists and the revelations that the book brings. On the other hand, the final twist put a number of scenes earlier in the book in question and in some ways didn't really make sense to me when looking at various pertaining details earlier in the story. Hence my opinion on the plot is a little mixed, but I do applaud the author for the audacity of writing something this complex and mostly pulling it off.

There were also some small details in the book, they may seem insignificant, but I really liked them. For example, Alma reads and thinks about extinction ages on earth, which is something I also just read about in A Short History of Nearly Everything and I like having that sort of connection to a character. There were some other moments like these dealing with locations or events that made me like the book better.

Altogether it was a really enjoyable book, despite my general sense of confusion about the events. I will definitely be looking at other books by Nicole Krauss.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Rose of Fire

Title: Rose of Fire
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Genre: Fantasy, short story
Published: 2012

Rating: 6/10

Thoughts: This story is really rather short and it's a tale about the creation of the Cemetery of Forgotten books featured in The Shadow of the Wind. The story is told in a standard fairy tale fashion. Let me just say it involves emperors, curses, dragons, and amulets. It's a neat story, but I didn't find it particularly interesting since it follows all the generic tropes and doesn't seem to have much to say on its own beyond telling the story of the Cemetery. I think this is mostly meant as a promotion for The Prisoner of Heaven -- and as such it does a pretty good job. I am really looking forward to the book now.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Short History of Nearly Everything

Title: A Short History of Nearly Everything
Author: Bill Bryson
Genre: Non-fiction
Published: 2003

Recommendation: Read it! It's easy to read and really fascinating.
Rating: 8.5/10

Summary: A history of many major sciences with the focus on the discovery of the human history. Covers many major topics starting from the big bang to astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, genetics, and anthropology.

Reactions: I received this book as a gift a few years back, but intimidated by its size, I ended up putting it up on the shelf for a long while until I recently saw a very positive review of it and decided to give it a try.

The book turned out to be more interesting and easier to read than I originally expected. Bryson does a great job explaining highly technical concepts in layman's terms. There are also many anecdotes about famous scientists that I found highly amusing. There are lots of major names that anyone would recognize -- Newton,  Mendeleev, Watson & Crick; but also abound the stories about the men behind the scene who didn't get their credibility when they first published the findings. Along with it are scandals of the time such as the feud between two dinosaur scientists Marsh and Cope.

The paragraph above may make it sound like a gossip rag of a book, but along with the entertaining stories Bryson presents and explains many major scientific concepts, theories, and ideas. Some of them are slightly outdated (e.g. Pluto is no longer a planet), but the discoveries go as early as papers published in 2001 on some of the topics. I was more familiar with some parts of the sciences than others. The physics and chemistry chapters were more familiar to me than the biology, astronomy, and genetics and there was a ton of fascinating information on those subjects that make me want to pick up a more specialized book on some of the topics.

The book is also written in a very tongue-in-cheek style that made me laugh out loud while reading it and then re-read certain passages aloud. The book is somewhat oddly structured with each chapter transitioning to a new subject matter, but the topics are often tied together eventually, which is helpful. I have learned a number of odd facts such as that the Yellowstone's super-volcano is due to erupt and that men's beards grow faster if they think about sex. Perhaps those are not the most applicable facts to daily life, but many of them are fascinating.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone with a curiosity about the world around us or any sort of interest in science. It's easy to read and understand and it's a good overview of many topics. Definitely one of the best non-fiction books I've read to date. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

June Recap

Half a year gone, just like that. I am pretty sure I am nowhere near my reading goals for this year, especially after the weak showing this month. However, I have done my first group read and that should count for something, right?

I can pretty officially call this Connie Willis month since the two books I managed to finish are Doomsday Book and Fire Watch both by Connie Willis. I enjoyed them both quite a bit.

Now I am making my way through A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. It's a pretty sizable book and as with all non-fiction, I am making my way through it slowly despite it being well-written and interesting. I just hope it won't take all of July to finish since I replenished my to-read pile in June.

The next few books loaded up on my Kindle/shelves are:

The Dog Said Bow-Wow by Michael Swanwick
I am looking forward to trying one of his books after all I've heard about him.

Across Realtime and The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge
The first book has been highly recommended by one of my friends and the other one came as a result of going to an author talk by Vinge. It's a recent sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep which I read last year. Funny thing about Vinge fans -- they all turned out to be men in their 30-50s. I was one of two women in a room of 100+ people.

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
This is Chad's recommendation and my chance to experience a new author. Looking forward to it.

The Hammer by K.J. Parker
I picked this up off Amazon since it was on a $3 sale for Kindle. I've read The Company before and heard a  lot of praise for The Hammer, so I think this is going to be fun :)

The Rose of Fire and The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The first is a free short story that I stumbled upon just today. The second is a newly translated novel set in the universe of The Shadow of the Wind. I have to say that even though no other book by Zafon has come close to The Shadow of the Wind, I am now pretty much prepared to buy his books the day they are released, which in this case is going to be on July 10th for The Prisoner of Heaven.

So there's plenty of interesting reading for me to look forward to.
Before I wish everyone Happy Canada Day and leave, there's a short half-way-through update on my new years resolutions:

1. Read 42 books.
So far I've read 20 books this year, so pretty close to completing half of the total number.

2. Discover 15 new authors.
Doing pretty well on this, 10 new authors -- most of them read in January. I've been slowing down on this, but hopefully will make it to 15.

3. Read at least one book published before 1900.
No progress on this yet, need some inspiration.

I also had two climbing goals. The first I achieved: a clean 5.11b climb. In fact I've done two different clean 5.11c climbs this year, so I am all set on this. The pull-ups goal is nowhere in sight. I made huge progress in going from zero to 3 pull-ups, but I have my doubts about hitting 20 by the end of the year. Guess we'll see.

That's it for the first half of 2012. Goodbye!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Doomsday Book

Title: Doomsday Book
Author: Connie Willis
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 1992

Recommendation: Fun read for those with a taste for snarky humour.
Rating: 8.5/10

Summary: Kirvin is sent back to 1324 to observe medieval England where no other historian has gone before (since it might be dangerous!). Mr. Dunworthy can't stop worrying about all the possibilities of what can go wrong. What he doesn't guess is that the Doomsday is coming for him and for Kirvin both.

Reactions: I've read To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis earlier this year and was really impressed with her writing and sense of humor. Doomsday Book seemed to be mentioned quite often as one of her best, so I decided to continue exploring Willis's writing. Since I expected this book to be enjoyable, I suggested to Chad that we do a group read of this book. You can find his thoughts on it here.

The book is set in the same world as To Say Nothing of the Dog. It's mid-21st century Earth where historians use time machines to travel into the past and spend time there undercover to learn how the contemporaries lived. Scrapes and adventures ensue. In this case, the book carries two parallel story lines. One follows an Oxford professor Mr. Dunworthy and the other follows a young historian Kivrin that travels to medieval England.

Both main characters have their own set of troubles, adventures, and new friends that they make. The book's plot is fairly straightforward, but it sucked me in early and I stayed up late reading to find out what happens next. The book turns much darker than I expected and I felt quite emotionally involved with the story towards the end of the book, especially when it came to the Kivrin's plotline. Somehow I didn't feel the same connection to the characters surrounding Mr. Dunworthy (with the exception of Colin, I liked him a lot).

The main strength of the book is the variety of quirky characters, funny conversations, and absurd situations that abound. It strikes a good balance between serious and frivolous and yet there's more to the story than just the events on the surface. At the same time the book is really easy to read and enjoy.

One of the themes Chad suggested when we were discussing the book was how ignorant we often are (and just as often unaware of it). I tend to agree with a sentiment as a whole -- you finally know something when you realize how much you still don't know. In the book this is particularly evident in Kivrin's handling of her trip to the past. She can't speak the language she thought she knew and many other details are not as they seem. I think the best judgement you can make of the person is from the way they handle the situation and we do learn a lot about Kivrin this way.

Moving on to the futuristic part of the story, I find the depiction of it somewhat funny since the book was written 20 years ago. There are a number of things that I can see as an inaccurate prediction now, but generally this didn't bother me. It is rather surprising how un-advanced their state of technology is, but I suspect it's a result of trying to provide the reader with a "familiar future", one they can easily relate to with only minor changes. Other reviews mention historical inaccuracies in depicting medieval England, but these didn't bother me either. Altogether it was a really solid and enjoyable book for me. I expect to read more Connie Willis.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Fire Watch

Title: Fire Watch
Author: Connie Willis
Published: 1982
Genre: Science fiction
Urlhttp://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories/firewatch.htm

Rating: 8/10

Thoughts: I've been on a bit of Connie Willis streak (thoughts on Doomsday Book are coming soon!). This is actually the first novelette to introduce the time-travelling history department in Oxford. A graduate student, Mr. Bartholomew, travels back in time to be part of the fire watch in St. Paul's Cathedral during WWII. There he learns some unexpected lessons.

Overall, the story is told in first-person narration and structured as a diary that Bartholomew keeps during his stay in the past. The format works well for me, even though the main character can be extremely dense at times, it's a type of situational irony that I enjoy. It also tickled me that the character named Elona in the story is the word alone spelled backwards.

Overall, it's a pretty representative of Willis's writing that I've encountered so far and overall I enjoyed it even though I could see through some of the "twists" they were planning. The novelette won both Hugo and Nebula when it was first published. I would definitely recommend reading it, and if you like it, read the rest of the books in the same universe.


Saturday, June 2, 2012

May Recap

June is underway and I am not entirely satisfied with May's reading. On one hand, I finished a non-fiction book which is somewhat of a feat for me, on the other hand, I've only read three books this month and I am way behind on my year end goal. The most amazing part is probably the fact that I liked my non-fiction read of the month better than anything else I read. Here's what I finished:

  1. Acacia by David Durham
  2. Royal Blood by Rhys Bowen
  3. The Inmates are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper
Now, I have very little hope that June will be the month where things pick up. Summer is generally a slow time for reading. Even though all the TV shows are now on hiatus, I somehow don't get any extra time to read. But at least I'll try to keep the pace.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Inmates are Running the Asylum

Title: The Inmates are Running the Asylum
Author: Alan Cooper
Genre: Non-fiction
Published: 2004

Recommendation: An interesting read for software developers who do user interface design.
Rating: 8/10

SummaryThe Inmates are Running the Asylum spends most of its pages expounding on the importance of interaction design and provides insight into some interesting techniques interaction designers use to create user interfaces.

Reactions: I've been highly recommended this book, and to my surprise actually found the reading going at a good pace, whereas I tend to drag my feet a lot with non-fiction books. This book is a bit repetitive in its message, but since it's written in a fairly entertaining manner, the reading goes smoothly.

Beware, if you are a software engineer reading this book. The author does not take kindly to programmers in this tome despite being one himself. His stereotypical approach to programmers did rub me the wrong way as I was reading the book for being overly stereotypical and condescending. Cooper calls developers "Homo Logicus" for seeking complex problems and insists that most programmers emphasize with the computer they are programming rather than with the users. Certainly there are grains of truth to both of these statements, but I would certainly not agree with all the claims presented in the book to the extent they have been expounded.

Most of the book goes to show how programmers are the last people who should be designing the software interaction and how programmers have fostered a lot of unusable software on the poor humans already. The last fact is hard to argue as there IS a lot of bad software out there, but I would personally claim programmers get affected by bad software just as much as anyone else and I would have really liked a little less vilification on that point.

The author's primary suggestion in the book is to institute a mandatory design phase for each software project that happens before any programming is done and is completed entirely by a team trained in interaction design. This idea does seem to have merit and I found it fairly interesting to read the 3 chapters where Cooper describes the types of techniques interaction designers use to create interaction specifications. In particular he goes into detail on specifying personas, goal-oriented design, and creating scenarios.

The book is a bit dated, having been published in 2004. Some particular references are especially amusing as they are forward looking. For example, he bemoans a lack of a mail system that would thread pieces of mail together based on replies and speaks of Apple needing that one good product to turn its luck around. Overall though, the book presented some food for thought and I feel that reading the book made me question how I approach certain design decisions myself. I would definitely recommend it to others interested in the subject of user interaction design.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Royal Blood

Title: Royal Blood
Author: Rhys Bowen
Series: A Royal Spyness Mystery, book 4
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2010

Recommendation: Fun and funny whodunnit set in a Transylvanian castle. Enjoyable!
Rating: 7/10

Summary: Lady Georgiana, 34th in line to the English throne and penniless is sent to Romania to represent the royal family at a wedding between a Romanian princess and Bulgarian prince. Only a murder occurs on the second night in the castle where everyone is snowed in and one of the guests must have done it, but who?

Reactions: I've enjoyed previous books in this series and this was a refreshing quick read after Acacia. The 30's atmosphere and English humor make the book enjoyable, so I read the whole thing in about two sittings. I certainly do like this style of whodonnit, especially with all the suspects in an ancient Transylvanian castle and jumping at each noise.

There is a good dose of mystery, though unlike the main heroine, I didn't consider the supernatural explanations for the murder. There's plenty of humor with a maid who just cannot get anything right. There's some romance as Darcy appears and prince Siegfried from the previous book continues his advances. The strangest inclusion in this book is Belinda who doesn't belong and doesn't really contribute much to the plot. And while I did figure out the killer ahead of our heroine, I still enjoyed the antics in the castle. Will definitely be picking up the next book in the series when I need some more enjoyable diversions in my reading.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Acacia

Title: Acacia: The War with the Mein
Author: David Anthony Durham
Series: Acacia, book 1
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2007

Recommendation: Good series for those who enjoy political epic fantasy with swords, wars, and betrayals.
Rating: 6/10

Summary: For hundreds of years, the Akaran family has ruled over an empire of nations. However, a plot is hatched in the far northern lands inhabited by the Meins to end the Akaran's rule and begin a new empire. Leodan Akaran, the King, and his four children will have to follow their destinies to resolve this conflict.

Reactions: Acacia has been sitting on my bookshelf for awhile now since I was avoiding epic fantasy and the massive scale of the book intimidated me. However, I have been talked into reading the book recently and I do hate having unread books on my bookshelf.

At first the book was going really slowly for me. It takes a really long time to get to the meat of the plot and two hundred pages in, I was still slowly wading through the back story, hoping that the main plot will finally take off. It does around page 300 or so where I could finally read more than a chapter at a time without an irresistible desire to doze off. And once it starts going, it actually continues at a pretty good pace. I definitely enjoyed the second half of the book better than the beginning.

My biggest issue with the book is that it's really the standard epic fantasy stuff that I am tired of reading. There are children with destinies, mirroring plotlines that have way too much symmetry to them for me to find it believable and a pretty obvious distinction between the good and evil characters. There is plenty of idealism and some of the plot points were poorly motivated or I found them hard to believe (e.g. Corinne's side of the story towards the end of the book).

On the other hand, I did think some aspects of the world building and the characters themselves were rather neat. The concept of island people revering a sea eagle was pretty interesting. I also found it fascinating to have a King character whose primary focus were his children. He ended up being a much better parent than a King and I thought that was pretty unusual and rather interesting to see. There are also quirks in various other characters that I tended to like.

Altogether, Acacia took me over 3 weeks to finish reading and sadly the 700+ pages served to just lay the foundations of the story. While I am somewhat curious about the rest of it, I don't feel like the book was interesting enough to spend another two months reading the sequels. Off to some pacier reading now.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

April Recap

My big hopes for reading a ton in April just didn't come through. Despite a week's vacation that included lots of travel time, I only finished two books. Both were installments in the series I've been reading, so I guess this blog is not a very exciting place at the moment.

  1. Master of Heathcrest Hall by Galen Beckett
  2. A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley
I can't even pick a favorite book this month since I enjoyed both of them, but wasn't swept off my feet by either.

In my defense for abandoning the blog and the books, I just had too much fun on this beach to spend too much time reading.


And now I am off reading Acacia which is a pretty hefty tome. So my reading goals are flailing behind, but the summer is still young and hopefully the blogging rate will pick up later. Until then, adieu!

Friday, April 27, 2012

A Red Herring Without Mustard

Title: A Red Herring Without Mustard
Author: Alan Bradley
Series: Flavia De Luce, book 3
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2011

Recommendation: Enjoyable continuation to the mystery series.
Rating: 7.5/10

Summary: Flavia sets a gypsy's tent on fire and ends up offering the gypsy to stay at Buckshaw's grounds. The gypsy gets attacked during the night and of course Flavia is in the midst of the investigation.

Reactions: This installment in Flavia's story went by pretty quickly for me. It was fun and I enjoyed following Flavia's adventures, her relationship with her family, and her deductions. I didn't necessarily feel that the overarching series story line progressed too much in this book, but we did get a few interesting tidbits about Flavia's mother.

In terms of the mystery plot, I thought it was well done, though some things became apparent towards the end of the book even before they were really revealed. The book timeline strains credulity a bit by placing Flavia in the way of so many murders in the span of some months, but I guess the author really doesn't want Flavia to get past the magical 11th year of her life.

All-in-all, it was a fun quick airplane read that drew me further into the story and made me want to pick up the next book in the series. I am definitely hooked.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Master of Heathcrest Hall

Title: The Master of Heathcrest Hall
Author: Galen Beckett
Series: The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, book 3
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2012

Recommendation: An enjoyable conclusion to the series.
Rating: 7.5/10

Summary: The war with the Ashen is coming closer and closer as the red planet draws into alignment. At the same time, the political situation in Invariel is heating up with the new powers at play that Mrs. Quent and Mr. Rafferdy have to face.

Reactions: I've been looking forward to the conclusion of the series and haven't been disappointed. It turned out to be a fairly hefty novel that took me quite a bit of time to get through, but it was enjoyable throughout.

The novel returns to the same characters of the first two books: Mr & Mrs Quent, Lord Rafferdy, his magician friends, Garrit, and various magicians associates of Mr. Lockwell. Together they try to fight the upcoming long night and prevent Ashen from taking over the world. Lots of mysteries started in the first volume finally get revealed and the ending is complete and satisfactory.

Even though it was clear that this is the type of novel to have a happy ending, I did enjoy watching all the different threads of the plot come together and resolve themselves. The author does a pretty good job with the pacing and gets everything resolved in the nick of time. There are some small details of the plot resolution that I find a bit strange (e.g. Lily's fate) and I felt the happy ending was a bit too happy given the circumstances, but overall it's a well written conclusion.

All-in-all, I would definitely recommend this series to anyone who likes Victorian fiction or character-driven fantasy. It's fun, it's easy to read, it has interesting world-building and a likable main heroine.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

March Recap

Hello, April! My March turned out to be a fairly successful month for reading and I am looking forward to reading even more in April since I will be on vacation for a week next month and heading to a tropical beach. In March, I finished the following four books:
  1. The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley
  2. And Blue Skies from Pain by Stina Leicht
  3. Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks
  4. The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett
Favorite book: Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks, but I really enjoyed all four of them.

This month also marked the release of The Hunger Games movie, which I was pretty excited to watch. It didn't turn out to be as good as I hoped, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I thought the costumes were great. My biggest complaints are about the casting of President Snow and how some of the character relationships are portrayed in the movie.

Next month, I have plans to finish Galen Beckett's last novel in the Mrs. Quent series, The Master of Heathcrest Hall. The book is already sitting on my table waiting since I pre-ordered it. I am also in the mood to continue reading Alan Bradley's series about Flavia De Luce. And as usual I will be reading whatever catches my eye.

Have a good April, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Warded Man

Title: The Warded Man
Author: Peter V. Brett
Series: Demon Trilogy, book 1
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2009

Recommendation: A solid epic fantasy novel in full traditions of the genre.
Rating: 7/10

Summary: Arlen leaves home at the age of 12 after his mother is killed by corelings, demons who hunt humans at night. He travels with a Messenger to the large city of Miln and apprentices to a ward maker in hopes to become a Messenger himself. However, his destiny may yet be much bigger than that.

Reactions: I have seen a slew of positive reviews when this book first came out and it wasn't a disappointment. The Warded Man is a very well-written debut in the traditions of the genre. The premise is simple.

Three children grow up in three different towns. Arlen is a farmer's son, who after witnessing his mother's death and his father's cowardice runs away from home to learn how to become a Messenger. The only profession that allows a person to travel at night. Leesha is pretty girl who gets apprenticed to the old Herb Gatherer, Bruna, to learn the healer's craft and other secrets. Rojer's parents are killed when he is yet small and he gets apprenticed by a Jongleur who was passing his village when the attack occurred. The three heroes grow and learn their trade, awaiting their role in the events to come.

The writing itself is engaging and snappy and I had no trouble finishing the book. Things progress well and there are adventures as well as character development which I enjoyed. The book is obviously planned as an introduction to a larger story with the world building and character introductions taking up most of the book. The real story is clearly meant to be developed in the next books in the series.

My biggest issue with the book is how much it is a staple of the genre. Child in obscurity grows up to learn of his/her power and take up the arms to save humanity from the great evil. It's like every other epic fantasy out there and while the world building aspect is interesting and slightly different, the book really doesn't have much to make it stand out among other epic fantasy novels out there.

I enjoyed the good prose, fast paced action, and the world building in the book, but the cliched nature of the characters and the story left me wishing for something more unique. I would recommend this book to anyone who's not as burned out on child-turn-prodigy epic fantasy stories as I am.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Use of Weapons

Title: Use of Weapons
Author: Iain M. Banks
Series: Culture, book 3
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 1990

Recommendation: Yes, read it. Really. It's worth it.
Rating: 8.5/10

Summary: Cheradenine Zakalawe is an agent of the Culture who is sent to various planets to use his military genius to turn the tide of events on those planets in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. He wins his wars and escapes alive, but his past will not stop haunting him.

Reactions: This book's main character has been nominated as the most interesting SF hero in science fiction by Fantasy Book Critic. And I can't disagree with this; Cheradenine is unique in his experiences and in his problems, and there's a surprising depth to him that the whole book revolves around. The supporting cast is good too, but Cheradenine mostly outshines them in the novel.

The most difficult part of the book is it's structure. It's written in a very fragmented way where each chapter is part of Cheradenine's story, but not consecutive in time. The story telling weaves all over the place and Banks really makes the reader work to keep up with narrative. The way the story is structured is both irritating and brilliant at the same time. The style really works as a complement to Cheradenine's personality and story, but as a reader having to be plunged into completely different places and times without much of a timeline is exhausting. I still really enjoyed it though.

I had no trouble finishing this book, it kept me interested throughout and getting to the very end was absolutely worth it with a twist at the end of it that makes a lot of sense once you think about it, but I didn't consciously see coming earlier in the book.

Banks is a top notch writer and the fact that he was able to pull-off a book this complicated in structure is quite an achievement. His writing is excellent too and despite being a part of a series, the book can be read as a standalone. It's just part of the same universe as the previous books and I would say probably my favorite of his so far (even though I enjoyed The Player of Games quite a bit too). I definitely recommend it.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

And Blue Skies from Pain

Title: And Blue Skies from Pain
Author: Stina Leicht
Series: A Book of the Fey and the Fallen, book 2
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2012

Recommendation: A worthy sequel that I recommend to those who enjoyed Of Blood and Honey.
Rating: 7.5/10

Summary: Liam agrees to be studied by the Milities Dei under the supervision of Father Murray to determine physiological and psychological differences between him and the Fallen. The order and the Fei make a temporary truce, but the study isn't going smoothly and soon Liam becomes involved in more politics than before.

Reactions: After reading Of Blood and Honey, I have been looking forward to this sequel that came out in early March. I lost no time buying myself a copy and was rewarded by the continuation of the adventures in the previous book and the return to the same characters.

This book is well-plotted and kept me coming back to read it early in the mornings and late at night. I enjoyed following Liam's adventures as well as his personal struggles. I definitely enjoy the character-growth and self-discovery aspect of the novel as much as the rich cultural background with the mythological characters and the Northern Ireland independence wars.

All-in-all, it was a good really fast read, though now I am faced with the prospect of waiting another year or so for the next book in the series to arrive. The ending was sufficiently wrapped up to be satisfying with just enough left open to see the possibilities in the next book. I will be definitely looking out for more Stina Leicht.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag

Title: The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag
Author: Alan Bradley
Series: A Flavia de Luce Novel, book 2
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2010

Recommendation: If you liked the first book at all, you will like this one even more.
Rating: 8/10

Summary: A puppet show comes to the small town of Bishop's Lacey and of course Flavia is the first to help out. However, when the puppeteer is murdered in front of the whole town, it's up to Flavia to discover who's done it and why.

Reactions: Despite my somewhat mixed review of the first book, something forcibly drew my hand towards the second book in the bookstore last weekend. There's something about the book covers for this series that I just cannot resist. Plus, I felt like going back to the rustic charm of Bishop's Lacey and 11 year old Flavia biking everywhere and learning everyone's secrets.

Knowing what to expect from the book, I enjoyed it more than the first one and in fact found it pretty hard to put down. I've been waking up half an hour early and reading little bits before heading off to work. The plotting definitely worked well and kept my reading interest strong. The mystery gets unveiled piece by piece and I didn't figure out the twist ahead of time.

The first person narration is still one aspect I am not fully comfortable with. It's hard to see the world through the eyes of a child who is so smart, but at the same time can be so oblivious. Yet, it didn't bother me nearly as much this time around and I really grew to like Flavia and Dogger even better in this book. Flavia's aunt Felicity is a pretty interesting new character with lots of depth whom I hope to see more of in the future.

All in all, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag is a really fun easy read. With lots of antics by Flavia, it had me laughing out loud in some parts and holding my breath in others. It was a perfect read to rekindle my reading mood and I will definitely be picking up the next book in the series as well.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

February Recap

The shortest month of the year is over and this year its shortness is less of an excuse than usual. Still I may use it so, for I only finished 3 books this month. I enjoyed the books I read, but the last one left me without an idea of what to read next. Despite a mile-long to read list I am struggling to find something I actually feel like reading. I have high hopes for March though since a few book I've been looking forward to will be published. One of them is And Blue Skies from Pain -- the sequel to Stina Lecht's book that I enjoyed this month. The other one is The Master of Heathcrest Hall, which is the last installment in Mrs. Quent trilogy. Let's hope those will get me back into the reading mood.

On to the books I read this month:

  1. Saints Astray by Jacqueline Carey
  2. Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht
  3. Some of the Best from TOR.com
Favorite book: Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht


Saturday, February 25, 2012

Some of the Best from TOR.com

Title: Some of the Best from TOR.com
Editors: Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Liz Gorinsky
Genre: Science Fiction stories
Published: 2011

Summary: A short story collection from a number of well-known science fiction and fantasy authors.

Reactions: I have become alarmingly opportunistic with my reading ever since I got my Kindle. Mostly because I've found that I can find books for free. And not just any books -- but new(ish) books that I would normally pay money for to read. Since I have this free-book craze, I downloaded this free anthology from Amazon.com and enjoyed it. I am going to write a few thoughts about each story and hopefully you can pick up the ones that sound interesting to you.

Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders (7/10). The premise of this short story is that a man and a woman live in the regular world, but they each have a superpower. The man can see the future and the woman can see a number of different futures. The premise of the story is that they meet and date each other. It's a story about their views on free will, and their superpowers interacting. It's a pretty cool premise -- though it takes a stretch of imagination to swallow the idea of these people existing and meeting each other. The relationship takes a few turns that I feel are not quite realistic either, but overall it raises a number of interesting issues and is a pretty interesting read.

The Dala Horse by Michael Swanwick (5/10). A story about a little girl who needs to walk to her grandma in the neighbouring village and meets a fugitive on her way there. Sounds a bit familiar? Here's the twist: the girl's backpack, map, and toys are all intelligent and their meeting will lead to clash between AI superpowers that control the human world. The story has an interesting twist, but I found myself disliking the POV that the author chose for the story and I guess I just didn't care as much for this rendition of the more familiar tale.

A Clean Sweep With All The Trimmings by James Alan Gardner (9/10). A story firmly rooted in noir genre staples where a "Cleaner" type tough guy is hired to dispose of an alien body in a brothel. In the process he meets a "Doll" whom the aliens are hunting. Her specialty is becoming exactly the sort of Doll a man next to her wants her to be. It's a very tongue-in-cheek adventure and I loved the language and the resolution of the story. A very well done noir science fiction that makes me want to check out this author's other works.

Beauty Belongs to the Flowers by Matthew Sanborn Smith (7/10). Set in futuristic Tokyo, this coming-of-age tale follows the teenage girl Miho whose father is dying after being infected with nanobots. It's a story giving a perspective on teenage rebellion and self-worth in a world where technology can make anyone and anything look beautiful. The tale is a combination of a love story and learning about yourself. I think I would have liked the story better in a longer format -- the character growth was a bit too rapid for the story timeline and the ending was rather bizarre.

A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel by Yoon Ha Lee(5/10). This rather strange story is a collection of descriptions of cultures of a variety of civilizations and their approach to interstellar travel. It's interesting in the variety of the imaginings, but I was somewhat hard-pressed to understand the meaning of the story. Perhaps others may like this one better.

Ragnarok by Paul Park (5/10). This was actually not a short story, but rather an epic poem set in post-apocalyptic Iceland following the traditions of epic narratives. The story is well-told, but I just didn't enjoy the epic poem medium of telling the story. Not quite my cup of tea.

Hello, Moto by Nnedi Okorafor (7/10). An atmospheric tale set in Africa where a woman mixes technology and juju to create three powerful wigs for herself and her two friends. The wig gives them powers over others, but also changes them in ways the creator didn't expect. I thought the setting made this story quite interesting as well as the mechanics of magic. The overheating wigs left me amused and the story-telling was pretty good if not in itself as imaginative as some of the other authors in the collection.

Shtetl Days by Harry Turtledove (10/10). Probably my favorite piece of work in this anthology. The premise of this novella is that Reich has won WWII and by mid-21st century it has exterminated most Jews. To remind the world of how awful things were before their reign, Germany sets up a pretend-village modeled after early 20th century Polish settlement where German actors play roles of Jews and Poles in the village. The production is set up for realism - the actors get immersed in the atmosphere day in and day out and are taught to completely ignore the tourists visiting the village. With the actors practicing the language and the culture daily, the novella examines the idea of actors becoming what they are portraying.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Of Blood and Honey

Title: Of Blood and Honey
Author: Stina Leicht
Series: A Book of Fei and the Fallen, book 1
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2011

Recommendation: A solid character-driven fantasy set in Northern Ireland in 1970s.
Rating: 8/10

Summary: Liam Kelly is a teenager in 1971 Northern Ireland. Involved in political troubles despite best intentions, he spends time in prison for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He gets out of Long Kesh, but his troubles, both political and personal, are far from over.

Reactions: I have seen a number of reviews for this book and it's caught my eye. When I saw a free Kindle promotion for the book on Amazon, I decided it was fate and started reading the book. And I am very glad I picked it up for it was quite different from my expectations -- it was better!

The story takes course in Northern Ireland with events taking place in Derry and Belfast most of the time. The story heavily involves the political troubles of 1970s and 1980s in the region and both BA and IRA have a part to play in the story. Not knowing a whole lot about Northern Ireland, I found the backdrop fascinating and ended up reading up some more on the politics of the time which are depicted fairly accurately by the book, but without all the background on the start of the conflict.

The first part of the story is almost entirely devoid of the fantasy component with more and more fantasy elements coming out throughout the story. The major magical elements are the Fei of which Liam's father is one and their battle against the Fallen. Besides that, the story is mostly realistic and largely character-driven.

Liam is a very sympathetic character. He gets into trouble quite a bit in the book, but I couldn't help feel for him starting from the very first chapter. His growth and self discovery on the backdrop of war pulled me deep into the book and made me root for him until the very end.

Altogether I thoroughly enjoyed the novel both due to the interesting setting and for the well-drawn engaging characters. I will certainly be looking forward to the other books in this series.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Saints Astray

Title: Saints Astray
Author: Jacqueline Carey
Series: Santa Olivia, book 2
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2011

Recommendation: For those who enjoyed Santa Olivia.
Rating: 7/10

Summary: Having gotten out of the Outpost, Loup and Pilar give statements to politicians in Mexico and reunite with Loup's cousins. Loup is offered a job as a bodyguard and starts a training program together with Pilar. However, their adventures are just beginning.

Reactions: I reviewed Santa Olivia in 2010 and remember enjoying the first book quite a bit. Looking at my first review, I see that the title for the sequel has changed since (from Santitos at Large), though the old title describes the current book pretty well too.

The book picks up where the previous book left off and continues to follow the adventures of Loup and Pilar after they escape from the Outpost. However, unlike the previous book, I didn't find the current one nearly as engaging. In my mind there were two major annoyances. The first one is the sugary sweet romance between Loup and Pilar. They sex each other non-stop and we get to see it in detail way way way too often. For a relationship that's not changed throughout the book, there was really no reason to tell readers about their sex lives every 5 pages. They love each other, we get it, move on already.

My second annoyance with the book is the relationship Loup and Pilar have with their employers. The president of the company who keeps flying out to meet them and the trainers just didn't strike true with me. They didn't feel like realistic characters and that threw me off at various points in the book. I thought the motivation for hiring Loup is pretty realistic -- who wouldn't want a super-strong, super-fast deceptively small girl as a bodyguard? But their amazing treatment by the company seemed a bit over the top.

Ignoring those two gripes, the book itself was quite entertaining. Loup and Pilar get in a bunch of scrapes. I liked their relationships with the band they are guarding and their missions before the band. There are plenty of funny, touching, and poignant moments and we get to see some of the old crew from Santa Olivia. However, I didn't enjoy it as much as the first book and I am not sure if I would pick up the next book in this series (if such were to be written).

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

January Recap

January is the month when all the gyms get busy with people working on their New Year's resolutions. For me, I hit the "reading gym" and pulled out with 6 books finished this month. This is more books than I've read in any single month last year, though I have to blush at including a couple of really quick reads in here.
  1. Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
  2. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
  3. The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
  4. Heat Wave by Richard Castle
  5. A Fog of Fury by John F. Merz
  6. Among Others by Jo Walton
There are quite a few books on this list that came from other bloggers' best of 2011 lists and hence I've had a lot of fun reading this month. My favorite book of the month is To Say Nothing of the Dog with Among Others coming in a really close second. It's not that common for me to find a book I enjoy enough to give it a 9 star rating, but to find two in the same month is really great. I just hope this won't spoil me to expect as much from the rest of this year's reading.

Another achievement this month is that every single book I've read is by an author whom I haven't read before. Hence I am making a dent in both my "new author discovery" resolution as well as the grand total.

Having started out the year this well, February might end up a grave disappointment, but I am hoping for the best and starting on Jacqueline Carey's Saints Astray, which is the sequel to Santa Olivia. I enjoyed the first book in the series, so hopefully the sequel will not disappoint.

On a slightly different topic. John Scalzi plans to donate all earnings from e-book sales this week to Planned Parenthood cancer screening program for those who cannot afford these procedures. Scalzi is an amazingly talented writer and I would urge you to buy his books regardless. However, if you buy them this week, I feel your money would be very well spent indeed.

Happy February, everyone! 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Among Others

Title: Among Others
Author: Jo Walton
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2011

Recommendation: Absolutely worth reading.
Rating: 9/10

Summary: Mori is a Welsh 15-year old girl who gets to meet her father for the first time and is immediately sent off to an upper-English boarding school by her aunts. Coping with the death of her twin sister, Mori reads an inordinate amount of science fiction.

Reactions: I ended up with mixed feelings regarding Among Others. It's certainly not a typical fantasy book. The reason I even call it fantasy is because the primary fantastic element of the book is that Mori can see and communicate with the fairies. It makes for a really interesting twist, but was really somewhat secondary to the character development that happens during the book.

First, I need to get off my chest the two reasons that this book doesn't rate 10 for me. The first is the literary technique used by the author to continually mention Mori's traumatic past without providing the comprehensive picture of what happened. I understand why it's done, but found it somewhat irritating to get the information doled out in tiny pieces and yet continually touched upon. As a reader you can figure out just enough of what happened but without getting that feeling of closure and knowing.

Which brings me to the second problem I had with the book. The book moves along on a very stately pace, in the form of Mori's almost daily diary entries. However, when it comes to the ending, we get a rather rushed and to me a somewhat baffling resolution. I was very happy with the book until the very end and then I was just left gaping and feeling the story didn't sufficiently build up towards the ending.

Other than the two gripes above, I thought Among Others was absolutely wonderful. It's told from 1st POV presented as Mori's diary and her voice is both sympathetic and believable. I could really identify with her and thought that the author captured a smart but lonely and bookish teen down to the roots of her hair. I don't think you have to have been one yourself to really like Mori's courage and good sense. At the same time, she is not at all perfect and comes off very realistic in her coming-of-age story.

There are some really good quotes in the book too:
"Bibliotropic," Hugh said. "Like sunflowers are heliotropic, they naturally turn towards the sun. We naturally turn towards the bookshop."
I don't know about you, but that generally describes my shopping patterns pretty well indeed!

The other enjoyable part of the book is that there are lots and lots of references to classic science fiction novels and Mori's musings on them. The book is set in 1979-1980 and I haven't read a number of classics that they mention (though now I have lots of notes on which ones to take a look at). But some of the classics have a place in my heart like Zelazny's Amber series and it's very gratifying to see Mori pick them up, enjoy, and dissect them. Though only the first three books of the series are yet published at the time. (I checked the dates and the first five are all published by 1980, but I guess not in England yet).

All in all, it's a very well written, whimsical tale of a girl's coming of age story that I wholeheartedly recommend. I don't believe it's a series, but if it was, I would be happy to go back for more.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Fog of Fury

Title: A Fog of Fury
Author: Jon F. Merz
Series: The Lawson Vampire Series
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Published: 2011

Recommendation: A quick fun urban fantasy novella.
Rating: 7.5/10

Summary: Lawson is a Fixer for a supernatural government organization that sends him to settle a dispute in a backwater town. He brings along his guest Jack who has some skills of his own.

Reactions: I grabbed this novella opportunistically since it was a free download and I needed some airplane reading. I haven't read any other books in the series, but it wasn't too difficult to figure out what's going on though I am guessing there's more to the backstory.

On the surface it's a fairly generic urban fantasy series. It's modern, there is a mystery, there's a main hero with special powers. It has a noir feel to it and it seems fairly similar to other works like this. However, the plot moves well and the writing style is easy, so I found it to be an excellent book for my travel.

I also rather enjoyed the main character. He stood out to me as a fairly well developed and credible tough guy type. He had enough uniqueness about him to make reading interesting and wasn't so ridiculously overpowered that there wasn't any suspense.

A Fog of Fury is a fun, quick novella that's perfect for an engaging read on a plane ride. I might even pick up another book in the series for the way back.