Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Title: Unlocked
Author: John Scalzi
Genre: Science Fiction Novella
Published: 2014
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 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."
"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.