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.

 

A Man Called Ove: Fredrik Backman

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At first one friend read it, and praised it. Then another read it, and raved about it. Then another and another, until it seemed like everyone I knew had read this book and loved it. Of course I had to read it.

Ove is an irascible old man. He dislikes his neighbors, makes daily inspections of the neighborhood to ensure that nobody is exceeding car parking slot timings or parking bicycles where they should not be parked. He’s just been ‘retired’ from his job, and has an over-friendly ‘foreign’ neighbor move in next door.

Now everything had to be computerized, as if one couldn’t build a house until some consultant in a too-small shirt figured out how to open a laptop. As if that was how they built the Colosseum and the pyramids of Giza. Christ, they’d managed to build the Eiffel Tower in 1889, but nowadays one couldn’t come up with the bloody drawings for a one-story house without taking a break for someone to run off and recharge their cell phone.

We all know someone like Ove – a cranky old man who dislikes everything in the world because of the faults he finds with it. But every Ove has a Sonja, one person he likes despite all the things he cannot fathom about her, one person that keeps him going, one person he doesn’t know life without. Ove and Sonja’s story is the warm heart of the book, that brings a smile to your face, while Ove’s story is the comic heart, which makes you laugh out loud. Ove and his idiosyncrasies were delightfully written, and I had a grin throughout my reading of the book, which incidentally I read in one sitting. Possibly one of the best books I have read this year.

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.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: Gail Honeyman

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This book had been all over book blogs when it released last year, and I got around to reading it when I heard that Reese Witherspoon was making a movie about it. The book had a few issues, especially near the end, but it was a book that wrote about some difficult topics in a very compassionate and approachable way.

Eleanor Oliphant is a social misfit. She has no friends and prefers minimal interactions with her colleagues, who consider her a ‘wacko’; she spends every weekend chugging two bottles of vodka and pasta, with zero social interaction; she is awkward around anyone she meets. But status quo is absolutely fine for Eleanor. So when she and her colleague Raymond indirectly save an old man, Sammy, involved in an accident, and she develops a crush on an upcoming singer, status quo starts to change, pushing Eleanor to do things she would have never considered before.

Eleanor is a female Sheldon Cooper, except that she is a Sheldon Cooper with lots of unresolved issues. It is difficult to like her and her oddball behavior, but the author writes her with such warmth and compassion that she grows on you. As her past is revealed, you understand more about how she came to be that way, and you root for her to come out of her shell, bit by bit. Humor suffuses the narrative, not the punchline-jokes type, but one alternating between dark (Eleanor’s gradual revelations of her tragic past) and light (Eleanor’s interactions with Raymond and Sammy and his family),

Not everything in the book worked for me. The story threads involving the crush on the singer were the weakest – everyone can guess where that will go, and the denouement was dramatic, not in line with the subtlety in the rest of the book. The thread with Eleanor’s mother also could have had a better resolution: the current one didn’t make any sense to me.

All through the book, Eleanor says she is completely fine. Those words are hollow whenever she says it, but at the end, though she doesn’t say she is, you know she will be.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: Jenny Han

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I enjoyed the Netflix movie (in large part due to the dreamy Noah Centineo), and when I was looking for a light book to read on a flight, I thought of this. Generally, I have found that the books that my favorite chick flick movies are based on are quite crappy, but this was a pleasant surprise.

Lara Jean Song Covey is a high schooler adjusting to change after her older sister Margot leaves for university – she is responsible for her younger sister Kitty, her feelings for Josh, Margot’s ex-boyfriend resurface, and she still isn’t comfortable driving. So when the hatbox containing her secret love letters vanishes, it makes her life topsy-turvy. Josh finds out, as does Peter Kavinsky, a boy she kissed in seventh grade and currently the ex of the high school queen. After she kisses Peter to escape from Josh, Peter suggests that they continue the lie that they are dating for a while, as it benefits both of them.

What I found surprising was how much the movie stayed true to the book. Generally, for YA chick flicks based on books, they take the kernel of the book and improvise on it, which makes the original book a bit disappointing. This book has its share of eye-rolling moments (Lara Jean’s activities to pass her time are too grade-schoolish), but the esssence of the story remains the same, and it gives more depth to the characters. Also, having a non-white protagonist was nice – I’ve barely seen that in high school YA novels. I wouldn’t recommend the book if you’ve watched the movie, but if you’re looking for a breezy high school romance, you wouldn’t do too bad with this.

The Broken Kingdoms: N K Jemisin

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Having enjoyed the first book in Jemisin’s debut trilogy, I was eager to pick up the next book, to learn more about the world, and see what happened to the characters.

Oree Shoth, a blind artist in the city of Shadows, has the gift of ‘seeing’ magic, a gift she hides to avoid undue attention. She takes in a stranger she finds in her trash, a man who doesn’t speak but has the gift of glowing in the morning sun. One day, Oree discovers a murdered godling in the city streets, and finds herself pursued by everyone – gods, godmen.

With her second novel, Jemisin moves into mature territory, both with her protagonist and the story, and I must say, I liked this novel better than A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. By bringing the plot from the sky to the ground, the characters become more relatable and likeable, and the story moves strongly from one beat to the next, revealing more about the world without becoming confusing. The romance also moves out of the teen drama category into something more mature. The book stands well on its own as well as a part of the trilogy, and I breezed through it in a couple of sittings. If I have a quibble, it’s that the book didn’t provide any motivation to pick up the third book in the series – its standalone self-contained nature might work against it.

A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: N K Jemisin

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Ever since I began working a corporate job, the number of single-sitting books I’ve read can be counted on one hand; maybe my attention span has reduced or I just don’t have the time (yeah yeah, I know it’s a poor excuse). But when I do, I have seen that two times out of three, it’s a fantasy book. There’s just something about well-written fantasy that captures my attention, more than any other category of book.

Yeine is mourning her mother’s death as she is appointed leader of Darre, a minor kingdom in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, ruled by the magical Arameri. So when she is invited by her estranged Grandfather to the floating city of Sky, the Arameri palace and named one of his heirs, she thinks it’s a chance to uncover the truth, but she soon realizes she is in over her head. She has to contend with powerful gods struggling under human subjugation, scheming heirs wanting to kill her off, the mystery of her mother’s death and the truth of who she really is.

This is a classic outsider-thrown-into-turbulent-times story, but Jemisin breathes fresh life into it, through the characters and the world-building. Yeine is the type of fantasy heroine I like best – smart, spunky, one who keeps the story going. There are secrets and political and personal intrigue, but not so much that you are lost, and the book coasts along at a brisk pace from scene to scene. The relationship between Yeine and Naharoth (one of the subjugated gods) had me rolling my eyes though, with all traits of an M&B romance, and the ending was not particularly surprising, but then I might have read a lot of fantasy. But, having struggled with finishing a lot of books in recent times, I’m always happy when a single-sitting book comes along and captures my interest like this one did.

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.

Lincoln in the Bardo: George Saunders

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Over the years, I have tried (and failed) at reading Booker Prize winners – I’ve found them too big, too boring or just beyond me. I never give up on the activity though (about once a year I try to pick up one such book), but it is with much trepidation I approach the act. So I was pleasantly surprised when I not only managed to finish this book, but also wasn’t drained at the end of it.

George Saunders’ experimental novel follows the night of burial of Willie Lincoln, the youngest son of US President Abraham Lincoln, who died at the age of twelve of typhoid. It takes place in the Oak Hill Cemetery where the boy was buried, in the bardo, a limbo state between life and death in which Willie, and most of the characters of the novel, exist. The story weaves two aspects together – dialogue of the ghosts living in limbo in the cemetery (written in a play format), and excerpts from different real and made-up books about Lincoln, written by people ranging from real historical researchers to Lincoln’s housekeeping staff (apparently).

His eyes dark grey, clear, very expressive, and varying with every mood.

In “The Life of Abraham Lincoln,” by Isaac N. Arnold.

Gray-brown eyes sunken under thick eyebrows, and as though encircled by deep and dark wrinkles.

In “Personal Recollections of Mr. Lincoln,” by the Marquis de Chambrun.

His eyes were a bluish-brown.

In “Herndon’s Informants,” edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, account of Robert Wilson.

Kind blue eyes, over which the lids half dropped.

In “With Lincoln from Washington to Richmond in 1865,” by John S. Barnes.

It’s an audacious novel, for sure, and one which can go wrong on so many fronts. The style of writing took some time to get used to, but once I did, it engaged me to a reasonable level. The context and Lincoln’s character didn’t resonate as much to me as it would to an American, but I enjoyed the ghosts, especially the three core narrators. Their narrative about the ghosts in the cemetery, and the way they clung to a lie about it (that their tombs were ‘sick-boxes’, that they would soon be revived), is poignant. Clever and creative is also the way Saunders merges real and fictional excerpts, sometimes to provide perspective on the times, sometimes as a trick, like in the above (all are real books), where he shows how the same person can be remembered in different ways by different folks. There are many layers to the story – about letting go, about memories, about living and dying and what defines us in our lives.