Books / Year 2013
Date: 2013-12-09 (permlink)
Author: Henry Miller
Name: Tropic Of Cancer
Rating: 1.5 stars

I should learn better than to read old books that are famous only for their raunchiness. What was raunchy 80 years ago does not merit even one raised eyebrow today.

If the book had some other redeeming qualities, that would be fine, but it doesn't. There quite literally is not even a thread of a plot, nothing of interest happens in the entire book, and sometimes it takes off on ten pages of monologue about nothing at all.

Date: 2013-11-28 (permlink)
Author: Various
Name: Astonishing X-Men
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is really the first modern comic I've read, and the artwork is so much better than anything I've seen before that it's a bit disorienting at first.

The story is certainly "good enough", but does it achieve something more than that? Not for me. I had higher expectations for something written by Joss Whedon. Not sure if he's constrained by the form, or what, but it all seems a bit bland.

Date: 2013-11-15 (permlink)
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Name: No Country For Old Men
Rating: 3 stars

Sparse, readable, memorable. Nothing good happens to anyone in this book.

Date: 2013-11-01 (permlink)
Author: Upton Sinclair
Name: Oil!
Rating: 3.5 stars

A bit more upbeat than his other famous book, and more varied. It's interesting how Sinclair is able to recognize and mock so many things (corruption, celebrity, old/new money, etc), but is completely blind to how socialism in real life doesn't work. I really thought for a long while reading the book that Sinclair was mocking the naivety of the main character as well, and at some point would have him learn the errors of his ways, but no, it keeps going until the end of the book.

Date: 2013-10-07 (permlink)
Author: Glen Duncan
Name: The Last Werewolf
Rating: Reread

After reading the sequel and being horribly disappointed in it, I had to go back and reread the original book to check if my memories of it were distorted, or if it really was so superior to its sequel that it seemed in my memories.

The answer turns out to be "kinda". It still is by far the better book: Jake is an infinitely more interesting character than Talulla, and the bits and pieces about his life over two centuries and his observations of modern humanity are still the highlight of the book.

However...After reading the sequel, rereading this book clearly highlights the flaws, which would still exist in the sequel, and completely dominate it.

The biggest problem is that all the interesting bits were about the past: How Jake was created, his past life, etc. All the action taking place in the modern day world is, in two word, absurd and boring. None of it makes any sense whatsoever and none of it is interesting.

The sex scenes, that seemed fresh on a first reading, also seem pretty much tacked on for non-literary reasons on a second reading.

Date: 2013-09-12 (permlink)
Author: Glen Duncan
Name: Talulla Rising
Rating: 2 stars

This review contains spoilers. Click here to show it.

What a letdown. The first book was funny, sexy and beautifully written. Not only that, it had a unique main character: Jacob, a 200-year old werewolf who had literally seen it all, done it all, and grown bored with it all. His observations of the current day world were hilarious.

Talulla in this book just doesn't compare. She is just another 30-something female, and not even an interesting one. Whereas Jacob, for all his age and monstrousness, felt human. Talulla feels like a walking cliche. Nothing she thinks or does is interesting. She spends the entire book whining and being gloomy.

The first book also had an actual plot. In this book, there is none. It's one never-ending action scene, with bizarre warring factions of humanity / vampires / werewolves bursting in at the last minute saving the main characters over and over again.

It could not be more clear that this book was written for the sole purpose of the original book being a monster (haha) hit and the author wanting easy money by writing a sequel. He certainly has nothing of consequence to say or portray in this book.

Date: 2013-08-22 (permlink)
Author: Iain Banks
Name: Stonemouth
Rating: 3 stars

I was very sad when Banks died earlier this year. This is the 25th novel of his that I've read, and I've read some of them multiple times. There are three novels of his left for me to read now, and then my about-yearly ritual of sinking myself into his imagination will be over for good. I do not like that thought.

I've written and deleted this paragraph about five times now, trying to express what makes Banks unique to me. In the end it comes down to a simple thing: there is no other author I'm more prepared to set a significant time aside to just wallow in his new novels whenever they come out. Time and time again he has not let me down. His imagination has taken me places I never figured I'd go, and I don't think it's a stretch to say he has literally molded some aspects of my worldview. Hell, I've just realized he may even be an influence on me having settled down in the UK...

All that aside, this is not one of his best books. Sure, it's an enjoyable read, but a very lightweight one. There's just not much there, either in terms of plot, character development, ideas, or memorable scenes. It really is not much more than a 25-year old man visiting his childhood hometown for a weekend.

It's especially troublesome that that 25-year old man does not seem like any 25-year old man I've ever known, and seems much more like the 58-year old author of the book. There are times when you cringe at Banks trying too hard at writing "hip" characters.

The women don't fare much better. Ellie, the main woman character, has absolutely no personality, and to my best recollection, does not do a single memorable act in the entire book. The rest of the women are even worse: for reasons the book does not explain, they all keep throwing themselves at the main character, which after a while simply gets puzzlesome.

Date: 2013-08-17 (permlink)
Author: Ernest Cline
Name: Ready Player One
Rating: 4 stars

Ridiculously entertaining, especially for someone like me who grew up in the eighties. This is not to say this is an especially deep or insightful novel; the characters are extremely broadly sketched and fall neatly into good/evil categories.

Date: 2013-08-06 (permlink)
Author: George R.R. Martin
Name: A Dance With Dragons: After The Feast
Rating: 4 stars

I sure am glad I didn't start reading this series when it first came out. Waiting 11 years after A Storm Of Swords to find out what happened next to all the interesting characters would've been too much.

Even now, with no wait involved, this book is a letdown. Even at 1,200 pages or so, nothing much really changes. Characters talk, make vague threats to each other and plans, but do not take actual action. The world remains a static place: fundamentally everything is as it was over 2,000 pages ago (nothing much happened in A Feast For Crows either).

It seems Martin, after becoming world famous by the start of the series, which broke all kinds of fantasy cliches and had things in them really not seen before, has either gotten scared and for whatever reason doesn't want to advance the plot anymore, or has just written himself into a corner and doesn't know how to get out.

At this point, it really seems most likely we'll find out what happens next in the series from the TV show, which is catching up with the books much faster than Martin is writing new books. And you can bet the TV show will also excise/condense all the boring bits from the books so it will not spend 3 seasons where nothing happens.

PS. After having finished all the books, I was finally free to go read all the various A Song Of Ice And Fire websites on the net, and browse through FAQs etc. I find it hilarious one contained no fewer than ten questions of the form "Is character X dead?".

One of Martin's flaws is his ambiguity and his overuse of cliffhangers. Every other chapter ends with some character seemingly in mortal danger, and every third chapter ends with characters seemingly dying, only for us to find out later they didn't actually die.

In the end this just leaves you exhausted and no longer really knowing who the hell is even alive, who's not, as the FAQ proves.

Date: 2013-07-29 (permlink)
Author: George R.R. Martin
Name: A Dance With Dragons: Dreams And Dust
Rating: 4 stars

I'm reviewing this and its followup as one.

Date: 2013-07-15 (permlink)
Author: George R.R. Martin
Name: A Feast For Crows
Rating: 3 stars

What a letdown after A Storm Of Swords. Whereas in that book things moved fast, breathtaking events took place, and Martin bravely ventured beyond accepted norms of fantasy books, this book seems like it's written by a completely different person.

First he takes five years to write it, then, because he hasn't managed to finish it, he decides to lop off the interesting characters, save them for the next book, and spend 800 pages writing about the not-so-interesting characters. In the afterword he promises to have that next book out "the next year", whereas in real life it took him six years after this book. So that makes a total wait of 11 years to find out what happened to the most interesting characters in the series after the events of A Storm Of Swords, which is just insane.

All of that could be forgiven if this book was good, but it's not. It seems he became too successful for his own good and no editor is able to tell him any more what his work needs. I just checked, literally the first 50 pages of this book could be cut with no loss whatsoever. All of the following Dorne passages could be cut as well; they are beyond meaningless and completely unfollowable. Dozens of characters are introduced with no hope whatsoever of learning how they relate to each other since they have no connections whatsoever to anything that has happened in the series before.

Pretty much nothing happens in this book. Boring and whiny characters have boring and whiny conversations. No action takes place, nothing changes until the last 10% of the book, when it seems as if Martin remembered "oh shit, something has to actually happen", and threw in something.

Date: 2013-06-18 (permlink)
Author: George R.R. Martin
Name: A Storm Of Swords: Part 2: Blood And Gold
Rating: 5 stars

(This review applies to this book and its predecessor together).

A Game Of Thrones was fascinating since it set up the world and introduced Martin's never-before-seen style of fantasy. A Clash Of Kings, while a worthy followup, sometimes struggled with its pacing and the fact that in the end not that much was actually happening.

A Storm Of Swords is something else entirely. The reader is lulled to complacency at first from a lifetime of reading; no matter how dire the situation seems, the central characters (there are no "heroes" in these books) always survive, in our experience. But just as Martin has discarded other staples of the fantasy genre, he's done away with that concept.

Literally anyone can and does die, which means absolutely nothing can be taken for granted. We think we know the boundaries of what can happen, but we don't. The entire scope of possibilities is thrown in play. This gives the books a sense of grandeur that I am having a hard time recalling examples of.

Date: 2013-06-08 (permlink)
Author: George R.R. Martin
Name: A Storm Of Swords: Part 1: Steel And Snow
Rating: 5 stars

I'm reviewing this and its followup as one.

Date: 2013-06-01 (permlink)
Author: George R.R. Martin
Name: A Clash Of Kings
Rating: 4.5 stars

Worse than the first one, but still very good. There are too many things going on, and too many of them are happening out of sight. The lack of a central character doesn't help.

The timeline seems suspicious as well. Martin avoids giving explicit distances as a rule, but it's always a bit too convenient. When characters need to quickly get somewhere, they do. When the plot demands they take forever to get somewhere (usually, in order for something to happen to them on the way), they do.

Date: 2013-05-10 (permlink)
Author: George R.R. Martin
Name: A Game Of Thrones
Rating: 5 stars

It is hard to know how to rate this book without having read all of the following books in the series yet; if I give it too high a rating, how do I indicate later books in the series are better, if they turn out to be? If I hold back my rating for this book, and it turns out to be the highlight of the series, it will have been unfairly penalized.

Waiting until I read all of the books is not an option either: first of all, I don't do that, second, there are so many books I would not retain any clear memory of each individual book after reading all of them, third, the author is not even finished with the series yet and it may be a decade or more before he is.

So, I must do the best I can to judge this book in isolation, hard as it is. And I haven't even mentioned the TV series, which also affects my judgment of the book, unfair as that may be.

Overall, I would say this is the best long-form fantasy writing outside of Tolkien I've ever read (we're excluding Conan here since that is short stories almost exclusively). I thought for decades there was no hope for fantasy since Tolkien seemed to have both invented and buried the genre at the same time: how could anyone compete with him?

Well, Martin has found a way. Instead of futilely trying to attack Tolkien at his strong points (language, history, sense of epicness) he attacks him where he was weakest (characters that sometimes seemed to live in history more than real life, sense of things being preordained, lack of sex) and makes up his own fantasy world, that is completely different, yet similarly compelling.

It is a different world from Tolkien that he weaves; one more earthy, more similar to Earth as we know it, where magic doesn't dominate, but is mostly present in rumours and stories of the faraway past.

Characters scheme, rebel, go for fame and glory, sometimes die, sometimes kill, but always entertain.

Assuming the quality in later books keeps to this standard, I look forward to the next few months of my life very much.

Date: 2013-04-21 (permlink)
Author: Jim Dodge
Name: Stone Junction
Rating: 1.5 stars

Rarely have I ever been more disappointed in a book. It comes highly recommended, and the first two pages are amazing, but that's the high point; it all goes downhill from there.

The book's problems can be summarized as:

1) None of the characters seem real, and they behave in absolutely bizarre ways.

2) There is no plot.

3) The ending, if you can call it that, is one of the worst I've ever read. Absolutely nothing is resolved, and even the different plot threads of the book are never united.

Date: 2013-03-27 (permlink)
Author: Leza Lowitz
Name: Green Tea To Go
Rating: 2 stars

I was excited to read a collection of short stories about foreigners living in Japan, given that I was one for 3.5 years, but sadly the book disappoints greatly. I did not detect a single shred of evidence the author actually lived in the same country I lived in; the stories take place in some world that's very much closer to fantasy than to the actual world, and the actions of the people in the stories even more so.

It's telling that the longest story in the book, and by far the best, is set in Indonesia.

Date: 2013-03-26 (permlink)
Author: Keith Richards with James Fox
Name: Life
Rating: 3 stars

There's nothing inherently interesting about the actual act of being of musician: you can't write 500 pages about playing a musical instrument or singing. So the gaps must be filled with something else. It seems to me there is nothing noteworthy about the time before they are successful because at that time they're just like the other 7 billion people on the planet, and there's nothing noteworthy about the time after they are successful, because a) they simply will not be truthful about things anymore and b) it is impossible to be interesting or do anything interesting when there's nothing at stake anymore, which is the case when you're so rich that it doesn't make any difference whatsoever whether your next 10 albums produce a single hit or not (the Stones haven't produced a noteworthy song in over 30 years).

That leaves exactly one time period they should concentrate on in musical biographies: when they're on that impossibly thin, slippery edge between being nobodies and being world-famous, with every little success seemingly propelling them onwards, and every little disappointment seemingly crashing them back to earth and dooming them to a life of living on unemployment benefits.

Sadly, this book does a crap job of covering that period. It pretty much goes from the 'nobody' stage to 'world famous' stage without covering the period in between. Sure, there's plenty of text being written, but it's all written with the hindsight of knowing the Stones would be the biggest band in the world, with no attempt to explain why and how that happened. There must have been thousands of bands in the UK at that time; why did the Stones succeed and everyone else fail? That is the question I'd want to read about, whereas reading about Keith's tropical island holiday destination preferences and trophy wives gets old.

Date: 2013-01-01 (permlink)
Author: Aron Ralston
Name: 127 Hours - Between A Rock And A Hard Place
Rating: 4 stars

It's an entertaining book, and the author doesn't shy away from describing any details of his predicament. It's a good compliment to the movie too.

My only comment would be that given he describes his previous adventures as well, and several of them almost resulted in him dying, something was bound to happen eventually.