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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.]

Book Report: July 2015

Book Report: July 2015

This is a ho-hum month. I did finish a couple of books but that feels like months ago. I guess that’s because of my fourth moderating stint at our book club. The online discussion is on full steam so I’m not really getting much reading done. Well, yes! I’ve moderated a book discussion for each year since we started these face-to-face discussions. I would have liked to sit out for a year but I get restless just trying to make the thought settle in my head.

Books Finished:

  • Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald – Mesmerizing. I keep putting off a review because the haunting feeling is too much (let’s not get started on the review backlog). 5 out of 5 stars.
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson – They say that this is a science fiction must-read because of how it saw the Internet’s future. Really, now? Bleech! 1 out of 5 stars.
  • The Quiet American by Graham Greene – Our book of the month. I’m going t read more of Greene’s books. 4 out of 5 stars.
  • Ubik by Philip K. Dick – A reread because of book club moderator duties that I raved about earlier. I still don’t know what happened though. I’m also going to listen to the audiobook version. 5 out of 5 stars.

Currently Reading:

  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell – On page 281 of 595. Halfway there! Just when you think that Mitchell is doing the same old trick, your mind and feelings go wild and you don’t care that it’s the same old tricks. Also, I picked this up because I want a favorite author to be the 300th read of my life (that’s according to my diligent and scrupulous cataloguing of books on Goodreads).
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling – On page 79 of 870. I’m not feeling this. Yet. Can you blame me if I delayed reading this for 18-19 months? But there’s 800 pages more to look forward to so we’ll see.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – On page 56 of 323. Revisiting the first novel that I ever read. That was 17 years ago. I thank my English teacher and the owner of that copy I borrowed (he’s two years my senior). (Php 936.00, Fully Booked – Megamall, July 20)


  • Being Dead by Jim Crace
  • Family Life by Akhil Sharma
  • Rabbit Redux by John Updike
  • Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  • (I wish I could read another PKD novel but it’s so hard to find copies here. I want the following: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said; The Man in the High Castle; A Scanner Darkly; and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. And I like the Mariner editions! However, I don’t think Electric Sheep is printed by Mariner Books. A bummer!)

New Books:

  • The Art of Fiction by John Gardner – I’m impressed by October Light and I want to see what he has to say about the process of writing. Also, I’m a sucker for books with such titles. (Php 20.00, a private library sale, July 18)
  • Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx – I’ve read this already but it’s so cheap! (Php 20.00, a private library sale, July 18)
  • Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee – Of course I have to buy this! I would have bought this on the 14th, it’s release date, but copies had to be reserved. I thought I could just walk in any of the local book stores and pluck a copy from the book towers. But no. So I had to wait for two days, which isn’t that bad because I’ll be reading this in September for the book club. (Php 897.75, Fully Booked – Megamall, July 16)
  • Maurice by E. M. Forster – Posthumously published. I think the author was quite reluctant about getting this novel out there. (Php 20.00, a private library sale, July 18)
  • The Penguin French Dictionary – It’s the nearest thing that I could grab because I’m embarrassed to pay only Php 60.00 to the library owner. It’s not that I didn’t find his books amusing. It’s just that 1. I already have copies of some of his books, 2. there’s a lot of nonfiction than I could care about, 3. the books are precariously stacked so hunting can cause death, and 4. I’m limiting my purchases to books that are only on my must-buy list, which is a lie because none of these are on my must-buy list. (Php 20.00, a private library sale, July 18)
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Book Club Book Review – The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon is one of those books that I approached with a mild hesitation because the last time I read a proper crime fiction, I nailed it as the worst book of that year. That’s two years ago, and I’m not obviously over it. Private Detective Sam Spade is hired by a beautiful woman to track down her sister. That’s the first chapter, and the second chapter kicks in with a murder. You’d think that a murderous death and a beautiful woman’s plea for help are just coincidences, but of course they are not.

Before anyone can make any connection, a bunch of suspects are thrown around because it isn’t palatable if there aren’t red herrings served on your plate. But what are these people killing each other for? Yup, point your finger at the Maltese falcon, the prized object in this novel, which I’m not going to talk about. But seeing that some editions of this novel have an image of a perching black falcon in the cover art, it’s safe to say that this statue is worth a lot of money.

I could have chosen another word aside from money but it’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of greed. Either that or power, but we’re not talking of any mystical or paranormal things here in case one gets that idea. Greed in this novel sets off a lethal pursuit in roads strewn with schemes and lies and deceit, but whether or not the efforts of this chase have a point, monetary or otherwise, is up for debate.

Also debatable is Sam Spade’s code of ethics. I haven’t read a lot of detective novels so my fickle mind easily imagines that detectives are on the side of the law. But could one imagine a character described like the following on the good team?

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

At the end of the novel, one would wonder why he did what he did. The surface makes it appear that Sam Spade is acting out of professionalism. He’s a law-abiding detective after all, but if you peel off that veneer, there are layers of other motives that are surely less impressive. There’s moral ambiguity there. It’s not easy to get the compass working because the poles of his rightness and wrongness are undetectable. Which is fine because had he been the perfect detective with honorable principles, valiant actions, and all that, there would have been just another trashy novel.

If one considers when this novel was first published (1930), one has to applaud its boldness and its wit for outdoing the censors (check out the history of the word ‘gunsel’ and note how it’s used in the novel). You may hate this book for its perceived misogyny or homophobia, but well, it’s a product of its times. And I had a rad time reading it while listening to the audiobook, its speed set to a frantic 1.5x. Don’t judge me.

[Read in June 2015.]
[3 out of 5 stars.]
[217 pages. Trade paperback.]
[Audiobook narrated by William Dufris.]

F2F42: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

F2F42: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett