Books / Year 2010
Date: 2010-12-20 (permlink)
Author: Charlotte Roche
Name: Wetlands (Feuchtgebiete)
Rating: 0.5 stars

A completely useless book. Literally nothing happens in it, and not a single one of the characters is remotely believable or interesting.

What seems to have happened is that this former music video announcer, who by her own admission has read exactly one book during the past three years, decided she wants more attention (and/or the money that goes with it). Given that she doesn't appear to have any literary talent, the scheme she came up with was to write the most over-the-top things she could come up with. Obviously she succeeded since I was roped into buying this book, along with lots of other people, so I suppose she achieved her aims and cares little for the fact that I now loathe her.

American Psycho this isn't.

Date: 2010-11-28 (permlink)
Author: Andrew Ross Sorkin
Name: Too Big To Fail
Rating: 3 stars

Interesting inside information about the collapse of the financial industry, but somehow it's never quite as exciting as you think it should be.

Date: 2010-10-17 (permlink)
Author: Iain Banks
Name: Transition
Rating: 5 stars

It's not often that after finishing a book you're left thinking "What did that pronoun 5 pages from the end mean?". This is that book. Things happen or are hinted at, and even at the end you're not quite sure what it's all supposed to mean, or what exactly happened. Several interpretations are plausible and it's a lot of fun trying to think of which one you like best.

Besides that, what makes this book interesting is that it's the first truly crossover book from Banks: a mainstream novel with science fiction thrown in. Letting Banks's imagination loose on Planet Earth results in fireworks.

Date: 2010-10-03 (permlink)
Author: Feng-Hsiung Hsu
Name: Behind Deep Blue
Rating: 3 stars

The story of creating a computer capable of beating the human chess champion for the first time could be fascinating, but Hsu doesn't do it justice. He veers wildly from one extreme to the other, from pointlessly describing hardware details that even I can't understand to completely omitting crucial stuff.

The CMU time is documented well enough, but his team's time at IBM is not explained at all well. He was there for almost a decade, yet in the book's description he makes it sound like they were always in crunch time and never had time to do things properly. What they actually did for an entire decade is left unexplained.

I know this material could be used for a much better story because it has been done for checkers: see here and here.

Date: 2010-09-26 (permlink)
Author: James Clavell
Name: King Rat
Rating: 4 stars

I visited Changi a few years ago, but don't really remember that much about it anymore, other than that I couldn't get a taxi back and had to walk in sweltering heat for a long time.

It's great fun reading about the more serious problems faced by prisoners there in WWII, and Clavell is the right man to do it. No trace of sentimentality or dishonesty can be found in the book, just the raw facts, however shocking they may be.

Date: 2010-09-17 (permlink)
Author: David Nicholls
Name: One Day
Rating: 5 stars

If this book was a Hollywood movie, it would be called a "high concept" one. Such a simple concept, but Nicholls executes it brilliantly (I do however despise him skipping Emma for one year, thus completely violating the entire premise of the book).

As Mark Twain said, if the reader doesn't care about the characters, all is lost. This book's success rests on the enormous care that the reader comes to invest in them. Nicholls then has them jump around the stage for two decades, pulling the strings like the master puppeteer he is, while the reader laughs and cries, sometimes both at the same time.

It's books like this that restore my faith in books as an art form.

Date: 2010-09-12 (permlink)
Author: Stephen King
Name: Just After Sunset
Rating: 3 stars

Some good stories, some okay ones, and some unbelievably boring ones (including a couple in which literally nothing happens).

The most noticeable thing that struck me was how conventional the stories were. If I wanted to read stories about people trying to get over the death of a child or end of a marriage or whatever, there are lots of better writers out there to do that material than King.

There are not that many people writing stories of the kind King used to do back in the eighties; you know, stories about being stranded on a tiny island and having to cut off your own limbs and eat them, or cleaning up a factory and ending up eaten by giant rats. In other words, non-conventional.

King should stick to his strengths and leave the mainstream stuff to other writers.

Date: 2010-09-01 (permlink)
Author: Satyajit Das
Name: Traders, Guns & Money
Rating: 5 stars

Exposes the truth of what goes on in the financial industry, in a brutally revealing manner. This is not a book written by some reporter who interviewed a couple of sources and decided they know enough to write a book; this is a book from a 30-year veteran of the industry who has seen it all and has decided, for whatever reason, to tell everyone in the world about it.

It's a strange world we live in where books like this exist and are readily available to everyone to buy, yet the mainstream thinking (and all political action) does not change at all and still goes along parroting the old tired cliche of "financial engineering" somehow being a good thing.

Date: 2010-08-08 (permlink)
Author: Michael Lewis
Name: The Blind Side
Rating: 4 stars

Lewis knows how to write, and despite my doubts, quick research couldn't find any obvious faults in his reporting in this book. It's a fascinating blend of how NFL has changed over the recent history and Michael Oher's life story.

Date: 2010-08-01 (permlink)
Author: John Grisham
Name: The Associate
Rating: 4.5 stars

Possibly the best book he's ever written. He abandons his wanderings outside what he does best and doesn't waste our time with stories about football players in Italy or family holiday plans gone wrong or whatever, and gets back to writing about the career choices faced by intelligent young people today, the stress of working for a huge corporation that cares nothing about you and having to remind yourself each day of the money and trying to convince yourself it's worth it. Oh and there's also blackmail, thievery, and other stuff going on in the background, but that one's not so interesting.

The book feels more real, and by real I mean mostly more pessimistic (or realistic, as I like to call it) than his other books.

Date: 2010-07-29 (permlink)
Author: John Grisham
Name: Ford County
Rating: 4 stars

Grisham should've tried his hand at short stories a long time ago. He's very good at thinking up interesting scenarios but sometimes lacks the skills to weave them into book-length stories. Here he doesn't have to stretch out his ideas beyond what they naturally fit into, and the result is pleasing.

Date: 2010-07-25 (permlink)
Author: Monica Ali
Name: Brick Lane
Rating: 3 stars

It is one thing to read a book about the immigrant experience in East London's Bangladeshi areas and to think you've learned something about the matter. It is quite another to read the same book while on a bus going through those very areas, on your way to the climbing gym there where you're going to buy a six-month pass despite the news that morning that right in that very neighborhood a man (a martial arts instructor, no less) was brutally attacked in bright daylight by a gang of five masked Asian men, and you're sitting next to a brown woman wearing a sari, while in front of you a black woman is yelling at her kids in a language you don't recognize.

I thus realize the need for books to explain to outsiders what it's like living in these communities. I just refuse to accept this is the best example of how to do it.

The book is world-famous, and the reviews at the time of publication were extremely positive. But reading those reviews almost a decade after, I wonder how many of the critics still feel like that. They are all hyperbolical, but to take perhaps the worst example, would anyone nowadays agree with the sentiment that Ali is "among Britain's greatest writers"? Her two follow-up books have sank without a trace.

It seems very much a case of political correctness and wishful thinking going overboard. A halfway-decent book about people-not-like-us-yet-living-amongst-us arrives from a suitably-ethnic-new-author, and who is brave enough to be the lone voice among the critics calling out the book for its maddeningly passive main character, stereotypical other characters, lack of anything much happening, and dissatisfying and unbelievable ending? Much safer to go with the crowd and bestow meaningless praise on the book for its "effortless style" or its "emotionally literate story-telling", whatever those mean. Hey, at least nobody can argue with you about those since they're so vague as to be meaningless.

The worst fault in the book is the curious lifelessness of everyone. Tragic things happen to people but nobody seems to really care, least of all the reader. Researching the author after finishing the book it did not surprise me the least that she left Dhaka at age of three and has no memories of living in Bangladesh; that she doesn't even speak Bangladeshi; and that she has never lived in the Brick Lane area or worked the dead-end jobs that the characters in the book do. Nope, that was not her path. For her, it was a university degree, some cookie-cutter "creative" jobs, a white "management consultant" husband, some time off to "take care of the babies", and then writing the book and becoming a millionaire. In other words, she's writing about things she's just researched, not lived, and she's not a good enough writer to pull it off.

She saw an opening in the market and was just talented enough to grab it, I have no problem with that. But with that other young British mommy who happened to hit the publishing motherlode with her stories about a young boy going to wizardry school, at least nobody pretended her books were great literature. It does a disservice to Monica Ali herself to pretend she's something she's not.

Date: 2010-07-18 (permlink)
Author: Stephen King
Name: Under The Dome
Rating: 4.5 stars

It has been 17 books (counting only his original fiction novels) and 22 years since the last memorable King book (Misery). Many (most?) had counted him out as a has-been, me included.

Then he goes and writes this book. The man always did like a surprising twist in his made-up stories, only this time he's outdone himself and the twist happened in real life.

So what is my opinion after reading 877 pages in a week? It's un-put-downable, entertaining as hell, but in no way serious literature, no matter how you define that term. His good characters are all good and his bad characters are all bad; there is no mixing of character traits whatsoever. It gets tiring after a while.

I'm not going to nitpick the reasons why things in my opinion probably wouldn't go the way they do in the book in real life, but I will say that the map of the town at the front of the book bears no resemblance to the town described in the book. I suspect King wrote whatever he wanted without thinking about the spatial relationships between locations, and when the book was done the publisher insisted on a map to be included, but it proved impossible to draw a map that fits everything in the book because there are contradictory descriptions in the book, so they just slapped one together and hoped nobody would notice it doesn't fit at all.

Date: 2010-07-09 (permlink)
Author: Patrick Hennessey
Name: The Junior Officers' Reading Club
Rating: 5 stars

Certainly gives a completely new attitude to reading the endless "British soldier killed in Afghanistan" news. Before it was a meaningless statistic, after reading this book you have some inkling of what's actually going on in there. I learned more about the war there from this book than I have in a decade of reading newspaper articles about the war.

If that's all the book had going for it, it'd be enough, but it's also wildly entertaining. It almost manages to achieve the impossible, i.e. making me miss my days of stripping down my assault rifle blindfolded in the Finnish army. This effect lasts for a few seconds at a time and then reality kicks back in and I remember how much I used to hate being in the military.

Date: 2010-06-22 (permlink)
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Name: The Hobbit
Rating: Reread

First time I've read any Tolkien in English. Some slight confusion at the familiar names not being present in their Finnish translations anymore, but other than that, no problems.

Date: 2010-06-10 (permlink)
Author: Michael Chabon
Name: The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Rating: 4 stars

This review contains spoilers. Click here to show it.

Possibly Chabon's most coherent book, no straying from the plot on weird asides this time around. The main characters are fleshed out nicely and are an interesting bunch you enjoy spending time with.

Another plus is that, unless I'm completely misreading Chabon's message here, he shares my exasperation with Israel's behavior. Throwing around phrases like "laying down some facts on the ground" seems pretty clear-cut to me. I like his conclusion that home is wherever you happen to be living in, and that one should give up yearning for some mystical land of your ancestors.

Date: 2010-05-28 (permlink)
Author: David Benioff
Name: The 25th Hour
Rating: 4 stars

The book achieves what are, in the end, its modest aims. The characters are lifelike, the plot moves along nicely, the tension keeps building, and the resolution is, if predictable, satisfying enough.

In other words, not a bad first novel, and a potentially perfect launching pad for a new writer to build on. But I just checked and in the decade since this book came out the author has apparently decided to switch to Hollywood instead, which is too bad.

Date: 2010-05-20 (permlink)
Author: Richard Dawkins
Name: The God Delusion
Rating: 3 stars

I have to say I was disappointed by this book. I'm used to excellence from Dawkins, and this book contains stretches of flat-out boring material I struggled to get through. I don't mind that much, but it prevents me from recommending this book to other people who perhaps wonder why I am an atheist. Dawkins has written a book denouncing religion that contains nothing new to anyone who's already non-religious and that's so boring that anyone who is religious would never bother reading it.

Date: 2010-05-09 (permlink)
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Name: Galactic North
Rating: 4 stars

Good hard science fiction short stories. I'll have to read more from Mr Reynolds in the future.

Date: 2010-04-25 (permlink)
Author: Chuck Palahniuk
Name: Rant
Rating: 2.5 stars

Looking at my history, I see the last Palahniuk book I read was five years ago, and that I didn't like it much. I'm sad to say this book was not an improvement on things.

He has a great imagination, and aspects of the book are approaching science fiction, but in other areas like developing characters or a plot you'd actually care about and that went somewhere, he draws a complete blank.

Date: 2010-04-18 (permlink)
Author: Jessica Livingston
Name: Founders At Work
Rating: 4 stars

Interesting stories about the histories of companies, but what keeps it from greatness is the dishonesty. Nobody admits to doing anything nasty, so what you're getting here is the polished, dishonest version of events.

Date: 2010-03-21 (permlink)
Author: Peter Seibel
Name: Coders At Work
Rating: 5 stars

I haven't previously added any computer-related books here, but I'm making an exception for this book as it's really more about people than computers, and most of all, because it's read as a normal book, straight through.

It's enlightening hearing 14 awesome programmers reflect on various things they've learned over their careers, see how many things are shared by all of them, and think about the wildly contrasting opinions they have on other things. It's also nice to know they still need that unique rush you get from programming, even after 50+ years of doing it for some of them. It really is an awesome field to work in.

But the book is more than that. While reading it, almost immediately I had to grab a notepad and a pen to start scribbling down TODO items for myself to look up / do things they were talking about. Some of them I have known about for a long time but have never had the energy to actually do, some were brand new to me, but all of them, once I get around to doing them, will improve me as a software developer. So in addition to being first-class entertainment, the book also serves as an inspirational coach.

You may wonder why I said "14" before when the book actually has interviews with 15 people. That's because only 14 of them actually fit the title of the book, "Coders At Work", and only 14 of them actually talk about the craft of coding, how they do it, why they like it, why they think they're good at it, and so on.

The remaining person is not famous for any programming achievements, admits to never being a good programmer to begin with, switched to a management position very early on, has not coded in over three decades, and talks about everything else but the actual subject of the book in the interview.

So why was this person included in the book, you ask? Because instead of having XY chromosomes, this person has XX chromosomes.

Nobody dislikes the lack of women in programming more than me, but facts are facts, and if the author was unable to find a female person to fit the book's profile then he should've been content with an all-male cast instead of clumsily putting in a token female who doesn't fit the book's chosen topic at all.

Date: 2010-03-04 (permlink)
Author: Mark Bowden
Name: Road Work
Rating: 4 stars

Bowden is a gifted journalist, and all of the articles collected in the book are enjoyable reading. In some of the later ones he comes across as a bad American stereotype though:

On torture: "The Bush administration has adopted exactly the right posture on the matter."

On national health-care: "...ignore ballooning deficits and widespread public disenchantment with huge federal spending programs — not to mention the disastrous history of such socialist schemes worldwide."

He may think it's awesome that USA tortures innocent people to death and lets others die because they don't have health care, but since I assume he'd change his mind on those things instantly if he or somebody he cared about was the victim of either program, we can only conclude he's either lying or stupid. There really are no other choices.

Date: 2010-01-30 (permlink)
Author: Oscar Wilde
Name: The Picture Of Dorian Gray
Rating: 4 stars

If there's a wittier author than Wilde, I haven't read him. The first half or so of the book is one witty phrase after another, with interesting events happening. The latter half of the book loses steam though: the witticism dies down and the events begin to drag. The phase consisting of page after page after page of nothing but lists of completely irrelevant things having nothing to do with anything except Wilde's showing off his knowledge is especially irritating.

I've now read about opium dens in later Victorian era England in both the Sherlock Holmes book and this one, and about life in London in general, which has been quite an interesting experience. Empire still going at full-steam with little idea that it's going to topple sooner than anyone expected.

Date: 2010-01-10 (permlink)
Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Name: The Hound Of The Baskervilles
Rating: 4 stars

Better than the other Sherlock Holmes stories for two reasons: Firstly, they are not just investigating a mystery already happened, they are right in the middle of it as it actually happens, which makes it that much more gripping. Secondly, the atmosphere. They are not merely questioning people in comfortable London houses, they are running around dark, gloomy moors and trying not to get killed by the canonical hellhound.

Date: 2010-01-04 (permlink)
Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Name: The Memoirs Of Sherlock Holmes
Rating: 3.5 stars

I refer you to this review since I have nothing new to say.