Title: Ender's Game
Author: Orson Scott Card
Number of pages: 352
Genre: sci-fi
Book Number/Goal: 47/52
My Rating: 5/5

Ender, a 6-year-old prodigy, is sent to the Battle School for military training with other children, the Earth's last hope to withstand the expected invasion of aliens. The teachers intentionally put him under a lot of pressure and alienate him from other kids because they feel it's the best way to mold him into a brilliant commander.

It's similar to classic boarding school novels but with a radically different atmosphere, much more stressful and dystopian. The training is rigorous and exhausting; Ender is constantly pushed beyond his limits, yet he successfully handles all the obstacles and keeps improving himself. Most of the characters are 6-12 years old but they think, talk and act like mature adults; I appreciate this very much. The only indication of their age is when they themselves say "we are just kids", which invariably feels out of place. (I wonder if childhood is a cultural phenomenon, and humans indeed can mature much faster under appropriate circumstances.) There's even a couple of unexpected plot twists, and an intriguing computer game.

Captivating and highly inspiring!
Title: Hidden Doors, Secret Rooms
Author: Jamie Eubanks
Number of pages: 341
Genre: thriller, sci-fi
Book Number/Goal: 45/52
My Rating: 3/5

A woman and her little daughter are stranded in the blizzard. Luckily, they stumble upon a cabin of a retired musician. But he can't decide if he wants to help; the woman appears to be on the run from the FBI, and moreover, she possesses some mysterious and dangerous abilities.

The atmosphere is genuinely tense, and the mystery is nicely developed and explained, including an eerie, unexpected twist. Two biggest annoyances: the prominent romantic angle, and too much focus on the little girl, promoting the message (unintended by the author) that children are a burden and always mess up good plans.
Title: Dying for a Living (A Jesse Sullivan Novel)
Author: Kory M. Shrum
Number of pages: 401
Genre: sci-fi, thriller
Book Number/Goal: 42/52
My Rating: 2/5

Jesse has a rare neurological condition that enables her to resurrect after her death - such people are called Necronites (or in a derogatory way, zombies). Also, she can forge a special connection with a dying person so she dies instead of them. So she works as a death replacement agent (the prediction of one's exact death day is possible through a psychic-like ability of other agents). Death replacement is a popular and highly requested service, but the job is not only unpleasant but dangerous, as repeated deaths and resurrections overload the brain and eventually result in insanity. And if it were not enough, Jesse's latest job appears to involve a real killer, and she starts her own investigation.

The book has a great, unusual premise, and a good explanation of Necronites' techniques and job responsibilities. The story, however, falls short. There's too much focus on romantic and other relationships; the supernatural angle, introduced later, clashes with the sci-fi angle; and the characters are not particularly interesting to care for their well-being, no matter the threats.
Title: The Handmaid's Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Number of pages: 311
Genre: sci-fi
Book Number/Goal: 41/52
My Rating: 5/5

American government has been overthrown by religious extremists who establish the new order. In particular, women are stripped of all civil rights, even banned from reading and writing. Women are men's property, and their status/role in the society (e.g. wife, housemaid, warden) is strictly regulated. The main character, called Offred by the name of her owner, is a Handmaid who belongs to a high-ranking commander, and her purpose is to bear him a baby. As the aftermath of the war, births are rare, and healthy babies even rarer, so child-bearing women are a valuable possession, but they are regarded only as "wombs on legs".

The story is Offred's "mental diary". In a dry, matter-of-fact style, she describes her daily existence, interspersed with memories of her past, normal life with her husband and daughter, now lost forever. The picture of the society in all its shocking details emerges bit by bit, keeping the reader constantly engaged.

This creepy fantasy is entirely realistic, drawing from the cultures where de-personalization of women is a norm. Several characters, including women, argue that the new establishment is for their own good: there's no more street violence, porn, struggle to keep with fashions, and other trappings of the immoral and decadent society of the past; now women are protected, cared for, and provided with the necessities required to survive (that is, unless they try to rebel - infidels are punished without mercy). Foreign tourists gawk at American women clothed from head to toe in "modest" garments, and talk among themselves that these women are happy because it's their culture and they're used to it. Everything so familiar... so depressing.

The epilogue, written as a scientific lecture, is out of place and doesn't fit the tone of the story, but creates the impression that the writer couldn't resist dumping all her background notes onto the readers. But otherwise, fantastic reading - highly recommended!
Title: Ghosts in the Machine: A Short Story Anthology
Author: Edited by Lana Polansky and Brendan Keogh
Genre: sci-fi, games
Book Number/Goal: 40/52
My Rating: 5/5

A collection of short stories about gamers and characters from various game genres: adventure/RPG, action, arcade, sims. In some stories, the characters are unaware of the artificial world they live in, and are wondering what's happening to them; others know exactly what's going on, and bitterly resent being under control of clueless users and incompetent programmers.

There's a lot of details and dialogues that reflect the gaming environment and terminology, and as such, are exciting even when the characters are discussing mundane matters. Every story ends on a depressing note, because the conflict between the inner and outer realities never ends well...

Awesome reading, especially for gamers.
Title: The Giver
Author: Lois Lowry
Number of pages: 240
Genre: sci-fi, young adult
Book Number/Goal: 37/52
My Rating: 5/5

The perfect world of the future consists of small communities where everything is regulated by strict rules to ensure the well-being and happiness of the citizens. Young Jonas is anxiously waiting for the annual celebration when the children of his age are assigned their jobs for life, carefully chosen to match their psychological profiles. He's surprised to get the unique and honorable job: the Receiver of Memories. But learning the truth about his world pretty much destroys his life as he knows it.

Despite the lack of violence, it's one of the darkest dystopias ever. Somehow it's easier to cope with the straight evil than with the sugar-coated one; everything is done for the higher purpose and for the global good, but look how it turns out... Just when you think you've heard it all, more and more horrifying details come up, introduced in a casual way as they appear normal to the citizens. The ending is unimpressive, but it's a small flaw, compared to the rest of the story. A must-read for all dystopia fans, no matter young adults or not.
Title: The Bells of Subsidence
Author: Michael John Grist
Number of pages: 121
Genre: sci-fi
Book Number/Goal: 35/52
My Rating: 5/5

This is a collection of short stories, every one a window into a strange, fascinating world. Alien terms and concepts are introduced without any explanations, so the reader has to work out what's going on, and some details still remain unclear, which is fine. The first story, which names the whole book, is the weirdest and the best. It merges mathematical concepts with the idea of undying love and hope, and it turns out meaningful and touching. But the best bit is the language. Here's an insight into the main character's job:

"As the torrent comes, I cannot help but seek order from the chaos; raveling and inverting Klein bottles, stacking and nestling them within each other like Matroska dolls, folding tesseracts upon themselves, helixing Mobius strips into Riemann planes. Around me the 100 do the same. Together, by the combined resonance of our efforts, we will planck the branes for the first time. We will build our own Brilliance. Through our efforts, the Bell will toll."
Title: We
Author: Yevgeny Zamyatin
Genre: sci-fi
Book Number/Goal: 25/52
My Rating: 5/5
Notes: reread
Download: English | Russian

This classical dystopian story is a diary of D-503, the chief engineer of the spaceship "Integral" being built by the One State. He lives a happy life, with the state controlling every aspect of the citizens' behavior, up to hourly schedule, and enforcing everyone's fervent devotion to the leader, the Well-Doer. D-503 is a mathematician and he often reflects on the glorious order, so much more beautiful and reasonable than the barbaric customs of his ancestors. However, one day he meets a mysterious woman, I-330, who turns out to be a deviant and a rebel. Falling in love with her shatters his comfortable world and releases his dormant human instincts.

The writing style is unique - a little stilted like a scientific treatise and in the same time, poetic and full of vivid imagery. The writing becomes more and more disjointed, incoherent and intense, as D-503's mental stability deteriorates and the chaos breaks out.

Much of the story is devoted to romance, but the best part is the world-building and especially the brilliant descriptions that give the reader a glimpse into the insider's mind. The premise of the diary being written for aliens unfamiliar with the One State's way of life allows the author to provide some amount of the background info without distracting from the plot. This world is both horrifying and fascinating. I can't even help feeling a little envious.
Title: Zombie, Inc.
Author: Christine Dogerty
Number of pages: 302
Genre: sci-fi, horror
Book Number/Goal: 19/52
My Rating: 4/5

The Zombie Apocalypse has irrevocably changed the human way of life, but on the plus side, it created a great business opportunity for the company which specializes in all things zombie: not only hunting & killing zombies, but researching them to use in daily life, such as security guards against burglars. Zombie, Inc. is the biggest company in United Five-States and it provides employment on such generous terms, it's practically a public service! It says right here in the Employee Handbook, excerpts from which start every chapter:

"The world has become a dangerous place, and the least dangerous place for you to be is at Zombie, Inc., so for the benefit of our employees, we've increased the work week from six days to seven! Remember: work happens EVERY DAY! You are required to fulfill your duties EVERY DAY. ... Benefits do not start until after the 180-day probationary period. Time off (including mandatory in-service days) and leave (except maternity) during the 180-day probationary period will count as Unpaid Working Days. ZI is a work-at-will company, and you can be discharged any time, for any reason, regardless of having satisfied the 180-day probationary period.

For your convenience, the Employee Handbook cost will be deducted from your first pay period. A yearly fee will be deducted for lost, missing or used-looking Employee Handbooks (at HR discretion). When revisions occur, a new Handbook will be distributed to all ZI employees and the cost deducted from the next applicable pay period."

The story follows two ZI employees, a professional and a novice; the interaction between them gives the author an opportunity to fill the reader in on the world details. The world building is amazing! I'd give it a 5 for the atmosphere, irony and bitterness, if not for the last part of the book, which is full of uninspiring Hollywood-style action. Still, it's an essential read for zombie dystopia fans.
Title: The Martian Chronicles
Author: Ray Bradbury
Number of pages: 298
Genre: sci-fi
Book Number/Goal: 17/52
My Rating: 5/5
Notes: for Coursera Fantasy and Science Fiction course (reread)

It's a collection of loosely connected short stories tracking the progress of human colonization of Mars. There are almost no recurring characters, and every story can stand on its own, but they enrich each other and create a multi-faceted picture from many points of view. After every couple of stories there's a "surprise" story based on some completely different concept.

Writing flows more like poetry than prose, but without the shortcomings of poetry (such as pretentious vocabulary and artificial padding). It's emotional and atmospheric; the sophisticated, fragile beauty of Martian cities is permeated with the sense of sadness and imminent doom. (Thinking of it, every one of these stories is sad, even those that carry an optimistic message; but it's not heavy depression but kind of a nostalgic, bittersweet sadness.)

There's a couple of "moralistic lectures" which are too long and distracting, but this is the only (minor) flaw of this fantastic book.
Title: The Invisible Man
Author: H. G. Wells
Genre: sci-fi
Book Number/Goal: 16/52
My Rating: 4/5
Notes: for Coursera Fantasy and Science Fiction course (reread)
Download: project Gutenberg

A scientist discovers a way to make living creatures invisible. So he makes himself invisible - just because he can, and because he envisions invisibility as a huge advantage over the rest of mankind, not unlike being a sighted person in the country of the blind. But his plans go terribly awry...

I've read this novel a long time ago, at school, but I don't remember it being so funny! The writing oozes with irony, and even though it's a bit too slow and verbose, it feels more atmospheric than dated. There are some silly jokes ("This, this Invisible Man, then?" asked the man with the black beard, with one hand behind him. "I guess it's about time we saw him.") and some jokes that sound surprisingly modern ("One might think we were in the thirteenth century.").

The characters, as comedy goes, are simple and stereotypical; in particular, Griffin the Invisible Man is a selfish asshole with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and his main antagonist Dr. Kemp is a bland "righteous citizen". Griffin's story is considerably less funny than the rest of the novel (oh that poor kitty!) but more dramatic and tense, inducing a constant feeling of a disaster waiting to happen - which doesn't disappoint.

Classics is often a pain in the ass to wade through, but not this one... seriously, it's a great reading.
Title: The Island of Doctor Moreau
Author: H. G. Wells
Genre: sci-fi
Book Number/Goal: 7/52
My Rating: 4/5
Notes: reread for Coursera Fantasy and Science Fiction course
Download: at Project Gutenberg

After being rescued from a shipwreck, the protagonist is stranded on a Pacific island owned by a scientist and his assistant, who perform horrifying experiments on animals - or on humans?

Dr. Moreau is an archetypal "mad scientist" who puts science above human ethics. Exiled from England, his career ruined when the public finds out what he's up to, he pursues the opportunity to continue his research in spite of all the setbacks, and achieves dramatic progress, although there's still a long way to perfect success. He is not concerned with his subjects' suffering, and is driven by curiosity, not by any "higher purpose", but his persistence, hardworking, creativity and intelligence make him a compelling character. His assistant is a simple-minded guy, caught by the circumstances and lacking Dr. Moreau's passion; even though going with the flow, he's somewhat kind-hearted and sympathetic.

The writing is vivid and includes plenty of foreshadowing; it creates tension and eerie atmosphere, but the mystery of the experiments can be guessed almost from the start. The scientific explanation is rather naive (the story was written in 1896). The descriptions are sometimes too overloaded with details.

Overall, a great story, even though unavoidably moralistic. I had read it a long time ago, but enjoyed rereading it.
Title: A Princess of Mars
Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
Genre: sci-fi
Book Number/Goal: 6/52
My Rating: 2/5
Notes: for Coursera Fantasy and Science Fiction course
Download: at Project Gutenberg

The main character, an ex-soldier digging for gold in Arisona, finds himself "magically" transported to Mars. He is captured by the natives and eventually integrates into the Martian society, becoming a distinguished warrior and a star of many adventures, spawning from what becomes the driving force of his life - falling in love with a beautiful princess.

This is a classic action thriller, with the background of a vicious conflict between two Martian races. One is the race of approximately humanoid warriors, cold and cruel but honorable in their own way; the other race closely resembles humans, not only in appearance but also in mentality and sophistication. Both reproduce by laying eggs.

There's plenty of interesting descriptions of the native society and culture. Unfortunately, for me it was the only worthwhile part of the story. The characters left me indifferent, and probably that's why the action, including the romance, was boring to the extent that at times I just skimmed it. The ending was exciting though, perhaps because it was intense and left unanswered questions.

Maybe it's a good book... but not for me.
Title: The Left Hand of Darkness
Author: Ursula Le Guin
Number of pages: 304
Genre: science fiction
Book Number/Goal: 4/52
My Rating: 4/5
Notes: for Coursera Fantasy and Science Fiction course

The story: a human envoy on an alien planet tries to convince the government to join the confederation of planets that he represents. The task turns out to be complicated, due to the natives' uncooperativeness and political intrigues.

The planet's climate is extremely cold, compared to Earth - it's like a permanent Arctic winter. But its main pecularity is that the inhabitants are not divided into 2 genders. Normally they are androgynous, but once a month they enter a short period when their body becomes either male or female, and it's the only time when they can make sex and get pregnant. They find it weird and disgusting that humans are perpetually locked into one gender, and are ready for sexual intercourse any time. The lack of male/female duality allows for more balance and equality in the society (e.g. any one can bear children, so there's no prejudice against half of the population potentially burdened with child-bearing). The human protagonist finds it difficult not to think in terms of gender, and constantly tries to find male or female characteristics in people he meets.

The writing style is incredibly descriptive, to the point of being almost poetic and hard to read, which is also due to the usage of many "native" words. The alien world comes out very vivid and detailed. However, the plot is slow, too heavy on politics, and lacks any exciting twists and mysteries to solve. I couldn't empathize with any of the characters and didn't care what happened to them even in the most tragic moments. The book is a great example of world-building, but the storytelling feels like a mere tool to portray the world from different aspects.

I couldn't give it a 5 because it was rather boring to slog through, but it gave a great perspective on descriptive writing and on gender issues. The cold world sounds like an awesome place to live, and I easily accepted the aliens' view of humans as perverts ;)
Title: Little Brother
Author: Cory Doctorow
Number of pages: 416 in paperback
Genre: sci-fi, cyberpunk
Book Number/Goal: 1/52
My Rating: 4/5
Notes: for Coursera Fantasy and Science Fiction course
Download: http://craphound.com/littlebrother/download (the author's site)

The book grabbed my attention from the start - it's distributed under a Creative Commons license (free to share and adapt for non-commercial purposes), and in the introduction, the author argues for free distribution of e-books. He instantly earned my highest respect!

The story takes place in a (near) dystopian future, when DRM, censorship and global surveillance are on the rampage, and the government spares no effort in the war against terrorism. The main character, a high school student and a talented hacker, gets caught together with his friends in a counter-terrorist attack that went far beyond reasonable, and eventually becomes the leader of a computer-based resistance aimed at winning back human rights.

The title of the book is an obvious allusion to Orwell's Big Brother. (This is also reflected in the main character's handle "w1n5t0n".) In the story, Little Brothers are the hackers who watch the Department of Homeland Security's actions and document their failures and abuses of power.

A unique feature of the book is its educational aspect. The author, through the main character's words, explains basics of cryptography and information security. I understand the author's intentions, but as part of the story, it sounds a bit artificial, as the character is "talking to himself", explaining the stuff he already knows to no one in particular.

Some of the mentioned software/technology is fictional, such as ParanoidLinux operating system (after the book was published, there have been several attempts to develop such a distribution, but it still doesn't exist). Some is real, such as TOR - a popular anonymizing network.

In spite of the intense fast-paced action, I can't say that I really cared for any of the characters and for their suffering, but I enjoyed the description of technology (especially hacks/exploits) and games, as well as the bit about prisons and torture.

I highly recommend this book to geeks and to anyone who wants to learn something about computer security.
Another 17 books added to the total count :) I decided to up the challenge to 200 books in 2011 rather than 111, and so far I am still ahead (by 10 books).

Read more... )

76 completed books, 26586 words as of 01/05/2011

Currently reading:
- Reginald Hill - Midnight Fugue (Dalziel & Pascoe) - 38/384
- Pat Willimott - The Chalet School Librarian - 39/200

I might abandon that last. It's sending me up the wall with misery spotting errors everywhere and I'm not even to page 40 yet, and the plot is not much better. The girls' school story fandom has weird ideas about fanfiction, and I'm really not all that comfortable paying for published fanfic if it's not for charity, having had more experience in the usual fandom model...
I'm doing pretty well at keeping track, now that I bought myself a little notebook and joined GoodReads.

I decided on 111 books in 2011. I may change that, as I'm already more than halfway there. List of read books/page count etc. so far under the cut - 59 finished so far. Not necessarily in order of reading - I only listed the month in my notebook until March 29th, not the exact date, so they sort randomly by month. A lot are re-reads, but I count those just the same. Page counts may be inaccurate, most were taken from GR and I know sometimes those editions are listed weirdly... I've sorted the list so far by author, since I don't know the exact dates I finished most of them.

59/111 )

Currently reading:
- Jean K. Baird - Elizabeth Hobart at Exeter Hall - 95/180
- David Eddings - The Elder Gods (Dreamers) - 227/480
- Reginald Hill - Midnight Fugue (Dalziel & Pascoe) - 38/384
Title: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Terok Nor: Dawn of the Eagles
Author: S.D. Perry
Number of pages: 448
Genre: sci-fi
Book Number/Goal: 10/50
My Rating: 4/5

Review: This is the final book in Terok Nor trilogy. It takes place during the last years of the occupation of Bajor. In comparison to the previous book (Night of the Wolves), the action picks up, there's more tension and dread, and also more familiar characters and canon scenes, which makes it more interesting and relevant.

Special notice goes to the portrayal of Dr. Crell Moset and to the unexpected development of the character of Kalisi Reyar (a Cardassian scientist introduced in the previous book). a quote (a mild spoiler) )

It was not extremely exciting, and some parts were still boring, but overall I've rather enjoyed it!
Title: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Terok Nor: Night of the Wolves
Author: S.D. Perry
Number of pages: 464
Genre: sci-fi
Book Number/Goal: 2/50
My Rating: 3/5

Review: The book describes the occupation of Bajor through the POV of several characters, alternating between Cardassians and Bajorans. It provides interesting insights into Cardassian society, and it's fun to meet so many familiar characters, to learn their backstory and to get a close-up view on some of the events of the past. But the action for most part is slow and boring, especially the Bajoran side of it which is about half of the book (being a fan of Cardassia, I may be biased). Gul Dukat is portrayed as a nice, gentle man and a benevolent leader, which is basically true but is somewhat uninspiring as I'd like to see more of his evil side which is more exciting ;) I didn't enjoy this book as much as I had hoped to.
Title: And Another Thing... (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)
Author: Eoin Colfer
Number of pages: 288
Genre: sci-fi
Book Number/Goal: 1/50
My Rating: 3.5/5

Review: The book picks up from where "Mostly Harmless" ends, finding a promptly improbable way to rescue main characters from yet another destruction of the planet Earth. Colfer tries to faithfully recreate Adams' writing style and wacky plot lines. It makes for an enjoyable read, reminiscent on the original H2G2, but for some reason it turns out to be much less funny. In particular, the Asgard part is rather boring (Colfer also adopts a theme from The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, but his portrayal of Thor is way OOC), and the whole story of Nano colony is thoroughly boring. Also, the numerous "Guide notes" are distracting and rarely relevant. The best part is the subplot about Vogons. Overall, definitely worth reading at least out of nostalgia, despite the shortcomings.


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