The Westing Game (1978) by Ellen Raskin

Categories: 1978, Books, and Fiction.

This is the kind of novel all kids should read. I am far too old for this type of book now but, as a child or tween, this would have been great. It feels like a legitimate game (it’s basically a far more complicated version of Clue with character development) and its humour is rooted in character and well-known stereotypes (in the sense of debunking them). It’s a crime this book wasn’t turned into a kid’s adventure film in the 80s, ala Goonies. Read More

Baudolino (2000) by Umberto Eco

Categories: 2000, Books, and Fiction.

This is a fairly uproarious comic novel about the fine line between truth and fiction, that also functions as a critique of medieval logic and reasoning and as a celebration/satire of the power of myth (and faith, and belief). But I felt a nagging sense of deja vu the entire time I was reading it. Because, though the story is drastically different than Foulcault’s Pendulum in terms of setting, characters and their goals, and the target of the critique – in this case the kind of backwards reasoning and reliance on belief over fact that gave us the ontological “argument” Read More

Oliver Twist (1838)

Categories: 1838, Books, and Fiction.

Dickens second novel is a landmark is socially conscious novels and I can well imagine the impact it had on the reading public, given not only its story of a helpless young boy, but also the description with which Dickens captures, with a great deal of vividness, the lives of the poorer people in greater London at the time. Dickens’ irony and sarcasm in the opening chapters is particularly withering and you can imagine well-to-do people who thought themselves leading lights of humanity reading this book and having their hypocrisy and the true results of their efforts smacked in their Read More

A Case of Need (1968) by Michael Crichton writing as Jeffery Hudson

Categories: 1968, Books, and Fiction.

This is a real page turner and it’s easy to see why it’s the book that properly launched Crichton’s career: it’s full of detailed information about contemporary medicine but Crichton uses that detail to drive the plot, not to overwhelm the reader in minutiae (as some “techno thriller” writers do). Though this type of thriller has become a cilche now, I bet that it was rather refreshing at the time. Crichton’s protagonist is a bit like the Dashiell Hammett version of a doctor. Yes, that’s implausible, but Crichton makes it work well enough. The biggest issue with the novel is Read More

Adolphe (1816) by Benjamin Constant

Categories: 1816, Books, and Fiction.

This is an odd one: it’s a story of a romance with virtually no context. Sure, we get some idea of what Europe was like for a son of a wealthy family in the early 19th century. And, in one of the later chapters, Constant describes the physical geography of an area of Poland. But, beyond that, there’s only Adolphe’s emotions and his perceptions of Eleanor’s. I don’t know that I’ve read anything like it. And though I don’t know that I enjoyed it – I feel like the main characters’ behaviour would only ever make sense in the Europe Read More

Lord Jim (1900) by Joseph Conrad

Categories: 1900, Books, and Fiction.

Conrad is perhaps my favourite (English language) writer from the turn of the last century. I find “The Secret Sharer” to be one of the greatest English language short stories ever written. And Nostromo is a favourite of mine. And yet it took me forever to get into this, considered by some to be among his very best work. The biggest hangup for me was pointed out by reviews at the time: Once Conrad eventually adopts Marlowe as the narrator (something that doesn’t happen immediately), we’re supposed to believe Marlowe is telling this story – a story that goes on Read More

A Game of Thrones (1996) by George RR Martin

Categories: 1996, Books, and Fiction.

I have never liked fantasy novels and usually only enjoy fantasy movies for their cheesiness and predictability (though there are exceptions). However, the TV show won me over due to its drastic differences from most fantasy I am familiar with. As a fan of the show, I really felt no need to read the books. But when my friend told me he was really enjoying the audio books, I thought I’d give it a listen. (Thanks Derek!) As someone who avoids fantasy, I cannot say whether or not what Martin does here is original, but it certainly strikes me as Read More

Super-Cannes (2000) by J.G. Ballard

Categories: 2000, Books, and Fiction.

This is a provocative page turner that raises lots of questions about where late 20th century capitalism is headed. FYI, it’s also the first Ballard novel I’ve read, but I have seen both of the films that were adapted from his books. I found it entertaining and mostly provocative, but I did have a few issues. For one thing, Sinclair is not that likeable to begin with. I hope that was a deliberate choice but there is a part of me that thinks maybe I just don’t like Ballard (if Sinclair is meant to be him). Sinclair reminds me of Read More

The Age of Innocence (1920) by Edith Wharton

Categories: 1920, Books, and Fiction.

Scorsese’s version of this book is, in my opinion, one of his very best films and on the short list of films I would recommend to anyone wanting to understand good direction. This despite Michelle Pfeiffer’s supposedly miscast as the female lead. Perhaps my love for the film version is what made me initially kind of underwhelmed by this novel. It took me a while to really appreciate the claustrophobia created by Wharton’s portrayal of social mores of the era. Perhaps my identification of the actors with these roles is what made me take so long to view these characters Read More

The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) by Anthony Hope

Categories: 1894, Books, and Fiction.

I thought I was completely unfamiliar with this story as I had not seen the movie nor did I know anything about the book. However, it turns out that I have indeed seen a smilar movie, Dave! It turns out that story has been used over and over again by various people. I don’t know if this version is the original, though it’s clearly a spin on the “The Man in the Iron Mask” plot from one of the Three Musqueteers sequels. I personally prefer Dostoevsky’s take on this kind of idea – I would be far more likely to Read More

King Solomon’s Mines (1888) by H. Rider Haggard

Categories: 1888, Books, and Fiction.

I was only familiar with this story from the ’80s Hollywood version, which I had been told was drastically different from the book. Sure enough, it absolutely was. So much of it is utterly different as to be (nearly) a different story. But anyway… Putting aside the problems we may find in Victorian literature with how it portrays Africans versus Europeans… This was apparently the first “Lost World” novel, and for that I guess I need to acknowledge that it’s a significant landmark. It’s also the only “Lost World” novel I have read (though I have seen plenty of movies!), Read More

The Partner (1997) by John Grisham

Categories: 1997, Books, and Fiction.

I only know Grisham from the old days when his novels were constantly turned into “event movies” (or the closest thing we had to those back in the ’90s). I watched many of them, though not every one, and, at least as a teenager, thoroughly enjoyed a couple of them, particularly A Time to Kill and The Pelican Brief. Light spoilers ahead. You have been warned. Maybe films make Grisham’s novels come alive better or maybe my tastes have changed (they absoltely have) or maybe this is just lesser Grisham, but this is pretty blah. Grisham’s prose is admirably economical Read More

The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck

Categories: 1939, Books, and Fiction.

It just so happens that I started to watch Ken Burns’ Dustbowl just as I finished this book, and contrasting the two approaches is illustrative. It’s interesting that Steinbeck makes no mention of the man-made nature of the disaster, even he knew it was man-made. I suspect this is to help further create sympathy for the Joads, but I feel like this was a missed opportunity. But that’s not really important anyway. The novel is what it is. I shouldn’t worry about whether or not he told a story he wasn’t trying to tell. This is an important, landmark, influential, Read More

Indignation (2008) by Philip Roth

Categories: 2008, Books, and Fiction.

This has some great moments but on the whole it feels a little forced, for lack of a better word. I feel like the whole “dead narrator” thing is unnecessary, though I’m not sure how I’d fix it. When I was on the bus that I read this on, I was having trouble putting my feelings into words, in part because of jet lag. I guess what bugs me is that I do not believe in an afterlife and, though I find Roth’s idea of an afterlife in this book a little thought-provoking. but I don’t find it complimentary to Read More

Call it Sleep (1934) by Henry Roth

Categories: 1934, Books, and Fiction.

I have finally finished this book, but it isn’t just the books fault – at least some of the responsibility lies with our new puppy who, especially in November, did not leave me with enough energy read. Anyway, I’m finally done and I’m glad I read it. I must say that at first I struggled to care. Roth does an excellent job of creating one little boy’s world in early 1900s NYC but I found his parents unlikable and, as someone who had a rather nice childhood, I had trouble caring about his miserable but not truly horrible childhood. (I Read More

The Poe Shadow (2006) by Matthew Pearl

Categories: 2006, Books, and Fiction.

I appreciate the effort that went into this to make it historically accurate. And I appreciate that, instead of writing a work of scholarship, he tried to make it exciting by writing a novel. But I have never felt the kind of enthusiasm for solving a “mystery” as unmysetrious as the death of Poe as Quentin Clark. Even when I was 18 and obsessed with Kubrick, and he died in circumstances that were not immediately conveyed to the public, I accepted it. And for whatever reason, Pearl never sold me on Clark’s interest. i never quite could buy it. Everything Read More

Snuff (2008) by Chuck Palahniuk

Categories: 2008, Books, and Fiction.

I went through a few stages with this novel. At first I was thinking, ‘I think he wrote this just to piss people off, but it’s hilarious so I don’t care.’ Then I was thinking, ‘maybe this is his attempt at creating a gross version of As I Lay Dying.’ And some other thoughts passed through my head. But Palahniuk is so good at pushing the action forward to its surprise conclusion – which, knowing Palahniuk, we know is coming – that I sort of stopped caring what this was. It’s funny, it’s a page-turner, and it’s just edgy enough Read More

The Violent Bear it Away (1955) by Flannery O’Connor

Categories: 1955, Books, and Fiction.

It took me a long time to get into this. Though I found the initial pages interesting, soon it became tough slogging. But once Tarwater and Rayber meet things really pickup. There is a sort of majesty to this part of the book and the subsequent part. It is really impressive and admirable how O’Connor tells her protagonist’s story and doesn’t worry about the stories of those we the reader might want to follow. Tarwater’s transformation is powerful and incredible and makes the novel worth reading. However, I am not sure this is one of the great novels of the Read More

We Were the Mulvaneys (1997) by Joyce Carol Oates

Categories: 1997, Books, and Fiction.

This is one of the most emotionally devastating novels I have ever read. Unfortunately, the end of the novel feels a little rushed and slightly artificial. I don’t think I should harp too much on this because the majority of the novel is outstanding, horrific, a page turner and probably a fair allegory for the dissolution of the nuclear family in the US in the post-1960s. 9/10 Read More

Black Water (1992) by Joyce Carol Oates

Categories: 1992, Books, and Fiction.

This seems to be Oates attempt to tell a story purely of someone’s life flashing before their eyes. It is loosely – and clearly – based on an incident that happened to a certain member of the Kennedys and a girl he was pursuing an affair with, but that’s really neither here nor there. The novella jumps between the tragic accident and various parts of the girls’ life. Some of it is written somewhat conventionally, but as it progresses it becomes more and more stream of consciousness (due to the changing circumstances of the girl). The novel reminds me of Read More

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1965) by Yukio Mishima

Categories: 1965, Books, and Fiction.

At some level I think that this is about the potential problems inherent in a society accepting the truth of our objective reality, and embracing the philosophy of existentialism (at least in its least systematized forms). Mishima seems to be suggesting that not only will children be unable to grow up properly – or morally – in a world free of the goals and rules of tradition, but he seems to suggest that even many adults will have similar problems. And though it is implicit, he seems to suggest that society needs its old myths. At least I think he Read More

Right Ho, Jeeves (1934) by PG Wodehouse

Categories: 1934, Books, and Fiction.

This is a mildly amusing “comedy of manners” (for lack of a better term). It has dated a lot, as comedy – both written and live – has moved past these conventions some time ago. It’s still got it’s funny moments, but most of it reeks of the “I know this is humourous, but I’m not laughing” type stuff. It’s just been done so much that it’s hard to look upon it as fresh 80 years later. It certainly isn’t remotely close to one of the funniest books I’ve encountered and I’d advise anyone who’s grown up with comedy in Read More

Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995) by Gregory Maguire

Categories: 1995, Books, and Fiction.

For the first third or so, this had me really hooked, much to my surprise given what it was turned into. I almost felt if I was reading both a compelling fantasy novel and a serious philosophical discussion on what “evil” means at one and the same time. However, that dissipated as the book went on, as I felt like the plot was manipulated to get to the end we all know is coming and with this there appears to be a change in tone. It almost felt as though the book was written at two separate times. Anyway, though I can’t Read More

Gore Vidal was crazy but sometimes he was also awesome

Categories: Books and RIP.

I guess what I mean to say is RIP Gore Vidal. But I have a problem saying that, and my problem is that Gore Vidal believed a lot of stuff (particularly about the United States government) that was not true. Worse, he made it public. Worse, because he was Gore Vidal, he made it public on TV, in magazines, on the radio, etc. Vidal had two styles as a novelist (at least that I am aware of). The first was sort of an alternative history approach to historical fiction, which garnered him a lot of controversy for the usual reasons Read More

Maximum Bob by Elmore Leonard (1991)

Categories: 1991, Books, and Fiction.

I guess I really shouldn’t pay attention to hype. Leonard has a reputation in the States as the preeminent crime fiction writer of his time. This is my first encounter with him and I must say I’m a little disappointed. This is above average crime fiction and that’s it. Personally, I want more out of a book than just a well told story (I have to say well told because I can’t call it good) and nothing else. It’s certainly a page turner – especially near the end – but that’s it. (6/10) Read More

The Bostonians by Henry James (1886)

Categories: 1886, Books, and Fiction.

I haven’t fallen in love in the teenage / young adult sense in some time. The last time I was 26 I think. But that being said, I still think I have a good idea of what it is like. Now, I’m not trying to say love is rational, as it totally isn’t. But I’m not sure it’s entirely self-destructive, as some writers try to claim, either. And the love that is at the core of this novel I just don’t buy on any level. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Not just on a rational level but on Read More

Washington Square (1880, Henry James)

Categories: 1880, Books, and Fiction.

I can’t begin to explain how annoying it is when an author makes his protagonist nothing. Virtually every time James describes Catherine in the first third of Washington Square, it is through negation: she isn’t this, she wasn’t that. Why do I care? I can’t relate to a person who is merely not this and not that. I can’t understand why anyone likes this novel. It’s fascinating that such a terrible mistake gets so overlooked in the interests of analyzing this as part of his “canon.” Dreck. 4/10 Read More

Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison

Categories: 1952, Books, and Fiction.

As a white Canadian born in the last quarter of the 20th century, I do not know in any way shape or form what it means to be a Black American (or any other oppressed minority in a European-derived country) but I think perhaps this is the closest I will ever get to understanding it. It is a powerful story and, though I want to sometimes challenge its realism, I cannot because I know stuff like this happened even if I want to react to it as contrived. I have a few issues with it: I find he is unnecessarily Read More