Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Wrap-up

Last day of the year! Time to reflect and tally all the reading done in 2013. I decided to put favorites in a few categories this time around.

Favorite book(s) of the year

This is the most difficult category to pick into because I've enjoyed a lot of books this year. I've read a round total of 40 and most of them were quite good. After some deliberation my favorite read of the year goes to Connie Willis for Blackout and All Clear.


Favorite book published in 2013

Altogether, I've read 11 books that were published this year. The top pick goes to The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.


Favorite book from a new-to-me author

I've actually discovered quite a few new authors this year, which I am really happy about. In total, I've read books by 19 different authors whom I have never read previously. The favorite is actually The Fault in our Stars by John Green. A total tearjerker, but oh so good. Apparently there's gonna be a movie too next year.


Favorite series

It's really common to have series in the genres I read: sci-fi, fantasy, mystery. And sometimes it's hard to say that this one middle book in the series is the best thing since sliced bread, but it maybe quite awesome as part of the series development. Over half of the books I've read this year are actually part of a series. This year the category goes to Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny. I've read 9 mystery books from this series this year and all of them were enthralling, entertaining, and enjoyable. Now I am stuck waiting until the next book in the series is published.



There were a ton of other books I really enjoyed this year and I am starting to comb through everyone else's top 2013 lists to make a great reading pile for the next year and I am feeling really excited about what 2014 will have in store.

Soon I Will Be Invincible

Title: Soon I Will Be Invincible
Author: Austin Grossman
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2007
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: I received Soon I Will Be Invincible as a Christmas gift. As an aside, Christmas gifts are awesome for getting one out of a reading funk. They are also good at introducing books and authors that one might never pick up on their own. For me, Soon I Will Be Invincible is one of those books that I probably wouldn't have picked up myself.

The book is told from two different perspectives in alternating chapters. The first perspective is that of a super-villain, Doctor Impossible, who escapes the prison for the 12th time to hatch yet another plan for world domination. The second perspective is of a superhero, Fatale, who joins a band of other famous superheroes called The New Champions. The original Champions and a few new members are brought together to stop Doctor Impossible and find out what happened to CoreFire, a missing member of the original group.

I have to make a disclaimer that I have never been big on superhero cartoons or comics. I didn't grow up with them, I have never read the comics, and I've only seen one or two of the superhero movies that came out recently. I can be relied upon to not remember the difference between Spiderman, Superman and Batman. So at first I was a bit put off by the fact that the whole novel is about superheroes.

However, Grossman handles the subject in a surprising manner. He takes the usual tropes for superheroes and villains and he twists them to fit into the real world. It's an adult handling of a subject usually dealt with in kids' media. The villain evokes pity rather than fright, despite his abilities and clear malevolent intentions. Since half the story is told from Doctor Impossible's POV, there is a much clearer motivation than usual in these types of stories. The superheroes are not as impressive either, squabbling, facing family issues, divorced, disillusioned. They are typical adults with a few extraordinary powers. It's hard to tell whether the heroes are the villains in the novel are more twisted.

The novel in itself moves pretty well, there are lots of interesting elements to it, and a nice twist at the end of the book which I didn't see coming. It's well written, but the dark tone is not necessarily something I want. Here's an example from the scene where Doctor Impossible breaks into The Champions' residence:
Splendid, but the place smells like they always do -- sweat and ozone and disinfectant, hospital smells. The ability to stretch your limbs or secrete acids can wreak havoc on the human metabolism. There's a fine line between a superpower and a chronic medical condition.
Even if I hadn't made a connection from Austin Grossman to Lev Grossman at first, I definitely would have as I was reading the book. There is a common element to The Magicians and Soon I Will Be Invincible. They both take subjects that readers associate with their childhood and think of with nostalgia; and turn them into adult themed books.  Turns out they are brothers, and I really wonder why both of them decided to treat, what I assume to be their childhood interests, in this manner.

Overall, it's an interesting and unusual narrative. I think folks who don't mind a more edgy and adult treatment of superheroes will enjoy it a lot. For me, it was entertaining, but not entirely satisfying.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Perfect Escape

Title: Perfect Escape
Author: Jennifer Brown
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2012
Rating: 8/10

Review: I received Perfect Escape as a Christmas gift and read it in one sitting on the Boxing Day morning. On one hand it's clearly engaging enough for me to finish it in one sitting, on the other hand I have a hard time putting a finger on what exactly I enjoyed about the book.

The two main characters in the book are 17 year old Kendra and her 20 year old brother Grayson. Kendra is a model child, being perfect is her way of getting attention which she feels always goes to her brother. Grayson scores sky-high on his IQ tests, but is severely handicapped by an OCD, which causes him to hide out at a local quarry counting stones, panic about germs, and be deadly afraid of highway overpasses.

Kendra's perfection is threatened when she becomes involved in a cheating scandal and rather than deal she grabs her brother and drives off on a whim, heading from Missouri to California, where her best friend from childhood now lives. The trip is entirely unplanned, short on money, and keeps being justified by Kendra as exposure therapy for her brother.

The appeal of the book is in how Jennifer Brown captures the feel of the road trip. The highs and lows of being stuck together for long time and the exploration of the relationship between Kendra and Grayson. The journey is more about accepting each other than about the destination.
Right there, by the car, I realized that sometimes you don't have to say you love someone for it to be true. Sometimes you just have to hang out in that person's shadow and be okay with it.
I guess it goes without saying that there is angst, and misunderstanding, and Kendra blowing things out of proportion at times. But it's human, visceral, and I hung onto the story for every minute of it. This is definitely an author I'd love to read more of.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Libriomancer

Title: Libriomancer
Author: Jim C. Hines
Series: Magic Ex Libris, book 1
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Published: 2012
Rating: 7/10

Review: I've heard of Jim C. Hines and his book mostly through the blogs of John Scalzi and Patrick Rothfuss who seem to be friends enough to pose semi-naked together in photographs. Clearly these guys have a sense of humor and I liked the premise of Libriomancer, so I gave it a chance.

The book is told from the first POV by Isaac Vainio who is a libriomancer, part of a secret group named the Porters. What libriomancy entails is the ability to reach into any book and pull out an object from it. However, Isaac has been banned from the field for losing control of his magic before and exiled to file books in a small-town library in the middle of nowhere. All of that changes one day when he gets attacked by three sparklers, vampires of the type Sanguinarius Meyerii. He then joins forces with a dryad and begins to unravel the mystery of some of the Porters going missing.

The very strange phenomenon in this book was the fact that I kept thinking that the main character is female when I started reading it. Given that both the narrator and the author are male, it didn't make much sense, but the narrative just felt that way to start with. I guess I associate kindly bookworms with girls. But then, of course, Lena appeared and Isaac spends a bunch of time deciding whether to sex or not to sex and his gender became pretty apparent.

The book turned out to be pretty fast-paced and fun. Isaac and Lena go around, getting into trouble, and surviving the fights beyond all odds. The plot is quite linear and somewhat predictable, but it's all good fun. As one might imagine, there are lots of references to other novels an SF enthusiast would be familiar with and I got a kick of out of the various magic artifacts Isaac manages to pull out of books.

What bothered me a bit about the novel was the romantic conflict of the book. Lena is a character brought from a book written so that she becomes what her lover desires her to be. The author meta-sneers at the cliche, and yet spends a good part of the book having Isaac expound the moral choices of taking such a lover, and in my opinion spending way too much time on this fantasy and resolving the conflict in a way I didn't find entirely believable. It's an interesting handicap for a kick-ass female heroine, but the way it gets handled in the book rubbed me the wrong way a bit.

Otherwise, it's a pretty fun book with some interesting perspectives presented by Isaac on how the magic can and should be used. I love the sciency aspect of using magic to do practical things and the Porters being more researchers than sorcerers. I'll definitely consider picking up the next book in the series.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Allegiant

Title: Allegiant
Author: Veronica Roth
Series: Divergent, book 3
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2013
Rating: 7/10

Review: I was reading Little, Big by John Crowley and making absolutely no progress, so I decided to set the above aside in favor of something light and easy to read. I had no trouble finishing Allegiant pretty quickly, but at the same time, it's probably the weakest book of the series.

The book continues where Insurgent left off. In this final book, Tris and Tobias finally leave the city and find out what's behind the fence and why they couldn't leave before. The explanation given left me somewhat unimpressed, though I am thankful this didn't turn into zombie apocalypse. Tris and Tobias try to make a life for themselves outside and of course they immediately run into trouble.

There is just so much unnecessary angst and general immature behaviour in this novel, that I felt all characters managed to regress in their emotional state at least a few years. Well, Tris always did crazy stuff in every book, but Tobias used to be on the sensible side... but not anymore. With that state of affairs, I really didn't manage to connect emotionally with the events and ending left me feeling... equanimous. I really hoped for a better ending to the series, but I guess at least it was interesting enough to keep me reading, which is more than I can say for Little, Big. That book has amazing reviews, but I am on page 40 and NOTHING happened yet.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Republic of Thieves

Title: The Republic of Thieves
Author: Scott Lynch
Series: Locke Lamora, book 3
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2013
Rating: 8/10

Review: In my second post on this blog, back in January 2009, I described the books I was looking forward to the most that year and The Republic of Thieves was pretty high on the list. However, it actually took another 4 years since then to actually publish the story, which meant that (1) I bought and downloaded the book on the day it was released and (2) when I did start reading the novel, I could barely remember anything that happened in the previous books.

Despite the second fact, I proceeded to read The Republic of Thieves and enjoyed it very much. The plot and structure of the novel is quite different from the preceding two books. First of all it's actually split into two separate narratives: one is an account of how Locke and Sabetha first meet and fell in love. The other takes place in present time and puts Locke and Sabetha in conflict with each other. The conflict consists of an election -- with Locke & Jean representing the Deep Roots party and Sabetha representing the Black Iris party. Presiding over the election are the Bondsmagi of Karthain -- whose politics are being represented and who ensure the continuing cooperation of Locke, Jean, and Sabetha.

Of course, with The Gentlemen Bastards running the election there is no end to intrigues, plays, farces, betrayals, and schemes of all sorts. It's fun to watch the rat race, and also fun to see Locke vulnerable to Sabetha, but fighting nonetheless. I enjoyed the relationship development there, though Sabetha herself wasn't quite as magical as one might have imagined her to be after all the hints dropped in previous books. Yet she makes sense as a character -- though she did create more drama than what was strictly necessary.

In the parallel story, Sabetha, Locke, Jean, and the Sanza twins travel together and join a theater troupe. Of course they find themselves in the middle of all sorts of trouble and have to extricate themselves and the troupe. Lynch did a great job portraying the inexperienced teens running the show and it's a really nice touch to see them mess up and be generally teen-ish.

One thing that didn't work particularly well were the transitions from one story to the other. I could imagine them working a bit better together, revealing just the right information for the current story using the story of the past. And I do think that may have been the author's intention, but I didn't feel that it was particularly effective. I liked both stories by themselves, but I didn't think they tied together well.

Overall, I think The Republic of Thieves was well done. It was fun, it moved quickly, there were some very good relationship development moments and some great trickery. I will be looking forward to the next book in the series.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Twelve Clues of Christmas

Title: The Twelve Clues of Christmas
Author: Rhys Bowen
Series: Her Royal Spyness, book 6
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2012

Review: I took a bit of a hiatus from the blog -- it's been a busy 4-6 weeks for me and I didn't read a whole lot meanwhile. However, I did finish The Twelve Clues of Christmas back in October without ever writing a review, so I thought I would catch up with a really short review here.

The book begins with Georgiana staying for holidays with Binky and his wife in Scotland and desperately looking for a way to leave. She finds an advertisement in a magazine, looking for a well-bred hostess to help a Christmas party and lands the job. Most of the events take place in a very picturesque English village, where strange murders begin the day Georgiana arrives and continue apace once a day. Of course, it just so happens that Darcy, Georgie's mother, and grandfather all end up at the village as well, so we have a full cast for the book.

Overall, it was a quick and satisfying book. Things progress quite a bit on the relationship front with Darcy, which is nice to see after so many books of will-he/will-he-not. There is a colorful cast of guests at the house and I very much enjoyed the cosy atmosphere of the novel. They eat extremely well, drink delicious hot drinks, play charades and sardines, and decorate the tree. I think the book plays quite a bit on general Christmas sentiment, but I enjoyed that and I really liked that the author actually included the rules for some of the arcane games they play in the novel as an appendix to the book. It sounds like something that would be fun to try.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Heirs and Graces

Title: Heirs and Graces
Author: Rhys Bowen
Series: Her Royal Spyness, book 7
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2013
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: I think I will go straight to the punchline first. After finishing this book, I found out that I completely missed the previous book in the series: The Twelve Clues of Christmas. And now I feel surprisingly embarrassed about that, despite the fact that each book is pretty stand-alone and I only got one little spoiler out of reading this first. And it's more of a teaser than a spoiler really. So I am pretty sure my next book review will be for the previous book in the series.

In this installment, Lady Georgiana gets invited to Kingsdowne Place where she is to teach manners to an heir of a duke who's fresh off the boat from Australia where the boy was raised as a sheep farmer, unaware of his lordly connections. Of course, there is plenty of family drama surrounding this and very soon also a murder. What we get is essentially a "closed circle mystery" where one of the inhabitants of the house must have done it and the bumbling police will be lead to the killer by polite and tender suggestions from Lady Georgiana.

Overall, it was funny and cozy and enjoyable as intended. I did not see the final twist coming and it was really fun to spend time with this weird crazy family. Looking forward to reading the previous book...

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Little Prince

Title: The Little Prince
Author: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Genre: Children's book
Published: 1943

Review: I saw this really pretty edition of The Little Prince in the bookstore and decided to buy it on a whim. This is a really gorgeous edition of the book: printed on thick paper, with lots of really cute colored illustrations, a bookmark, and gold-colored page edges.

I know many people for whom this was a classic when they were growing up, but I've never actually read this book until now. I think I've tried once upon a time, but didn't actually get into it and set it aside back then. Today, I just read the whole thing in one sitting and it was a really pleasant experience.

The plot of the story is that the narrator of the story (who is clearly de Saint-Exupéry himself) gets stranded in Sahara dessert because of a plane crash and meets the little prince who is visiting Earth from another planet.

The prince tells the narrator about the rose he cares about on his own planet, various personages he has met in his travels (each of whom is a personification of a human foible), and what the wise fox has taught him. The message is pretty obvious, but the story is told in a touching way with a lot of whimsy, and gives the impression that the author is laughing lightly at the people criticized. I enjoyed the style -- I wonder whether it's faithful to the original French version.

A few quotes I really liked:
Grown-ups never understand anything on their own, and it's a nuisance for children to have to keep explaining things over and over again.
This is my secret. It's very simple. You can only see clearly with your heart. The most important things are invisible to the eyes. 
It's a sign of a good children's book when you can read it as an adult and enjoy it, though I wonder whether I would like it as much when I was a kid. Either way, I am glad I've read it now.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

September Recap

I finished September with three fairly meaty books read and feeling happy about my reading this month. Two of the three books I read were historical fiction which is not something I read all the time, but I enjoyed both of them (though for different reasons).

Here are the books I've read:

  1. How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny
  2. The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett
  3. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
It's hard for me to pick a favorite book this month since How the Light Gets In was a very satisfying book, concluding the story arch started in the previous novels. On the other hand The Last of the Wine was very fresh in setting and enjoyable as well, so they pretty much tie. It's been a fun month of reading, I hope I won't get derailed next month with all the shows coming back in the fall.

I just keep picking up new shows and catching up with them and then continuing with steady-state watching. This fall, I am watching Castle, Bones, New Girl, Modern Family, Blue Bloods, The Good Wife, How I Met Your Mother, White Collar, and Top Chef Masters. Wish me luck.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Last of the Wine

Title: The Last of the Wine
Author: Mary Renault
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: 1956
Rating: 8/10

Review: Chad suggested that we read The Last of the Wine as a group read. He learned of the book from Jo Walton's Among Others. After I finished reading the novel, I went back and took a look at what the protagonist in Among Others says about the book and honestly there's very little beyond the mentioning of Plato. So while I am completely mystified as to why this book stood out next to the million books mentioned in Among Others, I am really glad it did since I definitely enjoyed it.

There's a huge contrast to The Game of Kings, which I just finished reading. On one hand, the author manages to convey the feel of Ancient Greece perfectly well without using any sort of convoluted language and gets deep into the psyche of her characters who are the focus of the story. On the other hand, the contents of the plot are extremely linear and simple compared to The Game of Kings. It's funny how these two books are so similar at a glance -- they both have a fictional protagonist surrounded by historical figures, war, relationships, intrigue -- and yet, the two books couldn't be any more different in writing style, plotting, and the message they convey.

The Last of the Wine is written in the form of a memoir by a well-born Athenian named Alexias. He tells of his birth and boyhood, his friendship with Socrates, Plato, and Xenophon, his relationships familial and sexual, and finally his fight against the oligarchs, Spartans, and others. The outcomes of many such stories could be easily predicted by someone who has studied the Peloponnesian War, but I am not one of these folks, so there was a sense of suspense for what will happen.

One difference from The Game of Kings is the way the history was presented; I didn't feel overwhelmed by facts and figures and factions. I have actually managed to get a feel for what happened in the conflict between Athens and Sparta and a general feel for the politics of the time. I still had to flip back sometimes to remember who was who at times, but it was definitely much more manageable a book.

I was really interested in the portrayal of the famous Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Plato and I liked the way Renault imbued them with a sense of humanity despite the fact that Socrates seemed to be impossibly insightful all the time. It kindled my interest enough to spend a few hours on the Wikipedia today reading about the facts of these historical figures and it was surprising how much of this knowledge I already got from the novel.

Another unusual detail in The Last of the Wine is the focus on homosexual relationships between men. The book postulates that relationships between men were commonplace and encouraged and even codified by the Greek society. I don't know how historically accurate this portrayal is, but the relationship between Alexias and Lysis feels natural and genuine. This doesn't prevent them from having sex with women and marrying and the way the two are combined is internally consistent. Women get treated pretty much like property, rather than partners in the book, and the men lovers are the actual confidants.

All in all, I enjoyed The Last of the Wine despite the fact that the story didn't have a strong plot. The characters and the surroundings more than made up for it and I even checked whether there was a sequel to the story, but alas.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Game of Kings

Title: The Game of Kings
Author: Dorothy Dunnett
Series: The Lymond Chronicles, book 1
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: 1961
Rating: 7/10

Review: I picked up The Game of Kings expecting it to be a quick and entertaining read. However the book both disappointed and exceeded my expectations. I haven't read something I have felt this conflicted about for a long time.

At first I found this book to be a really slow going. There are historical battles, skirmishes, and maneuvers going on throughout the book that I really didn't care much about and the number of characters and their politics make the book pretty confusing. Worst of all is probably the language in which the book is written is imitating an old-English style and at times I just had to guess what the author is trying to say. Oh, and not to forget countless French, Spanish, and Latin quotations throughout. Here's an example of a passage early in the book:
"Softly, softly! Remember your superior upbringing, and your Caxton. How gentlemen shall be known from Churls. Don't be a Churl, Marigold. Full of sloth in his wars, full of boast in his manhood, full of cowardice to his enemy, full of lechery to his body, full of drinking and drunkenness. Revoking his own challenge; slaying his prisoner with his own hands; riding from his sovereign's banner in the field; telling his sovereign false tales..."
This is the style in which the main character, Lymond talks throughout the book and while comprehensible, it's often not the easiest dialogue to understand.

Nevertheless, despite all the issues I had with the novel from very early on there was something to the story that really hooked me in and urged me to continue reading. The chapters are chess-themed and represent various intrigues in the novel. And I have to admit to the book being intricately plotted. Things come together in some very interesting ways towards the end of the novel and I really liked all the twists and turns the book ended up taking.

The second half of the book went much faster than the first. I guess I got used to the writing style and finally started to tell who's who in the book and started enjoying some of the characters a whole lot more than I did at the beginning. I don't think I picked up much in terms of history beyond the fact that Scotts and English fought a whole lot in 1540s, but that wasn't my main objective anyways. The story ended up being worth reading and I would probably recommend this novel to anyone who likes a good intrigue and is willing to put up with the thorny writing style.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

How the Light Gets In

Title: How the Light Gets In
Author: Louise Penny
Series: Inspector Gamache, book 9
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2013
Rating: 8/10

Review: I bought the hardcover copy of this book at Louise Penny's recent library visit to my neighborhood. My copy says, "To Maria, Welcome back to Three Pines". I may have criticized the ending of the previous book while she was signing my book, but I was still certainly looking forward to finding out what was going to happen to Gamache and Beauvoir.

The story is set back in Three Pines once more. In fact, during her talk, the author mentioned that she's planning to continue staging her series in Three Pines every other book in order to make sure that Three Pines doesn't turn into Cabot Cove. In this book, Gamache investigates a murder of a woman who was famous for being born a quint -- one sister out of five sharing a birthday -- born naturally before IVF was invented.

However, the murder of a quint is probably the least significant part of the novel because the story arch of conspiracies and treacheries started in the previous books finally comes to a resolution. We get to find out who leaked the warehouse attack video and more about Francoeur's political dealings as well as his latest plot.

It's a comparatively action-packed book and one I enjoyed more than several preceding offerings. It's a very satisfying ending and one I really enjoyed. There were a few things that bothered me in the book -- some of the events came together a little too smoothly, but overall it was a pretty gripping plot. I am still not convinced about the Beauvoir's relationship to Gamache in this series, but I am willing to suspend my disbelief at the premise and enjoy the rest all the same. Especially with all the favorite folks from Three Pines back in the game.

I also really liked Louise Penny's explanation for the title of this book. Apparently it comes from a verse of Leonard Cohen's lyrics:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
The imagery fits really well with the contents of the book and I am totally looking forward to the next book in the series.

P.S. On a completely unrelated note I saw How the Light Gets In on NPR's hardcover fiction list with a completely incorrect plot summary. How do these people manage that? Ruth does not disappear in this book... sigh. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

July and August Recap

Even though I've left school quite a few years ago, it's hard to not associate September with the start of the school year. I sort of miss the trips for school supplies and the anticipation of new classes. When I was in elementary school, they used to give us lists of books to read through the summer. Now I just wish that I would have three months off to laze around and read books and have someone cook for me. Despite not getting the summer vacation, I did do quite a bit reading this summer and I am happy with all the reading I have done. There were lots of enjoyable books in the past two months.
  1. The Algebraist by Iain Banks
  2. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neal Gaiman
  3. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
  4. Graceling by Kristin Cashore
  5. Blackout by Connie Willis
  6. All Clear by Connie Willis
  7. The Human Division by John Scalzi
  8. Boy Nobody by Allen Zadoff
  9. Divergent by Veronica Roth
  10. Insurgent by Veronica Roth
I enjoyed Connie Willis' books very much. This has been my year for lots of WWII lit and Willis has really brought the period into color for me. I also really enjoyed watching The Bletchley Circle which is a short series following four women who were code-breakers during WWII and reunite again after the war to find a serial killer on the loose.

I also got to meet Louise Penny this month whose mystery series I've been devouring all year. I went to her talk and book signing and found myself the youngest person in the room by a 30 year margin. She signed her latest novel, How the Light Gets In, for me and I actually asked her about the unsatisfying relationship conflict in the previous book, A Beautiful Mystery. She defended her character choices, and though I wasn't necessarily convinced, I am looking forward to the latest book to see where she takes it next.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Insurgent

Title: Insurgent
Author: Veronica Roth
Series: Divergent, book 2
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2012
Rating: 7/10

Review: I decided to continue reading the series, even though the third book isn't available yet. Insurgent picks up where Divergent left off and continues the story of Tris and Tobias.

I didn't enjoy this book as much as the first one. Perhaps it's the novelty of the ideas and the world that have worn off. Or maybe it's just the effect of endless shooting and politics that dominate this book, but it just didn't touch me as much at the debut novel did. It was entertaining, but lacked the oomph factor. Especially with Tris mostly behaving like a zombie most of the time, I had a hard time relating to her.

The ending of the book is pretty clever and leaves a cliffhanger interesting enough that I will probably be picking up Allegiant when it comes out later this year.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Divergent

Title: Divergent
Author: Veronica Roth
Series: Divergent, book 1
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2011
Rating: 8.5/10

Review: One of my co-workers recommended this book to me and being on a YA kick this month I decided to give it a go. I was very glad I did too because I enjoyed it a whole lot.

The setting of the book is in post-apocalyptic Chicago where the humans have split into 5 factions. The five factions are Abnegation, Erudite, Amity, Candor, and Dauntless. Plus there are the faction-less folks who are pretty much the poor and the homeless. The five factions each have a defining characteristic that they take very seriously. Our main character, Beatrice or Tris as she calls herself, grows up in Abnegation. This is the faction that celebrates selflessness and tries to help others. At sixteen all children are allowed to choose what faction they will belong to. To help with the decision they are given a test consisting of a simulation designed to suggest the faction they are best suited for.

The story starts on the day of Tris's test where the simulation gives out unexpected results -- she is not suited for any one faction, but she is suited for three of them. She is divergent. And that's something she needs to hide in order to be safe. What follows is the story of Tris's adventures as she initiates with a faction that she chooses.

The plot is fast-paced and has a number of qualities I enjoy: a sympathetic main character, good supporting cast with complex relationship development, a romance, and lots of action. It's a fun story and I stayed late into the night to find out what's going to happen to Tris next. The conclusion of the story leaves a bit to be desired -- it goes by a bit too fast, but I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of it.

The story strongly reminds me of The Hunger Game series. There's a post-apocalyptic world with an underlying political plot. There's a brave and resourceful main heroine who overcomes her obstacles. There's a movie in the works. So if you liked the former, I would definitely recommend this book to you.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Boy Nobody

Title: Boy Nobody
Author: Allen Zadoff
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2013
Rating: 6/10

Review: I picked this book up based on a synopsis I saw on another site. The premise of the story is a 16-year old boy who shows up at your school as a new kid, becomes your friend, and then suddenly someone close to you dies of seemingly natural causes. The boy's parents allegedly move towns and the boy disappears never to be seen again. Of course in this case, the boy is a trained agent, whose mission was to kill.

Really, I only have myself to blame in being disappointed in this book. I think I came with expectations that were a bit too high for a plot like the above. What it turned out to be is a teen high school drama with just enough mention of sex to be interesting to teens and just enough story to keep reading.

The main character's secret protocol procedures just kept me rolling my eyes a whole lot. And he endlessly belabored the point that he's a soldier for whom mission is everything and he will get it done and so on and so forth. For a trained operative who can read people and gain trust so well, he certainly isn't very perceptive about himself and his deductions leave a lot to be desired. That's probably the crux of the problem for me -- I liked the antagonist better. At least she was pretty smart.

The plot was reasonable for a YA story, it had a bit of a twist, even though I saw it coming. Overall, I imagine I would have enjoyed it a whole lot more as a teenager without the critical lens on the believe-ability of the character's actions and motivations. I also didn't connect well with the whole betrayal, mother, father scenario, but Zadoff gets points for adding that layer into the book, it was actually not badly done.

Basically, I would recommend this to actual teenagers. I don't think this works well as a YA for adult enjoyment. This reminded me quite a bit of Francine Pascal's series Fearless. So if you liked this book, you might want to check that out as well.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Human Division

Title: The Human Division
Author: John Scalzi
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2013
Rating: 7/10

Review: The unusual thing about The Human Division is it's format. It came out as a series of episodes that you could buy separately once per week. Each episode is telling a stand-alone story and together they are tied into a larger interconnecting story arch. I am not a huge fan of doing episodic reading, so I waited for all the episodes to be published as a book before I bought it.

The book is set in the Old Man's War universe after the events of The Last Colony. It generally follows Lieutenant Harry Wilson whom we've met previously in the series and the crew of the diplomatic ship Clarke that he's attached to. They take on missions of various improbability and ingenuity and generally come out ahead.

I enjoyed the episodes. The characters are bright, with a sense of humor, and it's fun to watch them deal with difficult situations and come out on top. You definitely get to cheer them on quite a bit through the book. There's some politics and some space battles, this is an easy read with plenty of fun and not a lot of depth. My biggest dissatisfaction with the book is its refusal to actually come to some sort of a resolution at the end. There's certainly a climax, but then it just ends, no explanation to the main story arch suspense point and to me that was really a let down.

Nevertheless, The Human Division is fun, funny, and worth reading for the pure entertainment value. Though perhaps you should wait for the next book (if such should exist) to actually get some sort of closure.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Blackout and All Clear

Title: Blackout and All Clear
Author: Connie Willis
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2010
Rating: 9/10

Review: I bought these two books second-hand off of a co-worker and was very glad I bought them together because they turned out to be just one story published in two-book format.

I gotta make an aside to rant about the whole split into two books publishing trick. I despise that they have decided that it's acceptable to stop a story mid-word and then publish the rest of it in a separate tome 6 months later. Fortunately I had access to both books and could just read them one after another, but if I had finished the first book and didn't have access to the second, I would have been majorly angry. I am happy to pay twice the cost for a single tome, just don't separate what logically belongs together.

Having gotten that out of the way, I have to say that I enjoyed these books immensely. I have really liked all Willis' books dealing with time-traveling historians and this one has not been an exception. In Blackout, three historians travel to WWII. Eileen is there to observe evacuated children in the countryside, Polly is there for the start of the Blitz, and Mike Davis wants to see the evacuation from Dunkirk. All is well until the historians realize that they cannot get back to the future -- their drops won't open. They find each other and start looking for a way to survive in WWII and find their way back to their own time.

I think the best part about these books are the characters. The main trio is slowly introduced and we get to know them really well by their actions and by the way they interact with others. They are admirable -- maybe a little bit too much so, but they are not without flaws and I really liked all three of them. They are a mix of heroic and mundane, which I thought worked really well. Eileen ends up going above and beyond caring for orphaned children, but she is deathly scared of the war. Polly drives an ambulance around the city and saves lives during the raids, but ends up "doing her bit for the war" as an entertainer who shows her knickers to the soldiers in the audience. Mike is travels to the past to study heroes, but ends up a hero himself, and somewhere along the way realizes that regular people make better heroes than the ones he intended to observe. The book is a study in contrasts and I really enjoyed that.

The supporting cast is pretty colorful too. A troupe that befriends Polly has brilliant characters and Eileen's orphans are indomitable hooligans, who still manage to elicit sympathy. Altogether the characters are what makes this story so compelling.

The other part I really enjoyed is the World War II setting. It's been thematically close to some of the other books I read this year and I really like how Blackout/All Clear shows the war in different contexts and tells more about the lives of people during the war. The book has clearly been researched a lot and I liked filling out my gaps in knowledge. I also enjoyed various humorous bits -- for example the orphans pain blackout stripes on the cows in their neighborhood.

I'd definitely recommend these books to pretty much anyone who likes character-driven stories.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Graceling

Title: Graceling
Author: Kristin Cashore
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2008
Rating: 8/10

Review: I haven't been reading much fantasy lately, especially not the traditional sword and sorcery kind since its appeal faded for me a few years back. Instead, I've been branching out to other genres -- this year in particular has been full of mystery novels.

So at first when I received Graceling for my birthday, I put it aside for the lack of a suitable mood. After all, it does sound like a traditional fantasy novel. The heroine is an orphaned young woman who lives and works at a court of one of the seven kingdoms. How much more cliche can you get?

Despite my reservations, when I sat down to read Graceling, I found a curious thing; I just couldn't stop reading. Turned out, I couldn't resist Katsa's story. She is the young woman born with a grace. A grace is a special talent and can be anything, a great ability to swim, bake, or hold breath for a really long time. Katsa's ability is to fight and kill and she is used by her uncle, the king, to do his dirty work pressuring men to stay in line.

Katsa's heart is in the right place, but at the start of the novel she comes off as surly, sullen, and dense like a kitchen cutting block. She misses completely obvious to everyone social signals and had me rolling my eyes quite a bit. It's really hard to believe that she leads a secret society of so many members since she is mostly lacking any sort of people skills.

Then our hero enters the stage and he's everything Katsa is not. He is amicable, friendly, talkative, and clearly a born leader. And he's also one fighter that can give Katsa a somewhat fair match on the training grounds. Their relationship grows in obvious ways, though of course there are challenges along the way.

The reason I ended up really enjoying this novel is somewhat elusive. Objectively speaking there isn't much to the book's plot. It's much more straightforward than I expected and also has a lot less angst for the characters than I imagined it would. In a way it was a pleasant surprise the author didn't capture and torture the characters in a way I suspected she might.

The writing flows smoothly and it's pleasant to read. I don't think the prose is amazing, but it's definitely on the better end of the spectrum for YA writing. There's just something about the narrative that captured me and kept me reading and thinking about the book. This elusive quality made the book more enjoyable than the sum of its parts and is making me consider picking up other books by Kristin Cashore.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Lean In

Title: Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead
Author: Sheryl Sandberg
Genre: Non-fiction
Published: 2013
Rating: 8/10

Review: This book has been making waves since it came out and mentioned more than once by various folks at work, so it got me curious despite the fact this is generally not my cup of tea.

If I had to describe the book using three adjectives, they would be "entertaining", "inspirational", and "predictable". The best part about the book is that it's an easy read, full of anecdotes from Sheryl's personal life, which I really enjoyed. Her sense of humor really comes through, for example, when she speaks about her pregnancy.
I gained almost seventy pounds, and my feet swelled two entire shoe sizes, turning into odd-shaped lumps I could only see only when they were propped up on a coffee table. A particularly sensitive Google engineer announced that "Project Whale" was named after me.
The story continues to tell how Sheryl got pregnancy parking for women at Google, which masculine company founders approved of, but would not have thought of implementing without a woman in their ranks. The story is far from shocking, but the tone and various bits of description make it much more fun than it could have been otherwise.

Besides anecdotes the book is fairly heavy on citing various research into gender studies. A lot of it is interesting, but has been around for quite awhile, so many of the things she mentions as important-to-know are those I have heard of before. An interesting topic that she brings up is women stalling their careers early because they plan to have kids in the future, sometimes years in advance of actually having the first kid and long before it's at all necessary. She argues that taking on more interesting, growth-requiring roles before pregnancy is more likely to lead to women being motivated to come back to work as mothers.

In general, there's a lot of common sense advice in the book aimed mostly at women in white collar positions. I don't think this book will make someone into a leader when they weren't before, but it can raise awareness of certain problematic behaviors at work and it's pretty inspirational in terms of stories she tells and her own career. I'd definitely recommend it to any woman interested in the topic and not too familiar with other books in the field.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2013
Rating: 9/10

Review: I have recently got to hear Neil Gaiman read an excerpt from the first chapter of The Ocean at the End of the Lane; he has a great reading voice and after that I couldn't wait to read the whole novel. At under 200 pages, it didn't take long to finish and I rather wish it had lasted.

The main protagonist of the book is a 7-year old boy who is happier reading books than playing with other children and whose life gets a lot more strange after meeting Lettie Hempstock, an 11-year old who lives down the lane and who shows him her ocean.

The novel is a combination of a children's book plot where the evil is fought and vanquished and a more subtle narrative about childhood, perception, and friendship. I enjoyed immersing myself into the descriptive language and the quirkiness of the novel. Everyone is not quite who they seem, and I love the dialog:
"How old are you, really?" I asked.
"Eleven."
I thought for a bit. Then I asked, "How long have you been eleven for?"
She smiled at me.
I generally have found myself enjoying Gaiman's "children" books more than the adult ones. And this one is probably one of my favorites on par with The Graveyard Book. There are a few bits in the book that make it a questionable choice for children, but in general I think readers of all ages could and should enjoy it.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Algebraist

Title: The Algebraist
Author: Iain M. Banks
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2004
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: With the news of Iain Banks passing away a month ago I finally decided to start the journey of reading The Algebraist. Despite not being immensely long in page count (432 pages), Banks' novels tend to take me a prodigious amount of time to finish, so I gathered all my patient determination and started on my trek.

As expected the reading went slowly. Banks' prose is really vivid and he submerses you into his world with aliens, new cultures, new technology, new mores. I think he is a great writer in a sense of invoking imagery and thinking deeply about issues, but it's a slow going setting up the relationships and the world around them and I think he could definitely get to the same place with less detail.

Speaking of getting to the same place, this novel stands out in how little is accomplished at the end of it. This may be a bit of a spoiler, but most characters would have done better to stay at home and sip tea for all that their activity accomplished. Not to say it isn't realistic -- I have days like that too -- but it's a pretty gaping disappointment as a reader when you realize that half the novel describes actions of a zero-sum game. The ending is both brilliant in how it comes together and extremely frustrating at the same time. I can't make up my mind whether I love or hate this book's ending. A little bit of both.

In terms of the book cast, most of the action is focused on Fassin Taak, who is a human sent to the planet of Dwellers to gather certain intel of potentially enormous disruptive power. The best description I have for him is "the boy next door". It's not entirely fair, he's smart, he does some things out of the ordinary, and he has some good insights. He's likable, but somewhat bland for my tastes. On the other side of the spectrum is the arch-villain of the novel with the suggestive name Luceferous. His evil deeds throughout the novel made me wince, feel distaste and even consider skipping some pages (though I didn't!). And I generally wouldn't call myself squeamish.

All-in-all, The Algebraist is a slow sprawling novel. I think whether you enjoy it come down to whether the conclusion makes up for all the waiting for things to happen at the start. I would recommend it only to those who have a patience for slow narratives. Banks' does a lot of awesome things with symbology, but I sure wish he got to the point a little faster.

Monday, July 1, 2013

June Recap

Ah, summer reading. June has mostly been taken up with fun quick books.

  1. Death's Daughter by Amber Benson
  2. Die Trying by Lee Child
  3. The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
My favorite of those was The Summer Prince. It was fresh and interesting and gave me lots to talk about despite being flawed.

With sad news about Iain Banks passing away this month, I picked up one of his novels that I've been meaning to read for some time, The Algebraist. It's quality writing and breathtaking in scope, but his style of writing takes me much longer to get through, so I will probably need a few weeks to finish the tome.

In other exciting news I went to Neil Gaiman's reading last week. He read from his newly released novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane and also from a yet-unreleased novel. He has a great reading voice and a very good sense of humour that came through during the Q & A portion. I bought The Ocean at the End of the Lane and look forward to reading it next month.

Another book I am looking forward to reading next month is Graceling by Kristin Cashore. Perhaps I should call July "the young protagonist" month.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Summer Prince

Title: The Summer Prince
Author: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Genre: YA Science Fiction
Published: 2013
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: I picked up The Summer Prince based on a glowing review I recently read and while I am not nearly as impressed with it as the original reviewer, I did find the book interesting and fun.

The story is set on post-apocalyptic Earth, 400 years in the future with a very vague explanation of how it got that way. The main character, June, is an angry teenager from well-to-do family who lost her father and who is taking it out on her re-married mother and everyone else. In general, this is a story of growing up as much as anything else and while I like these types of stories, I found June's initial angst a bit unappealing. However, things get much more interesting towards the middle of the story.

The city in which June lives is called Palmares Tres and the culture there has a lot of Portuguese influences -- a number of Spanish words are used to describe various concepts which I had to look up the meaning of. The city is ruled by women, a Queen at the head and Aunties as her advisers. Every five years they elect a King, who seems to be generally a young man in comparison to 100-something year old Aunties and  the King is publicly sacrificed at the end of the year. The idea behind the sacrifice is that he chooses the next queen in his dying moments and a dying man cannot be bribed, etc.

So the story follows June and her friend Gil making friends with the latest Summer King, Enki. The story itself is decently plotted and once I've got into the book, I felt it drew me in and progressed very well. However, I think the social commentary was probably a more interesting part of the book than the plot itself.

The author attempts to showcase gender issues in some interesting ways, but doesn't always do it consistently well. For one, the mores allow both different- and same-sex partnerships and give them identical status. It's an interesting idea, but I find it strange that whereas June mother seemed to dominate June's father, the roles are reversed when she gets married to another woman. The idea that everyone's bisexual is easier for me to believe than a gender role reversal in mid-life.

A number of other conflicts play a major role in the book: old vs young, technologically progressive vs conservative. In fact, it felt a bit like an overload to have all of these conflicts -- but in general it worked and made me think along with the main character about the issues involved. However, I do think it would probably work better if one or the other was explored more in depth instead of just heaping on everything.

The writing itself was somewhat mediocre, but the style was easy-going as one might expect of a YA book. The characters were interesting, but at times a little over-angsty. The world-building was really cool and is probably the strongest part of the book. All-in-all, I would recommend it.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Die Trying

Title: Die Trying
Author: Lee Child
Series: Jack Reacher, book 2
Genre: Mystery
Published: 1998
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: I decided to continue with the series featuring Jack Reacher and was glad since I enjoyed this book better than the first one. In this installment Jack gets kidnapped along with a lady whom he's helping carry her dry cleaning and who turns out to be an FBI agent. Together they unravel the kidnappers plot.

Once again, the beginning of the book was probably the best part. Lee Child is just very good at drawing you into the action and getting you hooked on the story. It literally takes just a couple pages before I can't stop myself and keep reading. The pacing in the second half of the book is still fast, but I think slightly less gripping since we understand much more of the overall story and despite slim odds it's clear that the good guys are going to win.

I liked the supporting character better in this book as well. She was smarter and had a bit more personality than the cop girl in The Killing Floor. She actually saves Jack's life at some point rather than just act the damsel in distress, which I appreciated. Though in general, I feel like Child's much much better at writing interesting men than writing interesting women. Neither book passes the Bechdel Test, but what else is new, really?

Once again, there was lots of gory violence, but I think I rather expected it more this time around and so it went down a little easier. There were also a bunch of little things that didn't make sense to me during the book, and one big thing. The big thing happened at the end, where after plot resolution (in which FBI and Militia were involved), the parties just dropped Jack Reacher off at the side of a random road to continue wandering in his adventures. Yeah, right, those guys would just let him go without any accounting of what happened, etc, etc.

All-in-all, it's a fun book if you don't look too close at the particulars and the likelihood of it going down the way the author describes it. I think I might actually keep going with the series.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Death's Daughter

Title: Death's Daughter
Author: Amber Benson
Series: Calliope Reaper Jones, book 1
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Published: 2009
Rating: 6.5/10

Review: I've gotta prefix this by the admission that I am a big Buffy fan. In fact, I liked the series enough to watch all seven seasons is something close to 3 weeks while preparing for exams in 3rd year university. That show is awesome and if you haven't given it a serious shot yet, go watch it now and reserve judgement until you see at least a few episodes. It starts out slow, but it's pretty amazing over time.

Now, Amber Benson played Tara on Buffy and though I've never been particularly fond of her in the show, I thought it would be interesting to check out the novel she published. This novel is her debut and since I've seen it talked about and reviewed around the blogosphere, I thought I'd check it out.

The main heroine in the book, Calliope, is Death's daughter. When Death himself is kidnapped, she is asked by her family to step into his shoes and rescue her father. In addition to Death, the book also features the Devil, God, Goddess Kali, and the Devil's Protege. Calliope mostly stumbles around, getting into various mis-adventures, and somehow still getting ahead despite being somewhat dense and prone to crying fits.

The pacing for the book was good. It was easy to read and the humourous situations came through quite well. I mostly liked Calliope as a protagonist despite her flightiness and constant emotional turmoil. However, at times the absurdity of the actions did get a bit much and I thought the writing of the book could use some work.

Altogether, not a bad airplane read and perhaps not bad at all for a first-time author, but I can't say I was deeply impressed either. I would consider picking up the next book in the series, but I am in no hurry to do so at the moment.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

April and May Recap

May was finally a month where I got out of my reading slump a little bit. Since all of the April was taken up by reading the C++ book, I went for the easier fiction reading in May. I finished 4 books:

  1. Timeless by Gail Carriger
  2. Killing Floor by Lee Child
  3. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
  4. Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley
My favorite was probably Speaking from Among the Bones, which was surprisingly in-line with my mood and I enjoyed it more than the previous installment. I am definitely on a mystery reading kick this year, so if anyone has suggestions for good mystery series to pick up, I am all ears.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Speaking from Among the Bones

Title: Speaking from Among the Bones
Author: Alan Bradley
Series: Flavia de Luce, book 5
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2013
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: I am continuing to follow the adventures of Flavia de Luce in a small English town in 1950's where she solves crimes using her wit and her chemical lab. Yet again there is a murder that Flavia stumbles upon and then continues her investigation.

In this case, an organist from the church is found murdered inside Saint Tancred's tomb in the process of uncovering the saint's remains for a 500-year celebration of his death. Flavia is of course ever present and discovers a number of details that the police managed to miss. The mystery takes its course and the plot altogether is quite enjoyable.

I actually liked this book more than the previous installments because there are a number of developments in the family plot line. Flavia discovers someone whom her mother used to visit, Flavia's father has something resembling a conversation with Flavia, there are developments in the sisters' relationships. All-in-all, those are very satisfying after four books of everyone keeping silent and giving a cold shoulder to Flavia.

I thought the ending was quite interesting and is good hook for the next book, which I will undoubtedly be picking up as soon as it's released in 2014.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Title: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
Author: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Genre: Fiction
Published: 2009
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: I saw this book reviewed quite a bit when it first came out and then every so often until the end of last year at which point I added it to my 'read' queue. It sounded fun and quirky and had this amazingly strange title, which attracted notice.

The novel is written entirely in letters sent by and to a published columnist, Juliet, a year after World War II is over. By a sheer coincidence she begins corresponding with a man from Guernsey who tells her stories of life on the island and its occupation during the war.

I had to look up on the map where Guernsey is -- it's a small island off the shore of France that nevertheless belongs to Britain. At some point the book fills us in on the story and the geography of the island, but I was curious long before that point. It's a pretty neat setting for the book.

The book starts out really well, with everyone telling just enough of the story to kindle the reader's interest. I think the biggest potential issue the authors avoided was making this into a depressing book. Not particularly difficult with WWII as the topic. However, this novel was a really good balance of terrifying things people had to live through and jokes, fun, and light they created to deal with their reality. The stories were heartfelt and told matter-of-factly and often in a funny manner despite being horrifying underneath and I really enjoyed that style of story-telling.

The best part about the book are the characters. They are quirky, imperfect, gregarious, simple and sophisticated at the same time. I just fell in love with the whole crew and they were the ones who kept me in the story throughout. The biggest flaw in the novel is probably the lack of plot tension and a very obvious ending. The author tried to get some plot going, but the outcome just seemed so entirely obvious the whole way through that the tension just failed to build up and I thought the second part of the book was a bit of a let down.

Nevertheless, I would wholeheartedly recommend this as a warm and funny book dealing with experiences of German occupation during WWII. This war seems to be an unintentionally recurring subject for me this year and this book turned out to be yet another really good read.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Killing Floor

Title: Killing Floor
Author: Lee Child
Series: Jack Reacher, book 1
Genre: Mystery
Published: 1997
Rating: 7/10

Review: I picked up this novel on a whim from a local bookstore. Sometimes when an author's series takes up two shelves worth, I get awfully curious about it and buy the first book in the series. I've never heard of the author before that day, nor had I seen the movie alluded to on the book jacket.

The book starts out really well and sucks you in almost immediately. We get introduced to Jack Reacher, who's a tough guy, an ex-military cop, and who is wrongfully arrested for a murder in a town that he's just passing through.

There are a number of idiomatic elements in the book. There's a black police detective, a hot female cop who takes a liking to Reacher, and an asshole chief who always gets in the way. The elements work pretty well together and I definitely enjoyed the fast ride that begins the first half of the story.

The part that I didn't enjoy is all the killing that happens in the second half of the book. Things seem to get gruesome just for the sake of being so and the fact that Reacher has no compulsion about killing first and asking questions later made me rather uncomfortable with him as a protagonist. At the end, Reacher's body count is no smaller than that of the bad guys and to me that's a bit of a turn off.

Otherwise, the book is quite well-written, with strong pacing and lots of good "aha" moments in the investigation. There are a few plot points that I thought somewhat shaky, but overall, that's a solid mystery novel that kept me reading well into the night to finish the story.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Timeless

Title: Timeless
Author: Gail Carriger
Series: Alexia Tarrabotti, book 5
Genre: Steampunk
Published: 2012
Rating: 7/10

Review: After two months of non-fiction, I decided that the next installment in Gail Carriger's series would be the perfect book to read. And indeed, I've got what I was looking for. There is off-the-wall humour, adventure, sassy dialog, and plenty of intrigue. It's an easy and enjoyable read.

Timeless takes Alexia, Conall, and their daughter Prudence to Egypt where they are to meet an old vampire queen Matakara and discover the source of God-Breaker Plague. Ivy and her theatre troupe travels with them and of course lots of antics and fainting ensues.

This is the last book in the 5-book series featuring Alexia hence some of the conflicts previously left unresolved got brought over and taken care of. At the same time, the author seems to have left plenty of story for herself to write and a few loose ends still open. Unsurprisingly, there are more books planned in the same universe, though I wonder if they are going to feature Prudence instead of Alexia.

All in all, it's a nice segue back into reading. Hopefully, I can get back on track and finish a few things waiting on my shelves this month.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Effective C++

Title: Effective C++ Third Edition
Author: Scott Meyers
Genre: Non-fiction
Published: 2005
Rating: 9/10

Review: It's been a couple month since I last posted here. I am sad to admit that in all this time, I have read exactly one book -- Effective C++. I generally tend to be a slow reader when it comes to non-fiction, but apparently programming books go even slower for me.

I knew that if I let myself read other books simultaneously, this one would just never get finished, so I concentrated all my reading time on this. However, reading something to learn just requires much more dedication than reading a novel for fun, therefore there were fewer occasions before bedtime when I felt up to picking up the book and turning my brain back on to read this.

Getting back to the actual book, notwithstanding my slowness in reading it, I did find it quite interesting. I am new to C++ as a whole, having only done C in college but this book worked really well for me. I found the writing and explanations really engaging and accessible. There's a wide variety of topics covered and many important ideas introduced. I would recommend it both to novice and intermediate C++ users looking for some basic overview of techniques and syntax.

The book is split up into 9 chapters covering topics from good coding practices to good design choices to basics of template programming and various miscellany. Some things I learned about C++ just blew my mind. For example, function call parameters are not guaranteed to be evaluated in any particular order! Coming from languages like Java and Python that just amazes me. Or the fact that creating a new polymorphic method in a subclass hides all the superclass variants. Shocking! But really good to know.

All-in-all, a book well worth reading for those not already up on their C++ use. Well chosen topics and well-explained. I really liked it!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Code Name Verity

Title: Code Name Verity
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Genre: YA Fiction
Published: 2012
Rating: 7/10

This is the second book set during WWII that I read in February. This congruence of themes wasn't at all planned -- both are books from the "Best of" lists from last year and they turned out to be quite different despite that both could be very roughly described as "young women doing brave things during the war".

Code Name Verity begins in the form of a report by a captured English spy. Chapter by chapter, we learn about her training in England, her best friend who is a mechanic and a pilot. And about her interrogation at the hands of Gestapo in the town of Ormaie.

My initial feelings towards the book mostly revolved around how unlikely I thought the premise was. There you have a woman broken down during interrogation and instead of asking her some direct questions, they spend valuable paper (that they are short of) to let her ramble on for hundreds of pages about her best friend with occasional mentions of something that may be considered useful. Even if you allow for the possibility of her questioning officer being a bit soft on her, her treatment is still a far cry from anything you'd expect.

I decided to set that qualm aside though and tried to immerse myself into Verity's story telling. The story itself flows quite well with the characters and friendships being developed. I didn't get the same sort of feel for the atmosphere in England during the war that Mr. Churchill's Secretary created, but there are different bits and pieces that are quite interesting.

The second half of the book is told from Maddie's point of view. Once again there are things she does that I have trouble believing anyone could possibly get away with and I had to try hard to suspend my disbelief at certain events that she narrates. On the other hand, the narrative is cleverly woven together with the story Verity has told in the first part to expose events in a different light and often turn them around in clever ways. I rather enjoyed that aspect of the plot and the second part of the book was a faster reading than the first.

Altogether I was a bit disappointed in Code Name Verity, but perhaps I just had unrealistically high expectations for the novel to start with. It's a very well written book with likable characters and an exciting plot. I just couldn't get past the bits that seemed unrealistic to me and that tarnished the experience somewhat. I'd still recommend this book to anyone who enjoys strong female protagonists.

P.S. Chad read Code Name Verity at the same time -- take a look at his review.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

February Wrap-Up

The shortest month of the year is over, the sun is shining and it's very clearly spring outside my window. Good weather doesn't bode well for my reading counts, but February was quite successful with five books completed:
  1. Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny
  2. A Trick of Light by Louise Penny
  3. The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny
  4. Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal
  5. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
I started this month by finishing off all the published books in the Inspector Gamache series. Bury Your Dead was particularly my favorite out of those I read this month. Then I switched gears and read a couple of fictional novels set in WWII which was quite a change of pace. I enjoyed both books, but wasn't particularly strongly affected by either.

The reason I suspect the next month will be slow beside the really nice sunny weather is because the next book I am reading is Effective C++ by Scott Meyers and that might take me quite a bit of time to get through. Nonfiction is always a drag on my total book count, but since I've made some goals for myself to read non-fiction this year and the book is actually interesting, I am investing time into it.

There are still several books on my to-read list that came from Best Of lists from last year and that I may pick up. Or I can catch up with Flavia since the latest book in the series came out in January. Time will tell. Happy March to you all!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Mr. Churchill's Secretary

Title: Mr. Churchill's Secretary
Author: Susan Elia MacNeal
Series: Maggie Hope, book 1
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2012
Rating: 7/10

I've seen Mr. Churchill's Secretary make the top 10 list of 2012 quite a few times and decided to give it a try. The book starts by introducing the reader to Maggie Hope, a rather progressive young woman for her time about to start her post-graduate degree in mathematics at M.I.T. Her plans are derailed by her grandmother's death and Maggie comes to London to sell the old house and becomes involved in WWII effort by becoming Winston Churchill's personal secretary.

I liked Maggie's character. She is no-nonsense, smart, straightforward and a bit naive. She grinds her teeth at  having to take a position below her ability, but she is capable and able to stand up for herself which makes her a rather sympathetic character.

My biggest issue with the book is the way it flows. The first half moves pretty slowly, we are introduced to all the characters, attend the parties, listen to the conversations. Maggie bumbles around learning her way around the new job. Then all of a sudden the book completely switches pace in the second half with crypto-puzzles, hostages, intrigues, bombings, and plenty more all packed into a rather small space.

Some of the things Maggie accomplishes seem a bit beyond belief and while I enjoyed the story and cheered her on, the thought of how unlikely some of the events were stayed with me in the second half of the novel. And even though I was satisfied with the resolution of the book in the sense that all plot lines neatly got tied off, I felt that the success turned out to be a little over the top.

I also didn't particularly care for the romantic story line of the book. It was clear from the beginning who Maggie would end up with, but it felt somewhat unmotivated and, for me, un-moving. In fact, none of the romances in the novel felt particularly natural to me. Something just didn't click there.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed the atmosphere that MacNeal created in the book. London during WWII seems well-presented and well-research. There are lots of neat details about the bombings, rations, St. Paul Cathedral watches, and other war-related trivia. I liked the descriptions of the Churchill's office and excerpts from his speeches. The details made the novel a whole lot more interesting than it would have been otherwise.

Altogether, it was an enjoyable read with some flaws, but I would definitely recommend it to someone who wants a quick adventure in a historical setting with a variety of memorable characters.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Trick of the Light and The Beautiful Mystery


Title: A Trick of the Light and The Beautiful Mystery
Author: Louise Penny
Series: A Chief Inspector Gamache, book 7 and 8
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2011 and 2012
Rating: 7/10

A Trick of the Light is the next book in Gamache series that is predominantly focused on Clara, who has her debut solo show and then discovers a dead body in her garden the day after. Of course Gamache and his team come down to investigate the murder and the usual inquiries begin.

In addition to the part of the plot dealing with current investigation of the book, there are also quite a few plot advancements in the larger story arch here. There is a subplot dealing with Jean-Guy's painkiller addiction as well as changes to Clara and Peter's relationship.

A common theme in the book is the issue of forgiveness. There are multiple characters looking for forgiveness or trying to forgive and a number of different contrasting situations where the outcome is very different. A few relationships are restored this way and others are ruined, but the stories are nicely woven together and compared.

The Beautiful Mystery is a bit different in that it's not set in Three Pines and actually doesn't involve anyone from the village. Instead Gamache and Beauvoir fly off to a remote monastery to solve the murder of a monk.

I thought the setting of the book made it pretty interesting and I liked the character set and descriptions of the monastery life the Louise Penny integrates into the narrative. There is some religious lore, but also neat hidden rooms, mysterious hidden treasure, and chocolate blueberries.

One might think this book is a break from the larger story arch, but we manage to get some developments there in the relationship between Beauvoir and Gamache. I was somewhat dismayed at the direction their relationship took in this book and felt some of the changes were too fast and too forced. I hope this won't drag on past the next book in the series.

All-in-all, I enjoyed the last few books a bit less than some of the earlier books in the series, but the mysteries are still fun and surprising to me and the characters still draw me in enough to keep reading the series. Now I have to wait for the next book to be published.