Sunday, December 28, 2014

Ready Player One

Title: Ready Player One
Author: Ernest Cline
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2011
Rating: 8.5/10

Review: I've had Ready Player One sitting on my shelves for quite some time even though people were telling me left and right that I was going to enjoy this book. I admit that people were right and I should have picked it up without any delay.

The book takes place in the near future. Earth is overpopulated, has energy shortages, and a lot of environmental problems. The main protagonist, an 18-year old nerd named Wade Watts lives in the stacks. The stacks are mobile homes, piled 20 levels high, with a whole lot of poor people crowded in them.

Wade goes to school via a VR setup called OASIS -- a virtual world where one can find anything and be anyone. Other than going to school, Wade spends all his waking time studying the life and interests of James Halliday, a very wealthy eccentric who invented OASIS and left a will saying that his billions will go to whomever solved his final puzzle. The puzzle is likely to contain references to movies, TV, music, and video games of 1980's which Halliday grew up with.

Overall, the book is a pretty fast-paced adventure. Wade competes with four other puzzlers and an evil corporation called IOI for the top score to inherit Halliday's fortune. There is plotting and scheming and even a little bit of romance. There's a ton of gaming references and plenty to reminisce about for anyone who was alive during the 80's. The writing is solid and I liked some of the twists towards the end of the book. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys playing video games or self-identifies as a geek.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Why Bother with Bonds

Title: Why Bother with Bonds
Author: Rick Van Ness
Genre: Non-fiction
Published: 2014
Rating: 7/10

Review: This book is a bit off-the-beaten path for me if you consider my reviewing history on the blog. I generally don't read too many financial books (or really financial anything) because it causes me to fall asleep -- one second I was there, and next thing you know I am curling up next to my cat and closing my eyes.

Also, I got this book for the worst possible reason: it was free. Unfortunately, it seems like the promotion is done now and it's $5.99 on Amazon Kindle right now. Yet, even if I got it for the wrong reason, I decided to actually give it a chance and read it.

Generally, it's a pretty basic introduction to bonds. The answer to the question in the title is a bit naive and much-reiterated through the book: stocks are risky, you can lose lots of money on stocks, put some of your money into bonds instead. I was hoping he would address the fact that current bond yields are below the inflation and he does mention it -- but I wouldn't say that he addresses the problem really.

On the other hand, I thought he did a pretty good job explaining the financial concepts in the book. He explains various terminology, how bonds are priced, their yield, what duration means, and how to choose what to buy. Generally speaking, if you agree with his premise that you need to play it safe and diversify away from stock market, I think following his advice on which bonds to buy makes a lot of sense. He promotes either buying Treasury Notes directly, investing in a low operating cost mutual fund that tracks a bond index, or building a bond ladder.

He also mentions bogleheads.com website and forum, which I find has a lot of interesting investing information. Generally speaking, this is a pretty good hands-on practical manual for understanding the basics of how bonds work and picking bonds. On the other hand, you could probably find all of this information online easily -- the value is mostly in organization of the information and accessible reading style. I would recommend it for novices, but I think anyone who has done this research before would find the book a bit slow and repetitive.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Slow Regard of Silent Things

Title: The Slow Regard of Silent Things
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2014
Rating: 6/10

Review: I am generally a big Patrick Rothfuss fan. I loved The Name of the Wind when it came out and I read his blog pretty regularly. He is a really good author who happens to also be an awesome guy (the two don't always seem to go hand in hand -- not to point any fingers, but *cough*orsonscottcard*cough*).

Of course, when The Slow Regard of Silent Things came out, it wasn't really a question of whether to buy it. It was just a question of when I am going to get to reading it (hint: it did not take all that long). The foreword is a bit alarming though: Patrick Rothfuss basically tells the readers of the book that they might not want to buy it. That didn't stop me for two reasons: the first being that I've read the foreword after I already bought the book and the second being that when someone says you shouldn't read something that makes you want to read it roughly twice as much.

I understood from the prologue that it's not going to be a traditional story and that it's not going to advance the plot of the main trilogy. I was perfectly fine with those caveats. It's a pretty short book and I've read most of it in one sitting, but I have to admit Patrick Rothfuss may have been right in his prologue when he said I shouldn't buy it.

I generally don't actually mind books that don't have a plot as long as I am enjoying the characters. But in this case I didn't actually enjoy learning this much about Auri. You know how sometimes you see a crazy homeless guy yelling on the street that you are walking on and you feel a mixture of alarm and pity for them? Well, this is how I felt about Auri in this book. She basically behaves crazily enough in the story to make me feel physically uncomfortable reading the book. And on top of it, I felt like the book passes judgement on everyone who chooses to lead a normal life with some modicum of comfort. Perhaps, I was deriving a message that wasn't truly there, but that's just how I felt upon finishing the book.

Patrick Rothfuss is still a crafty author and the language of the book is quite interesting. He plays with homonyms a whole lot and he can certainly evoke imagery, but it just wasn't enough to turn the book around for me. I am going to pretend this never happened and go back to waiting for The Doors of Stone to get published.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Looking for Alaska

Title: Looking for Alaska
Author: John Green
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2005
Rating: 8.5/10

Review: Amazon website seems to be designed to get me to read more book. On my laptop, I usually add books that sound interesting into my Amazon wish list and then when I have nothing to read, I go through it and pick something. On mobile web, when I view a Kindle book, it doesn't give me the option to add it to my wish list (or I wasn't able to find this option) and instead I thought I might download a sample to my Kindle instead to remember it. But of course having a sample turns into reading a sample and then immediately reading the rest. Not such a bad thing certainly since I really enjoyed Looking for Alaska.

The story takes place at a private boarding school in Alabama, which Miles Halter joins in his junior year of high school. There he makes friends with Chip "The Colonel" Martin and Alaska Young. The kids in this school are all very smart, but it's also notorious for pranks. Miles spends a lot of time smoking and drinking with his friends and develops a crush on Alaska.

I can absolutely understand why this book would appeal to a teenager. The characters are smart and likable, but at the same time daring and non-conformist. The book starts off somewhat racy (in a teenage book sense of racy) with Alaska recounting a story of her neighbour honking her boob over the summer. And there's plenty of smoking, drinking, and making out. Also, there's plenty of geekery: Miles memorizes last words of various famous people; The Colonel can name a capital of any country in the world, and Alaska is full of deep philosophical questions.

The story is all about the characters much more so than the plot. It's the relationships, the search for answers, the tensions that make the story interesting. Plus, the writing is very good -- I definitely enjoy John Green's prose. The closest book I've read that Looking For Alaska reminds me of is The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. They are different, but both have very interesting female characters, are set in boarding schools, and whose plot revolves around some elaborate school pranks. I guess I've found a genre I enjoy -- and also an author whose books I will surely read more of.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Attachments

Title: Attachments
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Genre: Fiction
Published: 2012
Rating: 7/10

Review: I came across a mention of this novel while looking out for the next book to read. Since I've enjoyed Eleanor & Park, I decided to give Attachments a try.

There are two main narratives in Attachments. One narrative takes a form of emails/IMs between two friends (Jennifer and Beth) who work at a newspaper. They discuss the sort of things any two women may discuss: plans, relationships, cute guys at the office.

The second narrative follows Lincoln who is hired by the newspaper's IT department to monitor the employee's internet usage. His job is basically to read all flagged emails that people send and send out reprimands for non-work-related activities. Of course, Jennifer and Beth's communication gets flagged, but Lincoln is so captivated by their conversation that he just keeps reading their mail.

Attachments felt very much like a typical women's book. Everything is about relationships. Mostly about the romantic ones, but when it's not, then it's about Lincoln's relationship with Doris or his mom or his friends. I liked the characters and they felt very realistic and natural to me (except, maybe, for Beth's boyfriend, who was just odd). However, this relentless focus on relationships in lieu of the plot was a bit much. I thought it was pretty clear from the start how things were going to turn out and there was less drama than I expected. That was both good and bad -- on one hand, exaggerated drama just makes me roll my eyes, on the other hand, lack of drama makes for a somewhat flat book story.

I would place Attachments in my easy reading category. Not terribly deep or insightful, but easy to consume and enjoyable overall.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Magician's Land

Title: The Magician's Land
Author: Lev Grossman
Series: The Magicians, book 3
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2014
Rating: 8/10

Review: It's been out for quite a few months now, but I completely forgot about the latest book in The Magicians series until I was looking for something new to read and stumbled upon it -- and then I was back in The Magicians world. I enjoyed The Magician's Land more than The Magician King. For one, Quentin is growing up and maturing in this book and moping slightly less, so that's really quite an improvement.

The book picks up where The Magician King left off: Quentin is back on Earth and trying to figure out what to do with himself. He heads to Brakebills and this time stays there as an instructor. I enjoyed his return to the school. We also meet one of Brakebills' students, Plum, who turns out to be a Chatwin, but doesn't know that Fillory really exists. Quentin and Plum get in trouble together and are both expelled and left to find their own way. Before long, they are together involved in planning a heist of a magical suitcase.

Overall, the book went at a good pace and kept my attention, though there were a few slower moments in the plot. At the end, almost everyone of significance in the first book is back, though not necessarily the same way they were in the beginning. I think the change in Quentin is the largest one and the one I enjoyed most -- less moping and more action, I like that :) A number of lose ends are tied and  I like the way things are resolved in the end. The ending is hopeful and happier than I expected it to be. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Lock In

Title: Lock In
Author: John Scalzi
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2014
Rating: 7.5/10

Review:  Fun fact: apparently John Scalzi is one of the authors I recognize on sight. I recognized him at a restaurant, when he was in my neighborhood for the Lock In tour. I didn't go up to him, but instead I spontaneously bought a copy of Lock In despite the fact that I had reservations about the novella prequel, Unlocked.

Turned out, I liked Lock In better than the prequel. In format, the novel very much resembles a detective procedural. Chris Shane is a Hayden, which means his body is paralyzed, but his consciousness basically inhibits a robot called threep. He is starting his first week as an FBI agent, straight out of school. His partner is a much more experienced agent Leslie Vann.

The plot follows a pretty standard format of murder, investigation, plot twist, good guys win, It was entertaining, but not particularly exceptional in any way. I liked the characters though -- everyone seemed natural, quirky, and easy to like. I was a bit taken aback by how fast Chris and Vann's relationship evolved, but it made sense for the book.

One part of the book that stood out to me is Scalzi's clear intent to paint a much more liberal world than ours. Even though there's conflict and prejudice against Haydens, there are openly gay couples, and cross-gender Integrators (people who carry someone else in their mind), and a very open-minded opinion on whether Haydens are really disabled humans or really something different. Perhaps this wouldn't stand out to someone who doesn't read the author's blog, but it stuck out to me that the world very much conformed to Scalzi's views of how things ought to be. I generally don't mind his ideas, but I wonder if it's realistic to expect some of these things in the near future where Lock In takes place.

All in all, it's a pretty entertaining book. The premise of Haydens works well and is explored in various cool ways (Chris goes through several different bodies in the line of duty and also travels instantaneously). I would definitely recommend it as easy reading -- and I wonder if Scalzi is planning a sequel, there's definitely lots of room left for another story with the same characters.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Queen of Hearts

Title: Queen of Hearts
Author: Rhys Bowen
Series: A Royal Spyness Mystery, book 8
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2014
Rating: 6.5/10

Review:  This definitely qualifies as one of the guilty pleasure  books. I needed something to read for a flight and this was a perfect book to occupy the time.

In this installment, Georgiana travels with her mother to the United States on a cruise ship. During the cruise, jewels get stolen, and Georgiana gets involved in the investigation along with Darcy, who just so happened to be on the ship. Georgiana and her mother travel to Reno to get a divorce (for Georgina's mother) and then end up in Hollywood.

I didn't necessarily like the change of scenery -- I prefer the mysteries set in England, but I guess it's nice to get some variety as this series is getting rather formulaic. I figured out whodunit pretty far ahead of time, but still enjoyed the situational comedy in various parts of the book. It was great to see Queenie stand up for her rights and then quit. Of course, she ends up coming back, but I enjoyed this sub-plot.

Queen of Hearts was a quick and enjoyable read, but at the same time I feel like the author is running out of fresh material. I am not sure whether I would continue with the series, unless I have another flight to fill.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Space Between

Title: The Space Between
Author: Diana Gabaldon
Series: An Outlander Novella
Genre: Historical fiction
Published: 2014
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: I started watching the Outlander TV series now airing on STARZ. Somewhat to my surprise, I am actually enjoying the series quite a bit. I think it might be going a little slow and watching it from a perspective of someone familiar with the plot is probably quite different from a newcomer to the series, but it's pretty well put together. I love the lead actress who plays Claire and the actor playing Jamie has grown on me as well.

Since I re-kindled my Outlander addiction, I bought this Outlander series novella to get back into the series. That's when I realized that I can barely remember some of the details of the earlier books. There were definitely familiar names and characters we've met before earlier in Outlander series, but I recognized very little about them beyond their names.

Nevertheless, the story can be mostly read as a stand-alone. It features Joan McKimmie who is Jamie's step-daughter travelling to Paris with Michael Murray in order to enter a convent there. The reason she wants to enter is convent is because she hears voices in her head and can see auras around people who are about to die. These "gifts" cause her plenty of grief along the way.

It's a quick story and it was over very quickly, but I enjoyed getting back into the Outlander world and getting a bit of action since it's probably going to be a few years before the next Outlander installment is published. I just wish I remembered in more detail the back-story around Comte St. Germain and Master Raymond.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Long Way Home

Title: The Long Way Home
Author: Louise Penny
Series: Inspector Gamache, book 10
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2014
Rating: 7/10

Review: The Long Way Home is the only novel I managed to finish in the last month. I've been busy and stressed, and this is the only book I found sufficiently compelling to pick up. I enjoyed returning to the village of Three Pines and the series' characters.

Armand Gamache has retired and moved to Three Pines with his wife to mend after the events of the previous books. Things are comfortable and quiet. However, Gamache takes on a task of looking for Peter, Clara's husband, who hasn't returned home on the arranged date and that leads them far into Canadian wilderness.

The beginning of this novel was downright slow. I like the cozy aspect of Penny's novels and her focus on characterization and the characters' inner lives, but she went a bit overboard here and spent way too much time on the description of Gamache's life in Three Pines. Very little happens in the first half of the book and quite a bit happens in the last two chapters, so it all feels a bit rushed at the end.

The resolution was not at all what I was expecting, though I have figured out the villain in this book ahead of time. It also left me wondering where Penny is planning to take the series, the book didn't really seem like the start of a bigger arch, the way previous books were. Feeling slightly underwhelmed, even though I've enjoyed reading the book.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Eleanor & Park

Title: Eleanor and Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2013
Rating: 8.5/10

Review: I read a very positive review of Eleanor and Park, so when I needed to pick up something to read on a flight, I decided to give it a try. I was very glad I did, because the flight went by so fast and I didn't even realize we were about to touch the ground until the plane hit the tarmac. That might be attributed to good piloting too, but regardless.

Reading this book made me think about all the trigger warning discussions that were happening recently. Not because there's anything graphic in the book, but because it just jolted me into my high school years so hard that I was shocked. There's just this mentality that I could relate to so well that I felt transported back in time. And I think it'll resonate with people who don't think that high schools years were the best time of their lives.

Park is taking a bus to school every morning. He is not unpopular, but he's also not one of the really popular kids. He is the only Asian kid in school and he's smart, but he mostly keeps to himself. Eleanor is new to the school and sits down next to him on the bus. She is chubby and dresses weirdly and hence she is immediately picked on. Slowly, but steadily, Eleanor and Park get to know each other, fall in love, and start dating.

This is a short book and I finished most of it on the plane, but it was cute and heartfelt and fun while it lasted. Not a particularly action-oriented book, but its magic was in how well it brought forth the idea of falling in love for the first time. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

What We Lost

Title: What We Lost
Author: Sara Zarr
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2013
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: Sam is a teenager living in a small town of Pineview and her life is defined by the fact that she is the daughter of the local pastor, Charlie. It's a hot summer and Sam's life is complicated by her alcoholic mother heading into a rehab and her father being too busy to connect with her. A 13-year old girl, Jody, goes missing and Charlie is in the midst of police and media frenzy as he helps the grieving family and becomes their spokesperson.

It's interesting to see the book take a tragedy like a kidnapped girl and make it part of the scene, but not really focus on it. The focus stays on Sam's inner life, even though she takes part in trying to recover Jody, support Jody's family -- especially her older brother Nick with whom she feels a connection.

At first, Sam's inner narration feels overly dramatic. Her emphasis on how she is treated differently by being a pastor's kid seems blown out of proportion. But, eventually, I started to emphasize with her and and her problems start to feel much more real. The book is very character driven, rather than plot driven. The plot is mostly there to give insight into everyone, this is by no means a mystery type book.

I liked watching Sam figure out how to deal with her conflicts and get her life back on track. I thought the ending was much more positive than would be expected, but not so positive that it felt unrealistic. This is a nice, easy novel to read with some interesting character development, but not much plot. I enjoyed it.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Everybody Has Everything

Title: Everybody Has Everything (Amazon)
Author: Katrina Onstad
Genre: Fiction
Published: 2012
Rating: 7/10

Review: I received a copy of this novel as a present and the author is completely new to me, so I started out without any particular expectations. The novel is set in Toronto. Ana and James unexpectedly find themselves in charge of two-year-old Finn when Finn's parents are in an accident. His father dies and his mother is in a coma and their will stipulates that Ana and James would be the guardians for the child. They take on the child and in the process learn a lot about themselves.

Everybody Has Everything is one of those novels where nothing really happens. Half the plot is described in the paragraph above and the rest could be told in four more sentences. This is not action-packed to say the least. But that's not to say it isn't engrossing, because I finished reading the book in pretty much one sitting.

It is one of those narratives that is all about getting into someone's head. And in order to do so, the author is showing the reader their lives, their daily decisions, their reactions, their interactions. I am a bit ambivalent on whether I actually enjoyed getting into the characters' heads. They are both interesting, but at the same time a bit off-putting. All the tiptoeing around each other, all the inner drama, all the indecision were both very realistic and exasperating at the same time.

Onstad did a pretty good job capturing the details, it all felt very natural, but at the same time it made me feel a bit frustrated with the whole thing. The novel wasn't moving anywhere for quite awhile and even in retrospect I don't know why some of the scenes needed to be there at all.

Much of the novel revolves around the decision to have kids or to be judged for not having them. Ana and James are not able to conceive, so they are quite familiar with the latter. However, after taking guardianship of Finn, what's involved in the first decision is quite a shock on their marriage despite the fact that the kid is generally impressively well-behaved in the book. Things fall apart pretty quickly with both parties at fault. There's much in that process that anyone could relate to, but it's a bit agonizing to watch it happening so slowly and obviously.

The ending is actually a bit better than I expected and I was rather satisfied with the wrap-up. The final scene is a bit too literary high-brow for me, but oh well. Altogether, it is an interesting character study, parts of it left me cold and I am not entirely sure this is an author I would pick up again.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Title: Written in My Own Heart's Blood (Amazon)
Author: Diana Gabaldon
Series: Outlander, book 8
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: 2014
Rating: 7/10

Review: I've read the very first Outlander book over 5 years ago. It was not a genre I read much of, but it came highly recommended and I gave it a try and enjoyed it immensely. Each book is quite meaty and it can be a journey to finish one, but it's a pleasant journey with familiar faces at your side.

It took me a fairly long time to finish Written in My Own Heart's Blood -- over a month. It was quite strange, really, because I was reading this novel late into the night when I started it, but then at some point I've put it away and had very little compunction to get back to it. The plot felt more like an ebb and flow of a river than the typical arch of a novel. It would pick up pace in places and then just drift off leisurely. I was shocked when the book ended because I really didn't expect it to just end there (and it's not as obvious on Kindle as with the paper books). Towards the end, I also had to do a double take to check that they've really moved on from one location to the other so quickly.

I enjoyed the return of many familiar faces in the book. I enjoyed the descriptions of the Americas during the revolution and the depiction of George Washington, who actually meets the main characters in person in this novel. There are some good dramatic parts. But altogether, the book just didn't feel very cohesive. It felt very much like a "middle" book of a long series, slowly lumbering somewhere. Some plotlines which were carried over from previous books were tied up, new ones got created, but in the grand scheme of things there really wasn't a standalone theme to the book. I still enjoyed it as a historical piece and good character drama, but I am really hoping there will be a bit more direction to the next one.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Half Way There!

Happy 4th! I just got back from watching some very nice fireworks. While waiting for the fireworks to start, I've been reading Written in My Own Heart's Blood by Diana Gabaldon. I've been waiting for a few years for that book to come out and I am not disappointed. However, I am taking my sweet time getting through the 900-page novel, so it'll probably be a while longer before I post the review.

Half a year is already over, which is hard to believe, time is moving just so fast. I thought we just celebrated Christmas a short while ago. So it's time to take stock of my reading so far. In the past half a year, I finished 19 books and 1 novella. That's pretty much on track for 40 books that I am aiming to read. I also read one non-fiction book, though not a very good one. That leaves me with about 20 more books to read. I am hoping to get to some more non-fiction. And also to some awesome novels I've received for my birthday.

I am quite satisfied with the quality of fiction I've read this year so far. My favorite discovery so far is Love Minus Eighty (Amazon) by Will McIntosh. Some of the best sci-fi I've read in some time. But we are only half-way through the year, so who knows what the next half will bring! Looking forward to some more reading this long weekend.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Gone Girl

Title: Gone Girl
Author: Gillian Flynn
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2012
Rating: 9/10

Review: I've seen many mentions of Gone Girl in the media in the past year and since the movie is supposed to come out this year, I finally decided to pick up the novel. I read the first quarter of the novel on a plane and it certainly made the time pass faster.

The first part of the book is told from Nick Dunne's perspective. He comes home on the day of his 5th anniversary to find his living room overturned and his wife gone. What follows is the investigation by the police as they search for Amy Dunne. However, the husband is acting weird, he has no alibi, he is hiding things from the police. There are alternating viewpoints from Amy inserted in the form of her diary entries.

About half way through the book, it takes quite a bit of a turn. I actually expected this particular twist, but the tension is masterfully built up, so that just guessing the twist doesn't spoil the book in any way. I stayed up till 5am finishing the novel, which resembles horror more than mystery at certain points. The ending is very interesting and fitting, though not what I expected it to be.

I hope they do a good job of the movie -- I think it'll make an excellent psychological thriller if they pull it off. It's hard to imagine how they will adapt all the inner monologues by Nick to the screenplay, but I guess it can be done. Looks like there's a pretty good cast too.

There are two reasons I think the book was top notch: the first one is a great suspense build-up in the second half of the novel. The second reason is that the book really gets into your head. The characters are so clearly expressed and relatable -- the types of people with the sort of thinking that you would meet all the time. Except everything tends to turn around and show up under a different lens at some point and I think this transformation was very well executed, believable, and horrifying.

The book is an exploration on theme of how well do you know the people around you. Can you really tell what they think, how they feel, what they would do? There are many really interesting relationships -- especially between Nick and his family. Nick's lovable mother contrasted with his hateful father, and his mind-reading twin, Go. They all come alive, and they have their stories to tell. I thought it was very well done. Definitely recommended.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Unlocked

Title: Unlocked
Author: John Scalzi
Genre: Science Fiction Novella
Published: 2014
Link: http://www.tor.com/stories/2014/05/unlocked-an-oral-history-of-hadens-syndrome-john-scalzi
Rating: 7/10

Thoughts: This novella is a prequel to Locked In, the next John Scalzi novel, expected to be published in August. It's selling for $1.50 on Amazon.com and other major book sellers, but you can read it for free on Tor's website (see link above).

Unlocked is presented in a documentary style with the facts presented from various points of view. In format, it reminds me of Ted Chiang's Liking What You See: A Documentary. Except, I thought the number of POVs was bit high -- I kept having to scroll back to figure out which name belonged to which person.

The premise itself is pretty interesting. A virus, thought to be influenza, at first, spreads rapidly across Earth. It presents first similar to a flu, then in a second stage, similar to meningitis, and finally results in some patients getting "locked in". What being locked in means is that the person is still conscious and aware, but their body is in a state of complete paralysis.

So, of course, the government tries to find a solution. And the solution they find is a neural network implanted into the person's brain that controls a robotic body. Then the novella proceeds to deal with the various societal changes that this creates.

I felt pretty skeptical about this concept. Implanting a neural network into a brain really doesn't sound like something that would work to me. Nor would they be able to produce robots who can do pretty much anything (e.g. take care of human babies). Also, some of the societal responses seemed pretty strange to me. Instead of controversies about whether the robotic bodies should give up their chairs to human customers, it would have been much more obvious to just charge a cover for their presence. Problem solved for everyone.

It's an interesting "what if" scenario and I generally enjoyed reading Unlocked, but I found a lot of things to poke holes at. And the fact that I am even thinking about those holes means I didn't engage with the characters enough. I might still buy Locked In when it comes out, after all, it's Scalzi, it's bound to be fun.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Love Minus Eighty

Title: Love Minus Eighty
Author: Will McIntosh
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2013
Rating: 9/10

Review: I've  been hearing a lot of buzz about Love Minus Eighty ever since it came out last year. I really ought to have read it sooner since the buzz was very well deserved in this case.

In the future, medical technology has taken its course and cryogenics is a big market. Not only have we learned how to store and freeze people when they die, we've learned to repair their bodies and revive them -- if they can afford it, that is.

A new type of dating arises, where wealthy men can temporarily revive extremely attractive women to "speed date" them and then decide whether they want to shell out the cash to fully restore them to life as their wives.

Rob, after a bad break-up, hits a jogger on the way back home. When he discovers that she has been placed into a dating center, he scrapes up some money to visit her and apologize; however, he finds more than just forgiveness in the dating center.

That's just one of the story lines in the book. There are a number of other central characters. Veronica is a shy single dating coach who spends her time at a bridge hoping to save a jumper from death and pining after her handsome colleague, Nathan. Lycan is an introverted, awkward, high-IQ scientist who comes to visit the longest-frozen woman in the center, whose name is Mira. All their lives intertwine in surprising ways, tying different love stories together.

The plot is very well executed. The plot rotates between the various primary characters, describing the events in third person. I generally found the different plot lines equally interesting, so this didn't end up being the type of novel where I wanted to skip chapters by looking at the name alone. The writing is very accessible and flows easily. The book is not particularly short, but I finished it really quickly since I was very much enjoying it.

On the surface, it's a simple story dealing with a number of different problematic relationships. However, the author has an underlying message spinning just beneath the surface of the words and sometimes he just illustrates things so insightfully that I can't help but admire it. There is a moment, towards the end of the book, where Rob's father Lorne is telling him about his relationship with Rob's deceased mother that I thought was just perfect.

The book is a little bit too romantic-sweet at times, but most of the time it's relatable situations with relatable characters. I liked the way the author extrapolated current technology into the future, though I was a little bit skeptical of the characters being able to maintain multiple conversations at once with the fluency they did. But other aspects of technology seemed quite believable. Altogether, it was a very enjoyable read and one I would readily recommend to pretty much anyone.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

We Were Liars

Title: We Were Liars
Author: E. Lockhart
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2014
Rating: 7/10

Review:  Looks like I am on a YA kick lately. And enjoying it. I first came across E. Lockhart when I read The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Bank, which was brilliant. I enjoyed a number of her books since and when I saw this latest release, I figured I wouldn't be able to go wrong buying it.

I ended up finishing We Were Liars over the weekend. The book starts out gradually, with the mystery looming, but not much more happening. We get to meet the main character, get into he head (it's a first person narration) and figure out who's who in her extended family.

The main character is a 17-year old teenager named Cadence. It's her family tradition to spend the summer on a small island that they own. She is best friends with her cousins Johnny and Mirren and "adopted-cousin" Gat. Everything is well until on the 15th summer at the island something happens, something that leaves Cadence dealing with migraines and memory loss. And now she is back on the island, two years later, to finally figure out what really happened.

Most of the book was fun, but not particularly distinguished, but I have to admit that the plot twist on the end of We Were Liars is exceptionally well done. I did not see it coming. In a way, this is a very interesting contrast to The Hate List. Both of these novels deal with teenage girls coping with something destructive in their lives, but the approaches taken are very very different. I relate to The Hate List better, but both approaches are valid. It's also fun to compare Valerie's mother to Cadence's. The former is a much more sympathetic character, but the latter ends up treating her daughter a lot better at the end of it all.

Generally, this is definitely a fun super-quick read. Recommended.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Title: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Author: Robin Sloan
Genre: Fiction
Published: 2012
Rating: 8/10

Review: When I encounter a book review that sounds interesting I often add it to my wish list for later consumption. Often months later I will go through the wish list and pick out something that sounds appealing and read it. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is no exception to this. It's been on my wish list for so long that I have long forgotten what the book is supposed to be about or why I added it there in the first place. But its title just fit my mood at the time of browsing and 10 seconds later it was on my Kindle.

This novel, if it were read by anyone outside computer science profession, would qualify as an excellent page-turning mystery/adventure. For people familiar with coding, Mountain View, or Google, it's a bit like a fun house mirror: it's a reality all distorted to the point of being ludicrous. I don't know whether the author is just unaware of how things work in software industry or he just decided to take a very liberal dramatic license, but yeah, *face-palm*.

Here's a section that happens early in the book that had me in fits and giggles:
"Raj has been at Google a long time," Kat says. We're wandering away from the mess hall. I snagged an extra cookie on the way out, and I'm nibbling on it now. "He's pre-IPO and he was PM for ages."
The acronyms at this place! But I think I know this one. "Wait" -- I'm confused -- "Google has a prime minister?"
"Ha, no," she says. "Product Management. It's a committee. It used to be two people, then it was four, now it's bigger. Sixty-four. The PM runs the company. They approve new projects, assign engineers, allocate resources."
"So these are all the top executives."
"No, that's the thing. It's a lottery. Your name gets drawn and you serve on the PM for twelve months. Anybody could be chosen. Raj, Finn, me. Pepper."
"Pepper?"
"The chef."
I don't even know where to start with that. If you don't know why the paragraph above has me rolling on the floor laughing, you will enjoy the book a lot. Because the novel itself is quite fun. But the number of absurd things that happen is a little overwhelming. I don't want to spoil anything, but in this book Google makes an executive decision to take all of the servers offline for 3 seconds. All of them. At once. For a fun side-project.

I think I could spend quite a bit of time nit-picking on the technological aspects of the book. Like Google servers stored in containers on a parking lot or Kat (the Googler) using Hadoop. (NB: For those who don't know Hadoop is an open-source clone of MapReduce used at Google). But I will stop at these examples and get back to the actual plot of the novel.

The book starts out with an out-of-job web designer Clay Jannon getting a night clerk job at Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. The bookstore is highly unusual in that it's open at all hours, has almost no customers, and is filled with mysterious old books that Clay is forbidden to open. The books and the bookstore's mysterious owner, Mr. Penumbra, hold a key to a bigger mystery that begins as far as 15th century.

Despite all the technological snafus, I really liked the book and the characters -- all of whom are easily recognizable San Franciscans. The main characters love interest is a female Google engineer. His best friend is a nerd-gone-entrepreneur who made his money selling realistic digital models of boobs. His roommates eat crazy salads and create crazy craft projects in their living room.

The pacing is good and I finished the book fairly quickly and enjoyed the ending very much. I would absolutely recommend this novel to anyone who's ever lived in San Francisco, or thinks books and puzzles are cool, or likes typography. As long as you are willing to overlook some things and fit one of the categories above, you'll probably like it.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Hate List

Title: Hate List
Author: Jennifer Brown
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2009
Rating: 8/10

Review: I enjoyed Jennifer Brown's Perfect Escape last Christmas and decided to pick up Hate List, which also seems quite highly rated (and praised by Chad). Turned out that Hate List, while quite different, is no less enjoyable in its own way.

The premise of the book is that Valerie comes to school one day, business as usual, and meets up with her boyfriend Nick, who proceeds to open fire in the cafeteria, killing students he and Valerie hate, shooting her, and killing himself.

The narrative jumps around telling of Valerie's recovery from the event, her first day back to school, and back to how she met and fell in love with Nick. I liked the way the book was structured, it kept up a sense of suspense despite the reader knowing pretty much what happened from the very beginning of the book. I stayed up late reading the novel and enjoyed every moment of it.

The compelling part for me is that Valerie was very easy to relate to. The way she reacts to events, her relationship with her friends and family, her coping, it all felt natural and genuine. She is a regular teenager with bigger problems than most and watching her cope is touching. It's interesting to watch the variety of reactions to the event: is she a villain or a hero or both?

Overall, it was a very quick and enjoyable read, I will definitely keep an eye out for Jennifer Brown's novels. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Fables: Vol 3 & 4

Title: Fables: Storybook Love and March of the Wooden Soldiers
Author: Bill Willingham
Series: Fables, vol 3 and 4
Genre: Graphic Novel
Published: 2004
Rating: 8/10

Review: I kept thinking about the Fables characters. There's just something irresistible about the stories involving all these familiar personalities, but done so differently. I noticed that the local library had the next two books on the shelves and seized the moment to grab them.

In Storybook Love, the action centers around Bluebeard, Snow, and Bigby again. They deal with a too-inquisitive reporter together and then Bluebeard hatches a scheme of his own. Snow's and Bigby's relationship takes a step forward and then two steps backwards. I enjoyed the focus on them in this comic. In March of the Wooden Soldiers, the Fabletown gets a letter from The Adversary and goes to war. I really liked the Boy Blue's backstory and we get to meet Red Riding Hood. Also Baba Yaga and her hut make an appearance, which is pretty fun.

These books may also be channeling GRRM with all the character deaths that occur in the two volumes. It's pretty sad to see some of the characters who were fairly prominent in the previous stories die. I just hope they stay away from Bigby -- he's definitely my favorite so far.

There is something in these stories that's also reminiscent on Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes. The humour and the mix of normal and supernatural are done really well. And then there's all the drama. I am definitely picking up the next few volumes when I go back to the library.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Murder in the Marais

Title: Murder in the Marais
Author: Cara Black
Series: Aimée Leduc, book 1
Genre: Mystery
Published: 1998
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: I generally buy books online based on reviews I read and friends' recommendations. However, I also enjoy browsing in the book stores and this is one of the books that randomly caught my attention. I've never heard of the author before, I've never seen any reviews for the series. I just picked it up on a whim and proceeded to read it.

Murder in the Marais is the first book in a series about a Parisian tech investigator, Aimée Leduc. Aimée specializes in cracking encryption and other tech-type investigations; however, in this case she gets involved in something much bigger. It all starts with a rabbi hiring her to decode an encrypted photo and leads to Aimée discovering a body when she delivers the results and the subsequent investigation of the murder.

The book is set in late 90's Paris and the interesting part is that many of the events relevant to the murder happened during the WWII. Neo-nazis, war criminals, collaborators, and survivors are all part of the plot. I liked how the author tied the past to the present and the plot itself is well-written with a nice twist at the end of the story. I stayed up late to figure out whodunnit and generally enjoyed the ride.

While I enjoyed the story, I did not like the characters as much as I expected. Generally speaking, I like strong female protagonists in books. However, I did not really connect to Aimée, nor to her partner (who played a rather small role in the overall story). I don't even know why -- on paper, she is the sort of character I should like. She is smart, tough, strong-willed, with realistic failings and insecurities. But something about her just didn't click for me. It's not that I disliked her, but rather I felt more apathetic to her plight than I should have.

Perhaps that was a function of the author's writing style. I generally thought the writing was a bit rough around the edges and probably the weaker part of this book. I would consider picking up the next book in the series based on the plot strength, but I am not rushing to the book store. Overall, it's a solid murder mystery with an interesting background, but it comes a bit short in characterization and writing.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Fables: Vol 1 & 2

Title: Fables: Legends in Exile and Animal Farm
Author: Bill Willingham
Series: Fables, vol 1 & 2
Genre: Graphic Novel
Published: 2011
Rating: 8/10

Review: Since I enjoyed 1001 Nights of Snowfall, I've decided to continue with Fables by reading volumes 1 and 2 of the series. Conveniently, they were loaned to me by a friend to whom I gave them for Christmas.

The premise of the story is that the characters of various fables, having escaped their respective worlds because of The Adversary, now live in two communities. One is in New York proper, where human-looking Fables live and the other one is upstate New York, hidden by spells, Animal Farm.

In Legends in Exile, Rose Red's apartment is discovered completely trashed and covered in blood. Bigby Wolf is the detective on the case with all the tropes of the genre written into the story. I liked the story-telling and all the nuanced pokes at the original identities of the characters. At the end of Legends in Exile, there is also a short story telling how Bigby came to look human and move to New York, which was a nice touch.

The second volume centers its action on the Animal Farm, the community of non-human fables. Snow goes to the community for her semi-annual visit and interrupts the conspirators in the middle of a revolution against their human community. References to Orwell's Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies are pretty fun to see and the ending has quite a bang to it.

I am pretty curious to see how the characters turn out, especially with a certain romance brewing in the story. I just might have to pick up more books in the series.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

This is a Story of a Happy Marriage

Title: This is a Story of a Happy Marriage
Author: Ann Patchett
Genre: Essays
Published: 2013
Rating: 9/10

Review: I came across a review of this book on Book Riot (by the way, they are awesome and I've been enjoying that site a lot since I've discovered it). This is the first book of essays I've read in a really long time. I pick up essays extremely rarely, not because I hate essays, but rather because I rarely hear about essays worth reading. The title on this book caught my attention though and the review was so positive that I bought the book.

I have to say I was totally and completely in love with the author by essay number four. I was slightly less interested in her essays about writing craft, but all her essays dealing with life stories and her relationships were simply phenomenal. They were honest and insightful and generally quite entertaining. My favorite one is definitely The Wall, in which Ann, age 30, decides to train and then takes the entrance exam into the LA police academy. It's funny, it's touching, it's full of neat cultural observations. The titular story This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is also great, telling the story of how Ann meets her future husband and why she finally agrees to marry him after 11 years of dating.

One of the things I enjoyed throughout is Ann's distinctive voice and clear, concise, striking writing style. You can hear her in every one of the essays and you can tell she's choosing her words carefully when she writes. I am now pretty curious to pick up one of her novels, though I barely know anything about them, just based on the quality of writing. And I would definitely recommend this compilation to anyone who would enjoy a very well written glimpse into another human being's life. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Secret Side of Empty

Title: The Secret Side of Empty
Author: Maria E. Andreu
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2014
Rating: 7/10

Disclaimer: An ARC of The Secret Side of Empty was sent to me by the publisher.

Review: The Secret Side of Empty is a story about M.T., a high school senior living in a small town of Willow Falls whose parents brought her into the US from Argentina as a small child. She goes to a private Catholic school, speaks good English, has good grades and close friends. However, her secret status as an undocumented immigrant means she has few prospects after she graduates. And as the school year continues, her future is becoming more and more uncertain.

What attracted me to this novel in particular is the immigrant connection. Having myself immigrated (albeit legally) as a teenager, I was curious to read a novel that would explore this experience. The Secret Side of Empty also touches a number of other topics: poverty, abusive family, first love, and after-graduation choices. The story covers a large range of topics, so many would find something to relate to in M.T.'s story.

I liked M.T.'s character. She challenges herself in school, has a cool best friend, makes money on the side by tutoring, and is pretty self-aware about the problems that she experiences with her abusive father. Everything is going rosy with M.T.'s amazing new boyfriend when she suddenly completely falls apart mid-way through the book. I was a bit surprised and somewhat unconvinced by her sudden depression stemming from her favorite teacher moving away. Maybe I just never had a sufficiently good high school teacher and maybe the teacher moving away is just the final straw, but it felt like a huge over-reaction to me.

The novel keeps a good pace from that point, adding more and more narrative tension until the main conflict is resolved. The writing is pretty typical for YA -- easy to read and gets the story across. I was sufficiently drawn into the plot to finish reading it quickly. I liked the ending, but wasn't particularly surprised by it.

What did surprise me was how much I liked M.T.'s mother. She was pretty amazing throughout and completely unappreciated (in a typical teenage way). Despite being a secondary character, I felt connected to her and wished more of her story made it into the book. On the other hand, M.T.'s best friend Chelsea never actually stepped out of the cardboard for me. She seems more like a prop to M.T.'s story and Chelsea's secret, which comes out at the end, is really a bit of a let down.

Overall, The Secret Side of Empty is a quick and enjoyable read in which many would find something interesting, but not particularly stellar in any given aspect.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

Title: The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches
Author: Alan Bradley
Series: Flavia de Luce, book 6
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2014
Rating: 8/10

Review: The latest installment in Flavia de Luce mystery series has been waiting for me to read it since January when it got released. Despite being pretty excited about the novel, I didn't get to reading it until a few days back. Then, of course, I gobbled up the whole thing pretty quickly and now I am left with the wait for the next book in the series (which I have learned will have 10 books in total).

This particular installment breaks the mold of the previous stories. In the past, each story contained a murder investigation which Flavia would solve. In this story, the plot circles around the corpse of her long dead mother, Harriet. The body is finally discovered after 10 years of uncertainty and brought back for a funeral at Buckshaw.

The tensions are high in the household. Visitors flood the estate. Flavia's cousin Lena arrives with her daughter Undine. A dashing pilot Tristram Tallis flies in on Harriet's plane. Adam Sowerby shows up, and Aunt Felicia is there too. We even get to see Winston Churchill for a brief moment. And in the center of it all, Flavia, trying to cope, and planning her mother's resurrection.

I enjoyed how The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches finally advances the story line to reveal a number of family secrets. Flavia learns much more about her mother and father in this book than she does in the whole series prior and it changes her relationship with the various members of the family. I am quite excited where the author has decided to take the story and will be looking forward to finding out what happens to Flavia in the next book.

In terms of the mystery itself, this is probably the first time where I figured out the identity of the murderer before Flavia does in the story. I am generally happy to let Flavia explain what happened without trying to figure things out myself -- I enjoy her process of doing so. However, this time around the solution just dawned on me a little bit earlier than usual. Or maybe it dawned on Flavia a little bit later than usual. The ending still contains a few surprises and did I mention I want the next book now? Setting my alarms for next year to look out for more Flavia adventures.

Monday, March 3, 2014

City of Dragons and Blood of Dragons


Title: City of Dragons and Blood of Dragons
Author: Robin Hobb
Series: The Rain Wilds Chronicles, books 3 and 4
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2012 and 2013
Rating: 8/10

Review: I've read the first half of this series a few years back and enjoyed it (except for the fact that it was split into two books while being one logical piece of fiction). So I've waited for both of these volumes to get published to make sure I didn't run into the same situation again. I saw them both on sale on Amazon recently and seized the chance to finish the series.

I have forgotten some of the details from the previous two volumes, so it took me a little while to get back into the story again. But once I did, I had no trouble staying with it. I find Robin Hobb is very good at making the reader care about the characters of the story and their lives just kept me captivated in the books.

The books continue telling the stories of the dragon keepers who have discovered the mythical city of Kelsingra and now need to make sure they survive the winter in the Rain Wilds to tell of it. Their dragon's survival is questionable too since the dragons are weak and cannot fly. Many hurdles have to be overcome before the characters can find their way.

Again, the two books were pretty closely plotted. I felt that reading them both one after another was the right way to go -- City of Dragons didn't have a particularly strong ending as a stand-alone book. But at the end of the series I was rewarded with one big wrap-up for all the major story lines. I especially enjoyed the Alise/Sedric/Hest resolution. So very satisfying -- I think the author must've enjoyed writing those scenes. I certainly enjoyed reading them.

This is probably the first epic fantasy I've enjoyed in quite some time. You can always count on Robin Hobb to deliver, so looking forward to her writing more stories in this world.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Name of the Rose

Title: The Name of the Rose
Author: Umberto Eco
Genre: Fiction
Published: 1984
Rating: 6/10

Review: I picked up The Name of the Rose without much knowledge about the book with a vague idea that it'll expand my horizons and put another notch on my "reading belt" of important books. (I really gotta just throw that belt out of the window).

This is a fairly hefty tome of over 500 pages written in first person by an aging monk named Adso in 14th century to narrate a mystery he experienced in his youth at a Benedectine abbey in Italy with his Franciscan master, William of Baskerville.

In the beginning, I found the narrative rather fascinating, if a bit on the slow and wordy side of things. We are introduced to life in the abbey, the characters, and hooked onto the murder mystery part of the book. Brother William approaches mysteries in highly Sherlock Holmsian fashion -- his name is not coincidental, I believe -- and provides sharp observations about people and events at the monastery.

Unfortunately, Adso doesn't have his master's succinct style and goes off-tangent quite a bit. There are literally six pages of text describing the gates of the church at the abbey in such detail that my eyes glazed over and rolled around the back of my head and he still kept going. The author addresses this in his postscript saying that "arias" such as these were traditional parts of medieval age story telling. I can understand Eco's choice to follow the traditions of the style, but to me it means I am going to avoid books written in middle ages and books pretending to have been written in middle ages from now on. Because there aren't any gates in this world that deserve 6 pages of description, in my not so humble opinion.

And yet, the story and characters continued to be sufficiently interesting that I kept reading despite everything else. As the story progressed, another angle was introduced to the narrative, which spoke of the division of church's teachings; heresies; and conflicts between the emperor, the pope, and everyone else. I don't know the first thing about any of these things, but there were plentiful asides and explanations for me to follow, so at the end I did know a lot more about it, but unfortunately kind of wished I knew less of the church's politics and more about who's murdering the monks.

The author's postscript explains a lot about the novel and makes me feel bad for not appreciating the depth of the story and all the historical research involved. It does feel like the sort of book where you could run an English course for a term just to study all the different implications of all the different topics covered. Except that I wouldn't want to be in that class -- it would be much too aggravating to spend even more time thinking of how poorly women are treated by the church or how often church uses religious pretexts for gathering power and wealth at the expense of citizens.

The ending of the book is very fitting and disagreeable at the same time. I felt a keen disappointment in William who was the only character I thoroughly enjoyed throughout and not for his detective failures, but rather for the way he handles the last confrontation. It's disappointing, but at the same time, genius, when you are writing a book about personal failures (oh, and there sure is a lot of those in this novel).

To sum it up, it's not a book to be undertaken lightly, but with merit in both plot and historical detail if you can bear to read that sort of thing for hundreds of pages. I would've probably enjoyed it better if author gave up on the historical and religious aspects of the story and stuck to the murders at hand.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

January Recap

I am a little sad that this January hasn't been as productive in reading as some of the other years. Typically, I get terribly excited with all the best of lists and end up reading a ton in January. I still got excited about the lists this year, but I guess a few largish books are keeping my total count low. Really it's only an accounting problem since I am enjoying myself otherwise.

I finished three books in January:

  1. Wool by Hugh Howley
  2. Dot Complicated by Randi Zuckerberg
  3. 1001 Nights of Snowfall by Bill Willingham
My favorite book was definitely Wool. It has the feel of a book that I'll be recommending to people in the months to come. And I'll probably return to the universe once I get through all the other books I am really excited about and that are waiting for me.

I am currently reading The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I am about half way through it, but it's best characterized as a chunkster, so it might take me more time to finish. I have a feeling it'll make for an entertaining review though.

Well, I am off to nurse my aching calves -- so very sore from skiing, but it was fun!



Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

Title: Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall
Author: Bill Willingham
Genre: Graphic Novel
Published: 2006
Rating: 8/10

Review: I have never been a reader of graphic novels or comics. Someone bought me a few episodes of Buffy season 8 since I am a big fan of the show, but I didn't take a liking to them. I felt like something was missing in between those still pictures. I could barely pick up what the story was and the characters felt completely off.

However, I've seen some rather complimentary reviews of the Fables series by a reviewer with whom I find myself fairly consistently in agreement over books. That still hadn't persuaded me to read Fables. However, when I saw the books of my friend's wish list for Christmas, I decided that might make a rather neat gift. Well, Christmas is well over and my friend let me borrow the books, so I could try them for myself.

I knew the general premise of the series. It follows a number of traditional fairy tale characters, but puts a twist on their stories. The characters have all escaped their original worlds, pursued by The Adversary and made a new home for themselves in Fabletown, hidden within the mundane world of New York City. This novel is a prequel, telling the story of how some of the characters escaped their original worlds.

The author does some rather clever things with the story. It has the feeling of the traditional fairy tale, but with a dark twist and the novel is definitely not aimed at kids. Different stories are illustrated by different artists and while I enjoyed some of the drawings better than others, overall they are all good quality and pleasing. I think the combination of excellent story telling and pictures made me appreciate this novel despite the unfamiliar medium.

The stories are quick, they often pack a punch, and I was curious to see how the author would wrap up the overall story arch in the book. The ending was to my satisfaction, and I just wish I could have remembered some of the fairy tales referenced a bit better -- sometimes I felt like I was missing out on the joke underneath a story. I've got volumes 1 and 2 also waiting to be read and I am looking forward to them.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Dot Complicated

Title: Dot Complicated
Author: Randi Zuckerberg
Genre: Non-fiction
Published: 2013
Rating: 5/10

Review: I received a signed copy of Dot Complicated as a Christmas gift from an acquaintance. (I feel like all my reviews start this way in Dec/Jan and I gotta say, it's awesome). It's not the sort of book I would typically pick up by myself, but once it was sitting on my coffee table, I got curious and decided to read it.

I enjoyed the first couple of chapters in the book, which are essentially Randi Zuckerberg's autobiography. She talks about growing up and how she ended up working with her brother Mark Zuckerberg of the Facebook fame. Her writing is entertaining and she tells a number of cool stories about the early days of the company, which I liked. She is about the same age as me, and working in the Silicon Valley, there were aspects to her story I could really relate to.

The other eight or nine chapters in the book are her views on the impact of social technology on everyday life and her advice on dealing with it. Instead of reading those chapters, let me sum it up for you. Use your fucking common sense when you post online and spend time with your friends and family. On one hand, she is tackling a bunch of trendy topics along the lines of technology-life balance, on the other hand, I didn't really feel she provided much insight into those topics beyond what common sense might suggest to any reasonable person.

I am, perhaps, the wrong audience for Dot Complicated, being somewhat immersed in the tech life of the Silicon Valley. But I also don't necessarily see her book gaining traction with a reader in a rural town in Mississippi. I imagine such a reader wouldn't care for a lot of her "inside view of big techie events" type stories which actually kept me reading this book.

I am especially ambivalent on the advice Randi provides in her book because it's often middle-of-the-road and not all that persuasive or consistent. For example, early in the book she says:
I started to believe that I could just let my hair down and be my true outside-of-work self way too early on. In reality, though, I was still making my first professional impression on everyone and should have held my cards a bit closer to my chest.
...
If I had to do it all over again, I'd have kept my head down and focused on work those first few years and let people get to know the work I was capable of before they got to know my "creative side."
However, when she gets to the chapter on Career-technology balance, she encourages the reader to "friend" their boss and share those baby pictures with the colleagues and let them know what your life outside work is like. Though she obviously cautions you to leave posts on #sex, #drugs, and #moredrugs out of your stream, this is pretty much in contradiction of the advice she would give herself in early chapters.

In general, I found there was too much beating around the bush and examining various aspects of the topic without making a whole lot of meaningful conclusions when it came down to it. She re-iterates constantly the importance of being authentic self on the web without any discussion of topics like discrimination a person might face for doing so. When she does address the issue partly, it's with an example where someone else ends up defending them. Seems like a rare occurrence to me and hardly something to rely on.

On the high level, there's nothing wrong with Dot Complicated. Randi doesn't give bad advice or really say much that's controversial in my opinion. But I would imagine it'd be a pretty boring read for most people I know because they already know better than talk about something illegal or illicit they did on a public twitter stream. The only part I found worthwhile were the personal stories. Those I enjoyed and I imagine some of those stories took courage to tell as some of them show her vulnerable or not in a flattering light. Props to her for that.

Monday, January 20, 2014

2014: Goals and Releases

The new year is well underway and has been keeping me quite busy so far. I've made a number of resolutions this year -- a lot of them have to do with fitness (I know, so cliche!), but a few also to do with reading. I am mostly keeping the goals that I had last year because they worked out quite well for me.

Goal 1: Read 40 books.
I just barely made it to 40 books last year (the number was 32 in 2012 and 36 in 2011) and I think just staying at this level will keep me quite busy in the year to come.

Goal 2: Read one technical book.
This is an educational goal -- I would like to read a book in my field. Sometimes these types of books bog me down for months, but it's almost always worth it as long as I pick carefully.

Goal 3: Read one popular non-fiction book.
This is similar to the goal above, but more broad to include any sort of non-fiction. I will probably try to read Genome by Scott Ridley; it's been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time now.

And that's all! The rest of the time I am just going to enjoy whatever book crosses my field of vision. Among those are some 2014 publications that I am looking forward to. In particular,

1. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley (Jan 2014)
This is the latest installment of Flavia's adventures that I am totally looking forward to. The book is already on my Kindle, waiting to be read.

2. What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton (Jan 2014)
I very much enjoyed Walton's fiction because she talks about sci-fi novels in her writing. This is a collection of essays about speculative fiction and I think it will be pretty interesting to read, though I might wait to see other folks' reviews before purchasing this one.

3. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (Mar 2014)
I really liked everything I've read by Lockhart so far. She writes awesome YA fiction, so I am looking forward to reading more of her books.

4. Written in My Own Heart's Blood by Diana Gabaldon (June 2014)
This is going to be the latest installment of the Outlander series. And I am still hooked, so definitely a buy.

Also if Louise Penny and Scott Lynch manage to release their next books in 2014, that would be lovely.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Wool

Title: Wool
Author: Hugh Howey
Series: Silo Saga, book 1
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2012
Rating: 8.5/10

Review: A friend gave me Wool as a gift for Christmas. It's a fairly long book composed of 5 parts that were originally published separately, and later put together into one omnibus. Together they compose a self-contained story arch that's the first part of the Silo Saga.

The setting of the book is the future apocalyptic Earth. People live in a silo: a cylindrical underground compound with 150 levels. There is a combination of modern technology and old-fashioned society. For example, they have computers, servers, technology to keep women from becoming pregnant. On the other hand, the only way to travel between levels is a long spiral stairway. The goods are brought around by porters from level to level and most people are apprenticed to one profession in which they stay all their lives.

At the top level of the silo, there are several screens that show outdoors. On those screens you can see desolated Earth with dust hurricanes coming and going. The story begins with the current sheriff of the silo, Holston, when he volunteers to go cleaning. Cleaning is the capital punishment of the silo for those who want out. However, Holston's wife has discovered erased data on the servers that perhaps things outside are not as they seem.

I started the book feeling a bit skeptical because it's a set of self-published novels. However my worries were soon assuaged. The reading went smoothly and the book was both well written and clearly edited. The prose is not beautiful, but it is effective at conveying the message and it's easy to read. After the first few pages I stopped examining the grammar suspiciously and started enjoying the underlying story.

The place where the story shines is the plot. There are secrets behind secrets in the book and more twists the farther the reader proceeds in Wool. A few very surprising things happen early on. The book creates a sense of uncertainty and I enjoyed the fact that it didn't feel predictable. Another great thing about the book is that there's definitely a sense of internal consistency to the narrative. The author doesn't employ deus ex machina to solve his characters' problems. There are perhaps a couple of scenes where the characters' achievements strained belief, but overall the story is expertly put together.

There are a handful of protagonists in the novel, both men and women. I liked the varied personalities, though at times some were too obviously virtuous and others too obviously evil. Nevertheless, they often had interesting features and flaws that helped me relate to them and enjoy the narrative more.

The ending of the story was satisfying, but a bit confusing in a few places. I hope the following books in the series would resolve remaining questions. Definitely planning to read the next set of stories in Shift.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year!

Today is a five year anniversary of this blog. Who would have thought that a new year's resolution that I made five years ago would end up sticking around for so long. But I definitely enjoy this too much now to stop. If only for the reason that I like being able to go back and see what I thought of one book or the other. Though knowing that someone is reading this and hopefully maybe even joining me in reading some particular book is quite gratifying too.

Last year I met my reading goal of 40 books -- and it felt like a pretty good goal. It had me finishing that last 40th book on the night of Dec 30th. So I decided to keep that goal again for this year. Also I plan to read a couple of non-fiction books this year. I heard they are good for your mind, the way fiction is good for your soul.

Christmas topped-up my reading pile this year. I received the first three books of Silo series by Hugh Howey  (Wool, Shift, Dust) and I have started reading the first one already. I also bought City of Dragons and Blood of Dragons by Robin Hobb because they were on a $2 Kindle sale. They are third and fourth books in the Rain Wilds Chronicles and since I've read the first two a while back, I figured I'd finish the series.

I am also replenishing my wish list with the books everyone is talking about in their year end lists:
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie has been talked about a lot this year and I am really curious to see what all the fuss is about
  • Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh sounds like a novel with a pretty intriguing concept and also received a number of glowing reviews
  • The Mad Scientist's Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke is a young adult sci-fi novel that sounded interesting, though I don't necessarily expect that much
If you have more recommendations for me, I will be glad to hear them as well.

There are also several films coming out in 2014 that I am looking forward to watching this year. Divergent is slotted to come out at the end of March and I think it will be a fun flick. The Fault in our Stars is coming out at the beginning of June. I find it hilarious that both movies cast Shailene Woodley as the main character. Is there really a shortage of petite teenage actresses in Hollywood? She does fit the look though, so perhaps it will work out.

A week before Divergent, there will also be a release of the Veronica Mars movie. I am definitely going to see that since I've now seen the TV series twice. It's awesome that they got funded by Kickstarter. Now we just need to raise money for more Firefly episodes (yes, yes, I know that's not happening, but a girl can dream).