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


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).