The Way of Kings: Brandon Sanderson

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Me (two years ago): I’m not going to start a fantasy series that hasn’t been completed by its author. The emotional investment is too draining, waiting for the authors to come around to finishing what they started.

Me (two months ago): Oh well, Sanderson is a prolific writer. He finished someone else’s series; I’m sure he’ll finish his own.

Ever since the Parshendi assassinated the King of Roshar at a truce-signing feast, the two kingdoms have been at a stalemate war for six years, camped out in the Shattered Plains. Kaladin is a soldier-turned-slave, wracked with guilt over his actions that killed his brother and his squad. Dalinar is the King’s uncle and military strategist, who is worried about the crazy visions he has during highstorms. Shallan is a lord’s daughter who wants to be the ward of the King’s sister to steal her Soulcaster, a gemstone-based device that can transform matter from one form to another. A war is on, but a disaster more ancient and terrible looms ahead.

Sanderson has planned ten books for his Stormlight Archive, so there is a lot of story to be told. Way of Kings is long (~1000 pages), with multiple points of view (POVs) and nuggets of information strewn around, and it does flag in parts. But whenever the book starts to slow down, there comes a kick in the story that grabs your interest. Sanderson isn’t the dark gritty fantasy type, so people don’t get murdered or tortured at the drop of a hat, but he excels at political intrigue, and has enough twists and turns in the book to make it seem like an epic fantasy whodunnit (or rather whatdunnit). For me, it’s always a good sign if I’m interested in the side characters (Jasnah would make a good main POV), but what I like most about the book (and Sanderson’s books in general) is the attention to logic and detail. Magical systems are well thought out, worldbuilding is intricate, and there is no dragon to save the day. And yes, Sanderson finishes what he started.

 

Shoe Dog: Phil Knight

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This book was on every best-of list last year – even Bill Gates recommended it. I picked this up at a friend’s wedding (where she gave books as return gifts – super awesome idea!) and I must say, I wasn’t disappointed.

Shoe Dog is Phil Knight’s memoir, chronicling Nike’s rise from an idea he had for his MBA thesis to its going public in 1980. Knight writes about his early years as founder of Blue Ribbon Sports, selling Onitsuka’s Tiger shoes from his car while holding down a job, the medley of colorful characters who join him as he builds his shoe business, the feud with Onitsuka that leads to Nike’s birth, and the various obstacles thereon.

Nike’s origins story isn’t as well-publicized as Apple or Facebook (at least in my corner of the world), so it was with some surprise that I read that Nike had been embroiled in multiple lawsuits and investigations in its formative years. But what caught my attention was Phil’s team. Phil is a reticent, no-praise type boss, the one who just grunts when you get 2x your targets, and while his ambition for growth is what drives Nike, the others, like prolific letter-writing Employee Number One Jeff Johnson, or wheelchair-bound wizard Bob Woodell, are what build it. Knight’s style of writing is warm and funny, and he manages to make even the biggest crises come off, not as earth-shattering dramas, but as big difficulties that can be surpassed.

What permeates the book is a genuine love for running. In many business memoirs, the person becomes bigger than the thing he/she is building, but for Phil, it’s sports first. He is heartfelt about his admiration for Bill Bowerman, the coach who was his business partner and designed many of his hit shoes, and he dedicates almost an entire chapter to runner Steve Prefontaine and his life. This passion is what draws you into the book, and it is what lingers on long after you finish it.

Mortal Engines: Philip Reeve

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Can a crappy book with a good concept be made into a decent movie? Well, the movie version of this book is coming out soon, with LOTR director Peter Jackson producing it, no less, so we have to wait and see. And hope.

In some time in the distant future, cities have turned into large mobile predatory things, chasing each other and gobbling them up for their resources. Tom Natsworthy, a lowly Third Apprentice Historian and an orphan, lives in London doing cleaning work for the Guild of Historians. When he saves the life of Head Historian Thaddeus Valentine from a young assassin, his life is turned inside out, though not in the way he had dreamed.

The concept is great – nuclear war resulting in the rise of a phenomenon called Municipal Darwinism, with cities being turned into giant predatory machines. The world-building is great, with details of the cities’ engineering and the different types of cities etched out quite well. Too bad it is let down by poor storytelling and cardboard characters. Natsworthy is the male equivalent of the damsel in distress, possibly the most useless protagonist I have seen in a while. Some authors have the gift of making wimpy characters likeable, and give them an arc, but Natsworthy’s arc is a mess, and the less said about the storyline of Katherine, Valentine’s daughter, the better. Dialogue throughout the book is stilted, bordering on the juvenile, and near the end, I felt the author was rushing to just finish the book. Hope the movie can salvage some of the mess.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared: Jonas Jonasson

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How can you not pick up a book with such a delightful title? I was sure that the book would be entertaining, at least in parts, and I was definitely not disappointed.

Allan Karlsson climbs out of the window of his room in his retirement home, on the eve of his hundredth birthday party. He goes to a bus station, intending to travel as far as the money in his pocket will allow. At the bus station, he ends up carrying off a suitcase belonging to a member of a drug dealing biker gang, and ends up having the police, the criminals and a bunch of others on his tail.

The story goes back and forth between Allan’s escapades in the present day, and the adventures he has been up to in his hundred years of life, and I don’t know which is more entertaining. Because of his knowledge about blowing up things, Allan meets a succession of international leaders, from Harry Truman to Stalin to Mao Zedong. In the present day, he gathers travel companions as he goes from one place to another, all of who join for the briefcase contents, but stay for something more.

Comic novels are difficult to write, and Jonasson does an admirable job maintaining the tempo and the suspension of disbelief throughout. With quirky characters and even quirkier antics, the book reads like a breeze.

Me Talk Pretty One Day: David Sedaris

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A friend recently asked me my opinion on David Sedaris. Now, I love offering opinions, and I was in an awkward position to offer an opinion on something I had no opinion about, having not read anything by him, so I set about rectifying the situation.

Sedaris’ book is a collection of essays in two parts. Part one deals with his life in America, with his childhood and family in North Carolina and his years doing odd jobs in New York. Part two is about his years in France, getting used to the French language and milieu and trying not to stick out as a sore thumb.

Sedaris’ writing is sharp and his observations relatable. It’s like reading a standup comic’s show, and sometimes I suspect a lot of standup comics may have been ‘inspired’ by Sedaris’ work. I found the part on France funnier, probably because Sedaris is like a fish out of water amidst the French language and habits. Sedaris draws upon everyday occurrences and common tropes, but his descriptive ability and imaginative visualizations add a different dimension to the instances he describes. It’s a nice breezy read,

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: Mary Ann Shaffer

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How could you not want to read a book with such a quirky name? I remember hearing about this book when it came out, but never got around to actually reading it. Before watching the Netflix movie, I thought I might give the book a try.

Writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, who bought her copy of Charles Lamb essays, and wanted to know more about the author. He mentions that he is a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book club founded during the German occupation of Guernsey Islands during World War II. Juliet, who is looking for a subject for her new book, wants to learn more about the , and a correspondence ensues between her and Dawsey, and subsequently other members of the book club.

The book, set in 1946, is entirely in the form of letters between Juliet, her friends and the residents of Guernsey. With a light and easy style, Mary Ann Shaffer deals with some heavy subjects, such as the tribulations of the islanders during the war and the horrors of the concentration camps. Like Juliet, I too was interested in the story of the Guernsey people – the impact of World War II on countries like Poland and France is well-documented, but there were many small places, like Guernsey or San Marino, which were affected by the war as well. The epistolary nature of the novel is both expansive and limiting, giving the perspective of multiple characters who write the letters while limiting our view of their life to only the vignettes shared by them. After reading a couple of heavy books, I quite enjoyed this one, though I have a quibble against the ending: it was so abrupt that I really thought my ebook was missing a few pages.

The Three-Body Problem: Cixin Liu

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For over a year, I have been hearing praises of this Chinese sci-fi saga, and after a couple of false starts, I picked this up over a weekend, and finished it too. It was gratifying to do this, given that I have struggled to find time, or mental energy, to devote to reading novels, over the last few months.

The story follows two threads, one of Ye Wenjie, an ostracised scholar whose father was killed in Mao’s Cultural Revolution, who ends up at Red Coast, a radio telescope observatory that serves as a Chinese version of SETI looking for extra-terrestrial life. The other thread follows Wang Miao, a nanotechnology professor who gets hooked onto a cerebral VR game called Three Body, set on an Earth-like planet which flips unpredictably between Stable and Chaotic Eras, times of calm and violent weather phenomena respectively.

The book contains a lot of ‘hard science’, by which I mean less of hyperdrives and warp travel faster than light, and more of extrapolating technical concepts to provide the scientific leaps that the story demands. The science part of the science fiction, though a bit too technical at times, was the part that engrossed me. The Three Body world-building was interesting, but the language and the narrative style throughout the book felt flat. Maybe it’s an issue of being lost in translation (the original novel was written in Chinese), but it was noticeable enough to be distracting at times. Nevertheless, I would want to pick up the other books in the trilogy sometime soon, to see where the story goes.