Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Top Ten (Or So): Books Read in 2014

2014 was a bit of a tough reading year for me. Tough year in general, actually. There were a lot of personal things going on, and I didn't get a lot of time to read, or mental space to remember my reading. Because of this, you might notice, most of my favourite books were from the beginning of the year. And I only have seven/eight in my top ten list (really taking advantage of the "Or So" part of the title).

So here, in sort-of approximate order from least to most favourite, are some of the best books I read in 2014:

--The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Catechism by John Zmirak. Hilarious, truth-telling, and full of fascinating asides into history, politics, etc. I think it set out to be more for non-Catholics or not well informed Catholics, but as a practising and pretty well informed Catholic, I still felt like I learned lots of interesting things. And who couldn't like a book with a cover of happy, playing nuns?

--Silence and Touch by Michelle Sagara. There are a lot of elements I like about these books. It won Favourite Ensemble and the Favourite Romance awards on my RED Book Awards this year. It reminded me a bit of some of the things I liked about Buffy the Vampire Slayer (shown below because: excuse to have pictures of Buffy on my blog!). Perhaps not as well written, but with a great cast of teenage awesome people, cool supernatural elements, witty banter, and great heart. (Note: I'm treating these as one, since they are in the same series and the things I like about them are the same.)

--A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. A fascinating story about how ideas live throughout history. Catholic science fiction at its best.

--A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken. A beautiful book. And tragic. And extremely inspiring. This is one of those books that made an impact on my life, that to a certain extent has changed some of the way I look at the world, and given me new ideas to ponder and act upon. That doesn't happen so explicitly very often. It wasn't perfect, but it was very, very good.

--Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold. Mark, Mark, Mark. This book is all about Miles's clone-brother Mark Vorkosigan, who is just as brilliant, but way more messed up. It's slightly lower down on the list than it might have been (it might have been necessary to group it with Memory) except that I didn't find the first section as interesting as everything after Mark got to Barrayar. But after that... things get really good.

And I think these last two are tied. They are so different, and yet so good in their individual ways, I can not possibly choose between them:

--To Be Or Not To Be by Ryan North. SO FUN. I just loved this book. It's perfectly made for me. The illustrations were awesome (and many of the illustrators I recognized from my internet travels). The writing was so funny, and filled with awesome references to awesome things. It was only the second book I read this year, and yet I remember it better than some books I read only a few weeks ago. (One of the many awesome illustrations is shown left. And believe me, there are way better ones in the book itself.)

--Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold. Much more introspective than the normal Vorkosigan book, but brilliant despite this. Also because of this. This is a really, really good series in general (despite the fact that I didn't much care for the most recent I read). And unlike Mirror Dance, listed above, I loved this book from the beginning. It had a coherence over the whole story that delights me when I find it in books. And the characters... ah, I do so love the Vorkosigan books that focus on Barrayar. Miles, Cordelia, Ivan, Gregor... And the fact that Simon Illyan got so much focus was awesome. Amazing book--I loved everything about it and I look forward to being able to re-read it.

Runners Up (In No Order Whatsoever and Possibly Missing Some Good Ones Because I'm Really, Really Bad at Making Up My Mind)
--Musicophilia. Fascinating facts, insights, and experiences related to music and the brain.
--The Leap. Short and fairly simple, but wonderfully creepy and very gripping.
--Brother Odd. Monks, Monsters, Murders, and a young fry-cook to save the day.
--The Last Guardian of Everness. High fantasy chock full with symbolism and vivid imagery.
--Captain Vorpatril's Alliance. Fun, exciting, sweet, plus it's all about Ivan!
--Cuckoo Song. Creepy, and really well written.
--The Whispering Skull. Great characters and exciting adventure, plus really funny and creepy.
--Warchild. Intense, emotional, gripping. Also spaceships.

P.S. See also the Top Ten (Or So) lists from previous years: 2012, 2013.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Top Ten (Or So): Covers of Books Read in 2014

As with last year, I read a fair amount of e-books this year. Generally I try to read books' hard copy first, and so the covers actually make a difference to my reading experience. But when reading on my Kindle, I only end up seeing the cover once or twice. I'm going to give this a shot anyway, using the preferred covers I saw for each book on Goodreads. Note that I am not in any way an artist or designer or anything, so these are based purely on what I like in book covers.

So here they are, in only approximate order, favourite to least favourite. The first five are in a group by themselves, of my favourite favourites. They are all pretty much equal in my mind as well. Then come the rest, which are also good, but distinctly not as enjoyable to me as the first five.

I love how interesting this cover is. You can see the sci-fi elements and the religious elements, juxtaposed. Perfect for a novel such as A Canticle for Leibowitz. There's the cool, cross-shaped spaceship, the cathedral with strange, mixed architecture, and the bishop striding down the centre. I like it.

The cover for Strange Gods is another book cover that I find really interesting to look at more closely. Also another religiously themed book, and one with a juxtaposition of old and new. The many little icons draw the eye and it's lots of fun to try and guess what each one stands for.

And, though the religious themes are a lot less and more subtle in Odd Thomas (much more so in the third Odd Thomas book, Brother Odd), it is still the third book cover in a row for a specifically Catholic work. (Dean Koontz, the author of Odd Thomas, is a practicing Catholic as well.) I like the minimalist aspect of this cover, and the black and white colour scheme. All these aspects appeal to me quite a bit in covers.

And now for something completely different... I love me some illustrated covers, and the cover of To Be Or Not To Be is drawn by the maker of the webcomic Nimona, which is totally cool and fits the geeky, weird, and internet-savvy interior well. (The inside is jam packed with awesome illustrations too, but unfortunately I can't count those.)

Blood of My Blood has a lovely black, grey, and red colour scheme, which I always like on book covers. And the creepiness and blood-red of the text just adds to the whole atmosphere. I like this series' covers quite a lot. The first two were also pretty, and the second one made it on my covers list for 2013 (I think I like the second one best out of the three, actually.)

So there we go, my favourite covers. I'm almost tempted to have the rest as runners up, but five is a few too few for a top ten list. So here goes the rest:

The cover to The Last Guardian of Everness is all misty and pretty and there's a winged horse and the guy riding it is all ambiguous. Is he good, bad, neither? Hard to tell. Hard to tell in the book too, actually.

The Maze Runner. Because I just really love mazes. And this one looks so huge and mysterious and green.

And last but not least, Wizards. I don't like this cover as much from a distance (which is why it's last on the list), but close up I find it quite fascinating. Just the wizard floating, and the wizard's half-shadowed face, and the darkness of the hills behind him... I don't know really, but I find it interesting.

Runners Up (in No Particular Order): The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Catechism because it's funny and it has happy, playful nuns; The Icebound Land, because it's all blue and metal and there's this awesome knight charging; Catalyst because it's green and swirly; Cuckoo Song because it's really creepy.

P.S. See also my previous lists: 2012, 2013.

Sunday, January 4, 2015


by Karin Lowachee

Story summary: Jos is captured at age 8 from his pleasant merchant-spaceship life by pirates. Nasty pirates. Meanwhile, humanity is fighting a war with aliens, and Jos escapes the pirates only to be captured by an human ally of the aliens. And then... lots of stuff happens. I don't want to spoil too much, because I really enjoyed not knowing what was going to happen next. But let's at least say there is a lot of training and character development and battles and slow healing through bonds of friendship. Good stuff. Although there's also war and abuse and broken trust and child slavery ... This is a gritty book.

Thoughts: This was compared favourably to Ender's Game. Considering Ender's Game is among my favourite books ever, I was greatly looking forward to this one. And, as expected, it didn't quite meet that mark. (Books compared to my favourite books rarely do.) But this is not to say it wasn't fascinating to read, because it was. It's much more emotional than Ender's Game, and less clever, both of which caused it to impact me less. But I also understood and sympathized with Jos in a way which is much harder with Ender. And there were still many similar elements in both books, which are some of my favourite things to find in a novel--training, character development, etc. mentioned above, as well as alien wars and military life--although they were treated in quite different ways.

Gripping, intense, with high levels of both introspection and action. I recommend it.

(Also, as a note, it's recommended by Felicia Day on Goodreads. So THAT'S cool!)

Grade: 4 stars

Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life

by Elizabeth Scalia

Thoughts: A short book about the real meaning of idolatry, and how the fact that we don't literally worship other gods doesn't mean we're all good on that front. Scalia fills her book with interesting examples and insights from her own life, using everything from politics (adherents to both parties) to the internet to actually writing this book.

A main issue for me was that it didn't have quite enough personal connection for me. Not that I don't have idols, because I definitely do. But her examples were often not from areas that affect me too much (politics, sex and coolness; even technology is not as applicable, since my problem with technology has different roots). "The Idol of Plans" chapter was the best for me in that way. I am really not good at just trusting God and letting go. This all ties in with just generally wishing it were a little longer and more in depth. But I think probably that for what it is, it is quite fantastic. The central idea doesn't need too much in depth explanation--it's just a simple idea that most of us haven't thought about yet. And keeping that in mind during one's day-to-day life could help one's spiritual life significantly.

Also, she has a cool explanation of the beatitudes, which need explaining to people more often.

Also also: cool cover. It draws you in, makes you try to figure out what all the little icons mean. And suitable for the book, which is modern, fairly short, and full of little examples.

Grade: 3 1/2 stars


by Peter Kreeft

Thoughts: This is a slight volume, all about how Christ, when truly encountered, inspires shock (whether positive or negative). And if he doesn't, it's because you're not looking at Him fully. Initially, it made me pause, and think about my own relationship with Him, which is the point of this book, I think. But after that, it didn't do as much for me.

I feel a bit bad criticizing something which has such an important and really, if you think about it, little-heard message. Kreeft is definitely right about how important it is. But it was all a bit ... poetical ... for my taste, after the initial reminder and self-examination. I tend to be more enthused and impassioned by abstract philosophy or concrete instruction than by poetry or turns of phrases.

However, I did get a book recommendation out of it! I'm always looking for those. It was The Divine Milieu by Pierre de Chardin, and sounded very interesting.

Grade: 3 1/2 stars, with the extra 1/2 star for the importance of the message and content

Driven to Distraction

by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey

Thoughts: Interesting book on ADD, or Attention Deficit Disorder (sometimes with an added H, ADHD, for Hyperactivity).

I don't feel too qualified to judge this book, as I don't have ADD myself, or any family members with ADD. I had some notes written down anyway, but... I lost them. I'm not doing that well with these end of the year books, sigh. So by skimming through the book again, here are a couple points I came up with, so my review isn't completely boring:

  • It is a great general overview. It talks about children vs adults, ADD vs ADHD, the many different manifestations of ADD, treatment of ADD, and is filled with personal examples as well as documented facts and facts discovered through the author's years of helping people with ADD. It comes at it from all angles, which is very useful.
  • However, I think personally I wanted something with a bit more on how to help/communicate with/understand people with ADD, from a non-ADD person's point of view. It was why I started reading this book in the first place. It's not the type of book this is, though, even though it definitely includes some helpful info in this regard.
  • I have heard from an ADD friend that this is pretty much the best book on the subject there is. So with that in mind, I recommend it. It is, as I mentioned, full of useful information that comes at this from many different angles.

Grade: ?? Maybe ... 3 stars for enjoyment, I guess?


by S. J. Kincaid

Story summary: Computers in brains! Military take-overs! Teenagers being hilarious! Great trials and great triumphs!
Sequel to Insignia and Vortex.

Thoughts: I read this far too long ago to have write the type of review I wanted to. Soon as I catch up and write my top ten lists for the year and everything, I should get back to normal mode of reviewing soon after reading. But for now, here's what I remember thinking about this book:
  • Wyatt is still awesome. So's Medusa. I mean, how she treated what Tom did at the end of Vortex... She had an unexpected common sense that many girls adventure stories don't seem to. Yeah, I like the female characters in this one.
  • The end was a little unexpected. Not sure if I entirely liked it. Maybe it seemed a bit too epic a scale to fit the rest of the story? Not sure. It was bad. And epic, grand-scale endings are fun and enjoyable. I think I was just not quite as satisfied with the consistency as I wanted to be.
  • The main scene I remember was when Tom figure out the fake reality, and proceeded to... do what he did. Don't want to give too many spoilers. Reminded me of Ender's Game a bit. It was intense enough and interesting enough that it's the primary scene to stick out in my mind, as I mentioned.
  • Second main remembered scene was the torture and isolation part. Is it bad that I found this really fascinating? Reminded me of Mark Vorkosigan's torture in Mirror Dance, except written for a teenage readership, so less intense.
  • All in all, great series, though. Really funny, with some unique characters, great friendships, cool futur-y computer stuff, and gripping plot. Worth it.

Grade: 3 stars