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 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


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.