Latest Posts

Book Report: August 2015

Book Report: August 2015

Whenever I’m the assigned discussion leader of our book club, I don’t get to read a lot. It’s not supposed to be that way but still, I could only focus my energies on one book. The Ubik book discussion took place more than a week ago. It was a fun book to talk about because you get to throw around all these theories on what really happened without fearing that you’ll be incomprehensible. And that’s because all theories are acceptable; the book doesn’t offer one single conclusion.

So now that my moderating duties are done, I should be catching up on my reading back log, yes? Unfortunately, I’m not. It’s not that I can’t read or don’t want to read. It’s just that I’m distracted with games. Gosh. Let me go off the bookish track here. Ever since I learned that there’s going to be a remake of Final Fantasy VII, one of my favorite Playstation games, I just couldn’t stop thinking of those early teenage years when I studied strategy guides instead of my lessons and I hung out with the guys to talk about the progress of the games that we were playing. This Playstation nostalgia made me want to play games again. To soothe this longing, I downloaded this free to play game called Final Fantasy Record Keeper, and now all I want to do is to make my characters stronger. It keeps me up until 4:30 AM. Please tell me that I’m not the only one playing this?

And before that, I was also distracted with another meme/game going on at our book club. It’s a game where everyone races to post two book titles relevant to the keyword provided by the previous player. You’ll have to provide a new keyword along with the book titles to keep the game going on. Good thing that there isn’t a big project at our office or my productivity would have suffered big time.

So yes, games. I love games. I guess I’ve never really outgrown them. As expected, my reading life suffered a bit.

Books Finished:

  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell – So yes, I achieved the 300th book milestone with this. 5 out of 5 stars.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – Revisiting this book 17 years later is really something. I no longer read it as a kid who really believed that Boo Radley is a scary monster. I now read it from the perspective of an adult. Obviously, I have matured, or at the least changed, as a reader. 5 out of 5 stars.
  • Ubik by Philip K. Dick – Yes, I’ve read this three times. This last time though, I binge listened to the audiobook version the day before our book club discussion. I weaved in and out of sleep. It’s like the half-life experience speculated in the novel. Well, this kind of reading doesn’t really count but I just like to share this experience. 5 out of 5 stars.

Currently Reading:

  • Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee – On page 165 of 278. Our book of the month. I was quite uneasy reading this but I’m happy to say that it has not destroyed my Mockingbird experience. Yet.
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling – On page 79 of 870. Untouched.
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick – On page 137 of 274. I wanted to read another Dick novel for our book discussion but alas, I didn’t finish it on time. (Php 656.10, National Book Store – Shangri-La Plaza, August 3)


  • Being Dead by Jim Crace
  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Family Life by Akhil Sharma
  • Rabbit Redux by John Updike
  • Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

New Books:

  • The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber – I’ve been long lusting for the gilt-edged hardcover edition. I’ve delayed buying it for so long. In fact, there are trade paperbacks already available. Now, I found a reason to buy this. I might campaign for this book for my next moderating duty in 2016. Wait, I just finished my book discussion, right? (Php 1,058.40, Fully Booked – SM Megamall, August 20)
  • Orlando by Virginia Woolf – Something to add to my Vintage Woolf collection. This is the fourth. (USD 11.24, The Book Depository, August 24)
  • A Room of One’s Own/Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf – And this is the fifth. Yes, slowly but surely. (USD 10.38, The Book Depository August 24)
Book rating details

On Book Ratings

I’m a little obsessed with book ratings. They matter to me. A lot. When I check bookish social networks for recommendations, I look at the following details in this order: the average rating, friends’ reviews (if any), the most popular 5-star rave, and the most popular hatchet job. So to contribute to the bookish community, I rate the books that I’ve read and redirect users to a review link, if available.

I always think in terms of numbers. Instead of disputing whether I like or love a book,  I decide between 3-stars or 4-stars. I’ve adopted the Goodreads rating system, which I think is pretty decent. This is not true for many people, of course, seeing that they’ve adopted their own rating systems. The most common ones are changing the descriptions of the numerical ratings and the inclusion of half-stars. I have no issues with these, but with regard to the latter, I tend to round the ratings down (i.e. 4.5 to 4, and so on). I often encounter 3.5’s and 4.5’s, but I have yet to see a 1.5. I think it’s bizarre, but I won’t dwell on it.

Some people have book rating policies aside from the 5-star rating system. Some only rate books that they like. There’s a certain charm in this. It’s like a gesture of goodwill particularly to budding authors. However, I tend to be wary of people who do this because I also like knowing what books they find tepid or don’t like at all.

And there are some people who have no rating system or policy at all. Of course, they might find it distasteful to reduce their feelings to mere numbers or descriptive phrases. Sure, they have elaborate feelings that they vividly explain in their reviews, but sometimes, I just want to know the darn number before plodding through a review.

A few months ago, I had an issue with the Goodreads rating system, which isn’t pretty decent after all. I posted it on Facebook. Here it goes:

The God of Small Things is the book I had the most difficulty in giving a star rating. In an attempt to get over this, I summon W.H. Auden:

As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don’t like.

For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five:

  • [a] I can see this is good and I like it;
  • [b] I can see this is good but I don’t like it;
  • [c] I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it;
  • [d] I can see that this is trash but I like it;
  • [e] I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.

So how do we assign star ratings to these verdicts? [a] and [e] both look good with 5 and 1, respectively. But my verdict is neither of the two. So what should we do with [b], [c], and [d]? Are these verdicts quantifiable?

Going back to the book, it seems that I have to choose between taste and judgment, but I think they should not outweigh one another.

I got a few comments about this, three to be exact. The first one added more criteria on evaluating books, the second one felt that Auden’s verdicts are complicated, and the third one argued that a truly mature reader will have no difficulty in evaluating a book based on taste and judgement. Oh well, I guess that according to this argument, I am not a mature enough reader. Which is true, and I have no bad feelings about it. I have a lot more to read to make me a keener and more insightful reader, but I am pretty sure that I won’t do away with the star ratings. I don’t think they are silly, and if people think they are, I’m not going to go about rallying for the star rating’s cause. To each his own.

Okay, the real reason I’m yakking about book ratings is this: I’m thinking of rerating the books I’ve read and shelved on Goodreads. There are times when I check out my 5-star books and see some titles that feel less stellar now. And then there are those 4-stars, and even 3-stars, that seem to scream at me for begrudging them of a higher rating.

Again, I went at it on Facebook. I posted a poll about changing book ratings: do you or do you not? Here are the results:

  • 6 – Yes, feelings and opinions change.
  • 15 – Sometimes, when rereading the book.
  • 0 – No, as in never.

Most respondents stressed that the ratings change only after a reread, and they rarely reread, which is basically saying no, if you ask me. So that zero is an illusion. Some of those who answered yes stressed that time can dilute or even heighten one’s judgment of a book. Either they can get too enthusiastic or overwhelmed after closing a book, or they can be haunted by a book that they initially thought was just okay.

Further interesting comments that I found are changing the ratings only to deduct stars and adding different editions of books to record the different ratings. I find the latter ingenious yet cumbersome, and that’s because I don’t like keeping duplicate records. The former is understandable. I know what it feels like to have a book hangover, for lack of a better term, but if I ever get on a rerating spree, I would not only deduct but also add stars.

I have this tendency to rate a book one star less if I feel that I have not fully grasped it. Examples are the works of William Faulkner and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Oh, I’d love to rerate them now with 5’s, but I’d be tongue-tied for a justification. Because yes, there’s always that why that comes after, and I feel the need to explain. Perhaps I could just say that there’s this certain pull that I felt while reading them, and would people take it against me? Would they feel that I’m just going with the flow? The fact the Infinite Jest is one of those books that are bought by hipsters but never finished kind of adds to my anxiety, a befitting feeling for a book populated with anxious characters. And perhaps I’m worried that people will not believe me, that I will be accused as one of those pretentious hipsters. Heck, I can’t even bring myself to write a review of it.

I guess the problem is why do I have to care about what others think of my ratings. Credibility, I suppose. I keep this blog mainly as a record of my reading adventures and partly as a way to recommend books to people who bother. To make people pick up a book or dissuade them from it, they would have to believe you and therefore, be convinced. The art of book reviewing is the art of persuasion. You put your taste and judgment in a string of persuasive sentences and yet, these two change even after a short span of time. So why would someone bother listening to someone who is wont to change their mind?

If you’re as inconsistent as I am, take comfort in the notion that at least there’s a record that once, you’ve felt and thought this and that way. So I suppose that if I ever rerate books on Goodreads, I won’t bother to edit the reviews on this blog. It would be interesting to see the differences. But yes, I’ll let time go by, at least for the books that I’ve read recently. In this matter, time is, ironically, a friend. And maybe I’ll even reread some, like Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee. I’ve met the ire of some people because of my callow interpretation of it.

Sure, life is too short, but I can’t read all the books that I want anyway.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Book Review – The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks tells the story of Holly Sykes and it covers six decades of her life. It begins with a teenage Holly running away from her family and ends with a granny Holly trying to survive in a dystopian future where the world’s oil resource has run out. The novel is divided into six novella-length parts, the form that Mitchell is, I daresay, most comfortable with, and they represent a decade each of Holly’s life.

Each part is narrated by a different character. There’s Holly herself in the first and last parts, a Cambridge undergraduate and a returning character from Black Swan Green (Mitchell’s fourth), a war journalist who may have become a war junkie, a writer who was once the Wild Child of British Letters, and another returnee from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Mitchell’s fifth) who is a doctor and an Horologist.

What is an Horologist? It is a soul who, after its body dies, can’t help but be resurrected in another child’s nearly dying body. It’s a sort of a birthright, a supreme gift, if you may, considering that immortality is one. There are very, very few Horologists in the world, about 0.00000001%, and they keep together. They follow a certain Script, a nebulous thing that guides them. They have keen memories of their past lives and they have such powers as memory redaction, mind control, telepathy, and precognition.

Who wouldn’t want to be an Horologist? Some of us may not want to be immortals, but the Anchorites do. They do not have that birthright and they look at Horologists as a very tight aristocratic circle. Since their souls cannot achieve immortality, they extend their lives by slowing their ageing process to a near stop through nefarious means. Essentially, they are soul vampires. They also have powers of telekinesis and teleportation, and their circle is also exclusive, recruiting members through their shady discretion.

The war between the two groups of Atemporals, i.e. the Horologists and the Anchorites, i.e. the good and the bad, is a fantasy subplot which is actually the main vein of the novel. Some people may be put off by this, but the thing is, I find it fascinating. I grew up wishing I have powers of such sort, so you can imagine how delighted I am when this “subplot” thickens. However, it only does so much, much later in the novel. The fantasy yarn only unravels at the fifth part. Two-thirds of the novel is devoted to a slow build that connects Holly Sykes’s pivotal role in this century-long war.

One disappointment that I have with the novel is that the narrators sound too much alike. What denominator do Cambridge scholars, journalists, literary writers, and renowned doctors have in common? It is too easy for Mitchell to tell a story from the point of view of any of these intellectual character types, and attempts at nuanced dialogues and forms are only mildly felt. That is except the third part where the narrative weaves back and forth between a wedding in England (the present) and a war in Iraq (the recent past). The rest are pretty much straightforward narratives, jumping from day to day or year to year.

The novel also feels like a rehash of Cloud Atlas (Mitchell’s third) and, to an extent, Ghostwritten (Mitchell’s first), but with less style and flair. The writing is good but not as good as, say number9dream (Mitchell’s second). It also didn’t have much to say about the human condition since it is deeply concerned with the Horologists. Is immortality a human condition? It is of human interest, but anyone’s guess is as good as mine. I’ve wondered about the soul and immortality but have not delved into these unlike Mitchell. These two are recurring motifs in Mitchell’s works. He desires to believe in the continuity of the soul, according to a Bookworm podcast episode, and this belief is granted a theology of its own in the novel.

And so we fall back on Holly for the mortal and human part of this novel. She has led a slightly interesting life than ours, even without the Atemporals’ meddling. We know her losses, her griefs, and her fears. And we also know her joys, her dreams, and her hopes. The teenage Holly muses on what Heaven is:

I put my hand on the altar rail. ‘What if … what if Heaven is real, but only in moments? Like a glass of water on a hot day when you’re dying of thirst, or when someone’s nice to you for no reason, or …’ Mam’s pancakes with Toblerone sauce; Dad dashing up from the bar just to tell me, ‘Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite’; or Jacko and Sharon singing ‘For She’s A Squishy Marshmallow’ instead of ‘For She’s A Jolly Good Fellow’ every single birthday and wetting themselves even though it’s not at all funny; and Brendan giving his old record player to me instead of one of his mates. ‘S’pose Heaven’s not like a painting that’s just hanging there for ever, but more like … Like the best song anyone ever wrote, but a song you only catch in snatches, while you’re alive, from passing cars, or … upstairs windows when you’re lost …’

And yet, these are concerns that seem to be less or even not important when put beside the Horologists’ immortal concerns on winning a war against the bad. And now, putting everything into consideration, I find myself really enjoying this novel. I can overlook all the little shortcomings because of my overflowing love for David Mitchell. It’s not that he has written a mediocre book; I’m just trying to be as objective as possible by pointing out this and that. The Bone Clocks, a reference to our mortal bodies, is overall a very entertaining novel, and isn’t a novel’s foremost goal to delight the reader?

[Read in August 2015.]
[5 out of 5 stars.]
[595 pages. Hardcover. Signed first UK edition. A gift from Monique.]

Inverted World by Christopher Priest

Book Review – Inverted World by Christopher Priest

Inverted World is a hard science fiction novel that was republished by NYRB Classics, which might be a surprise considering the impressive, and obscure, titles that the imprint carries. If you visit NYRB’s online store and click science fiction, you’d see that there are only less than ten books under this tag. This is an intriguing choice and it begs the question why Inverted World? Surely, there must be something in it.

The novel opens with what I would posit as one of the most interesting opening lines: “I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.” It has the tone of Ray Bradbury’s “It was a pleasure to burn.” Both immediately set the worlds that they present. In Priest’s, age is no longer measured in years. It would dawn on the reader that this makes perfect sense for a city whose survival depends on how far they have traveled away from a gravitational force that pulls and destroys everything.

The citizens of the caged and walled city called Earth are unaware that their city is being pulled by guildsmen, sworn to secrecy with an oath of death, using a series of tracks, wheels, cables, and winches. This they do painstakingly, and there are rivers, hills, and wild tribes to add to their worries. Young men, such as the protagonist Helward Mann, are introduced to the nature of their city upon reaching a certain number of miles, which is 18 years old according to my rough conversion.

The novel proceeds to describe how the city survives. Everyday is a challenge because the gravitational force is incessantly pulling the city toward it. The book follows the trajectory of the hard science fiction novel. Helward leaves his city for a journey replete with danger, he tries to make sense of the real nature of their city, and he attempts to compromise the things that he has known all his life with the things that he has discovered. One the first things that he sees outside the city is the sunrise:

I looked again at the rising sun. In the short time I had been looking at the birds it had been transformed. Now the bulk of its body had appeared above the horizon, and it hung in sight, a long, saucer-shape of light, spiked above and below with two perpendicular spires of incandescence. I could feel the touch of its warmth on my face. The wind was dropping.

It’s a breakthrough of sorts, at least for Helward, and it’s not without physics and calculus. Of course, science fiction relies on these bodies of knowledge to explain how a world got into its state, and it is thoroughly done that one would not need the horror of revisiting calculus classes just to see what a strange world the characters are in. It is hard to put the book down because questions you’d want to be answered will constantly tug you. Why do members of the Surveyors guild age faster than the others? Why are members of Barter guild fluent in a language that sounds Spanish? Why aren’t the impoverished and unfriendly tribes running away from the gravitational force? Why do things flatten and warp when they are miles behind the city? Why is time so slow miles ahead of the city? What does a hyperbola have to do with everything?

In a way, this novel is Helward’s coming of age story filled with issues on government secrecy, on labor exploitation, and on loyalty torn between your duty and your loved ones. More importantly, questions about perception and reality are raised with much fascination and intensity. As the climax explains the physics of things, which is a shocking yet sensible one, and presents the futility of the guilds’ efforts to move the city further, Helward comes home to a world which has been, strangely, around him all along.

[Read in April 2015.]
[5 out of 5 stars.]
[322 pages. Trade paperback.]