Saturday, July 27, 2013


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.
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.