Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Favorite Books of 2014

As I do every year, I'd like to summarize my top books I read this year. These are books I read this year and not necessarily ones that were published this year. Despite the fact I read a lot, I'm actually finding that I average only about 20 books or so in a year. This is due to a variety of reasons, including being busy with other things and the length of some of those books. As such, it becomes difficult to pick the best few among a short list. Nevertheless, here we go.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Short Story Review: The Wandering Earth by Liu Cixin

Science fiction is at its best with short stories. This medium is just long enough to present the basic outlines of the setting, but short enough to pack an emotional punch. The Wandering Earth by Liu Cixin was an amazing sci-fi the likes of which I haven't read in a long long time.While I usually review novels or novellas only, this deserves a mention on this blog.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Book Review: The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes

I bought this book because Sam Sykes told me to on twitter:
"Hey, this cereal says there's a free prize inside!"
*children cheer as they empty cereal box*
*my disembodied head rolls out*
Buy my book
* @scalzi at book signing*
"Who am I making this out--"
Buy my book.
*he looks up*
*fan is me*
*whole line is me*
*looks down*
*book is me*
*family at beach*
"Look, a shell. If you hold it up to your ear, you can hear the ocean."
*child does so*
*hears my voice*
Buy my book
Sam Sykes is hilarious on Twitter and I recommend following him even if you don't read his books. Every so often he would come up with a crazy/weird/surreal twitter-length story ending with "Buy my book." He probably has hundreds of these. I wonder if anyone managed to collect all of them? These gags were funny and served to constantly remind me to buy his book. In the end, I bought the book and I don't regret it one bit.

Continue on to read my (mostly) spoiler-free review. ("Mostly" because a few minor points are mentioned).

Friday, November 14, 2014

Book Review: The Fear Index by Robert Harris

The Fear Index by Robert Harris was the latest book selected in our Santiago book club. This is a thriller and a very fast read. Different from what we've read recently, hence the selection.

Here is the Goodreads blurb:
Meet Alex Hoffmann: among the secretive inner circle of the ultra-rich, he is something of a legend.
Based in Geneva, he has developed a revolutionary system that has the power to manipulate financial markets. Generating billions of dollars, it is a system that thrives on panic - and feeds on fear.
And then, in the early hours of one morning, while he lies asleep, a sinister intruder breaches the elaborate security of his lakeside home.
So begins a waking nightmare of paranoia and violence as Hoffmann attempts - with increasing desperation - to discover who is trying to destroy him - before it's too late ...

And now for my spoiler-free review.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Book Review: Sixth of the Dusk by Brandon Sanderson

Sixth of the Dusk is Brandon Sanderson's latest novella. As a huge fan of Sanderson's work, I bought this without even reading up on what it's about. If it's Sanderson, it has to be good. And indeed, I was not disappointed. It is short, as it's a novella, so my review will just present a basic overview of what it's about. One of the great aspects of reading a Sanderson novel is discovering the world. I mildly spoil that, but not too much and certainly avoid direct spoilers concerning the story and the mysteries of the world.

Read on for my full review.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Book Review: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

This is the latest book we've read for the book club here in Santiago. It is very different from everything else I've read and reviewed here mainly because it is a straight up autobiography. As such, I will not review it in the same fashion as other books and instead give my overall impression as I briefly summarize it.

The book details the life of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, born Ayaan Hirsi Magan in Muslim Somalia and how she ends up with a political career in the Netherlands. It's a book of a painful life as she struggles through cultural and religious oppression and achieves her freedom, a freedom that costs her dearly and places her life in mortal danger. It is not a light, easy book and will instead force you to think about some potentially controversial subjects.

Now, on to the review.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Journey to Northern Patagonia

The Marble Caves / Las Cuevas de Marmol

A week ago, I took a brief journey with my good friend Jackie to part of Northern Patagonia in Chile. I realize I haven't always written summaries of my trips and that's a shame. I'll have to remember to do this more often as it's fun to have it written down.

This trip consisted of a drive across various small towns as well as experiencing how the people there celebrate the Fiestas Patrias (the Chilean independence holidays), a boat trip to the fabled Marble Caves, and lots of traveling across beautiful rivers, valleys, and mountains with waterfall after waterfall. It was a great journey and my first time in these parts of Chile. In this blog post, I'll briefly recount the adventures we had, both to keep it as a memory and to perhaps help future travelers thinking of visiting Southern Chile.

As always, the pictures can be clicked to see larger versions.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Book Review: Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder

I picked up this book a long time ago, when Amazon was having a sale. The blurb sounded interesting, so I got it without really checking what the book was about, a truly spontaneous purchase. Because of that, however, I left it in my Kindle for a long time instead of reading it. Here's the blurb:

It is the distant future. The world known as Virga is a fullerene balloon three thousand kilometers in diameter, filled with air, water, and aimlessly floating chunks of rock. The humans who live in this vast environment must build their own fusion suns and "towns" that are in the shape of enormous wood and rope wheels that are spun for gravity. 

Young, fit, bitter, and friendless, Hayden Griffin is a very dangerous man. He's come to the city of Rush in the nation of Slipstream with one thing in mind: to take murderous revenge for the deaths of his parents six years ago. His target is Admiral Chaison Fanning, head of the fleet of Slipstream, which conquered Hayden's nation of Aerie years ago. And the fact that Hayden's spent his adolescence living with pirates doesn't bode well for Fanning's chances...

For my full review, read on.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book Review: Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

Equal Rites is the third book in the Discworld universe. That being said, it little to do with the prior two books (The Color of Magic, The Light Fantastic) and can be read on its own. I've read very little into the Discworld, yet I'm thoroughly enjoying it. Some people claim that Terry Pratchett's early work isn't that good, which is incredible since the ones I've read (the first 3) are excellent! I can't wait to get on to his later stuff.

This book deals with all the craziness of the Discworld, again. The story revolves around a young girl who wants to go to the Unseen University, the venerable institution that teaches magic to young men in order for them to become wizards. It makes it sound like lots of deep, abstract thinking is required to succeed. But hey, if you have the talent: nothing is stopping you! But this is Discworld, where nonsense and crazy is the norm. So there's one extra rule: you have to be a man to be a wizard. Good thing such gender biases do not happen in the real world! Oh wait.....

Read on for my full review!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Book Review: The Story of the Stone by Barry Hughart

The Story of the Stone is the second installment of Barry Hughart's Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. It continues shortly after Bridge of Birds, though I don't believe you need to read them in order as the events of each are completely independent of one another. As before, the novel takes elements of Chinese history and myth and blends them together with a lot of fantasy. In this book, we get to see references to Prince Liu Sheng, Ssu-ma Ch'ien, and the novel Dream of the Red Chamber, among many others.

Below follows my full review.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Book Review: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

This was the latest book selected as part of the book club. It is the type of book that I never would have picked up in a thousand years. I was hesitant to start the book as pretty much when we picked it, it was described as a "candy" and "girl" book. This is what I get by being in a book club dominated by women! Still, I promised I would give it a shot and ended up finding things I liked in it. So while it wasn't the best for me, at least I don't feel like I wasted my time.

Read on for my full review.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Astronomy: Cool Stars 18 Meeting

Last week, I visited Flagstaff, Arizona to attend the 18th meeting of the "Cambridge Workshop on Cool Stars, Stellar Systems, and the Sun" more commonly known as "Cool Stars 18." This was an excellent conference and is probably the best I've ever been to. Despite being well focused on the field, there was still so much to see and learn. Furthermore, Flagstaff was a great city and I enjoyed my time there.

Here I summarize some of my thoughts on the meeting.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Book Review: Storm Front by Jim Butcher

I had to take some long flights and spend a week at a conference. I figured Storm Front by Jim Butcher was a light book I could read throughout the week. I did not expect I would finish it practically in one flight. Guess that means I can get the next one in the series for the return trip?

My full review after the jump.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Book Review: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is the latest book selected for our Santiago Book Club. The Amazon blurb is quite brief: Set in Moscow of the 1920's, this satirical novel recounts the dealings a writer and his mistress have with Satan.

Read on for my full review.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Book Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice is a space opera novel that has been getting a lot of press lately as it wins award after award. It is the 2013 debut novel by Ann Leckie, though she has already written many short stories. I've had this book on my list for some time and finally got some time to read it. Be forewarned that it's part of an unfinished trilogy, but I have no problem starting series and I think this is one I will certainly continue.

The official blurb:
On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.
Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was Justice of Toren-a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.
An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose-to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.

Read on for my full review.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Book Review: Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

This is, as the subtitle rightly states, "A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was." It is part of a short series of books relating the adventures of Master Li and Number Ten Ox and are collected in a single volume on the Kindle store. It reminded me at parts of Sherlock Holmes and Alice in Wonderland as the characters travel to exotic and magical places meeting extraordinary characters all in order to solve the mysteries of ancient China.
‘Take a large bowl,’ I said. ‘Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic, and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow kan pei—which means “dry cup”—and drink to the dregs.’ Procopius stared at me. ‘And I will be wise?’ he asked. ‘Better,’ I said. ‘You will be Chinese.’”

Read on for my full review (spoiler-free).

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Book Review: Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

Warbreaker is an interesting experiment that Brandon Sanderson decided to do. He released it online for free through his website, though you can buy it in hardcover (as I did) or through the kindle store (as I also did). If you don't want to pay for a Sanderson book, you can just grab the free version, though if you wanted to give him a try I would start with Mistborn.

This is the second time I read this, so I knew a few things to expect but still enjoyed the story. My full review after the jump.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Astronomy: Observing at CTIO

This past week I went to two observatories for some observing runs: Cerro Tololo International Observatory (CTIO) and La Silla Observatory. I've talked about La Silla before (here and here). However, it's been several years since I've been to CTIO. I'll briefly go over my experience there observing the Dark Energy Camera (DECam).

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Book Review: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa

The latest selection our book club is Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (La tia Julia y el escribidor) by Mario Vargas Llosa. There's been a desire to read (English-translated) Latin American authors and this is one of the more popular ones. It reminded me of my days in high school where I had to read all manner of books for my Spanish class including works by Enrique Laguerre, Gabriel Garcia Marques, and many others. I know read mainly for entertainment and choose to do so in the genre of speculative fiction. I will endeavor to provide more fine science fiction and fantasy selections for our book club!

Read on for my full review.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book Review: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

This is the second book in Brandon's Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series. While projected as a ten-book series, it is already very strong and has a healthy community of speculation as readers try to decipher secrets and hints as to what may come next. Fortunately, Sanderson has shown his skill at writing quickly and efficiently so we have not had to wait too long between installments of his series. Hence, I highly recommend people give this series a try.

Read on for the full review, spoiler free (at least for book 2).

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Book Review: Dust of Dreams by Steven Erikson

Dust of Dreams is the ninth book of the ten-book series Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson. This has been a good series overall and the end is just in sight. It's taken a long time to go through these books for various reasons, though, which is a drawback when trying to remember the many names or plot lines. As always, I try to avoid direct spoilers, though some knowledge of the prior books will help.

Read on for my full review.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

This upcoming month's book club pick was Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I hesitated to start it as it did not sound appealing at all. However, once I did I was quickly sucked in by the story. Despite being nonfiction and a memoir of her travels along the Pacific Crest Trail, it reflects elements of Joseph Campbell's monomyth, perhaps most commonly known as "the hero's journey." This lends the story a broader appeal and was one of the main reasons why I quickly dug right in despite the initial hesitation.

Read on for the full review.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Book Review: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

I read Ender's Game a long time ago, back when I was in high school. When I think back and remember the science fiction and fantasy books that shaped my childhood years, that is one of the few that I can remember. One of my friends would send me the latest news on the Ender's Game movie for the past decade or so. It seemed we waited forever for the movie to be made.

Well, the movie has been made and I saw it a week or so ago. I'm not a movie critic, but while watching it I kept thinking back to the book. About how much I'd forgotten, and how much I'd remembered. It had been so long I decided to go back and re-read the book.

Read on for my review of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Astronomy: Cloudy Weather on a Nearby Brown Dwarf

Artistic rendering of clouds in the Luhman 16 system. Credit: ESO/I. Crossfield/N. Risinger

Brown dwarfs are failed stars in the sense that they are not large enough to fuse hydrogen in their cores like our own Sun. As such, they straddle the boundary between planets like Jupiter and faint, cool stars. Gas giant planets have been found around many stars in our Galaxy, but they are frequently hard to study given the proximity to their host stars. Brown dwarfs provide an alternative as they can be studied more carefully without worrying about a bright star being too close.

One aspect of giant planet and brown dwarf science that has been active of late has been the study of their atmospheres. To this effort, Dr. Ian Crossfield, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, and his team have created an impressively detailed map of the closest brown dwarf system we know.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Astronomy: The 223rd American Astronomical Society Meeting

Last week, I was at the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). Now, I'm back in Chile and have finally written up a post about my experiences there. It's taken a while to write this up, mainly because I got very excited for some of my science at the meeting, but more on that later. Now, without further ado is a brief discussion of my time at the meeting and why I always enjoy it.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Blog in Review: 2013

This completes the second year I have been running my blog. As before, I provide some overall statistics for how the blog ran last year and since it's start. The nature of the blog has changed throughout the year, though it still retains some of its original spirit.