Book reviews: Year 2014

Howl’s Moving Castle (Howl’s Moving Castle, #1) by Diana Wynne Jones

A big fan of Ghibli, I had meant to read the book the movie was based on for a while and not surprisingly, I tremendously enjoyed it. At first I wondered what the fans were unhappy about as it seemed the movie stuck closely to the book storyline... until a shocking point halfway through where everything suddenly takes on quite a different meaning, out of the blue. Now I understand the wishes for the movie title to have been different! Both stories are excellent though, and I found myself laughing out loud often and wanting to share a passage I just read with whoever was around. Recommended!

Tongues of Serpents (Temeraire, #6) by Naomi Novik

Slow to start until about halfway through, and after a long break in the series I found it a bit difficult to remember all the characters and their backstory. Once the story picked up though, it was a true pleasure to explore this world once again, and I also find myself quite intrigued by the epilogue and where it leaves us at.

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

Delightful, approachable SF set in the nearish future. The characters are well fleshed out and believable, and the world is incredibly interesting. The evolutions in technology and how society adapts to it felt credible to me considering what's happening nowadays. The plot was good and I liked how the author sucks us into the main intrigue within the first chapters, it was very well done.

There're a lot of subplots and nuggets of information about the world that are delivered in passing all along the book. For me in particular, the questions suggested around the meaning (and fungibility?) of identity are still in my mind.

The Bridge by Iain Banks

I'm not sure if I should be rating this book. It's outside of my usual genre and probably why I never warmed up to it. I only stuck through it because it was assigned for the book club. I suppose I was also somewhat curious of finding out the main character's identity and what the heck was actually going on. But I didn't really enjoy reading a story where you constantly have the feeling it's going to end with "and then it turned out to have all been a dream." The chapters written in dialect were also quite hard to read. If you like symbolism, you'll probably have a good time though.

I'm giving it two stars because I still finished it, which is something I usually can't do with really bad books.

The Quantum Thief (Jean le Flambeur, #1) by Hannu Rajaniemi

I had a bit of trouble with the Quantum Thief at the beginning, because this is not a book that you can read during stolen moments, 15 minutes here and there. It requires more focus and time to immerse yourself properly in its universe. The book doesn't handhold you through new words, new concepts, new cultures; characters do not jump out of the story to lecture you on stuff they already know. You have to piece it together for yourself from context and this is done quite well, and altogether quite gently.

There are several plot lines intertwined with multiple (quite interesting!) characters, which made it easier for me to get over the beginning as I found the main character somewhat irritating. The interludes between some of the chapters are very nice and offer more background on the world and its rich history. (Delightfully they also turned out to tie back together with the main story line.)

There are a lot of layers in this book, and I know I missed a few and didn't get the full story. Some of the ideas are quite complex to get your head around, but it didn't prevent me from enjoying the main story. Hopefully I'll find the time to read it again soon and get to experience some of the plot points I missed!

Embassytown by China Miéville

I really enjoyed it.

Crucible of Gold (Temeraire, #7) by Naomi Novik

I really enjoyed it.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I was surprised at how easy the book reads right from the start. Good storytelling and excellent, emotionally charged food for thought. Some of the expressions used and possibilities hinted at remain pretty haunting.

Blood of Tyrants (Temeraire, #8) by Naomi Novik

A pleasure to read, that reminded me of the great enthusiasm with which I devoured the first few books. The story starts with a big surprise that sets it on a different path than usual and was distinctly compelling.

It was also delightful to see a glimpse of Japan. Absolutely recommended, even more so now that I hear the next book will be the last one.

Adventures! Dragons!

La Première Gorgée de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules (L'Arpenteur) (French Edition) by Philippe Delerm

Un petit livre plein de petites histoires sur des moments simples de la vie. Emouvant sans trop savoir pourquoi, j'ai pris mon temps pour le lire - une histoire ici et là le soir, ça a pris presqu'un an. Je pense que pour les expatriés ce livre a une saveur tout à fait différente et parfois percutante - des morceaux de culture oubliés soudain remémorés, des souvenirs qui reviennent et la réalisation que même au loin, même ailleurs, une part de notre identité est partagée et appartiendra toujours à ce pays. Très nostalgique !

Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

First off, do not read the introduction in the masterworks edition if you're not familiar with the story, as was my case. It reveals a lot of what will and will not happen.

Otherwise, I did not like this book. Until perhaps a few chapters toward the end none of the characters were really engaging. There is a lot of racism, sexism and ableism that is probably meant to show us how far we have and haven't come but I found it infuriating and depressing more than thought-provoking or whatever it was supposed to convey. The story isn't the kind of story I like or find satisfying.

I'm sure I simply missed the point of most of everything. I didn't understand any of the poems and couldn't always link the historical mini-chapters back to the story. Maybe people who likes fantastical/lightly-alternate history novels will fare better.

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

A 12 year-old boy who loses his mother gets himself lost in a fantastical world, born from the stories and old tales he loves to read or perhaps, the world from which all these stories were born.

The world and the tales are often dark, the atmosphere eerie when not downright creepy. These are not the gentle fairy tales of nowadays and I would advise against reading in the dark before going to bed! The story itself is incredibly well-written and compelling as is the evolution of David, the little boy. Somehow there is an optimistic thread through the story despite the darkness. A very satisfying read.

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories by Kelly Link

I'm new to the steampunk genre and keenly interested in discovering more of it (looking for recommendations should you have any!). This means I'm not very familiar with the tropes yet. I think this collection of short stories is good to dip your toes into the genre and figure out if you'd like it. There's a lot of variety, some stories that mix genres (sometimes delightfully so!), others that one may not consider to be steampunk at first glance, and it even includes a couple of short comics.

I was a bit worried at the beginning, as it seemed many of the stories either started or ended (if not both) from fairly depressing settings in borderline dystopian worlds, with often familiar and infuriating limitations on what people can do based on gender, skin colour or religion. What I find fascinating in steampunk is all the wonders that come together to bring a different world to life: the machines, the automatons, the airships and mysterious contraptions - the making, exploring, engineering and adventures. The strange and unusual. Did I mention zeppelins?

Thankfully it would appear that a hopeless world is not, actually, a requirement for steampunk fiction and I would encourage not stopping at the first few stories and reading the whole book (it certainly helped me get more enjoyment of the stories that had concerned me at first!). My favourite: "The Ghost of Cwmlech Manor."

Luck in the Shadows (Nightrunner, #1) by Lynn Flewelling

I can't quite tell what makes Luck in the Shadows such a great book. It starts looking like it'll be a good, decent fantasy story but very quickly becomes nearly impossible to put down. I think the pace is masterfully handled, throwing us into a mysterious world with its intrigues, an impressive world history, wizards, spies!, conspiracies, dead necromancers' twitching hands and more; together with two really attaching main characters and all the while skillfully mixing the discovery of this world's wonders with moments of "oh crap they're going to die nooo" as well as a good deal of humour. Nice to see a bisexual main character too! Everyone you meet is 3-dimensional, has believable motivations and many stick in mind for a long time even if encountered only for a chapter or two. Some sections may be a bit slower than the rest though I never found it an issue.

But while I'm writing this I'm not reading the next book and I really want to know what happens next so, bye!

Stalking Darkness (Nightrunner, #2) by Lynn Flewelling

A satisfying conclusion to the major story arc started in book #1. There are sections where the writing gets a bit weaker, it doesn't hold the same kind of mystical storytelling power than say "The Book of Lost Things" and can be awkward in parts (with too rapid mood changes between some scenes for instance), but I think overall this contributes to the charm of the series, it is not pretentious, even when the stakes get really high. Once more I found it really hard to put the book down.

Much intrigue and spying and thieving again, and both smaller plots and larger plot lines delightfully happening in parallel, sometimes interweaving, sometimes not. The characters continue to be engaging and interesting. Watching Alec mature is at times hilarious and other times sad and terrifying, and it's lovely to watch the bond grow between him and his mentor Seregil. There's a darker tone to the story though, as more light gets shed on the necromancer plot hinted at from the beginning of the first book, as well as the war that had been brooding.

Onto book #3!

Traitor's Moon (Nightrunner, #3) by Lynn Flewelling

This book is a stand-alone story, in theory one does not need to have read the previous 2 in order to read it though it's likely much more enjoyable when already familiar the characters.

The book starts pretty weak, I thought. The jump in time 2 years after the last story was disappointing, and the Plenimarans even more though - still so unidimensional with no redeeming quality. Very annoying when contrasted with the depth and richness of the Aurënfaie people, culture and traditions, right down to their clothing and language (I wouldn't have minded a glossary for some of their common words though...).

About a third of the way in, the angst finally gives way to intrigues and mysteries, magic and spying and all the things that makes the Nightrunners series so good and appealing. I'm sad I won't be able to get my hands on the next book for the next few weeks, but I look forward to travelling with these characters again!

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Important messages and thoughts around self-acceptance, self-reliance and faith, unfortunately in a modern style of prose that I found quite difficult to approach or enjoy.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Many brilliant ideas explored by very well-written, 3-dimensional characters, all very memorable. A number of the stories left me a bit unsatisfied though, like the story ended too early and I wasn't bright enough to think further of the implications or left on my own with my concerns for a character. There's some really interesting concepts though, like a story written as a science article in the future or as a documentary (which I thought worked very well for both) and a wide variety of themes, including sometimes thought-provoking religious ones.

Ready Player One (Ready Player One, #1) by Ernest Cline

I really enjoyed it.

Permutation City by Greg Egan

A long, fascinating and in-depth exploration of what "identity" means, can mean, may encompass. No answers of course, lots of questions and probing. And also a good mystery at a large (universal!) scale, with astonishing revelations at key moments that keep the story going.

Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey

A well written depressing tale, of a little girl growing up in an alcoholic family. As the narrator grows up, the voice also evolves, together with her understanding of the world. The descriptions become more precise. It's really well done. People who haven't grown up with Hiberno-English will likely find the vocabulary and expressions interesting, too!

Shadows Return (Nightrunner, #4) by Lynn Flewelling

As always happy to meet again all these characters I got attached to, but there is a lot that ended up disappointing. In terms of the plot, the pace, and the interactions between Alec and Seregil. There's interesting new tidbits about the world but it doesn't balance up well. I still love 'em all though, so I'm hopeful the next book will be more like the previous ones, and maybe even full of intrigues again.

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1) by Ann Leckie

An excellent story that makes use of multiple intriguing concepts, the main one being that it is quite deftly told from the point of view of a spaceship. The world (well, this being science-fiction, the universe really!) is rich and the reader is made to feel like it exists outside of the story also. Warmly recommended.

Refuse to Choose!: Use All of Your Interests, Passions, and Hobbies to Create the Life and Career of Your Dreams by Barbara Sher

This book is aimed at people who have many-many interests and passions (the author calls them "scanners") and are having trouble figuring out how to fit them all into their life.

There are some things I found troublesome with the book. The main one is that it reads very much like a giant pep talk, which didn't resonate with me very well, especially since I don't match the scanner profile targeted during the first half. There are no footnotes to studies that back the claims of how or why scanners are different, and expressions like "genetically wired that way" make it nearly impossible to lend the book to scientist scanners.

If you've ever felt bad or guilty for having so many interests or for being "unfocused" though, you'll likely get a different impression!

Part II was much more interesting to me. In it the author describes many possible ways to design and organise one's life so that you can fit in it everything that you want to do. She also describes different careers, career paths and career styles that could fit and make for quite awesome food for thought. There are many, many more options out there than the regular 9 to 5, which really aren't talked about enough. I think people who don't have one single all-encompassing life passion that they want to build a single 90 hours a week career around will find that section of the book interesting and come out of it with all sorts of ideas. There may be complexities around going for a different type of career, but at least the tips around creating a "life design model" are quite easy to start picking out and applying.

The Ghost Brigades (Old Man's War, #2) by John Scalzi

I was satisfied with how the story wrapped up in Old Man's War, though I was moderately curious to learn more about the Consu and their place in the universe. The sample for book 2 at the end of the book totally encouraged me to get onto it straight away: I was delighted at the idea of communicating with the other races rather than just follow the nuke-them-out-of-space approach of book 1. The idea of learning more about the Special Forces was also appealing (and the book did not disappoint in that regard!).

I really enjoyed it and finished it quite quickly as well. Only the epilogue was a bit meh. Lots of "As you know Bob" and a little bit of dissatisfaction with one of the later plot points/resolutions.

Having multiple characters (two, mainly) narrating the story was a nice change and made the story stronger I thought. As much as I enjoyed John Perry's voice in the first book I did not mind going into someone else's head for a while. Recommended, though this time I'll be taking a break before moving on to the next book - wait to have to time to miss the characters!

What about Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society by Paul Verhaeghe

Perhaps not a book to read if you're feeling depressed about the world, but interesting if you're curious to understand the why better: the author looks at many of the open wounds of neo-liberal societies and pokes freely, offering his thoughts on why things are the way they are and how it's screwing us, our mind and society itself over. It's an unapologetically partial book, but the thesis proposed is internally consistent.

The premises are like this. Nowadays, the economy exists above everything and has become an ideology in itself, that is used to determine the value of everything: from that of a hobby, or an intellectual achievement, to the value of the individual themselves. All you do must be to increase your market value and success must be attained in everything: exams, holidays, relationships, career, life... Because it's an ideology, it's defining a new set of morals and definition for what it means to be "good" and this shapes us, as our identity is derived from interacting with the environment.

The book touches on history and philosophy, ponders on humans as inherently good vs inherently bad, and as the author is a psychologist he also spends a few chapters on mental disorders and how they are defined and shaped by society. It seems that "mental disorders" are more "moral disorders" that happen when people are not complying with the social norms.

There's a chapter on meritocracy and its fallacies I quite liked. "Quality is determined by measurability; anything that can't be measured doesn't count." The upper group looks down on the others, believing they only have themselves to blame. That group itself is drowning in guilt and shame because it believes the same.

The last chapter does end up on a positive note, with some concrete things that can be done right now. The courage to speak out and associated examples particularly stood out to me.

Glimpses: A Collection of Nightrunner Short Stories by Lynn Flewelling

A thin book with a handful of short stories relating past events of the Nightrunner series, that are usually only hinted at in the main books: Seregil's first encounter with Nysander, or with Micum for example. Recommended for the fans of the series if you love these characters! Unless you strongly dislike erotica, which found its way into most of the stories (quite a contrast with the chaste "fade to black" chapter endings in the main series so far!). The fan-made illustrations add a really, really nice touch to the book. My favourite one is the first drawing of Amasa teaching young Alec to hold a bow.

I didn't read the last story, the extract from "The Summer Players" as I think it may be for "Casket of Souls" and I haven't read the previous book yet. (I hear it's very good though!)