Books / Year 2008
Date: 2008-12-31 (permlink)
Author: Lynn Hill with Greg Child
Name: Climbing Free
Rating: 3 stars

Interesting stuff about the development of climbing over the past few decades, but as a biography, it's not very good. Hill never mentions anything negative about herself and basically remains a complete unknown throughout the book. Her relationships and marriages go from "He's the best man I've ever met and perfect for me!" to "We've grown apart and are separating" without any middle steps described.

Date: 2008-12-21 (permlink)
Author: Toni Bentley
Name: Surrender
Rating: 2 stars

Slightly better than its predecessor in the genre, but that's not saying much. Bentley is either a very confused woman (or making things up) and her writing style is clumsy in the extreme.

Date: 2008-12-15 (permlink)
Author: Douglas Coupland
Name: JPod
Rating: 3 stars

I dunno how rewriting Microserfs and making it even more ludicrous, to the point where literally every character in the book is not recognizable as an actual human being, is supposed to be a good idea.

If I could get money for "writing" books that contain 50 pages of random numbers I'd probably not care about the quality of the result either.

Date: 2008-12-09 (permlink)
Author: John Long
Name: How To Rock Climb!
Rating: 2.5 stars

There is an absurd amount of information about obsolete stuff and stuff that only applies to hard-core professional climbers and much too little information for brand new climbers about the basic techniques of climbing. I can say this because I have other climbing books in my queue which I've peeked at and which contain a much more useful selection of information.

Even the stuff he describes he does badly. In several cases I had no idea what he was talking about.

Date: 2008-09-23 (permlink)
Author: Neil Strauss
Name: The Game
Rating: 4 stars

Good fun reading about his experiences, though I'm sure much of them are completely made up.

Date: 2008-09-21 (permlink)
Author: John Grisham
Name: The Appeal
Rating: 3.5 stars

One of the better Grishams lately. It's a sign of the times we live in that even the most commercial writer in the world feels the need to write a book decrying the corrupted state of the systems we've put in place.

I was shaking with anger at the end of the book about the unjustness of it all.

Date: 2008-09-19 (permlink)
Author: Paulo Coelho
Name: Veronika Decides To Die (Veronika Decide Morrer)
Rating: 4.5 stars

Uplifting book with a refreshing lack of sentimentality.

Date: 2008-09-16 (permlink)
Author: Dennis Lehane
Name: Shutter Island
Rating: 4 stars

Good writing, tight plot, but in the end it's too clever by half. It's difficult to get really into something when you know you're being manipulated and have no idea what's really going on.

Date: 2008-08-28 (permlink)
Author: Nick Hornby
Name: Slam
Rating: 3 stars

Hornby's a good writer, so the book goes by fast and is entertaining, but that is a different thing from saying it's "good". To me at least, "good" means something permanent: Am I going to remember this book? Are people still going to read this book 50 or 100 years from now? Did I learn something from the book that I can apply in my own life?

This book doesn't fulfill any of those criteria. It's full of dumb people acting even more dumbly. Hornby's portrayal of teenagers seems forced and unnatural; they seem both childish and too mature at the same time.

The skateboarding seems thrown in for no purpose other than to try to make the book more "hip": it has absolutely no purpose in the plot and could be replaced by any other hobby without changing anything else.

So, definitely a minor Hornby.

Date: 2008-08-15 (permlink)
Author: John Grisham
Name: Playing For Pizza
Rating: 3 stars

The book equivalent of a Big Mac: enjoyable enough but ultimately forgettable.

Date: 2008-07-28 (permlink)
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Name: The Old Man And The Sea
Rating: Reread

Surely up there with the best of them. I've read this before, maybe 15 years ago, and I remember feeling sad for the old guy at the end. It's interesting that this time I didn't: He may have lost the fish due to no fault of his, but he gained something more in the process.

Date: 2008-07-27 (permlink)
Author: Richard Price
Name: Clockers
Rating: 4 stars

It's a good book, but it's from 1992, and it may have been groundbreaking at that time, but all through the book I couldn't help thinking "The Wire did this better". 599 pages of text can't really compare to 5 seasons of a TV series focusing more or less on the exact same subject, covering a much longer time period and a much larger cast of characters.

Date: 2008-07-20 (permlink)
Author: Brian Morton
Name: Starting Out In The Evening
Rating: 4.5 stars

Sometimes you see an okay movie based on a book but have a feeling that the book itself might be much better, so you buy the book and it turns out you were right. It happened with Richard Russo and it's now happened again.

All the characters, naturally, have much more depth in the book compared to the movie, and the book is full of intelligent insights about many aspects of life, and aging specifically. Being in my thirties now and so on the downhill side of physical and mental health, it's a topic of much interest to me.

I read the book in a day, which hasn't happened in a long time. I wasted a month trying to read "David Copperfield" by Dickens but got nowhere, and the end result was that I did no reading at all. I wonder when I'll learn to abandon books sooner when it becomes clear it's just not going to happen...

Date: 2008-07-19 (permlink)
Author: Michel Houellebecq
Name: Whatever (Extension Du Domaine De La Lutte)
Rating: 3 stars

The first half is quite good, the usual Houellebecqian commentary on everything, but the second half veers off course badly and the end is downright bizarre.

Date: 2008-07-06 (permlink)
Author: Jon Krakauer
Name: Into The Wild
Rating: 3.5 stars

Better than the movie, which focused way too much on his relationships with the random people he met on the road. In the book they occupy the role they should have: minor background characters in the story of his journey to his ultimate fate.

Also missing from the movie, but present in the book, and basically the reason why I bought it, is how Krakauer uses this tale as an example of a phase most young men go through.

Date: 2008-05-08 (permlink)
Author: Michel Houellebecq
Name: The Possibility Of An Island (La Possibilité d'une Île)
Rating: 3.5 stars

About what one expects from Houellebecq. He extrapolates trends found in modern Western societies and pushes them to their limits. Sometimes he's right, sometimes he's somewhat right, and sometimes he's flat-out wrong, but it's always entertaining and thought-provoking.

Daniel's inability to enjoy his life irritated me though. If a reasonably young man has 42 million euros, surely he can do better than have sex, as Houellebecq puts it, "with Romanian whores who won't suck you off without a condom".

Date: 2008-05-04 (permlink)
Author: Michel Houellebecq
Name: Lanzarote
Rating: 3.5 stars

Calling this 81-page novella a book is not justified, but whatever. Houellebecq could scrawl on a napkin and it'd probably still be entertaining reading.

Date: 2008-04-30 (permlink)
Author: Christopher Hitchens
Name: God Is Not Great - How Religion Poisons Everything
Rating: 5 stars

I did not think there was much more I needed to know about why religion is bad or how to fight it, but I was wrong. Reading this book should be mandatory for everyone in the world.

Date: 2008-04-27 (permlink)
Author: Scott Smith
Name: The Ruins
Rating: 4.5 stars

If a book has a blurb by Stephen King proclaiming it as the "best horror novel of the new century", I'm buying it. The author is Scott Smith, whose previous book "A Simple Plan" was turned into a very good movie.

I haven't read the previous book (but I've now added it to my todo-list), but the movie and this book both share a similar concept: Take an intriguing premise and follow it realistically to its logical endpoint. Sounds simple, but it isn't. Much of fiction is ruined by the reader going "WTF is he doing that, is he braindead?" at one or more of the characters. In this book, I can't really see anything I would've done differently had I been one of the characters.

I don't want to say anything about the plot since it would just ruin the experience for anyone who has not read it yet. Simply put, if you want a book you can't put down you need to buy this book.

Date: 2008-03-02 (permlink)
Author: Robert I. Sutton
Name: The No Asshole Rule
Rating: 1.5 stars

He makes some good points about the issue, say, about 50 pages worth of, but the problem is the rest of the 224 pages are just repetitions of it or useless filler.

Date: 2008-02-24 (permlink)
Author: Scott Turow
Name: Ordinary Heroes
Rating: 5 stars

The book begins okay but not spectacularly, but it slowly begins picking up steam, and after a while you realize you're reading a seriously good book. That moment occurs when the plot, interesting enough by itself, becomes tangled in the larger machinations of WWII going on, which at first was just background noise for the characters but then is thrust into the foreground. Without going into specifics since I don't want to spoil the book for anyone, there's a "Holy shit" moment when you realize the characters are about to be trapped when something unexpected happens in the war, and you know this from history, but they of course have no idea what's about to happen.

Date: 2008-02-11 (permlink)
Author: Michael Chabon
Name: Gentlemen Of The Road
Rating: 3.5 stars

Enjoyable, of course, but unsatisfying in the end. When is Chabon going to write another Wonder Boys for us to read and stop wasting his time playing around in genre fiction? It's not like he can do it anywhere as good as Robert Howard...

Date: 2008-02-02 (permlink)
Author: Michael Lewis
Name: Liar's Poker
Rating: 4 stars

Much better than the previous one, since this one is honest about the author's greed, and more importantly, this one is actually funny. Also the insight gained into the changes in the financial markets in the 1980s are invaluable.

The small scale of things is odd though. Even with over 20 years of inflation thrown in, the figures he quotes seem insignificant. His claims of Salomon Brothers being the most profitable investment bank with a puny $500 million or so profit in their best year seems rather archaic. Goldman Sachs made a profit of $11.6 billion in 2007; Morgan Stanley lost about $10 billion in the subprime mess. Excuse me if I don't get too excited about a couple of hundred million dollars...

Date: 2008-01-28 (permlink)
Author: Jonathan A. Knee
Name: The Accidental Investment Banker
Rating: 3 stars

Entertaining and highly useful read, especially given that I now work at one of the two companies he spends most of his time writing about (Morgan Stanley). But the book is much less than it could be. Rather than a honest portrayal of his desperate climb to the top of the heap he tries to portray himself as never caring about the money at all, never actively trying to achieve anything, and never doing anything bad himself while all around him people were engaging in every imaginable dishonest behavior possible.

Date: 2008-01-22 (permlink)
Author: Iain Banks
Name: The Steep Approach To Garbadale
Rating: 5 stars

I have now read 21 books by Banks, some of them multiple times. I have one book half-read (Feersum Endjinn) that I gave up on some years ago but it's still sitting on my shelf less than 2m away from me as I type this, and seeing as it's now the only book by Banks I have not read I suspect I will try to tackle it again very soon.

I find it completely unbelievable that it has been over 7 years since I read the last really good mainstream book by Banks, Whit. 7 years? No, can't believe it. I was a wee little lad of 23 years then, still in the middle of my studies, living in student housing, and generally having no idea whatsoever of how the world worked. And looking back at the timing of things, I seem to have read 8 mainstream books by Banks in the year 2000. Huh. I may have been an ignorant brat, but at least I recognized a good thing when I blindly stumbled on one.

It is bizarre that since that time, over 7 years ago, I've only read Dead Air, The Business, and A Song Of Stone by him (excluding his SF books here). They are all ok books but pale compared to the best of his work.

Let us hope that his divorce from his wife will now free him to return to his usual style of writing a book a year. I certainly do not want to imagine an another 7-year stretch of relatively Banks-free existence.

Enough with the preambles, then. This book? A glorious return to form. I could comment at length on the various things in the book, but I will leave the full joy of discovery to you, my dear readers. I am happy to report Banks continues to share my viewpoints on things, and some of the anti-USA stuff in the book is just brilliant.

A while ago I was wondering if I had somehow lost my enjoyment in reading, but it seems I was only lacking good books to read. I shall try not to let that ever happen again.

Date: 2008-01-18 (permlink)
Author: Augusten Burroughs
Name: Running With Scissors
Rating: 3 stars

Very readable, of course, but ultimately reading about someone's highly exaggerated or, more likely, completely invented, childhood memories is not how I want to spend my life.

Date: 2008-01-12 (permlink)
Author: Michael Cunningham
Name: The Hours
Rating: 4 stars

Much better than I expected. I had bought this ages ago but put off reading it because naturally I had to read Mrs. Dalloway first, which I also kept putting off.

Also much, much better than the movie, though my dislike of Julianne Moore may have coloured my impression of it.

Date: 2008-01-09 (permlink)
Author: Cory Doctorow
Name: Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom
Rating: 3 stars

Similar to his other book in that this is an enjoyable and fast read, yet somehow unsatisfying in its lack of ambition and scope.

Date: 2008-01-06 (permlink)
Author: Iain M. Banks
Name: Inversions
Rating: 4.5 stars

This review contains spoilers. Click here to show it.

Good fun reading about a Special Circumstances mission from the viewpoint of the target culture, instead of Culture's as usual.

Date: 2008-01-04 (permlink)
Author: Iain M. Banks
Name: Excession
Rating: 4.5 stars

This review contains spoilers. Click here to show it.

I'd put off reading this for a long time. I love Banks' books, but usually they are quite complex (the SF ones at least) and need long undisturbed periods of time to go through, which is difficult to get during one's normal life.

But a 6-day trip to Seoul, South Korea over the new year holidays was a perfect setting to finally read two of his books that I had lying around. Sightsee all day, read all evening. What more could one want from life? (Well, lots, but you get my drift.)

About this particular book, then: It's good but it has lots of things happening and they are not really tied together that much. The Genar-Hofoen/Dajeil subplot in particular falls completely flat at the end and could be removed entirely without affecting the main plot of the book at all.