Saturday, July 19, 2014

Written in My Own Heart's Blood

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Half Way There!

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

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

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


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Gone Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Unlocked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Love Minus Eighty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

We Were Liars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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