Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Wrap-Up

It's been a long and eventful year for me. Being pregnant and having a kid will do that to you. I finished fewer books than in previous years -- only 24. However what this year lacked in quantity was made up in quality as I discovered several books I really loved. Here are my favorite reads of 2015.

1. Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie.
This science fiction trilogy was one of the better sets I've read in a long time. With a unique protagonist (she is a ship!) and unique treatment of genders (everyone's a she!) and tea drinking culture, Ann Leckie is a new favorite of mine.

2. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami
As expected of Murakami, this book is full of weird unexpected twists, odd characters, and strange coincidences. I also learned a lot about the second Sino-Japanese war after reading this book since some of the events are mentioned and got me curious to learn more.

3. Defenders by Will McIntosh
Fast paced and well-plotted, Defenders takes a cliched premise of alien invasion and builds a unique and gripping story. Vivid and brutal, it explores the question of what it means to be human.

4. The Martian by Andy Weir
Since it was made into a movie this year, Martian probably requires no introduction. Still, if witty first person narration and mind-blowing problem solving is your thing, I would highly recommend this novel.

One of the things I am proud of this year is that out of 24 book I read, only 5 were by authors whom I have read prior to 2015, the rest were new to me. Discovering new authors is something I am very happy about and hoping to continue doing in the future.

Now I am off to read everyone else's best of 2015 lists and get excited for the year ahead. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

An Abundance of Katherines

Title: An Abundance of Katherines
Author: John Green
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2006
Rating: 7/10

Review: I would say that John Green is one of my indulgences. So far, all of his books have been easy, fun, enjoyable reads. So I picked up this novel on a whim at a local bookstore and had a fun few hours reading this novel.

Colin Singleton is a child prodigy who feels like he hasn't amounted to much. Together with his best (and only) friend Hassan he goes on a road trip without any particular destination in mind. Luck would have them meet Lindsey and her mother Hollis in the middle-of-nowhere town and they end up staying with the two women, having been offered a part-time job collecting stories from local residents.

It's probably also worth mentioning that the title refers to the fact that Colin will only date women named Katherine. At the start of the novel, 19th Katherine has just dumped him and he is still dealing with the break-up. Part of the story deals with Colin trying to create a dumper/dumpee formula that would explain all his relationships with Katherines over the years. It's a neat concept, but also quite silly at the same time.

Colin's friend Hassan is an unusual character. He's an overweight Muslim boy with a forthcoming personality and a wacky sense of humor. Colin's dorky seriousness contrasts well and makes them an interesting pairing. Either one of them would not have been as interesting a character by themselves. On the flip side, while they are quite colorful, I wouldn't want to be friends with either of them. Both of them have somewhat annoying personalities, which I think made the book slightly less enjoyable for me.

An Abundance of Katherines was a quick read. And while I didn't think this book was as good as other John Green books, at least it didn't make me cry uncontrollably. And it definitely fulfilled the function I bought it for, which is good writing, unique characters, and good story.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Little One

In November, there was an addition to my family. My son came a few weeks early and has made life pretty busy around here. It remains to be seen whether I'll have time for the blog going forward -- but for now I've actually caught up on writing reviews for the books I've read in November and December.

It's worth mentioning that I've read some pregnancy and parenting books this year that I didn't review on this blog. I don't think there would be much interest in that sort of thing, so I am not planning to post any reviews for them.

It's quite possible that my book reviews may stray into young children lit category soon-ish. But for now, I just read him whatever I am reading and he seems to like it just fine.

Happy holidays, everyone!


Title: Defenders
Author: Will McIntosh
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2014
Rating: 9/10

Review: About a year and a half ago I read Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh and absolutely loved it. So when Defenders came out with some raving reviews I bought the book... and proceeded not to read it. I recently found it on my Kindle and enjoyed it a whole lot while wondering what took me so long to actually get to it.

Defenders is a science fiction set in the near future. An alien race of mind-readers called Luytens is attacking humanity and humanity is losing the war. After all, how do you fight the enemy who knows what you are going to do before you even do it yourself?

In a last ditch effort to defeat the Luytens, humans develop a genetic engineering program where they design a new race of beings called the Defenders. The Defenders are made to fight and their brains don't contain serotonin, which prevents the Luytens from reading their minds. Very soon after they are created, the Defenders gain an upper hand in the combat against Luytens and the aliens surrender. However, this is not quite the end of humanity's trouble...

I thought Defenders was brilliantly plotted. You can see the gears turning and one set of problems replacing another. I also enjoyed the characters, Oliver, Lila, and Kai are all quite interesting in their own way and best of all are transformed through the events of the book.

The book is really brutal in many parts. There's blood, gore, and atrocity aplenty. There are also more subtle psychological horrors forced upon the characters. I thought it was very effectively done. There's also love, kindness, humor, which make the book not as grim as it could have been.

There are some small issues with the plotting of the book. For example, the fact that everyone speaks a different language is ignored -- the world is magically united against Luytens with perfect understanding of one another. I also found the Defenders program rather short-sighted. It seems so obvious to think of what would happen next, but no one seems to.

All in all, Defenders is fast-paced, thought-provoking and visceral. I enjoyed it thoroughly and I am looking forward to reading more Will McIntosh.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Ancillary Mercy

Title: Ancillary Mercy
Author: Ann Leckie
Series: Ancillary Justice, book 3
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2015
Rating: 8/10

Review:  I've been looking forward to the last book in the Ancillary Justice series since the previous two books were just excellent.

The book continues with the events on Athoek Station following the second book in the series. A new Presger translator arrives to take place of the killed translator Dlique and her behaviour is both curious and odd. The conflict between different races on Athoek station continues as the underground floors are evacuated following the events in book 2. And to add to it all Anaander Mianaai arrives to the system and it's not the one that favors Breq.

Overall, there's a lot of strategy and maneuvering in this book that make it not my favorite in the series, but still enjoyable. I liked the relationship bits between Breq, Seivarden, and the ship. Some of the things that were new and interesting in Ancillary Justice just sort of blended in the background in this novel (e.g. the non-gendered pronouns). I did find that the emphasis of the tea culture in the books was starting to get a little too overstated. One needs to hear only so many times that a particular character is regaining their composure by drinking tea from a particular tea set.

I did like how Leckie chose to close off the series. I didn't see Breq's request to Presger coming, though perhaps I should have. Leckie definitely brought Breq's motivations together quite well in this book -- Breq is no longer just trying to die while killing Anaander Mianaai, but it takes some time to see that. I thought it was a solid conclusion with a good twist. Overall, it's an excellent series and one I would definitely recommend to anyone.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Miss Buncle's Book

Title: Miss Buncle's Book
Author: D.E. Stevenson
Series: Miss Buncle, book 1
Genre: Fiction
Published: 1934
Rating: 7/10

Review: I picked this up at random on Amazon based on automatic recommendations and rather enjoyed this book. It was recommended because I like Flavia de Luce series and there are some parallels here. The story is basically a character study set in the middle-of-nowhere English town during the great depression.

Barbara Buncle is a middle-aged spinster whose stipend all but disappears with the hard times. So she decided to write a book about the town she lives in with all the characters based on real persons. To her surprise the book is a bestseller. However, the people of the town are not so excited to find their flaws and follies published for the world to see.

There really isn't much in terms of plot to this book -- it mostly describes life in a small English town. But it does so entertainingly and the characters are quite vivid and enjoyable. Definitely my cup of tea.

My biggest problem with this book is Barbara Buncle herself. She is so grey and nondescript that no one believes she could write that book -- and no one believes her even when she admits to writing it. And I agree with the other characters' assessment, it doesn't seem possible that in her naivete and conservatism she would be able to write something quite so spot on and edge cutting. Just because she is in a good position to observe doesn't mean she would be able to put it together and that's the part I didn't find very believable. It's kind of odd to have this somewhat unlikable person as a main character.

My other issue is Miss Buncle's romance with her publisher. Perhaps it's just the times have changed, but I thought the proposal was really out of nowhere and the fact that she just decides to accept without harboring any particular feelings is odd to me as well. There are more books in the series and I am a little curious to see how Miss Buncle's marriage fares in those, but I am not actually sure that I liked this enough to read more of the series. It's an entertaining little book, but considering only the main character carries on to the next novel, I am not sure I am excited about continuing. Perhaps if I am in the right mood...

Sunday, December 20, 2015

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

Title: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust
Author: Alan Bradley
Series: Flavia De Luce, book 7
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2015
Rating: 6.5/10

Review: I picked up the latest installment in Flavia series when I wanted to spend a bit of time with easy reading. As usual it's fairly entertaining, but this particular book had some trouble keeping my attention.

Flavia is sent to a boarding school in Toronto. There she learns more about her mother who has attended this school as well. And as usual there is murder, mystery, and mayhem afoot.

There were some pretty interesting things about the book. We get a whole slew of new characters: girls and teachers at the school. We also learn more about Flavia's mother. On the other hand, I missed the usual characters from Bishop Lacey.

The mystery part of the plot was pretty well set-up, but for some reason the book didn't engage me as much as I hoped. Perhaps, it was the new characters, for whom I didn't care as much or maybe Flavia being overly dramatic just wore a little on me. Regardless, I didn't find as much enjoyment in this book as I did in previous ones and I am rather glad that it looks like the next book will be set back in England.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Station Eleven

Title: Station Eleven
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2014
Rating: 7.5

Review: This novel showed up in many "best of" lists at the end of last year and has been patiently waiting for me to get to it. The story begins with the lead actor in King Lear dying on stage in Toronto from a heart attack. A day later, the Georgian Flu pandemic begins and wipes out most of the North American population.

Most of the story takes place 15-20 years after the events described in the first chapter. The Earth has lost much of its technology and people live in small segregated settlements. Most of the events revolve around a traveling troop of musicians and Shakespearean actors who move between the settlements and perform.

Station Eleven seems very much like a set of character sketches rather than a novel. The plot elements are pretty thin, but the relationships and views of the characters is what really defines the book. It was an easy read and didn't drag, but at the same time it felt like the point of the book was to reveal the connections between a set of people and places rather than to tell a cohesive story or explore the consequences of a large dystopian event.

What makes this book a bit different from a bunch of other post-apocalyptic novels out there is its emphasis on art as an important factor in post-apocalyptic recovery. The traveling troop's motto, taken from Star Trek, is "Survival is not sufficient" and showing that is something Mendel works very hard at in the book, though in my opinion she isn't entirely convincing. On the other hand, I did like the fact that she takes a fresh approach and doesn't dwell on descent into lawlessness.

Another interesting element in the novel is one of the main characters' obsessions with two graphic novels that she is given right before the world collapse. Kirsten tries to find out everything she can about them, but they are by an obscure author and there isn't much information out there. This part of her quest feels very authentic to me and I liked the way that story line is tied up at the end.

Altogether, I enjoyed reading Station Eleven. The author's writing style is smooth and the characters are well drawn, so even despite some flaws in the plot and world-building, it was an enjoyable and insightful book.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Nature of the Beast

Title: The Nature of the Beast
Author: Louise Penny
Series: Inspector Gamache, book 11
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2015
Rating: 7/10

Review: I went to a somewhat remote cabin for a few days of vacation and couldn't think of a better getaway reading book. Louise Penny's latest installment is once again set in the remote Quebec village of Three Pines with its atmospheric locations and eccentric characters.

Despite his retirement from police force, Armand Gamache does quite a bit of legwork on the case to figure out the murder of a local 9 year old boy.

This is certainly not the best book in the series -- it feels like Penny hasn't quite made up her mind on where to go next with the series yet. It's reflected in her main character's indecision on what to do next with his life after all the crazy events in book 9. But the mystery itself was interesting enough and I enjoy this style of cozy mystery with the characters I like. Basically, it was an enjoyable vacation read, but I am looking forward to a new bigger plot arch happening in the future books.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Documents in the Case

Title: The Documents in the Case
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace
Genre: Mystery
Published: 1930
Rating: 7/10

Review: I received The Documents in the Case as a birthday gift. I've never read anything by Sayers before, though I've heard of her Lord Peter Wimsey series. This book is not part of that series, but rather a standalone mystery taking place in the late 1920s.

The most interesting part of the novel is the format in which it's written. The case is put together through the letters that various characters write to each other. At the heart of the novel are Mr. and Mrs. Harrison who lend rooms to two young men: Harwood Lathom and John Munting. The first part of the story is told through the letters of Harrison's housekeeper, Agatha Milsom, to her sister. Later, it turns out to be a case of unreliable narration.

I found the first part of the novel quite enjoyable. But then the letters switched to those of Mrs. Harrison and I found her style just painful to read. While it does a good job exposing her character, I just found myself slogging through that part of the story. Eventually, the narration switches again and my pace picked up once more.

What's interesting is that there isn't so much a whodunnit type of twist in the story. It's pretty obvious from the start who did it. It's much more of how was it done and how do we prove that, story line. That's interesting, but didn't feel quite as dramatic as some of the modern mystery fiction. On the other hand, it didn't feel as cliched either. Altogether, it was a fresh reading experience, with a solid plot, and some interesting story telling devices.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Martian

Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2011
Rating: 8/10

Review: I've heard a lot of buzz around The Martian after it got released by the mainstream press in 2014, but didn't actually pick up and read the book until I saw this xkcd comic.

The premise of the story is pretty simple. Mark Watney is a part of 6-person astronaut team sent to collect research data on Mars. Due to circumstances, he gets left behind on the planet with no way to leave or communicate, but with enough life support and food to survive for some time. The book heavily focuses on the how-to of the survival mechanics.

Maybe it's the engineer in me, but I thought the book was great. It's hard to say there's that much happening in the book besides the description of how Mark manages to rig and debug various systems to make things happen, but those things kept my complete attention the entire time I was reading.  The descriptions felt quite realistic (except maybe for a couple of small things) and Mark has a great voice and a sense of humor that allows the reader to be drawn into the book that doesn't really have any dialogue.

We also get a glimpse of what's happening meanwhile on Earth and it was kind of interesting that despite being set in near future (e.g. to make travel to Mars by men possible), there is absolutely nothing futuristic about the Earth portion of the story. In fact, I would say the Earth parts of the story were the weakest by far. It was somewhat difficult for me to swallow that Earth would spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to save one man off of Mars.

All in all it's a thoroughly entertaining book and one I would definitely recommend to anyone who enjoys tinkering with things or space travel. There's also a movie version coming out later this year, so that might be fun too.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Eat Pray Love

Title: Eat Pray Love
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Genre: Memoir
Published: 2006
Rating: 6.5/10

Review: I took a few days vacation and went to Seattle. I finished reading Ancillary Sword on my flight over there and needed something new to read. The apartment I rented had a bookshelf full of fiction, so on a whim I decided to pick up Eat Pray Love.

The only thing I knew about the book before starting was that there's a movie with Julia Roberts and that it's "empowering" women's fiction. Not my usual genre, but I was in the mood for something off the beaten path.

Overall, it was both more fun and less fun than I expected. The story is a memoir of a single woman (Elizabeth herself) living in Italy, India, and Indonesia for a year total and her experiences there. The story begins by catching up the reader on the writer's state of mind and relationship history. Her voice is pretty entertaining and I generally enjoyed her anecdotes. On the other hand, I didn't really find her particularly easy to relate to. She sees things so differently from me that rather than pull me into the book, her inner dialogue just sort of made me quizzically look at her psyche from the sidelines.

The Italy portion was pretty fun though -- descriptions of food made me totally hungry and wishing I was in Italy. I also really enjoyed her language acquisition stories and comparisons. This part of the book was probably my favorite.

The next part of the book describes Elizabeth's experience living in an Indian ashram, practicing yoga. I do yoga myself as an exercise activity, so I have a little bit insight into it, but I don't practice it as a worldview. This part of the book involves Elizabeth searching her soul, meditating, and singing a whole lot. From my view as a reader, it's a duller portion of the book, though there are some interesting tidbits here as well.

After India, Elizabeth ends up in Bali, studying with an old mystic there. Once again, not a whole lot happens, but at least she's mostly emotionally stable for this part of the book, which is pretty nice. There are also some characters in this part whom I enjoyed reading about. The mystic that she studies with is one of them -- he really colored this part of the book for me.

All in all, this was a reasonably interesting book to pick up randomly. Some fun anecdotes, but also pretty slow in parts. Eh.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Ancillary Sword

Title: Ancillary Sword
Author: Ann Leckie
Series: Imperial Radch, book 2
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2014
Rating: 9/10

Review: This is the continuation of the story in Ancillary Justice; Ancillary Sword follows Breq to Athoek station. There Breq is seeking to make contact with Basnaaid, sister of Leutenant Awn in order to make reparations for Awn's death. However, since Anaander Mianaai appointed Breq as a Fleet Commander, she almost immediately ends up involved in the station's politics.

I really enjoyed the character development in this story. In particular, the way Breq relates to all the personnel on her ship and her evolving relationship with Lieutenant Tisarwat. It's a pleasure to watch Breq put it all together.

There are lots of socio-political themes in the book as well. Racial exploitation, segregation, political activism are all woven into the story. There are multiple races in a complex relationship with each other and the author masterfully puts it all together without bogging down in backstory or long info dumps.

In fact, the plot itself was pretty straightforward and moved at a good pace. There's a really good balance between action and exposition and the book is nicely tied up at the end. All-in-all, I thought this was even better than the first in the series and I am looking forward to Ancillary Mercy coming out in October.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Giver

Title: The Giver
Author: Lois Lowry
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 1993
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: I guess my reading lately falls into "books I should have read in high school, but didn't" category. I've heard so much about The Giver, but I've never read anything by Lois Lowry until now.

The book starts with a preface by the author talking about his experiences with this book and the upcoming movie (which I guess already came out and has 36% on rotten tomatoes, so I am not watching that). If anything, the preface set my book expectations even higher than before.

I have to admit that upon finishing the book I was a bit disappointed in its simplicity. The story follows Jonas, a boy in the future apocalyptic society. There is a bunch of set up done to illustrate how Jonas' society, family, and relationships work and to get us close to the character. When Jonas turns 12, he is chosen as the next Receiver. The Receiver is someone who will carry the burden of societal memory about the past on behalf of the whole settlement.

It's a neat idea and it was written long before the rest of apocalyptic YA that followed, but the plot of the story really doesn't have much to speak of. There's a small twist with what felt like a rather weak resolution to me. Nevertheless, I am giving this book a pretty high rating because it was sufficiently entertaining, held my attention, and had enjoyable characters..

Behind the simple prose, hides a more sophisticated idea of what it means to be free and whether being happy and ignorant is better than being informed and miserable. The mechanic of Jonas' releasing memories is also pretty interesting. It's a quick and worthwhile read, but probably one I would be more likely to recommend to a younger reader.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

To Kill A Mockingbird

Title: To Kill A Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Genre: Fiction
Published: 1960
Rating: 8/10

Review: I may be the last person to read this book. Somehow we passed each other like ships in the night -- my school did not have it on the curriculum. With the news of Harper Lee releasing a sequel fifty years after the original publication, I was curious to see for myself what I've been missing.

The story is told from the point of view of a six year old girl nick-named Scout. It's 1933 and she lives with her brother and father in a town of Maycomb in Alabama. From her innocent view, she describes the case her father works on, in which a black man is accused of raping a white woman. Scout's father is assigned to be the man's defense attorney just as town politics are heating up about the case.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a fairly slow-flowing book. Most of the action actually takes place in a chapter or two towards the end, while the rest of the novel focuses on the flow of life and the characters in Maycomb. It's an interesting juxtaposition of kindness and persecution that is shown throughout the book. It also touches quite a bit on racial politics of the time.

I liked Scout's voice as a narrator and it's easy to admire her father for his principles. But there's a wider study of character going on in the book and some of the minor characters became some of my favorites. I really like Miss Maudie, who likes her garden more than her house and takes difficulties in stride. Some of the less likable characters are interesting too, like Mrs. Duboise who kicks a morphine addiction before he death.

To Kill A Mockingbird is slow and thoughtful, but enjoyable. I just might pick up Go Set A Watchman when it comes out in July.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Title: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Author: Haruki Murakami
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 1997
Rating: 8.5/10

Review: My only previous experience reading Murakami was 1Q84, which I thought was a profoundly strange book. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is no less strange, but quite different in style and content.

The main hero is Toru Okada, who is a 30-year old married man, who gets laid off from a law firm at which he works in some errand-boy/clerical position. His wife works in the publishing business and continues to do so while Toru stays at home and tries to figure out what it is that he really wants to do.

The couple owns a cat who goes missing. Toru's wife, Kumiko, hires a psychic to find where the cat disappeared to and sends Toru to the appointment with the psychic. The psychic is an entirely odd character named Malta Kano, who tells Toru that the cat has decided to leave for good, also tells Toru where to find the tie he's been looking for, and declares that Toru's brother-in-law, Noboru Wataya, has raped her sister. Things only get odder from there when Toru gets a house call from Malta's sister, who tells him half of her life story and then disappears. On top of it, Toru gets an inheritance from an old man he used to visit and strikes a friendship with a 15-year-old neighbour.

I will stop re-counting the plot at this point -- to say it's complex is an understatement. There's a whole lot of plot lines and characters who do odd things to various degree. And the strangest thing is that I really enjoyed that.

The book is divided into three parts. I believe they were originally published separately. The first two parts are especially good and kept my attention very well. The last part felt a bit less tightly plotted and more meandering and even stranger than the rest. The ending was not entirely satisfactory. I sort of understood why Kumiko did what she did, but did not understand why she had to publicize it as she did. I did not have the feeling of full resolution, but I guess most mysteries did get resolved at the end.

Overall, it was a really interesting read and one I would wholeheartedly recommend if you enjoy puzzling over people's psychology, enjoy war stories, or have ever felt lost.

Monday, April 6, 2015

When You Leave

Title: When You Leave
Author: Monica Ropal
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2015
Rating: 8/10

Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: When You Leave starts out with a plot that is familiar to all who read young adult fiction. Girl transfers to a new school. Girl meets a boy. They fall in love. So far, it's pretty standard fare. Though there are some complications: they are in different social circles and hide their relationship from all their friends. But the real twist occurs when the boy gets murdered and the girl starts investigating his death.

The book is written from Cass's point of view and feels very authentic. Cass is fallible, confused, and often pretty awkward. She is not brilliant when it comes to investigations. Nevertheless, she persists with her inquiry and eventually figures thing out. Her journey from start to finish is mesmerizing. I had trouble putting the book down until it was finished.

There were other interesting characters in Cass's crew. Her voiceless friend, Mattie and the rest of the skateboarding crew were also quite believable, and each unique in their own way. The least well-written character is probably Cooper, who gets murdered. His motivations for doing various things seem feeble and his whole character comes off like a stock "perfect boyfriend" stereotype.

The plot kept me guessing on who the murderer was for quite some time, though I did figure it out towards the end of the book. All-in-all it was an interesting read and a new take on a coming of age and coming to terms type novel and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Zero Sum Game

Title: Zero Sum Game
Author: SL Huang
Series: Russel's Attic, book 1
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Published: 2014
Rating: 6/10

Review: I took a note of S.L. Huang in the fairy-tale anthology Retold that I read last month. Her story was one of my favorites, so I thought I'd give her novel a try. The premise sounded interesting: a mercenary with math superpower fighting a mind-controlling psychic.

So, I like math and I think math is cool and powerful and you can do a lot of different stuff with math. But this book pushed it well past the point of where I could accept it. There was one thing that bothered me in particular -- being able to do a crazy calculation about bullet velocity and direction is really not enough to dodge a bullet just because you know where it's going. I would have been much more accepting of a math super-power that also didn't turn into a physical super-power of precise motion and crazy strength. As it was, the heroine was pretty ridiculously overpowered and her constant math rationalizations for it made me rather annoyed.

The story itself was a pretty fun thriller type plot, which just kept escalating throughout the book. Drug cartels, mystery government organizations, hackers, and a psychopath with religion all figure into the plot that takes the main crew all around L.A. area. All-in-all, it was rather entertaining, if not entirely believable. I liked Arthur, the P.I. investigating a shadowy organization called Pithica who teams up with the heroine, Cas.

He has some serious reservations about Cas's moral compass and her murdering people left and right and I agree with that. I just wish he didn't eventually decide it wasn't that big a deal after all and strike a friendship. After all, by the end of the book Cas has probably murdered 4-dozen people as a very conservative estimate. Of course, they are all bad guys... Still, sometimes that much violence just doesn't sit well with me.

The other part of the book that could have been better is the writing. It's hard for me to put a finger on what exactly bothered me there, but I could easily tell it's a book by a new writer. I guess it just felt a little sloppy and under-edited.

All-in-all, it was entertaining, but I don't think I am going to pick up the next book in the series. Still, it's heartening to see books with female math ass-kicking superheroes.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Serenity: Leaves on the Wind

Title: Serenity: Leaves on the Wind
Author: Zack Whedon, Geoges Jeanty
Series: Serenity, vol 4
Genre: Graphic Novel
Published: 2014
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: Leaves on the Wind is a meatier and longer story than the previous three. It takes place after the events of the movie Serenity. As with the other volumes, I think this one makes most sense to read only if you are already familiar with the TV show and the movie, many details would be lost on someone who is new to the universe.

The book follows the adventures of Serenity's crew -- with Alliance breathing down their necks. They find some new supporters and get into plenty of trouble as usual. There are 6 chapters to the story and a pretty complete story arch. The illustrations are a bit different, but I found them easy to read and discern what's happening.

At the end of the story there's a cover gallery, which I thought was really excellent. I enjoyed looking through it. Finally, there's a small bonus story following the main one. The story is titled "It's Never Easy" and it's a pretty short skit involving Malcolm and Zoe as main characters. The story is drawn in a very different, more angular and sketchy style. I liked it a bit less than the rest of the volume, but it was quick and quirky, so not bad at all overall.

I was hoping there were more volumes following this, but turns out this is the last one and there's no regular schedule for these. But I am hoping that more might yet get published.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Serenity: The Shepherd's Tale

Title: Serenity: The Shepherd's Tale
Author: Joss Whedon, Zack Whedon, Chris Samnee
Series: Serenity, vol 3
Genre: Graphic Novel
Published: 2010
Rating: 8/10

Review: This volume tells Shepherd Book's life story. It starts at the end and keeps going backwards in a series of flashbacks. It's a pretty thin volume, but also one of my favorites because it explains the back story that I've been curious about for quite some time.

In episode Safe of Firefly, Book gets hurt, but then he gets medical care by showing his ident card to an Alliance cruiser. The viewer never gets to find out why they help him out and that mystery was never resolved until this comic.

This finally goes through Book's backstory, which is a rather twisty path. It resolves a lot of small mysteries about Book that we see in the TV series, but never have an explanation for. So, I definitely recommend this one to those curious about Shepherd Book.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Serenity: Better Days and Other Stories

Title: Serenity: Better Days and Other Stories
Author: Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews. Will Conrad
Series: Serenity, vol 2
Genre: Graphic Novel
Published: 2008
Rating: 7/10

Review: This volume contains four different stories. The first one is called Better Days and seems to be taking place between the end of the Firefly series and the beginning of Serenity movie. Wash and Inara are both on board of the ship for this story. The crew unexpectedly makes a large amount of money from a job. Then they fantasize about how they are going to spend the money.

There are some pretty funny moments there, for example, Jayne imagines himself a captain of a ship and refers to himself as Radiant Cobb. They go to a luxury planet to spend some of the money and of course trouble follows them there.

Overall, there were a few twists in the story, which I found a bit difficult to discern from the pictures. I had to go back and re-examine panels in detail to see what they were talking about. But the story itself was well put-together and the twists made it interesting.

I also enjoyed the full-page artwork in this novel. There are crew portraits spread out between different stories that have a lot of detail and look very well done.

The other three stories in this volume are much shorter. The Other Half focuses on River's increasing involvement with the crew and her use of psychic abilities. Downtime has the crew stuck in a snow storm and again sets up River as an important character. Finally Float Out takes place after the events in Serenity. Three Wash's friends buy a ship together and tell stories about Wash.

The three stories are somewhat disjointed and I liked Better Days best out of the four. Still, there are small reveals about the characters contained in every story, which makes them totally worthwhile.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Serenity: Those Left Behind

Title: Serenity: Those Left Behind
Author: Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews, Will Conrad
Series: Serenity, vol 1
Genre: Graphic Novel
Published: 2007
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: I received a set of Serenity graphic novels for Christmas. As a big fan of Firefly, I was pretty excited to get more works set in the universe. I didn't even know these existed.

Those Left Behind is structured a lot like a typical Firefly episode and seems to be taking place directly after Objects in Space. Mal and his crew are getting in trouble with yet another job and Alliance is continuing to hunt River. Inara is planning to leave, but keeps getting delayed.

I prefer TV series as a medium for telling this type of story, but I have to admit that the comic book felt very authentic for telling this story as well. It was point on when it came to character dialogues and action. I found a few panels were a little difficult to follow, but overall it felt very much like just another episode.

I wasn't a huge fan of Will Conrad's drawing style, though everyone was clearly recognizable. Still, it was enjoyable to get immersed in the world of Firefly once again.

Ancillary Justice

Title: Ancillary Justice
Author: Ann Leckie
Series: Imperial Radch, book 1
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2013
Rating: 8.5/10

ReviewAncillary Justice appeared so often in genre blogs last year and was spoken about with so much enthusiasm, that I was sure it couldn't possibly live up to the hype. I put off reading it for some time, but in the end I think the book both disappointed and exceeded my expectations at the same time.

The neat concept in Ancillary Justice is that the main character is an AI fragment. The Justice of Torren is a troop carrier that can control a host of human bodies -- one of these bodies is Breq, the protagonist of this book.

The book starts off with Breq on a faraway frozen world in search of a particular artifact that she needs in order to kill Anaander Mianaai the ruler of Radch empire. The story of her quest and her background is what keeps the story going, albeit a bit slowly at first. The ending is interesting and somewhat wraps up the story arch, but leaves a few plot threads going for the next books in the series.

What really worked in this book for me was the psychology of the protagonist. She really comes off as real and in a way very human, but in other ways clearly different. The author really pulled off the narrative from Breq's point of view and that is something that makes the book a real success.

Another distinctive feature of the book is that Breq cannot tell genders apart. It seems a bit odd, considering her sophistication in say understanding human emotions. The author explains it away as a cultural thing among Radchai. There are two genders, but no particular distinction is made between them -- the language doesn't account for their sex and the appearance is similar. Because of this, Breq calls everyone "she" in the book. The real fun comes in when you try to discern the real genders of the characters. I've seen many reviews that condemn the feminine gender use as a gimmick, but to me it was really interesting in that it drove home how genders define expectations of the characters behaviour. It was interesting to see how assigning certain actions to a certain gender and then finding out they are the opposite gender changes your perception of the character.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book and will most certainly pick up other books in this series at some point.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Openly Straight

Title: Openly Straight
Author: Bill Konigsberg
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2013
Rating: 8/10

Review: The first chapter of Openly Straight strongly reminded me of Looking for Alaska. Both novels begin with the protagonist starting a new boarding school far away from home in order to get a fresh start. Both protagonists are left in their un-air-conditioned dorms by their loving parents to face their new strange roommates. Both novels involve characters drinking a fair bit -- if I were a parent, I don't think I'd let my kids go to a boarding school.

The main protagonist's name is Rafe and he decides to go to an all-male boarding school to escape his "gay guy" label back home. In Rafe's mind, everyone thinks of him as gay first and everything else second. So he decides to pretend to be straight, though according to him, he'll just avoid mentioning that he's gay. It's funny how he keeps saying that to himself and his parents and his friends back home, but in reality he lies about who he is almost immediately and continues lying.

From the start, Rafe gets in with the jocks at the school. He plays football and soccer and then feels much more comfortable ogling guys in the shower than he ever did before. He also slowly makes friends with his dorky roommate and his openly gay friend. Rafe also becomes very good friends with Ben, whom he meets playing football.

Of course, his little omission about being gay becomes pretty significant after Rafe gradually falls in love with Ben. I thought the romance aspect of the novel was very well done. It felt natural and realistic, though I have never known a straight guy to behave the way Ben does throughout the book.

There is a secondary narrative in the novel, written in the form of a diary assignment. Rafe is recounting his "gay" experiences in Boulder and each diary has feedback from the teacher at the end of it. While I liked getting the background on Rafe, I thought the whole writing diary thing was extremely unrealistic. I think most teens wouldn't share those sort of thoughts and experiences with an unfamiliar adult. It's just weird.

These details aside, I found the book was absorbing and enjoyable. I read it quickly and late into the night to find out what happens next. I think the ending was reasonable and realistic, even if I perhaps wished for something less realistic and more fulfilling. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys YA genre.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Retold: Six Fairytales Reimagined

Retold is a collection of six re-imagined fairytales published by The Book Smuggers. You can currently download them from their website for free individually or buy the whole anthology for $1.99. Given that I think Ana and Thea who run the blog have a rather good taste in books, I decided to give these stories a try.

Each story includes an author's essay on what inspired them to write the story and an interview with the author. I think that's a really nice touch -- I enjoyed reading these pieces very much.

Title: In Her Head, In Her Eyes
Author: Yukimi Ogawa
Rating: 8.5/10
Thoughts:  This was the first story I read and it was also one of my favorites in the collection. It's based on the Japanese story of Hachikaduki: A Girl with a Bowl on Her Head. The original tale is actually also included with the subversive one. As one might guess the fairy tale features a girl who wears a bowl on her head all the time. I rather liked the reimagined story: it starts out like the classic, but turns out much darker and much more evil than I imagined. The writing is beautiful and flows well, very well done.

Title: The Ninety-Ninth Bride
Author: Catherine F. King
Rating: 6.5/10
Thoughts: This is a re-telling of 1001 Arabian Nights. I like the idea behind the original story better, even though the author explains her logic behind the subversive re-telling. The writing is a little off from the traditional fairy tale and the themes are introduced in such a modern way as to make them jarring. The author makes it feel like a story on work-life balance of a working mom with a deranged husband. It just didn't work for me, though there were some very imaginative elements, such as the true identity of Scheherazade.

Title: The Astronomer Who Met The North Wind
Author: Kate Hall
Rating: 4/10
Thoughts: This is the story of a child who sets her mind on becoming an astronomer, just like her father is. However, she is not allowed to go out with her father to look for a comet in the sky. Instead she takes his equipment, sneaks off, falls down a hill, breaks a bunch of things, and gets semi-rescued by The North Wind's sister, whom she orders around, and then comes home a gives her father an ultimatum. The author's idea is to show how children can know their minds early in their lives and study STEM careers. I feel like the only thing the story made me think is that the girl is really bratty and what she does in actuality accomplishes nothing other than putting herself in danger. Not a fan.

Title: Hunting Monsters
Author: S.L. Huang
Rating: 9/10
Thoughts: This was my favorite story in the collection. A girl lives with her mom and aunt in an out-of-the-way village and is taught to hunt from an early age. Except, she is told it's really important to distinguish dumb beasts from changelings. Killing sentient human beings who have been turned into animals is murder. Then her mother gets arrested on murder charges and she learns a lot more about her family history.

The story sounds a bit farcical in my summary, but it works surprisingly well. It's a mix of Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast, but with a really strange twist that I very much enjoy. It has a great diversity of characters and the writing felt solid. I would consider buying another story by this author.

Title: Mrs. Yaga
Author: Michal Wojcik
Rating: 8/10
Thoughts:  This is the only story in the collection by a male author, and one I wouldn't guess being written by a man as it deals with a mother-daughter type relationship. Baba Yaga lives in her chiken-feet hut as an immigrant in Canada. She is described in vivid detail and I really like how the author combines fairy tale and modern life (she is preferring an SUV to her mortar and pestle these days). Her ward, Aurelia, is complaining how Mrs. Yaga keeps driving away her suitors by giving them impossible quests. I like how the issue gets resolved, even though the skip at the end felt a little abrupt to me. It's a fun reinterpretation of Slavic myth and it definitely tickled my fancy since I am familiar with the original tales.

Title: The Mussel Eater
Author: Octavia Cade
Rating: 6.5/10
Thoughts: This was an odd tale of a man who is wooing a sea creature by cooking her food. She is a protector of dolphins in the sea and he's human who finds her mussels and cooks them in various ways. I thought the tale might be Italian based on all the cooking: there's olive oil, lots of aromatic herbs, and delicious food descriptions.

Turns out the story is based on a New Zealand fairy tale. While fascinating, what didn't work for me in the tale was the man's motivation. He describes his object of desire in some rather unattractive terms, so it's hard to believe he's trying hard to seduce her when he thinks she smells terrible. I thought the ending was rather fitting, but the plot didn't make much sense to me on its own since I wasn't familiar with the original tale. It made more sense after I read the author's essay -- but I rather feel the original tale would perhaps be more to my liking.


Overall, I enjoyed this collection. There were some hits and some misses, but it certainly made me nostalgic for more fairy tales. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Looking forward to reading in 2015

I was looking at the last year's January posts where I talked about books I was going to read last year. The list looked as follows:
  1. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  2. Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh
  3. The Mad Scientist's Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke
  4. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley 
  5. What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton
  6. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
  7. Written in My Own Heart's Blood by Diana Gabaldon
Out of these, I've read all but two books. I am still yet to read Ancillary Justice, even though I've already purchased it and looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about. And I completely forgot about The Mad Scientist's Daughter, not sure if I will actually be reading it.

In addition to Ancillary Justice, I now have a new set of books I am looking forward to in 2015. Some of these are releases from the last year that received a lot of hype and some of these are 2015 releases I am anticipating. Without further ado, here's my 2015 reading list.

1. The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. This is an alien invasion sci-fi that seems to have appeared on quite a few best-of lists from last year. I think it'll be interesting to check out some sci-fi not written in North America.

2. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley. This is the next installment in Flavia de Luce's detective adventures. It came out just earlier this month and should be very good fun with the change of scenery from England to Canada.

3. The Thorn of Emberlain by Scott Lynch. The next installment of Locke Lamora adventures is currently scheduled to be released this year.  Of course all the fans have been waiting for this book for almost 8 years now, so who knows if it's actually going to happen.

4. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. I've seen some pretty amazing positive reviews for this fantasy novel. It's supposed to be a fresh take on fantasy with great characters. Even though I haven't been reading a lot of fantasy lately, I might just pick this one up.

There are also a number of other books I am either looking at or considering. Among them, not-yet-read Jo Walton books. I've been reading her analysis of The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear, which were awesome and also making me yearn for the next installment of Patrick Rothfuss's series (probably won't happen this year). I have a set of short stories published by The Book Smugglers that I plan on reading.  I also received Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg for Christmas, which I am going to read soon. Finally, I have the first 3 volumes of the Firefly graphic novel waiting for me.

So many books so little time.

Monday, January 19, 2015

What Makes This Book so Great

Title: What Makes This Book so Great
Author: Jo Walton
Genre: Essays
Published: 2014
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: What Makes This Book so Great is a collection of book-review-like essays written by Jo Walton about various books she enjoys re-reading. All the essays were originally published on, so if you have sufficient patience for website interface, you can in theory just skip reading the book and read the website instead (but I am rather glad I didn't because their website lives on the border of clunky and awful).

I discovered Jo Walton a couple of years ago when I read Among Others. I enjoyed it immensely. One particular aspect that was great is the main character's running commentary on the variety of classic science fiction and fantasy novels. What Makes This Book so Great is basically a longer form of the commentary in the novel and written from the first POV of the author rather than the character.

I started this book almost three months ago. It went really quickly at first and I enjoyed reading all the different reviews. But then at some point I just got distracted by another novel I picked up and forgot all about WMTBSG. Since each essay/review is pretty much stand alone, it's easy to read in short bursts. Once I remembered about this book early this year, I finished reading it, though sometimes it was hard to stick to it instead of going off to pick up whatever book the last review was praising.

I consider myself reasonably well-versed in the science fiction and fantasy genre, so I found it really surprising that Jo Walton reviews so many books that I have never even heard of. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised. Most of the books she reviews in this volume are published last century (especially in 70's and 80's) at the time when I wasn't reading this genre yet.

From the books I did have exposure to before, I tried to figure out whether her taste matches mine. As one might expect, this varies. We disagree on Tolkien (I am not a big fan), but completely agree on Luis McMaster Bujold (Walton makes fifteen separate entries on the Vorkosigan saga in this collection). Generally, my to read list is now much longer both from reading this book and all the year-end lists.

Overall, I also enjoyed Jo Walton's writing style and her book commentary. It's embarrassingly fun to read a book about books. One of the things I didn't feel worked as well in the book were the series reviews. It was fun for Vorkosigan where I've already read the series, but for series I haven't read, e.g. Steven Brust's Vlad series, I really didn't want to read about each book in the series individually. I think the details Walton goes into on a per-volume basis are only interesting to those who have already read something in the series.

The nice consequence of reading this book is that now I know about Jo Walton's column on (which she continues to update) and now I can read her ongoing posts there, though I am still looking for an RSS feed as to avoid visiting the website. I am in progress of going through a group of 15 posts on The Name of the Wind re-read which discusses the finer points of the book's world and I am pretty excited about it (squee!). 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Past and the Future

Today is my 6th year anniversary blogging here. It's been fun. Today I am looking back at the last year of reading and as tradition demands presenting my favorite books of the year.

In total, I've read 34 books last year, which is lower than last year and below the goal I set for myself this year, which was 40. However, I enjoyed the things I've read and don't regret not reading more because making myself read in the hectic days of autumn when things got really busy would not have been productive. Hence, I decided not to actually set any reading goal for the next year. I will read when I feel like reading, and I will certainly not stop reading just because I didn't set a number of books goal, and I will not create stress by trying to reach some arbitrary number of books. So, no reading goals in 2015 beyond maybe having fun.

I read quite a few new releases last year. Of the 34 books, I managed to finish, 12 were published in 2014. There were also many new-ish books: 6 were published in 2013 and 6 were published in 2012. A bunch were the latest installments in the series I've been reading, but some were new to me authors, which I enjoy.

I've been reading pretty diversely across genres. In the past, I usually had a dominating genre for the year, but this year it's much more distributed. There are two new-to-me genres: essays and graphic novels. Both turned out to be really fun and enjoyable and I'll definitely be back for more in 2015. The distribution of my reading looks like this: 6 young adult, 5 science fiction, 5 mystery, 5 graphic novels, 4 fiction, 4 fantasy, 2 historical fiction, 2 non fiction, and a book of essays.

In terms of authors I've read, absolutely coincidentally it turned out to be 50-50. 17 of the books were written by men and 17 were written by women. The books were written by 26 unique authors and 15 of them were new to me (57%), which may be a personal best.

And now, finally to my top 3 favorite books this year:

Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh - A science fiction saga about the future of humanity, relationships, and death. I've been giving this book to all my friends to read as I enjoyed it immensely. my review

This is a Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett - A collection of essays, which I just found absolutely fascinating. In my favorite essay in this collection, Ann, at age 30, tries to pass an entrance exam to enter the police academy. my review

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn - A mystery thriller where the author just messes with your head until you have no idea who is wrong and who is right. It certainly kept my attention throughout and requires no advertising since the movie based on the book came out late last year. my review

I also have several other honorable mentions, which stood out to me this year:

Ready Player One by Earnest Cline is the book I finished last in 2014 and it found the way to my heart through the puzzle and video gaming references. Lots and lots of fun. my review

Looking for Alaska by John Green is a well-written young adult stand alone story featuring the main protagonist who goes off to a boarding school looking for "the great beyond". Plenty of shenanigans ensue, but in typical John Green fashion it all ends in tears (both for the characters and for me). my review

Wool by Hugh Howley is a dystopian science fiction novel where everyone lives below ground in a deep vertical tunnel, called a silo. Imaginative world and excellent characters make this book a very good read. my review

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is a young adult romance novel whose characters I enjoyed immensely and who just managed to evoke the feelings of high school and first romance like no one else. my review

Happy New Year, everyone! I am off to scour everyone else's top of 2014 posts for reading recommendations. Looking forward to lots of fun books.