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


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!