Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

A Clash of Kings (HBO Tie-in Edition) (A Song of Ice and Fire #2)
A Clash of Kings is the second book in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.  I read A Game of Thrones (the first book in the series) over a year ago and loved it.  At 900 plus pages it took awhile before I found the time to get around to this second book.  I'm glad I finally did.  Compared to the first book, Clash was slow to start and didn't really pick up till about two-thirds of the way through.  Game of Thrones ended with multiple people claiming the right to be king and the first sighting of dragons in many decades.  Clash begins with the would be kings ready to go to war against one another but not actually going anywhere just yet and the dragons not doing much of anything.  I suppose Robb Stark is the exception since we're told that he is winning various battles somewhere but since he isn't a point-of-view character in this volume whatever was going on with him did not add to the action.  The other exception is Arya whose story was interesting and constantly moving forward from start to finish.  She was one of my favorite characters in the first book and continues to remain so. 

One of the best aspects of this series is the way Martin tells the story through multiple characters, with the chapters alternating among the points-of-view of a subset of characters.  Somehow the tone is consistent even though the point-of-view characters vary in age and background.   Aside from seeing the story through different character's eyes, I liked this technique because I knew that even when I grew bored with one part of the story, another character's story would grab me again.

It wasn't until about two-thirds of the way through the book that things picked up, but even though Clash moved slowly, I am eager to find out what is next in store for the people of the seven kingdoms (and beyond), especially to Arya, Jon Snow, Tyrion, Bran, and even Sansa.  (I couldn't stand Sansa in the first book but I'm warming up to her.)  Hopefully it won't take a year before I get to the next book.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Toronto Noir Edited by Janine Armin & Nathaniel G. Moore

Toronto Noir
Sometimes a place - a country, a city or a neighborhood - inexplicably captures my attention and imagination.  I want to read about it, watch movies that are set there, talk to people who have been there, all in preparation of (perhaps) one day visiting the place myself.  For the past year or so the city of Toronto has been the place that captured by attention and imagination.  I also love mysteries.  When I saw Toronto Noir at a book festival last April it felt like a sign.  Here was a book that combined two things that I happened to be interested in.  Plus I had been aware of this series from Akashic Books for a while but had never gotten around to reading any of them, so I decided that Toronto Noir would be my entry into the series.

For those unfamiliar with the Akashic Noir series, each book is a collection of noir short stories set in a particular city (or section of a city).  In picking up Toronto Noir I was looking for something that gave me a taste of what the city is like in the form of a crime related story.  As to the Toronto part of the book, underneath the title of each story is the name of the neighborhood in Toronto where the story is set.  Having never been to Toronto the name of the neighborhood meant little to me but I looked forward to learning about the neighborhood.  Unfortunately, for many of the stories other than being set in Toronto there didn't seem to be much of a connection to the city or the identified neighborhood.  There was no sense of what the neighborhood looked like or what it was like to live there.  For example, was it an old neighborhood, a new suburb, a gentrified neighborhood, or a place where starving artists lived?  Was it an area populated by young, moneyed professionals, aspiring artists, starving students, or an ethnic enclave?  Were the streets lined with local cafes and little shops or Starbucks and skyscrapers?  This was not true of all the stories of course but overall I finished this book with not much of a sense of what Toronto was like before reading this book.

As for the noir part of the book, halfway through the book I decided to look up the definition of noir to make sure it meant what I thought it meant because the stories didn't exactly seem very noir to me.  There are multiple stories involving cheating spouses, stalkers and peeping Toms, necrophilia, but there are no real mysteries.  To the extent a crime occurs the reader is told early on who did it and why, so the rest of the story is mostly description of how the character committed the crime and did or did not get away with it.

Overall, I was disappointed with Toronto Noir.  It will probably be awhile before I pick up another book in this series, but will pick up another one.  I am still very interested in going to Toronto.  Hopefully I'll make it there this spring or summer and then I finally find out what Toronto is really like.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Looking for Alaska by John Green

Looking for Alaska  Looking for Alaska has been on my radar for a long time.  It seemed to pop up everywhere I looked, with everyone having nothing but good things to say about it.  I finally got around to reading Alaska and now will add my voice to those singing its praises.

So much was great about this book.  It is hard to write about this book without giving away major plot points so I instead I'm going to focus on two things, or specifically two quotes that are used in the book.

"I go to seek a Great Perhaps." ~ François Rabelais

The story begins with Miles or "Pudge" headed from his Florida home to boarding school in Alabama in search of the "Great Perhaps."  Pudge is fond of memorizing people's last words and he quotes Rabelais to explain to his parents why he wants to go to boarding school.  The "Great Perhaps" completely captures that time when you are a teenager, influenced by romance, mystery and adventure stories (whether written or on a screen), and waiting for life to begin, because it seems like nothing ever exciting happens in your town/city/school but you know one day it will and you can't wait.  Pudge heads to boarding school seeking for his life to really begin, and it does.  He makes real friends for the first time, including the beautiful, mysterious, fun, and moody Alaska.  Pudge has no choice but to fall in lust with her.  Now if this were a less well written young adult fiction book, Pudge would be the nerd/party kid/ or some other stereotype who gets fixed by his new friends who teach him how to have fun/be more responsible or whatever lesson is to be conveyed.  That doesn't happen here.  Of course Pudge changes and grows as anyone might upon immersing oneself in new surroundings with new people, but he is fully formed character when the novel begins as are (most of) the other characters.  

"How will I ever out of this labyrinth!" ~ Simón Bolívar

Miles' religious studies teacher uses Simón Bolívar's quote as the basis of an essay question, asking students how they personally "ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering."  This question reverberates throughout the story.  I had never heard this quote before reading this book and yet it evoked and immediately familiar feeling.  It so perfectly captures how it feels (at any age) to be depressed and/or hopeless, when something terrible has happened and you're wondering if things will ever get better, if you'll ever not feel the pain you're feeling right at the moment.  Looking for Alaska is full of teenage fun and giddiness, but there is also sadness as the characters struggle with dealing with their own suffering.  In less competent hands this could have turned into a Hallmark movie but luckily Green manages to write the characters in a way that feels real.  There lives are messy but without the over-the-top melodrama.  There are questions that never get answered, just like in real life.  Tragedy happens, people grieve in their individual ways, and then somehow they manage to move on finding their legs even after the ground has shifted beneath them.

In case it is not clear I very much enjoyed Looking for Alaska and would definitely recommend it.  Even for those who do not regularly read young adult fiction this is worth a read.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl  Amazing! Let me say at the top it is going to be hard to write about this without spoiling it.  I'll do my best, but if you haven't read Gone Girl and want to and you are the type who hates spoilers, then don't read this yet.

Did you ever see War of the Roses?  The movie with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas about the couple who falls in love and then it dissolves into hate, bitterness, and divorce and they fight over everything, every little thing.  Or the French movie He Loves Me...He Loves Me Not where the first half tells the story of the romance between a young woman and a doctor from her point of view, then in the second half we see it from his point of view (and it is clear that she is completely crazy).  Gone Girl is a cross between the War of the Roses and He Love Me...He Loves Me Not with a dose of steroids thrown in for good measure.  In one corner is the psychotic (and utterly brilliant) avenging wife ("Amazing" Amy) and in the other corner it is the selfish, cheating husband (Nick).  It all begins the morning of Nick and Amy's fifth wedding anniversary when Amy goes missing.  Nick arrives at their home to find the front door has been left wide open, the living room is in disarray, and their cat is wandering around aimlessly on the front porch.  Naturally the next question is, did Nick do something to Amy.  Did he kill her?

What is most amazing about Flynn's book is that although neither of the two main characters are particularly likable (I didn't like either from page one, at best they were whiny and annoying.  At worst they were utterly despicable), I couldn't stop reading, couldn't wait to find out what would happen next.  On the day I started this book I only intended to read the first 70 or so pages.  I ended up reading till near midnight and would have continued reading if I didn't need to get some sleep and go to work the next morning.  The plot twists come one after another.  As soon as you think you know one character something else is revealed about him or her which changes everything.

This is the first book I've read by Gillian Flynn, and after Gone Girl, it won't be the last.  It is suspenseful and thrilling.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcedence in Competitive Yoga by Benjamin Lorr

Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga  I have practiced yoga on and off for the past few years.  I started practicing hoping it would make me a better and stronger runner.  In the classes I have taken the teachers tended to describe yoga as being non-competitive, telling students that it didn't matter if they were doing a posture better or worse than the person beside them.  It was all about being in the moment, connecting movement to breath, listening to your body, and exploring your limits.  So when I came across Benjamin Lorr's Hell-Bent about his experiences in the world of competitive yoga I was perplexed.  I had no idea such a thing existed.  Sure there are people who are obviously gifted and amazing to watch but who knew there were trophies involved.

I was hooked from the first page.  Lorr's entry into the yoga world began as a search for regained health and fitness.  After an injury and months of inactivity Lorr found himself fatter then he liked.  He considered various athletic endeavors and settled on Bikram yoga in part because there was a studio within 15 minutes of his home.  (I smiled when I read this detail as my number one requirement for a gym or any type of fitness endeavor is that it be in walking distance of my home because honestly if I have to deal with traffic and parking there's a very good chance I won't last long at said fitness endeavor.)  His first class humbles him but also leaves him hungry for more.  Within three months he lost the extra weight.  The transformation was not without costs, his body growing stronger and leaner while suffering assorted body aches settling into a practice he described as "simultaneously refreshing and crippling."

Despite the pain Lorr was hooked.  He dove further into the rabbit hole, attending backbending seminars, enrolling in Bikram teacher training, and competing.  As crazy as it all sounded, I got it.  Pain hurts but it can also be rewarding when you know that pain comes from working hard, like sore muscles after a hard workout.  It is motivating, and so long as it doesn't get out of control, can be healthy.  In Hell-Bent Lorr reveals the healthy and unhealthy sides of yoga.  He covers a lot of ground - the history of yoga, how it infiltrated the American cultural landscape, Bikram and the cult of personality that surrounds him, and how yoga has changed lives for better or worse.  He connects his and other experiences with Bikram yoga to scientific discussions about the placebo effect, the effect of heat on the human body, and personality disorders.  It is fascinating.  Lorr manages to be both respectful and skeptical while not shying away from revealing the more negative aspects of yoga and the accompanying community.

This is the first book I have completed in the new year and it turned out to be a good way to start 2013.  Hell-Bent has inspired me to try to practice yoga on a regular basis again, even hot yoga.  That being said, Lorr's book has also convinced me to never take a Bikram class.  I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who is remotely interested in yoga, even if only from a cultural perspective.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Reading Resolutions

What is your reading goal for 2013?

It's that time of year when one sets goals for the coming year.  How about a reading resolution?  I have signed up for a couple challenges this year.  First, on Goodreads I joined the 2013 Reading Challenge where you pick up the number of books you hope to read during the year.  In 2012 I challenged myself to read 52 books, for an average of one a week and ended up reading 55.  This year I upped it to 60, though I might raise that number to 75.  The second book challenge I have signed up for the is the 2012 Read-a-Latte Challenge.  For details on joining this challenge go here.

Happy Reading!

Happy 2013!

I started this blog last January in order to challenge myself to write consistently and to experiment with the blogging medium.  I love books and reading so it was an easy decision to write about the books I'm reading.  That's not to say writing book reviews was easy.  Although I have kept a (physical) book journal for years I wasn't exactly in the habit of writing reviews as my journal entries tend to be more of a personal reflection like a quote that stood out to me or something about the book that reminded me of something else.  Writing consistently was also a challenge (in February I only posted once) but in the end I averaged about one a week.  Overall the experiment turned out well, being both fun and challenging.  This year I hope to make Passport Books even better with more consistent posting and by experimenting with the design of the blog.  I hope you have enjoyed reading the blog as much as I have enjoyed writing it, and I hope you like the upcoming changes. 

Happy New Year!