As not everyone is on Goodreads, I thought I would post a selection of my book reviews here.

I’ve excluded only those books for which my “review” consisted of only a star rating. I’m not sure how people view the rating system on Goodreads, so one quick disclaimer: I take the ‘tooltips’ for ratings at face value. Therefore, 2 stars to me is really “it was OK,” (which is a middling review – neither good nor bad), and 5 stars really must “amaze” me and create a lasting impression (e.g., “Crime and Punishment,” “The Philosopher and the Wolf,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” etc.).

Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam Trilogy, #1)Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (3 of 5 stars)
In keeping with the accepted standards of critiquing creative writing, I’ll start with the positive. The world Atwood creates is, overall, quite detailed and believable. The conflict between the main characters is intriguing, their backstories are (for the most part) also intriguing, the writing is tight, and the suspense keeps you turning pages with ease.

I liked most of the imagined genetic creations. The rabbits could’ve been better-explained (seeing as how they grace the cover of this edition), the rakunks were … pointless, insofar as how often they’re mentioned vs. contribution to the plot. Pigoons? Excellent. Same with the chicken ‘slugs.’ I really thought the ‘next-gen’ hominids were quite interestingly-done.

What’s missing, for me, are some finishing touches. For instance, we’re led to believe that the main characters start out in a world that is temporally quite close to our own, one in which the genetics are super-advanced … yet people are still e-mailing (already outdated as a form of ‘instant’ communication by the mid-90’s, thanks to AIM) and sending paper (!) job applications/CVs? Seriously? I mean, they have video chat on their cell phones (at the end), but the 2 main characters e-mail and participate in what appear to be text-based online ‘games?’ Puh-leeze. I appreciate technology is not always that easy to anticipate, but if you’re going to be gene-splicing pigs to grow human organs and mixing rats with skunks and snakes (… snakes?), at least make the effort to move beyond DVDs.

Related to that, the timelines are just unbelievable. To go from the type of disease-inducing pills and other genetic malfeasance to effectively cloning humans in 7 years’ time, as implied in the book, is a farce. And I get that there are dark-humorous aspects to all of this, but it still would’ve packed similar punches had the technological side of things been more believable.

The last bit: stereotypical characters with hit-or-miss backstories. I’ll take the 3 main characters in turn, but let me start with a general comment: not all ‘eggheads’ are ‘uninterested’ in sex, and not all corporate bosses/security types are simply mindless drones (this is hinted at in some parts, in relation to the main characters’ parents, but never developed). Life, even staid, walled-off Compound/corporate life is always more complex.

So, the backstories. First, while I really liked the tormented mother of the protagonist (Jimmy/Snowman), her departure was foreshadowed in such a way that you never really understood what she believed, or why. If she was willing to join the anti-GM movement like she did, why did she never try to ‘turn’ her own son? One who is always portrayed as more sensitive? It would’ve made their stories more compelling, and her post-departure story much more believable. At least she could’ve done some more-serious sabotage. Anyway, it was almost there, but not quite.

As for Crake, I feel like there was *far* too much ‘left unsaid’ about his parents and ‘Uncle.’ Fine, mystery, whatever, but I was way more interested to find out what made him tick (and it was much more integral to the story) than in finding out about Oryx.

So … Oryx. Probably too MUCH backstory for her. The selling from the village and the city life she led – interesting, but ultimately pointless. Jimmy/Snowman likes the wounded women, so yeah, great, but their epic love-affair is, in the end, rather boring and uninteresting in its actual consummation. Fair enough that she represented something for him, but I think it would’ve made the story better if we had half as much of her backstory and twice as much of Crake’s.

Couple other nits – there are at least 3 usages of the word ‘ersatz’ in the book; 1 would more than suffice (as would none). On a similar note, where/when/why did Jimmy develop this interest in old words? I feel like her use of the words was inconsistent with a lot of the rest of the book and was just creative-writing masturbation. Meh. It was off-putting.

One other such bit: in the beginning, Snowman mentions that the ‘Crakers’ (crackers? haha) have ‘trouble’ with the concept of chaos … this, despite the fact that later on, in their exodus from the compound, Snowman both ‘shows’ them chaos and gives them an explanation for it (Crake’s dream) – lessons which are even MORE abstract, and yet they seem to have no trouble with understanding them at all.

Anyway, that’s my take. I would give it 3.5 stars, but I chose 3 instead of 4 because I really felt like the story was 90% of the way there, and the effort to make it really shine wouldn’t have been so great. Things like the e-mails-instead-of-video-chat and the non-sequitur with the Crakers and chaos speak to me of a bit of a rushed production, as most likely these disconnects are the result of some last-minute changes/poor editing rather than any kind of intentional juxtapositions.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Atwood’s works in general, but this one just came up a tad short for me. Regardless, I’m curious to see how the other 2 in the series are.

The Year Of The Flood (MaddAddam Trilogy, #2)The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood (4 of 5 stars)
Well … certainly a better overall structure than ‘Oryx and Crake.’ I thought all of the characters were given space to develop (or the reader to get to know them). The deeper explanation of events, though obviously given from the viewpoints of very different characters, fleshed out the original story in more and better detail. There are definitely still pieces missing to this puzzle, but a lot of it has become clearer.

I don’t really have any negatives to say – I think the pacing was good (though at times maybe a bit too action-focused), the hymns of God’s Gardeners and all that were intriguing, and the relationships between characters, as well as their well-honed viewpoints, was well-executed. I did feel that we spent a bit too long with the Gardeners, without a lot happening or without much worthwhile exposition, but I didn’t feel like the lulls were either overly-long or overly-boring. On to book 3! :-)

MaddAddam (MaddAddam Trilogy, #3)MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood (4 of 5 stars)
Zeb’s backstory isn’t exactly enthralling, but it does get better closer to the end. The writing sometimes slides into the less-polished style I complained about in Oryx and Crake. The book overall is a fitting end to the trilogy and lays bare most of the ‘mystery’ from the preceding 2 tomes. I’d give the whole thing a 3.5 stars overall, but, unlike with O & C, I’m willing to bump up the score in this instance because I found the writing tighter and the story more interesting (save for the painballers – I thought that that entire arc was far less impactful than it should’ve been). I also still take issue with the rapidity of the urban decay and find it quite unrealistic (as is the near-total obliteration of the human race – it’s just too convenient).

The Shock of the FallThe Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (5 of 5 stars)
I initially gave this book 4 stars, but then I thought about how stigmatized is mental health, and how intriguingly and compassionately the protagonist was portrayed (especially for a first novel), so I bumped it up to 5. There were some minor issues with some of the minor characters, but certainly nothing that can’t be overlooked, especially given the peculiarities of the protagonist’s viewpoint.

I don’t have a lot to say about the book actually. It was all very good – from the dialog to the scene descriptions to the lovely disjointed timeline, it all fit together very well – like a jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces mixed in from other puzzles. The only downside is that I generally don’t care for books that introduce a sort of ‘whodunnit’ (or in this case, ‘what happened?’) trope, but I thought the book balanced well the development of the main characters against that particular narrative tension. It never felt like it ‘got in the way’ of the novel’s pace, nor was it particularly anticipatable – the revelation of what caused ‘the shock of the fall’ was actually a bit of an anti-climax in the end, but entirely in keeping with the novel’s themes and tone.

One aspect of the brotherly relationship that I found interesting was how the elder brother Simon’s illness often made him behave as if he were the younger of the two siblings.

The Man Who Wasn't There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the SelfThe Man Who Wasn’t There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self by Anil Ananthaswamy
(4 of 5 stars)
This was an excellent overview of the current state of the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness.

For me, the only downsides were some minor editing glitches (using a term like ‘grand mal’ seizure without first defining it for a non-technical audience) and some omissions, such as:

– he never really explores/fully defines the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness in any detail, and

– I found the lack of a discussion of will/willpower strangely absent in a book that ostensibly promotes the idea of the brain as a Bayesian prediction machine (BPM).

That line of the BPM argument is very compelling, but if the goal of the brain is homeostasis, then what accounts for feats of endurance and will far beyond the ‘normal’ limits? Just as a small example: when I feel hungry, if I don’t eat, the hunger pangs worsen. But, if I wait long enough (e.g., an hour), those pangs subside to, at most, a dull, barely-noticeable ache. How? Why?

If I’ve never fasted longer than the time between my brain telling me to eat, then how could I have ‘forced’ my brain to succumb to such a potentially-devastating lack of nutrition (for all it ‘knows,’ I may never eat again!) without I or it knowing the outcome? Did the brain somehow know ahead of time that missing one meal wasn’t such a danger to itself? What about missing two? What if I’m hypoglycemic?

At what point can the brain ‘decide’ to start shutting down, say, organs, even if I ‘will’ myself on, and what relationship do those thoughts/emotions (e.g., thinking about stressful things releasing adrenaline) outweigh the physical limitations of my body/brain? Can I will myself to such a degree that I hurt myself (that seems absolutely to be the case, notwithstanding athletes who, say, over-hydrate and ‘trick’ the brain into thinking things are actually OK when they’re not … and for that matter, that syndrome itself is interesting).

While I know the book’s focus is on mental illnesses and the insights those give into the nature of consciousness/self, addressing these more-normal scenarios would have provided some additional context and insight that I felt were warranted. Especially given that he promotes the idea that meditation could assist with people suffering from mild forms of illnesses in the Epilogue.

Therefore, I thought a chapter about ‘healthy will’ (if you will) would’ve greatly enhanced the meaningfulness of the entire work and the thoroughness of its examination of the problem and its theses.

And the book’s current length (270 sparsely-printed pages, quite a fast read) certainly would’ve allowed for at least a solid chapter on the above types of questions/issues that I feel have direct bearing on its topic and theses. So 4/5.

Old Filth (Old Filth, #1)Old Filth by Jane Gardam (4 of 5 stars)
Overall a well-paced and compelling read.

Some of the minor characters could’ve been fleshed-out a bit more (e.g. Betty: though the allusions to her affair with Filth’s old rival Veneering were intriguing, I think the foundation of their relationship, or at least how they met, could’ve been described, given how important she was to the protagonist). Babs, Claire, Isobel, Loss, Veneering, and some of the rest were pretty good. No real explanation of why the house-staff were so loyal to the old codger. I liked the shifts in perspective to some of the other characters, though I can’t say I really understood what sort of charm or whatever effect he had on women – it didn’t particularly jive for me, given his ‘passionless’ existence (with a few lapses). I also found the ‘twist’ in the end, the whole business of the murder, a bit too ‘thriller’-esque. I didn’t need it, and it didn’t add a substantial amount of insight into the characters, especially given their unrepentant stance.

The only other gripe was that this book was supposed to cover the expanse of the 20th century, but for all intents and purposes ended shortly after WWII. Nothing about the intervening, oh, FIVE DECADES about how he made out in HK, etc. I suppose the other books might cover that, but it was a big misleading – unless one supposes that his entire life was determined before he was 25? I find that a bit of a stretch.

Anyway, those grips are all minor, and most are the author’s choice regardless, not any structural issue with the plot or the actual writing itself.

Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a FamilyBuddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann (5 of 5 stars)
An excellent piece of realism. It doesn’t delve as deeply into each character either, but the perceptiveness and incisiveness is very good. The decline of the family is very well-represented, and brings to mind the old adage about bankruptcy, going “very slowly, then all at once.” I can’t really find fault with the work in any meaningful way, except that the protagonists never really seem to question their associations, who don’t appear to really be helpful when they’re most needed (e.g., the broker). It seems like all these friends of the family are just given a pass because of past association, and every attempt to add someone new (especially via Tony’s marriages) doesn’t go very well. At any rate, the unquestioning nature of the characters (in this sense) is believable, and entirely in keeping with the novel’s tone/themes, so it’s not a flaw per se, just a bit frustrating to read.

I wish I had read the newer translation, as it apparently does a better job of capturing all the idiomatic German that I missed, as my German wouldn’t be up to the task in the original.

State of FearState of Fear by Michael Crichton (1 of 5 stars)
This is my least-favorite Crichton book of all I’ve read (and I’ve read most of them). The worst part about it is that he lets his politics get so much in the way of the plot that it’s difficult to read. I’m not saying that in the sense of agreeing or disagreeing with his views on global warming, but in the literary sense of you (generally) avoid having a flashback in the middle of an action sequence because it disrupts the flow. In this sense, there are just one-sided diatribes against global warming interspersed at seemingly-odd intervals throughout the book. The protagonist’s views are also every bit as superficial and naive as the “expert” Kenner’s explanations are pedantic and condescending (as well as often ill-placed). Most of the characters are caricatured in a way that most of Crichton’s other books are not. Just because some assholes support climate change stuff doesn’t mean that it’s bunk, just as if some asshole says Hitler did a lot of good, that doesn’t mean we’d re-evaluate the Holocaust as merely some ‘collateral damage.’

One of the greatest ironies for me was reading the professor’s monologue about a ‘State of Fear’ and his views on what are now called ‘memes’ (rather than ‘social ecology). Not lolcats, but units of thought or ideas. Here Crichton cites a popular over-simplification as indicative that the actual, underlying theory is wrong, but it’s more nuanced than he leads you to believe. The professor in the book says that people are wrong to think there’s such a thing as “left” and “right” brains. Actually no (and there’s no citation for this), it is not complete bunk. Different regions of the brain do indeed specialize in different cranial tasks, the mistake is one of degree: they don’t specialize *to the exclusion* of other functions; rather, they complement each other. Here is a good summary:… .

So for the lay person to make that assessment, it’s merely shorthand for what is indeed a real and observed phenomenon. In fact, the irony is that this is EXACTLY the means by which nearly all of Crichton’s fiction works! Try resurrecting dinosaurs from ancient DNA. So to simultaneously (and seriously, if you read his author’s notes) berate his readers for their ignorance while peddling a novel whose science is cherry-picked at best is the highest irony. He is actually falling prey to the very same short-handed, layperson mistake that “well, the Earth isn’t warming uniformly, therefore global warming is hokum” is as an egregious misreading of the literature and research as seriously proposing a reconstructed velociraptor from mosquito blood.

Whatever Crichton’s politics, he’d have been better off focusing on the plot/characters than so much pedantry. I only kind of wish that people WERE taking climate change as seriously as it was portrayed in the novel. Heck, we can’t even get people to recycle seriously (and all that does is increase the efficiency with which we use resources).

NineNine by Andrzej Stasiuk (2 of 5 stars)
I don’t really know what to make of this book. There isn’t much of a plot to speak of, it’s almost all just descriptions of urban scenery (albeit the descriptions are well-done and interesting). Sometimes the POV swings out from the main set of characters and briefly follows other people before returning to the main story line again. However, having read the book, I feel that I have a firmer grasp of the public transport layout of Warsaw than I do of any of the characters! Ultimately that is what leaves me disappointed – the book is a ‘feeling’ writ large, one of displacement, but there’s no hard kernel of anything that you can take “with” you after having read it. Maybe that in and of itself was a (or the) point, but it just did not work for me.

IndignationIndignation by Philip Roth (4 of 5 stars)
Although the book is more of a novella / character sketch, it’s quite a solid one. The characters feel realistic, fleshed-out, and given believable motives. Overall, the writing is tight and to-the-point. My only gripe is with the dialogue – characters have the habit of launching into soliloquies that simply sound far too verbose and polished to have come ‘on the spur of the moment.’ The conceit of having the character recall these events, either in his morphine-induced stupor (his “life flashing before his eyes”) or after his actual death (if he is to be believed), is interesting and well-written.

The HumoristThe Humorist by Russell Kane (2 of 5 stars
As the 2-star mouseover states, ‘it was OK.’ Faint praise is damning? I expected more humor (and less uses of the word ‘foetid’ than the 3 or 4 instances I recall). Easy-enough of a read, but nothing super-memorable (except for the joke about the ‘Bush administration,’ that was pretty funny). I think what was most lacking was the development of the secondary characters. Parents – check. Brother? Meh. Cousin – yes, their weird love-affair was pretty well fleshed-out, but we didn’t really see any reasons why she felt so close to the protagonist. Maybe something more was in order there. The back-and-forth in the office between the protagonist’s boss and her boss was … alright. I wasn’t looking for ‘deep’ character development per se, but I was looking for something more incisively witty than was provided.

I’m not trying to take this book very literally, as it’s obviously meant as a farcical romp, but I think some of the interactions would’ve been more humorous if they were presented in a more-realistic way is all. In short, a bit too over-wrought/written to really hit the mark for me.

No Way Down: Life and Death on K2No Way Down: Life and Death on K2 by Graham Bowley (3 of 5 stars)
The story itself was good, but there were some issues with how the book was laid out that I did not like. For instance, the narrative often jumped time without much warning (flashbacks, and within the timeline of the events transpiring on K2). Sometimes it was difficult to keep track of who was doing exactly what where, and while I totally understand the equivalent of the ‘fog of war’ on the mountain, the book was written with the help of hindsight, so I think the overall narrative structure could’ve been a bit clearer.

There were also references to mountaineering events which were treated unevenly, such as the detailed description of ‘The Belay’ (though never mentioning that that’s what Pete Schoeding’s heroic act became known as), while only touching for the briefest moment on the stories of Beck Weathers and Rob Hall on Everest in ’96. Finally, the titles of the sections were a bit misleading too – near the end, one of the chapters was subtitled ‘3 am,’ but the narrative picked up around 7pm and ended just before dawn at between 4-5 am.

I think I’m also getting a bit tired of reading about stupid mountaineers – there is no excuse to be summiting a peak like K2 around dusk, period. It’s one thing to have to deal with unavoidable adversity (unexpected storm, avalanche, rope or equipment failures); quite another when the worst predicaments (being caught in the avalanches) were 100% avoidable if the teams had descended the mountain earlier. I think the author could’ve gone a bit more into detail about the various characters’ motivations and this particular day’s ‘summit fever.’

So overall: interesting story, but hindered from reaching its full potential by the faults in its structure.I also watched the NatGeo documentary about the same events of the book … it was even more cursory and disjointed (although I appreciated some of the footage).

You Remind Me of MeYou Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon (4 of 5 stars
I can’t really find any major flaws in the book. As one of the blurbs says, I think Chaon manages to maintain a narrative distance from his characters that never judges them. He gives them their space and lets them move around within that space quite naturally. It was like reading a many-sided, in-depth character study of ‘ordinary’ people, though objectively none of the main characters are traditionally appealing (and the protagonist is essentially a pathological liar.

The only things which could’ve been stronger for me are: I think sometimes there is just too ‘much’ going on for some of the characters, in the sense that they have to deal with a succession of destabilizing events quite quickly (in the timeline of the novel), though there are other moments where things are calmer and the characters are given a chance to reflect. While realistic, it sometimes felt a bit forced – like, it wasn’t enough that the protagonist’s mother gave her baby away, she really made her 2nd child (protagonist) feel unwanted, and killed herself in the end. While that arc is believable, I didn’t feel like there were any redeeming qualities for her or, absent those, any real reason why she felt so displaced. I mean, there’s a lot of causes for Jonah’s situation, but very few for hers. Was it the death of her mother? Something else?

I guess really that’s my only issue, the mother’s backstory is given space and depth, but she’s lacking the kinds of causes both Jonah and Troy (foster-parents’ divorce) that helps explain some of their malcontent. It’s the only bit of the story that nags me.

I also didn’t quite like the ending in 2002, with all the ends tied up. I thought it should’ve been messier. And I think I wanted more confrontation between Jonah and Troy – the latter just seemed perpetually stunned/untalkative, even though ‘blood relation’ was seemingly so important to him.

The one last critique for me is that the fragmented timeline generally works, but sometimes it comes off as too-overdone (e.g., when we have entire seasons in one segment, but then only a couple ‘pivotal’ days in another, which are even revisited. A minor gripe though.

Overall, and excellent book, especially for a first novel. Borderline 5-stars, but since I only finished it today, I’ll let it settle a bit longer before giving my final answer (which I’m sure you are all awaiting with bated breath!). :-P

TaipeiTaipei by Tao Lin (0 of 5 stars)
This is definitely one of the worst books I have ever read. I struggle to find something positive … I guess the author can spell correctly, and most of his sentences are grammatical. That’s about it. The dialogue is realistic, but it’s dialogue that does a) nothing to advance the ‘plot,’ b) doesn’t lend any insight into characters (beyond repeatedly ramming home their shallow self-centeredness and inability to cope with the bare fact of existence). Riveting stuff. It’s like trickle-down Brett Easton Ellis, and I already am not a fan of that style (the attempted-depth-of-shallowness), so … yeah.

That, on top of the author’s continued use of things like ‘six to eight strangers’ at a bar or ‘between five and forty minutes,’ his overuse of the term ‘vague’ (twice on a single page! ugh), and other irritating minutiae of diction/syntax – I must’ve seen 7 ‘earnestly’ in the span of a couple pages. Seriously? Just. Use. A. Thesaurus.

You can write about shitty characters and *still make it interesting for the reader.* Reading this book is like reading a book about 3-year-old babbling – it may be well-executed, but as a novel it adds nothing to my understanding of the world/other people unless the author makes more of an effort than his listless characters to write it well and meaningfully.

In summary, ‘I read the book in 7-10 days, more or less not enjoying it, but earnestly wanting to feel like I was wanting to enjoy the vapidity of its exposition. I must’ve toked four to eight times, various things, while vaguely gazing neutrally at the blank, mildly-expectant face of someone near me with whom I may or may not be romantically interested in a vague way. I worried that I might be depressed but can’t really decide if I am, even after explicitly discussing it with others in a roundabout fashion.’

Crome YellowCrome Yellow by Aldous Huxley (3 of 5 stars)
A so-so read. I get that, while it might have been relatively ground-breaking at the time, I’ve read so much else from the time period that it doesn’t leave a particularly vivid impression on me … I think the characterisations, setting, etc. are all well-done, but the biggest issue I had with a photo-‘novel of ideas’ is how the characters break into soliloquy at the drop of the proverbial hat. Not all, but most, and I find that while it’s not uncommon to come across one or two people who can’t seem to stop talking, the dramatic pacing these absurdly-long, one-sided dialogues just doesn’t work for me. It was too unnatural and it got in the way more than it illuminated (it also ‘told’ often far too much rather than just showing, which I am always particularly sensitive towards).

I did like the backstory about the house and its inhabitants (though we did weirdly go from reading a history to a highly-personalized account of what two historical figures were thinking/doing, like the dwarves and the guy who walked in on the Lapith sisters eating in the tower – while wholly unrealistic, the anecdotes were very compelling). I also liked how the narrator’s timing always seemed to be off, whether it was his inability to give his own witty anecdote about London or his premature departure from Crome.

Overall it wasn’t bad, but not as good, in my view, as some of the others from the era.

CC by Tom McCarthy (4 of 5 stars)
The book follows the life of Serge Carrefaux through his early years, service with the British in WWI, return to England, and final assignment to Egypt.

I liked the density of the visual imagery and the tinges of incest (e.g., when his sister uses him like a small telegraph key). Sometimes we are left with very little information about things that may have narrative import (e.g., when the officer in Cairo mentions his father, then breaks off abruptly), but I found this in keeping with realism – you do only traverse life with a limited set of information.

I quite liked this book for a number of reasons that run contrary to some of the reviews I’ve read. Firstly, and foremost, I was happy to read an actual story, and not just masturbatory prose constructs. I also liked that the novel had an overarching philosophical theme. While allusions to its themes appeared perhaps too blatant or were treated a tad too heavy-handedly at times, there was enough of a mix between story and musings that I wasn’t bothered by this aspect of the novel.

Secondly, the protagonist’s flaws and general aimlessness/listlessness didn’t bother me any more than did Holden Caulfield’s. I found it wholly in keeping with an established literary type. The novel certainly covers a lot of time and a lot of events, and while the protagonist doesn’t ever seem compelled to exert his individual will through most of it, I read him as more of a ‘conduit’ for experiences. Thirdly, the writing was not nearly so “lazy” as other reviewers have stated. While there is a hackneyed phrase or two, the prose is largely tightly-written and does not get in the way of the story. Finally, I did not find any parts of the book ‘boring’ (as others have commented); I thought it was engaging throughout, and I found myself looking forward to picking it up every time.

I thought, as I usually do, that some of the minor characters could’ve been a little more fleshed-out, especially his parents. As the narrative progressed, however, I found that the minor characters were very well characterized (e.g., levels of detail consummate with their roles). I get that the father was a bit absent and absent-minded with his children, but again, especially when Serge was younger, I would’ve liked to see a bit more, perhaps a scene or two where Serge tries to follow his father to figure out what’s keeping him away (though perhaps that would’ve have been entirely in keeping with his characterization, as a child, our habits are not yet fully-formed, so I would not have found it incongruous – and Serge was more inquisitive about the world when his sister was around anyway, so it could’ve fit).

Others have posted to Goodreads about this book’s high praise from critics being unmerited. I agree. It is a well-told, engaging story, but I don’t find it quite so deserving of the praise that makes it sound as if this otherwise very good novel is ground-breaking.

One thing to note that troubled me: the published reviews I’ve read (e.g., the Guardian) mention the protagonist “bombing” the Germans in WWI. Serge didn’t “bomb” anyone, he sent back coordinates of German artillery emplacements so that British artillery could shell these. I have to imagine that the reviewers skimmed the book (at best), which could account for the overly-inflated praise the book received.

The White TigerThe White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (4 of 5 stars)
I personally have always seen this seedier side of India (how can anyone visit and not notice the taxi drivers sleeping in their cars, the slums pushed right up against the airport fences or the high-class hotels/apartment blocks, and the families sleeping in the streets?), but I appreciate for some India was always the “Incredible India” from the long-running advertisements on international TV. Therefore, this aspect of the book failed to ‘amaze’ me.

The book itself was quite fast-paced, and the main character’s voice comes through loud and clear (for most of it – there’s one point near the end, after the climax, where the protagonist/anti-hero lapses into quite a bit of vitriol, and, given the rest of the novel, it’s hard to know to what one should ascribe this overt (though brief) shift in tone: is it the author’s anger coming through? the main character finally showing some of his deep-seated rage? etc.).

I also liked how the style of the book in many ways mimicked the pulp fiction books about murder that are traded among the city’s semi-literate underclass.

My only knocks on the book is that I was expecting something more “literary” from a Man Booker winner. I think the book brushes up against bigger themes, but it feels to me like it really skirts the issues. Then again, it’s not a political call-to-arms, it’s more about the realities on the ground in modern India. In this way, the book really does “show” rather than tell.

The other shortcoming, in my view, had to do with a couple of the minor characters. Overall, they were well-done and fully “fleshed-out.” What really stuck out to me was how the displaced Muslim driver (upon being exposed as a Muslim) just walked away. It was mentioned he’d been with the family what, 3 decades? That part felt strange – I didn’t know if it was because the narrator was unreliable and manipulating our perception of events, if it was a comment on how fleeting even long-term commitments are between the upper/lower classes, or something else. Given the way the protagonist is treated by his employer, I found it stunning that that servant’s disappearance was not at least commented upon by anyone, not once. It seemed incongruous with the rest of the book, especially considering Ashok’s superficial concerns with Manna’s living quarters (twice). He may ultimately have done nothing about the conditions, but he at least pretended to care – and he certainly *noticed,* which, in the context, is already something. I also thought more could’ve been made about Ashok’s wife and lover, as neither one really came across to me as fully-developed minor characters (granted, we are limited by the viewpoint of the narrator, but I think the times we do see the couple interacting could’ve been a bit more instructive on just what her grievances were with India and her husband/husband’s family, more than just the relatively superficial reasons she gives … then again, maybe she really was just that superficial a person, but I couldn’t definitively read her one way or the other, and I would’ve preferred to know).

However, the above are minor gripes in the grand scheme of things. It is, in the end, a riveting depiction of the Indian “hard-knock life.”

The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy (3 of 5 stars)
Beautifully-written … though I could’ve done without the repetition of “grey” so often. It is sparse, and I am beginning to think that books written in this style are deliberately done so as a marketing “hook” so that your mind fixates on trying to fill in the blanks. It was a bit too sparse for me. I wanted some more emotional grounding for his relationship with his wife (and her decision to kill herself) – I think that would’ve been appropriate, instead of so much fixation on the minutiae of *how* he scavenges to survive. I also would’ve liked a bit more clarity on how long he’d been wandering around – the apocalyptic event coincides with the birth of his son, but when we meet the characters, his son has to be around 7/8? Maybe a little older? Why didn’t he go “south” before, and how were they surviving before then in the winter? He didn’t appear to be that far from home, and yet he hadn’t been back – why? It was just a bit too much allusion to the past and not quite enough actual … story. I could’ve used a bit more around the myth built around “carrying the fire.”

Now, on the flip side, where I think McCarthy does a good job is not going too deep into the semi-mysterious “other/” bad guys in the book. That is well-done. So OK on the rather-faceless threat of the “other,” great job describing the dilapidated world and its inhabitants, but I wanted more character history to deepen the connections (between them and between me-as-reader and them) – that would’ve moved this book from good to great.

The ChrysalidsThe Chrysalids by John Wyndham (3 of 5 stars)
… definitely an interesting (if somewhat simplistic) dystopia. The main drawback is, as usual, the lack of discrete character development: there are far too many archetypes and not enough distinctive personalities inhabiting the pages. Overall the book was an easy, quick read, and very well-written, but I would’ve liked (especially given the nature of the genetic ‘deviations’) more emotional content. The white-horse saviors in the end were far too convenient and pedantic. I can’t really go into further detail without spoiling the book, because its plot hinges a lot on the revelation you gain midway through. Despite its flaws, I considered it worth reading.

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (4 of 5 stars)
I really rather liked it overall – more than I thought, given some of the hype around Atwood’s works. The language is both taut and poetic by turns, the action is well thought-out in general, and the characters are believably deep. My main gripe is only that Atwood, as with all the other dystopian fiction-writers, falls short on one front – giving far too few years between the “normal” past and her dystopian future (probably the only one who didn’t really fall into this was Orwell – he at least gave a full generation for his dystopia to develop). It’s difficult to believe that such massive social changes, especially in language, could be effected in such a short time (circa 3 years is directly implied by the narrator). It is somewhat modelled on the Iranian Revolution in terms of its swiftness, but I just don’t think it’s believable (even given the “we should’ve known better” aspect of talking about how the events could’ve been better foreseen by the main character). Otherwise a solid effort all-round and well worth the read.

ResurrectionResurrection by Leo Tolstoy (3 of 5 stars)
So, I’m about one third of the way through the novel. It started relatively well, typically Russian and typically-descriptive for the period. However, Tolstoy’s hand has become quite heavy from pedantry in the last few pages, something which is really detracting from my enjoyment of the novel. I hope he (or the translator, though the scenes in question are long enough that I don’t believe this to be a matter of simple translation) lightens that touch, otherwise this will turn out to be quite the tedious read …

Well, now I’m about 2/3 of the way through, and it has gotten quite a bit better. Although the characterization of the female characters are a bit superficial, they aren’t necessarily stereotypical, so that’s a good curveball that makes things interesting. The pedantic “transformative” experience has been shown to be something of a sham, so that’s also good. The descriptions of the rank hypocrisies of the protagonist’s social circles are well-done, but they’re also portrayed in a complex way – one which allows you to understand their continued allure for him. All-in-all, it’s shaping up to be quite a better read than I thought it would be at the outset.

Finished. Quite repetitive by the end. Better than I thought, but not as good as it could’ve been.

A Second Wind: The True Story that Inspired the Motion Picture The IntouchablesA Second Wind: The True Story that Inspired the Motion Picture The Intouchables by Philippe Pozzo di Borgo (2 of 5 stars)
I saw the film first, and I think it does a better job capturing the relationship than the book. On the whole, the book was very sentimental – almost to a fault. While I really wanted to like the book, especially as the author wrote it dictating to a tape machine on his stomach, it was very hard to follow some of the sequences of events and relationships. For instance, he says that he would have “rotted” without Abdel, fine, but you barely get any sense of that from the memories. di Borgo also says that it’s difficult to remember through the haze of pain, and while I’m sympathetic, then wouldn’t it have made some sense to try and get Abdel’s views recorded/woven into the story? And while he does pine for his wife throughout most of the book, of the other 3 women who impact his life, only the first is given any semblance of fullness of character – the other 2, which includes his second wife (!), are all but phantoms.

So while I hold nothing against the author for publishing his memoir (of a sort), the book suffered a lot from this very narrow point of view. I actually wanted to know much more, and the edition I read had a follow-up that was written after “The Intouchables” film was released – yet it didn’t add much in the way of any insights. I was left feeling quite frustrated by the whole thing.

The Constant GardenerThe Constant Gardener by John le Carré (1 of 5 stars)
While the novel started off well enough, it quickly got very tedious, at least for me. I thought it would be less formulaic, but it became this silly game of the monolithic (of course, evil) corporation chasing the protagonist around the world. All of this, of course, begging the question why, if they were diabolical enough to murder his wife, do they just keep pestering him instead of just offing him? Not to mention the increasingly-absurd liaisons the protagonist engages in. I had much higher expectations than this. I would hope the ending will at least be less predictable, but I fear not. Regardless, no matter how good the ending, it can’t make up for the slop in the middle.

So, the ending continued the trend of absurdity, but it was even worse than expected *** SPOILER ALERT *** : the protagonist dies at the end, after a ridiculous “confession” of sorts from the main … villain, Lorbeer? The whole thing was just silly – I mean, think about it, this guy, who apparently has all the “dark secrets” with him in the wilds of Africa, is left alive by the same evil corporate minions who killed at least 3 people to try and stop the ramifications of the information he holds – information which a) are essentially “public” knowledge, in the sense that an intrepid diplomat’s wife and doctor can compile a “damming” report without drawing on any confidential information and b) he is willing to basically share with anyone who comes his way with a tale of woe. So the “confession” is absurd in that Quayle already knows nearly everything Lorbeer says (I found nothing of the additional info L gave as ‘cathartic’ in any meaningful way), and the fact that the corporation continues killing people to protect their “secret,” instead of JUST KILLING LORBEER (the leak!) is such an absurd conceit it ruined the suspension of disbelief required for the novel to work.

As harsh as I am being, I will say that I very much respect le Carre’s intentions in writing this book, especially his intent to bring to light some of the undue suffering of Africa on this front (however, even his noble goal is given an important caveat by the very same non-profit to which he suggests readers could donate: that there are a lot of pharmaceuticals doing work in Africa that is actually helpful!).

So yes, overall, too many cons for me to really enjoy. Maybe this was due to le Carre’s move from a strictly spy-thriller into a slightly different realm, I don’t know.

Tipping the VelvetTipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (2 of 5 stars)
I’m over half-way through the book, and I have a good sense of the author’s style and the conceit by this stage – enough, at least, to make a couple of comments.

First, I didn’t realize that this was literary erotica, lol, but that’s roughly what the plot boils down to – a lot of lesbian sex set in Victorian London. While I don’t have anything against that (and certainly nothing against lesbian sex-scenes!), it felt more like a costume-party-style flight of fancy than anything strictly literary. There are some nice descriptions of London, but nothing stands out to me in particular – no, not even the *shock* of the descriptions of renters and the gay ‘scene” circa 1892. Blame the literature degree.

Second, the author breaks what is for me the cardinal rule of story-telling (“show,” don’t “tell”) in a few key ways. For starters, our protagonist Nan becomes something of a “reluctant” nymphomaniac around halfway through the book (maybe not as a renter, to which she seems quite dispassionate, but certainly with Diana). This is a bit difficult to believe, if only because Nan is introduced with hardly anything particularly sensual in her persona (aside from her oyster-play in her parents’ restaurant). It’s one thing to slip into another, more sensual world when one is open to such experiences from the outset, but it seems like the character changes in fundamental ways without any events in the story to truly presage this (yes, she’s impulsive in going to the theatre and following Kitty, but could she really have somehow just repressed all this sexuality with her beau as well? Around her family?). I just feel that the author didn’t lay the groundwork for this very well; either that, or we’re to assume that any “normal” person would follow her course of rash action(s) given her choices.

Following from the above is the portrayal of minor characters, in which there are two examples that stand out. First, the relationship between Nan and her sister and self-described best friend/closest confidante is, again, told to us more than shown – we aren’t really given anything substantial to support this description. Second, this happens again with the landlady’s daughter, where we’re given a relatively endearing initial scene, and then the interactions between Nan and her are largely ignored. Only when Nan gets a bit teary-eyed during her departure do we learn they used to spend significant time together playing. Well, the author describes for us a lot of non-action (Nan lazing about) that occurred at the landlady’s house, but the depth of emotion at her departure would’ve been better conveyed had we been privy to some of these interactions – which would’ve easily negated our having to be told Nan was sad. Although it is sometimes necessary to be told about Nan’s emotions explicitly, since she seems to slip quite easily through the “difficult” decisions of her life (leaving with Kitty, leaving kitty, renting as a “boy,” renting for Diana, etc.).

So that’s a lot of writing, but actually the book isn’t half bad, it just misfires on a couple key areas. If anything, the relative strengths of the book’s writing in all the other areas (Diana’s weird character, the decent descriptions of the rest of Nan’s family, with the exception of her mother, Kitty herself, Walter, the boarders at the first house Kitty and Nan live in, etc.). So all-in-all, it’s okay, but just not my particular cup of tea, despite the several shades of lesbo-Victorian Gray that are presented.

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons EverythingGod is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (2 of 5 stars)
While this is a nice polemic summary of all the issues with the major Judaic religions, ultimately Hitch’s book *adds nothing new to the debate,* other than a dose of vitriol. Ho-hum.

My problem with Hitchens was always that he never rose above the level of polemicist/provocateur. That was OK with him, but it never sat well with me – I could agree with his points, but I almost always disagree with the way in which he tried to argue them. That sentiment was as true with “god is not great” as with any of his other writings (if not more so).

He couches the entire thing as merely “his opinion,” and that’s fine, if he’d have left it at that. But his extensive deferrals to logic and scientific inquiry/reason as morally superior to religion leave him quite open to attacks on strictly logical grounds (numerous fallacies, including but not limited to ad hominen, straw men, non sequitor, appeal to authority, argument from analogy, etc.). Still his opinion, but if he wants to demonstrate an equal/superior morality, he’s not doing a very good job representing the non-religious, and that’s why I take issue with this.

For the record, I don’t care one way or the other that he’s using *inflammatory language* – I don’t care whether or not he calls the ayatollah an illiterate (though it adds absolutely zero to his arguments), what I care about is that he takes strongly-worded opinions just one step further than necessary, leaving his logic in tatters and himself open to attack. If he were disrespectful, but logically sound, that would be another matter entirely.

I’ll give just three(of the many) examples why the logic is so bothersome (for anyone interested in the inaccuracies of his scriptural references, I found Mark Roberts’s response online to be quite a thorough examination of mainly the New Testament errors – albeit some are minor, but I agree with Roberts’s point on general sloppiness:… )

Flawed internal logic: pp.204, Hitch blames “mainstream” Buddhism for publicly aligning itself with the genocidal propaganda of the Japanese Empire. Fair point, though one would wonder how much they were coerced or acting out of a sense of self-preservation (the fact they’ve not recanted to this day is, rightly, telling). HOWEVER, Hitch doesn’t exactly propose much in the way of an alternative, for in a subsequent sequence on p 260, he says that the only moral thing for a secular humanist to do (in making excuses for why so many historical atheists hid their views) was to avoid espousing such views in public that could lead to their bodily harm. So if it’s OK for secular people to do this, how can you use it as a rhetorical point against the religious? (pp 239, he skirts the point with Nazis and Catholics, and pp 281 he makes the very strong point about the Danish cartoons that no non-religious group would’ve had such “excuses made for them”). Well, sorry, but since you chose to bring it up, you can’t have it both ways.

Hubris: pp 40 (and many, many other places). Now, I understand the value of satire and irony (especially when Hitch mocks the religious persons’ certitude about a wide variety of things), but this is one of the examples where he veers into making an unsubstantiated point; he talks of how you don’t need religion to “know” that pedophilia is morally wrong, but then says that nothing optional is punished unless the punisher wants to participate [in the punishable act]. He also says that if he were accused of pedophilia, that’d he’d contemplate suicide, “guilty or not.” All of this is a bunch of muddled I-don’t-know-what. Logically, he’s implying he would’ve liked to bugger kids, because on the one hand he makes the claim that ALL punishers secretly desire to participate in the punishable act (and cites Shakespeare and secular sources by way of confirmation); yet he wants to punish himself were he even accused of pedophilia. This means that pedophilia IS or SHOULD BE punishable by society (he makes no claim on its optionality, though). Is this therefore to mean that society en masse would like to participate in pedophilia, because it rightly wishes to punish it? That’s just absurd, yet Hitch does nothing but weave an incoherent argument to that effect. It’s an inane way to argue for the supremacy of “scientific reason.”

Straw man: pp 11, 149. Hitch claims that religion knows “everything,” leaving no room for further inquiry. This is an easily-refutable claim (much like his vaunted query, “what moral act could a religious person do that a secular humanist could not?” for one, the religious person could forfeit their entire trove of worldly possessions for the benefit of an unseen ‘other’/stranger who was suffering – this is irrational for a secular person to live an ascetic life himself just because others are less well off (just ask Hitch, if he were still alive, lol)). So, just off the top of my head, without going into all the medical, judicial, and philosophical advances made not only by religious people, but with the advancement of *religion* specifically in mind, here is a quick rebuttal: if religion claims to “know everything,” as Hitchens puts it, then why does the Vatican maintain an observatory? (a highly-regarded one at that, even by secular scientists’ standards) If “everything” were known by the Catholic Church, as one example, then what exactly are they seeking in the heavens? QED, Hitch.

I could go on (and on and on – I identified no less than 30 such issues, no counting the scriptural inaccuracies that, in the New Testament alone, add upwards of another dozen).

I don’t mind that Hitch thrives on middle-brow debate, or that he uses polemic language, or that he likes to goad his opponents; what I mind is that when someone sits down to write a book (ostensibly the author’s “opinion”) and couches his tenets in the shroud of logic and reason, that they unfortunately are also then obliged to abide by the very same rules they cherish. I don’t ask that they be humble per se, or necessarily “respectful” of the other side (that is entirely up to them), but I do ask that they at least leave us with a good example of sound argumentation to debate. Has Hitchens met this rather low bar? I argue he has not.

I am not saying that I would require perfect logic or arguments from any author (none exist), what I am saying is that atheists deserve better than *this.*

Edge (Josh Cumberland, #1)Edge by Thomas Blackthorne (2 of 5 stars)
I liked the idea, but this book could’ve been rated higher had it fixed a few issues.

First, while I liked most of the tech described in the story, there is one instance in which the novel places itself historically with great specificity (e.g., 40 years after Thatcher). That puts us at 2030, and the sheer scale of technology is unbelievable. A windfarm along the bank of the Thames and solar barges? Cargo airships? Nano-everything (clothing, shoes, etc.)? It’s just too much to believe could happen in ~15yrs (look at all the bureaucratic sluggishness over *offshore* wind and other renewables). The phones and screens? Yes. The added surveillance? Sure. But nanotech being as commonplace and, apparently, as cheap as it is? Nowhere close. Maybe in 50 years, yes, but not 15. So that’s one aspect.

There are technical flaws as well:
– in the editing (a repeated sentence near the end of the novel),
– in the difficult-to-believe scenario where someone “cut to ribbons” by knives could’ve chilled out in a pool for 20 minutes without feeling the effects of his injuries,
– in the dialogue and character development, the latter of which was more pronounced as the novel progressed (it felt rushed in every sense of the word by the end). Specifically, Richard/Richie’s ability to survive on the streets given his sheltered upbringing is hard to comprehend. His father is first a caricature, but is later humanized, yet essentially “goes missing” for the bulk of the novel – if he’s really not so bad, why? The protagonists’s wife is also just a foil – we’re never given much reason, other than being told, for the protagonist’s stated love for her (her ability to know his thoughts). Now, you could argue that the protagonist is unreliable, but since it’s action/sci-fi, and since the writing is more tell than show, that’s a difficult thing to support. Not least because the “flawed” hero gets nearly everyone around him to do his bidding without question, including former members of an elite special ops force when he (the protagonist) himself says that his stated goal amounts to treason. For one person to “go rogue” like that is fine, two, sure; but to convince a troupe of your former colleagues, no matter how warmly you regard one another, that they’re not, um, breaking the very oath they swore to uphold to the death requires *some* convincing is also stretching believability.

Maybe I’m just expecting too much. As an action-packed sci-fi romp with some admittedly cool ideas about near-future technology and politics, it’s a good read. It’s an easy read. But if you’re expecting a more literary read, the book fails to deliver.

What also disappointed me was the little snippet of the next book, “Point,” that was included seemed to include even worse dialogue and “tell-rather-than-show” exposition.

The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death, and HappinessThe Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death, and Happiness by Mark Rowlands (5 of 5 stars)
Another book club choice. HIGHLY recommended. One of my all-time favorites. Could’ve also been titled, “the misogynist and the wolf.” It comes down to this point: the lasting simian contribution to the universe is … malice aforethought. Our self-serving brains were spurred to evolve to ever-larger sizes by the complexities of the social and political networks we created (and manipulated) to serve our own selfish ends. Brilliant!

Imperial Bedrooms Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis (2 of 5 stars)
His writing is tight, but there are so many inside jokes and the like that it makes the story difficult to *really* get into. A lot is left unsaid, which is sometimes a compliment, but here it’s just more of an annoyance, a new-agey “let’s withhold information to make events appear to have deeper meaning than they do.” So yeah, it reads well, but in the end, it’s nothing special.

A Goat's SongA Goat’s Song by Dermot Healy (4 of 5 stars)
While I can’t comment on the veracity of the elements of purely Irish history (myths and the Troubles) and geography, the writing itself is splendid and succinctly captures the intensely destructive flame of lust that is consuming both its main characters. Its Irish-ness is not alienating, but rather enlightening (as in, you feel enriched after having read it, not put off, as in ‘I can’t understand where this is coming from …’). Well worth the read.

The GargoyleThe Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (5 of 5 stars)
When you read the all-too-commonly used phrase “a rollicking good read,” a book like this is what they mean. Very engaging, well-paced, excellent for a first novel (a couple sentences that I wouldn’t have let through, one with some very bad alliteration, but forgivable offenses all). The scope of the book and the well-researched historical context that frames the main characters was refreshing and very fun to read. I thought some of the more minor ‘love’ stories were not as engaging as they could’ve been, but the force of the main storyline was sufficient to overcome any lulls. The ending was a bit … not cliche, but became a bit too much like an action novel. It bordered on dispelling the very pleasant aura of the former 3/4 of the novel, but never did, and again, a forgivable offense. Considering I had wanted to buy it for some time, it did not disappoint.

Far from the Madding Crowd Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (3 of 5 stars)
I haven’t read much Hardy, so just trying to fill that bare patch in my literary knowledge. For all its merits as a “pastoral” novel, it’s surprisingly contemporary, even cosmopolitan, in gender roles and so forth. Gabriel Oak seems, at times, as though his character’s motivation is a bit over-simplified, especially as the focus shifts away from him and onto Bathsheba and Sgt. Troy’s relationship – though he could just be ‘growing roots!’

The Solitude Of EmperorsThe Solitude Of Emperors by David Davidar (2 of 5 stars)
The author too often leaves out critical bits of narrative/plot in the linear storytelling, only to then revert to these previously-unrevealed scenes in flashbacks – flashbacks which advance the story and which could’ve been rendered completely unnecessary by a tighter plotline. As in, he could’ve used events in linear sequence as allusions to future events but time and again avoided doing so. Frustrating.

The Quickening MazeThe Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds (2 of 5 stars)
It is an interesting, fictive take on history, but I thought the writing fell short of the hype because it was, in many places, formulaic, too-tepid, and less engaging than it could’ve been. The main character’s descent into madness is covered well, the descriptions are often appropriate, but the overall impression still left me feeling shorted.

(Based on the writer’s style, I have a new TLA: ‘three-legged adjective.’ Really, it’s an unstable writing construct that easily broke the suspension of disbelief required for the easiest/best reading. It felt as formulaic as political ‘speechifying.’ “I’m going to tell how this man went mad: slowly, painfully, and with intermittent spells of near-clairvoyance. And then I’ll do it again, because I know you like reading, adjectives, and off-kilter characterizations of historical figures.”)

The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (American Empire Project)The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic by Chalmers Johnson (5 of 5 stars)
Very good and very detailed. Author makes no bones about the fact that it’s not easy for him to “diss” his native country, but the transgressions we’ve allowed in favor of a military-industrial-Congressional complex are vast and deserve to be debated publicly. Sadly, this debate rarely takes place.

Saving AgnesSaving Agnes by Rachel Cusk (1 of 5 stars)
Atrocious. One of the worst published books I have ever read. My copy is dog-eared with examples of poor grammar, phrasing, sentence structure, characterization – you name it. Apparently, however, none of this has detracted from Cusk going on to a relatively successful writing career. /sigh

Across the River and into the TreesAcross the River and into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway (4 of 5 stars)
Another tautly-written, sparkling specimen from one of the most straightforward, yet also deftly complex, prose writers in the English language.


Body of LiesBody of Lies by David Ignatius (3 of 5 stars)
Well-paced, but as with almost all such stories, it suffers from being a bit juvenile in its characterizations (over-simplifying people and their motives) and a bit formulaic in its construction. However, based on the reporter’s background, it is definitely well-researched and quite a plausible plot. The technical (writing and spycraft) aspects of the novel are its strongest cards, much like the better Tom Clancy books (pre-Op Center drivel). I had already seen the film before picking up the book, so I know how it goes (though the film version is not quite on the same level as Spy Game), it’s obviously treading very similar territory with a not-too-dissimilar level of competency/agility in the story-telling.

It’s worth picking up – there are minor plot holes, as with all such fiction, but overall it’s an intelligent portrayal. Reminds me quite a bit of “Spy Game”, which I thought was the best-filmed spy tale I’ve seen. Very understated and, I believe, much closer to the true nature of the craft than many of the more action-oriented of the genre (film & lit).

Memoirs of a GeishaMemoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (4 of 5 stars)
Fascinating insight into a world that had been cloaked from the West for so long … reading all the notes, it is evident Golden did an immense amount of research for this novel, and I am led to believe it hits pretty close to the truth of what was life for geisha.

A Confederacy of DuncesA Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (4 of 5 stars)
I’d heard a lot about this book, and what a dark comedy it is! Seriously funny stuff, especially the way it all kinda wraps up at the end. It is a shame the author killed himself, as the book was obviously setting up for a sequel, though if Toole would have been able to top himself with such a work would’ve been a long shot at best.

EuropaEuropa by Tim Parks ( 3 of 5 stars)
Lecherous school-teachers (of English to Italian students) embark on a bus trip to Strasburg for mostly-BS reasons. The story is told from the mostly stream-of-consciousness perspective of one such lecher, delving into his thoughts around the sordid (and soured) love affair that cost him his family. The ending is a very well-written cacophony of the narrator’s various internal monologue, though it certainly leaves one feeling that he has not really learned much or grown through the story, as it’s easy to see the tragedy repeating itself in a different venue.

AmsterdamAmsterdam by Ian McEwan ( 2 of 5 stars)
Dark comedy/farce about two ridiculously misanthropic older gents. mostly takes place in London, but the dark-humorous climax is in A’dam. There were a few insightful moments, but overall I was left feeling underwhelmed.


Vanity FairVanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (4 of 5 stars)
Starts off a bit slow. It gets better with time, but it definitely drags after Becky’s husband is sent to an island with a gov’t posting … the only other interesting bit is the fact that the author writes himself into the narrative as Emelia’s ‘memoirist’ towards the end. Quite a few of the chapters ended on a contrived note, as the novel was originally published in serial format. For instance, George Osbourne’s death comes as a surprise to exactly no one. The pace picked up again closer to the end. A lot of the darker humor / cynicism is almost quaint by modern standards, but belies the fact that this book was a revolutionary satire for its time.

The Feast of the GoatThe Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa (2 of 5 stars)
An inauspicious beginning to the novel … and a very poor ending. In-between, it was disappointing throughout. The only “bright” spots were the depictions of the internal voice of the dictator and a couple of the supporting characters – the female narrator was difficult to believe (as in, her behavior) and largely unnecessary to the story. Would’ve been much more interesting as a historical novel, because trying to bridge the gulf between what this novel tries to be and what it is ends up being merely frustrating.

Wellington's Smallest Victory: The Duke, the Model Maker and the Secret of WaterlooWellington’s Smallest Victory: The Duke, the Model Maker and the Secret of Waterloo by Peter Hofschröer (4 of 5 stars)
This book’s structure follows a nearly-chronological account of Capt. Siborne’s struggle to create and display his model of the Battle of Waterloo, against the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Duke of Wellington. The account, while very detailed and obviously well-researched, is not as vividly-written as “A Model Victory” (which I also read), and often lapses into what appears to be pure speculation on the part of the author (“I believe the Duke of W. may have…”, etc) that could’ve been left out with no serious harm to the book.

When comparing the two books, what I found particularly useful in this account was that the author took pains to explicitly recount the reasons why Wellington made Siborne’s life so difficult and what was at stake politically for the history of the Battle of Waterloo. Although the book assumes the reader has an in-depth knowledge of the events of the battle (a presumption which “A Model Victory” handles better), its explanation of how/why the Duke of W. was so reluctant for the truth to be known is much better than “A Model Victory’s”, as the latter mostly alludes to the Duke’s prejudices in broad terms but does not delve into some crucial specifics.

The two books also varied in where they gave details about the construction of the model – reading both gives a much clearer account of Siborne’s travails than either book does alone, and the books would be excellent as a one-volume, all-inclusive tome. If I were recommending the books, I would say that one should read “Wellington’s Smallest Victory” first in order to fully appreciate the timeline of events following the battle, with ‘A Model Victory’ adding some very interesting and vivid details about the battle itself and aspects of Siborne’s struggles that “Wellingtons Smallest Victory” glosses.

A Model VictoryA Model Victory by Malcolm Balen (4 of 5 stars)
While its structure is not the most easy-to-follow (jumps around in time in several places, which makes it difficult for anyone not versed in Waterloo history to follow), the writing is very vivid and the book “flows” very well – especially when recounting/reconstructing the events on the field of battle.

I also read “Wellington’s Smallest Victory” (covering the same topic), and while the writing was a bit more stilted and personal (“I believe”, etc.), the structure of the book followed events in a more-or-less chronological order. It also very expressly highlighted Wellington’s POV (to which “A Model Victory” only alluded without fully laying out in detail) – context that I found enlightening. However, that book did not cover the events at Waterloo and assumes the reader has read in-depth accounts of the battle. The two books also varied in where they gave details about the construction of the model – reading both gives a much clearer account of Siborne’s travails than either book does alone, and the books would be excellent as a one-volume, all-inclusive tome. If I were recommending the books, I would say that one should read “Wellington’s Smallest Victory” first in order to fully appreciate the timeline of events following the battle, with ‘A Model Victory’ adding some very interesting and vivid details about the battle itself and aspects of Siborne’s struggles that “Wellingtons Smallest Victory” glosses.”

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