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Reviews and commentary
 

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

The Ambassadors (1903) by Henry James

Categories: 1903, Books, and Fiction.

I hate giving up on a book – I just hate it. I have a really strong completist streak in me that has helped me endure through things I’ve really disliked. Since I graduated university I can count the number of books I’ve given up on, on one hand. Usually, it’s non-fiction (such as The Creature from Jekyll Island) when I recognize huge flaws in an argument that will not be corrected by the end. But with fiction I always hold out hope that the ending will redeem the book (same thing with films). I don’t know if it’s because Read More

A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) by Khaled Hosseini

Categories: 2007, Books, and Fiction.

This is, for the most part, a compelling, affecting and, at times, devastating novel of what it was like to live as a woman in Afghanistan for the last quarter century or so of the 20th century. It is particularly effective of giving insight into men who hate women – into a whole society that hates women. Fortunate as I am to have been born in Toronto, and raised by a strong, intelligent career woman, it continues to boggle my mind that there are so many men in the world who blame and punish women for their own faults, failings Read More

The Dilettantes (2013) by Michael Hingston

Categories: 2013, Books, and Fiction.

Full Disclosure: This novel was written by a friend of my brother. When I was younger, I reviewed everything without regard to who created it and so wrote some reviews of music made by friends that I didn’t love (though I couldn’t tell them this to their faces because I’m a coward). As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that personal relationships are more important to me than the supposed “integrity” of a review I’ve written and that, if I don’t have anything nice to say about something a friend or colleague has created, I shouldn’t say it unless I’m asked Read More

Demian (1919) by Hermann Hesse

Categories: 1919, Books, and Fiction.

This is the kind of book I’d have eaten up when I was in my early 20s, I think. It’s one of those novels of ideas, and the ideas are vague enough that one can project one’s own feelings on them. That’s one reason it would have appealed to me. Also, I was a young man struggling with what I thought/knew and what I wanted to be, like most young men. So I think I could see reading this 10+ years ago and thinking it was pretty decent. I liked Steppenwolf back then too. (And I wonder how I’d feel now.) Read More

Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Mellville

Categories: 1851, Books, and Fiction.

I discovered there was a free audio version of Moby Dick online, as a podcast, so I started listening to it. However, 3/4s through it, the site went down. So I resumed with an audio book from the library. I think listening to it was a mistake. I distracted myself too many times and missed a lot of stuff over the course of the months I listened to it. I think I will have to read the novel. The good news is that now I am committed to reading it at some point. What I did get from it is Read More

The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Madox Ford

Categories: 1915, Books, and Fiction.

Sometimes I can handle stories of the idle rich, sometimes I cannot. This is one of the latter, where I really struggled to care about any of the characters, their rich, bored lives and their endless emotional struggles. I can understand why this novel is so well regarded: it exposed the fraud of “keeping up appearances,” it is told in, what was, for the time, an extremely unconventional way, with what I assume is one of the earlier uses of an unreliable narrator. These things should be celebrated. But I have a really hard time relating to these rich, religious, Read More

Less than Zero (1985) by Bret Easton Ellis

Categories: 1985, Books, and Fiction.

On some level, this feels like an ’80s LA Catcher in the Rye, albeit with richer and older kids, and drugs and prostitution. I feel like this may have been Ellis’ intent, I also think that the acclaim that greeted it upon its release likely was due, in part to that comparison, however misguided. Holden is a compelling character because so many of us can relate to him, if not his situation (I never went to boarding school). Clay is not as relatable – few of us are this rich and few of us are this world weary at 18. 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

The Essential Plays (1993) by Anton Chekhov

Categories: 1896, 1897, 1901, 1904, 1993, Books, and Fiction.

This is a fine collection of Chekhov’s four most famous plays. The Seagull is my least favourite – it’s concerned with the theatre a little too much for my liking. The ending is great, though. Uncle Vanya is the kind of thing I would have devoured in my early twenties. It’s borderline existential the conflict between the old and the new (or the pretty and the ugly) is something that has always fascinated me. Three Sisters feels to me like the most iconic of these plays – not being familiar with it I still felt like I have seen echoes Read More

The Worldly Philosophers (1953, 1992) by Robert L. Heilbroner

Categories: 1953, Books, and Fiction.

This is an impressive and engaging summary of the lives and ideas of the major economists from Adam Smith through Joseph Schumpeter, covering both the people you would expect (Ricardo, Keynes) and some people you would not. Heilbroner is a refreshing guide because he both has a historical sense of economics and he is not a free market nazi. Moreover, as he makes clear in the final chapter, he shares my doubts about economics as a Science. Now, I can’t speak to how thoroughly he captures all of these authors’ ideas – though he does an excellent job with the 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

Fiction Archives - Riley Haas' Blog
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Reviews and commentary
 

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

The Ambassadors (1903) by Henry James

Categories: 1903, Books, and Fiction.

I hate giving up on a book – I just hate it. I have a really strong completist streak in me that has helped me endure through things I’ve really disliked. Since I graduated university I can count the number of books I’ve given up on, on one hand. Usually, it’s non-fiction (such as The Creature from Jekyll Island) when I recognize huge flaws in an argument that will not be corrected by the end. But with fiction I always hold out hope that the ending will redeem the book (same thing with films). I don’t know if it’s because Read More

A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) by Khaled Hosseini

Categories: 2007, Books, and Fiction.

This is, for the most part, a compelling, affecting and, at times, devastating novel of what it was like to live as a woman in Afghanistan for the last quarter century or so of the 20th century. It is particularly effective of giving insight into men who hate women – into a whole society that hates women. Fortunate as I am to have been born in Toronto, and raised by a strong, intelligent career woman, it continues to boggle my mind that there are so many men in the world who blame and punish women for their own faults, failings Read More

The Dilettantes (2013) by Michael Hingston

Categories: 2013, Books, and Fiction.

Full Disclosure: This novel was written by a friend of my brother. When I was younger, I reviewed everything without regard to who created it and so wrote some reviews of music made by friends that I didn’t love (though I couldn’t tell them this to their faces because I’m a coward). As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that personal relationships are more important to me than the supposed “integrity” of a review I’ve written and that, if I don’t have anything nice to say about something a friend or colleague has created, I shouldn’t say it unless I’m asked Read More

Demian (1919) by Hermann Hesse

Categories: 1919, Books, and Fiction.

This is the kind of book I’d have eaten up when I was in my early 20s, I think. It’s one of those novels of ideas, and the ideas are vague enough that one can project one’s own feelings on them. That’s one reason it would have appealed to me. Also, I was a young man struggling with what I thought/knew and what I wanted to be, like most young men. So I think I could see reading this 10+ years ago and thinking it was pretty decent. I liked Steppenwolf back then too. (And I wonder how I’d feel now.) Read More

Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Mellville

Categories: 1851, Books, and Fiction.

I discovered there was a free audio version of Moby Dick online, as a podcast, so I started listening to it. However, 3/4s through it, the site went down. So I resumed with an audio book from the library. I think listening to it was a mistake. I distracted myself too many times and missed a lot of stuff over the course of the months I listened to it. I think I will have to read the novel. The good news is that now I am committed to reading it at some point. What I did get from it is Read More

The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Madox Ford

Categories: 1915, Books, and Fiction.

Sometimes I can handle stories of the idle rich, sometimes I cannot. This is one of the latter, where I really struggled to care about any of the characters, their rich, bored lives and their endless emotional struggles. I can understand why this novel is so well regarded: it exposed the fraud of “keeping up appearances,” it is told in, what was, for the time, an extremely unconventional way, with what I assume is one of the earlier uses of an unreliable narrator. These things should be celebrated. But I have a really hard time relating to these rich, religious, Read More

Less than Zero (1985) by Bret Easton Ellis

Categories: 1985, Books, and Fiction.

On some level, this feels like an ’80s LA Catcher in the Rye, albeit with richer and older kids, and drugs and prostitution. I feel like this may have been Ellis’ intent, I also think that the acclaim that greeted it upon its release likely was due, in part to that comparison, however misguided. Holden is a compelling character because so many of us can relate to him, if not his situation (I never went to boarding school). Clay is not as relatable – few of us are this rich and few of us are this world weary at 18. 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

The Essential Plays (1993) by Anton Chekhov

Categories: 1896, 1897, 1901, 1904, 1993, Books, and Fiction.

This is a fine collection of Chekhov’s four most famous plays. The Seagull is my least favourite – it’s concerned with the theatre a little too much for my liking. The ending is great, though. Uncle Vanya is the kind of thing I would have devoured in my early twenties. It’s borderline existential the conflict between the old and the new (or the pretty and the ugly) is something that has always fascinated me. Three Sisters feels to me like the most iconic of these plays – not being familiar with it I still felt like I have seen echoes Read More

The Worldly Philosophers (1953, 1992) by Robert L. Heilbroner

Categories: 1953, Books, and Fiction.

This is an impressive and engaging summary of the lives and ideas of the major economists from Adam Smith through Joseph Schumpeter, covering both the people you would expect (Ricardo, Keynes) and some people you would not. Heilbroner is a refreshing guide because he both has a historical sense of economics and he is not a free market nazi. Moreover, as he makes clear in the final chapter, he shares my doubts about economics as a Science. Now, I can’t speak to how thoroughly he captures all of these authors’ ideas – though he does an excellent job with the 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

Oliver Twist (1839) by Charles Dickens

Categories: 1839, Books, and Fiction.

I first read this as a tween and I honestly didn’t remember much of it at all. Though I kind of have a love/hate relationship with Dickens, it’s pretty tough to say anything bad about this story. It’s so unbelievably canonical I have trouble putting it into words. List off a mystery / horror cliche and it probably originated with this story. I exaggerate, but the arc of so many mysteries and horror tales follow a very similar pattern. Dickens may have not been the first to use so many of these tropes, but he was likely the first to Read More

Lucky Jim (1954) by Kingsley Amis

Categories: 1954, Books, and Fiction.

This is a laugh-out-loud novel about what it’s like to feel like a fraud teaching at a university (something I can sort of relate to) while you hate your (sort of girlfriend), hate your boss, hate your subject matter and generally hate your life – and that hate manifests itself in you screwing everything up. There are a whole bunch of passages that made me laugh out loud and or at least chuckle, especially the ridiculous climax. Someone’s made a movie out of it and I want to see it (though I’m a little worried that, because it was made Read More

Things Fall Apart (1959) by Chinua Achebe

Categories: 1959, Books, and Fiction.

I love the slow burn of this. Putting aside its importance – isn’t it one of the first major novels by an actual African, if not the first? – I love how this unfolds: you have no idea the real crisis until well into the book. This is just begging for a movie adaptation. But anyway. I apologize for any SPOILERS. What begins as a story of a man who perhaps misunderstands his role in the traditional community – as he attempts to compensates for the perceived failings of father – and, as a result, does some things that cause Read More

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