All the Book Reviews

Well, apparently this blog’s been up for just about a decade (I started it in December ’08, though I didn’t write my first review until February ’09). Maybe it’s time to update a page or two…

Until recently, I always kept my list of reviews in the least useful form possible: alphabetised by book title. You can find that list over here. I like its solid-wall-of-information style. But it occurs to me that it might be more useful for readers to do things a little differently; so here are my book reviews categorised instead by the rating I gave the book.

I conclude (almost) every review with a rating – a breakdown of ratings in seven categories (broadly how exciting, emotional, thought-inducing, beautiful, skillfully created, loveable and distinctive the novel is), and a summary score out of 7. Why 7? Because that’s as many grades as I felt comfortable distinguishing (I think I may one day switch to marks out of 8, but not in the near future).

Are my scores gospel? Of course not. Every reader has their own response to a book. But at the same time, I do  try to review books not just on how much I personally like them, but on the quality of the book itself – which is to say, the breadth and depth of its appeal to a readership in general, rather than solely to myself. As a general rule, I’m happy chalking up a response within two grades, either way, of my own as simply down to personal taste, but beyond that, I become puzzled: if you call my ‘brilliant’ merely ‘good’, or praise my ‘not bad’ as ‘outstanding’, you have very different tastes to me, but I can understand where you’re coming from; but if you call my ‘brilliant’ outright ‘execrable’ or vice versa, I really think that either you’re missing something or I am.

And if you’re looking for non-fiction, scroll down to the bottom…

So, here’s my list, starting from the top:…

 

 

    *******
BRILLIANT – (7/7)

These are in essence novels I think everyone should read (accounting for the obvious issues of prerequisite volumes in series, adequate free time, specific personal trigger issues, etc): they transcend their genre. Now, I might be wrong about that – we all have our favourites – but if you don’t recognise that they’re at least good, I’m afraid I think you’re missing something. A brilliant book is one that not only might I recommend, but that I probably actively will recommend to anyone who’ll listen. So far, these books include:

James Branch Cabell: – Jurgen
G.K. Chesterton: – The Man Who Was Thursday
Mary Gentle – Ash: A Secret History (short review; very long review here)
Robin Hobb: – Fool’s Assassin
Robin Hobb: – Fool’s Quest
Tim Krabbé: – The Rider
Ursula K. Le Guin: – The Dispossessed
Ursula K. Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness
Terry Pratchett: – Small Gods
Terry Pratchett: – Lords and Ladies
Terry Pratchett: – Night Watch
Christopher Priest: – The Prestige

        ******
OUTSTANDING – (6/7)

These books might not quite rise as far above the pack as the utterly brilliant ones – perhaps someone who didn’t understand their genre could reasonably find them merely not bad. Perhaps they’re right in some cases – perhaps I just got carried away. Or maybe I was too skeptical, and some of these should really be in the Brilliant category. But either way, these are books I consider must-reads for their target audiences, and that rise above their genres to be genuinely worth a look even for readers not usually into that kind of thing. An outstanding book is one I’ll recommend to most people, unless I specifically think there’s a reason you won’t be interested. So far, these include:

Pete Abrams: – Sluggy Freelance, Chapters 13-22
Pete Abrams: – Sluggy Freelance, Chapters 23-32
Richard Adams: – Watership Down
Alfred Bester: – The Stars My Destination
James Branch Cabell: – Figures of Earth
Michael Chabon: – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Samuel Delany: – Dhalgren
David Garnett: – Lady into Fox
Robin Hobb: – Ship of Destiny
Robin Hobb: – The Golden Fool
Robin Hobb: – Fool’s Fate
Robin Hobb: – City of Dragons
Robin Hobb: – Assassin’s Fate
Margo Lanagan: – Black Juice
Margo Lanagan: – Tender Morsels
Margo Lanagan: – The Brides of Rollrock Island
Michael Marshall Smith: – Only Forward
Walter M. Miller, Jr.: – A Canticle For Leibowitz
Alan Moore: – Watchmen
Axel Munthe: – The Story of San Michele
Terry Pratchett: – Pyramids
Terry Pratchett: – Reaper Man
Terry Pratchett: – Maskerade
Terry Pratchett: – Feet of Clay
Terry Pratchett: – Hogfather
Terry Pratchett: – The Fifth Elephant
Terry Pratchett: – The Truth
Terry Pratchett: – The Last Hero
Terry Pratchett: – Wintersmith
Christopher Priest: – The Affirmation
Arundhati Roy: – The God of Small Things
Keith Waterhouse: – Billy Liar
Gene Wolfe: – The Fifth Head of Cerberus

 *****
GOOD – (5/7)

Some people are happy to call almost anything they read ‘good’ – at least, anything they don’t actively hate. I’m not. For me, saying a novel is ‘good’ really is a compliment – most books aren’t. Even a lot of books I like aren’t really, in my opinion, truly good. A good book should be ‘above par’ – not just solid, not just adequate, not even just promising, but actively a step above the rest… though not necessarily an all-time classic. A good book should be one of the better offerings in the genre, and a candidate for genre-specific best-of lists; what’s more, it might be of interest even to readers from beyond the genre – and even if you dislike the genre (or the style, etc) enough to find one of these books bad, I hope you’d still be able to recognise that it would have redeeming features. Conversely, if you happen to be really specifically into the content or style of one of these books, you might well consider it brilliant. A good book is one I’ll recommend if I think there’s a chance you might be interested. So far, that means:

Daniel Abraham: – A Shadow in Summer
Pete Abrams: – Sluggy Freelance, Chapters 32-39
Pete Abrams: – Sluggy Freelance, Chapters 40-48
Pete Abrams: – Sluggy Freelance, Chapters 49-59
Pete Abrams: – Sluggy Freelance, Chapters 60-62
Richard Adams: – Shardik
Jane Austen: – Pride and Prejudice
Jorge Luis Borges: – Fictions (review in two parts, here and then here)
Mikhail Bulgakov: – The Master and Margarita
Jan Cleijne: – Legends of the Tour
Samuel Delany: – Babel-17
Alexandre Dumas: – The Count of Monte Cristo
Raymond E. Feist & Janny Wurts: – Mistress of the Empire
David Gemmell: Knights of Dark Renown
Robert Harris: – Fatherland
Rachel Hartman: – Seraphina
Russell Hoban: – Riddley Walker
Robin Hobb: – Royal Assassin
Robin Hobb: – Assassin’s Quest
Robin Hobb: – Ship of Magic
Robin Hobb: – The Mad Ship
Robin Hobb: – Fool’s Errand
Robin Hobb: – Dragon Keeper
Robin Hobb: – Dragon Haven
Robin Hobb: – Blood of Dragons
Kameron Hurley: – God’s War
Rudyard Kipling: –  The Man Who would be King & Other Stories [N.B. ridiculously long review in five parts]
Sinclair Lewis: – Babbitt
Maureen McHugh: – China Mountain Zhang
Vonda McIntyre: – Dreamsnake
George R.R. Martin: – A Dance With Dragons
David Mitchell: – Cloud Atlas
Terry Pratchett: – Only You Can Save Mankind
Terry Pratchett: – The Colour of Magic
Terry Pratchett: – Equal Rites
Terry Pratchett: – Mort
Terry Pratchett: – Wyrd Sisters
Terry Pratchett: – Guards! Guards!
Terry Pratchett: – Moving Pictures
Terry Pratchett: – Witches Abroad
Terry Pratchett: – Men at Arms
Terry Pratchett: – Soul Music
Terry Pratchett: – Carpe Jugulum
Terry Pratchett: – The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
Terry Pratchett: – Thief of Time
Terry Pratchett: – The Wee Free Men
Terry Pratchett: – Monstrous Regiment
Terry Pratchett: – A Hat Full of Sky
Terry Pratchett: – Going Postal
Terry Pratchett: – Thud!
Terry Pratchett: – I Shall Wear Midnight
Terry Pratchett: – Snuff
Sophocles: – The Theban Plays
Oscar Wilde: – The Happy Prince and Other Stories

    ****
NOT BAD

The idea of ‘not bad’ often seems a controversial one, in an era when every book is either the greatest or the most abominable ever. But in truth, a lot of books are just… not bad. Maybe it’s a book that does its job, but just never really stands out. Or maybe it’s the opposite: a book that does some things excellently, yet is weighed down by some serious flaws. These are the sort of books that, when read with great expectations, can disappoint, but that, when approached with an open mind, can be suprisingly fun.

When read critically, these books often feel… not quite there. But if you’re just reading for some light entertainment, they’re also solid, unobjectionable, if you like what they’re offering – ‘not bad’ is enough to be good, if you like the genre enough. In particular, I find that a lot of first-installment genre novels, weighed down by exposition and uncertainty of voice, fall into this category, which needn’t prevent sequels from excelling. It’s a respectable rating. I’ve also noticed quite a few anthologies have falled into this group, better stories weighed down by worse. If you really like the genre, a ‘not bad’ book might even seem outstanding – but if you think it’s a genuine all-time classic then I’m going to think you’re getting carried away; conversely, if you’re not into what a ‘not bad’ book is offering, you might find it quite solidly bad.

A ‘not bad’ book is one that I’ll recommend to someone who I think enjoys the style or genre of the book, and who I know isn’t necessarily looking for an all-time great. These books so far include:

Joe Abercrombie: – The Blade Itself
Joe Abercrombie: – Before They Are Hanged
Pete Abrams: – Sluggy Freelance, Chapters 1-12
Isaac Asimov: – Nightfall and Other Stories
Lewis Carroll: – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Stephen Donaldson: – Lord Foul’s Bane
Daphne du Maurier: – Not After Midnight and Other Stories
David Eddings: – The Ruby Knight
David Eddings: – The Sapphire Rose
Raymond E. Feist & Janny Wurts: – Daughter of the Empire
Raymond E. Feist & Janny Wurts: – Servant of the Empire
David Gemmell: – Legend
Christie Golden: – Dance of the Dead
William Goldman: – The Princess Bride
Simon Green: – Blue Moon Rising
Simon Green: – Hawk and Fisher
Simon Green: – The God Killer
Rachel Hartman: – Shadow Scale
Robin Hobb: – Assassin’s Apprentice
Norton Juster: – The Phantom Tollbooth
Anne McCaffrey: – Dragonsdawn
George R.R. Martin: – A Game of Thrones
Terry Pratchett: – Johnny and the Dead
Terry Pratchett: – Johnny and the Bomb
Terry Pratchett: – The Light Fantastic
Terry Pratchett: – Sourcery
Terry Pratchett: – Eric
Terry Pratchett: – Interesting Times
Terry Pratchett: – Jingo
Terry Pratchett: – The Last Continent
Terry Pratchett: – Making Money
Terry Pratchett: – Unseen Academicals
Sue Townsend: – The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4

 

                                ***
BAD, BUT WITH REDEEMING FEATURES

This may be the trickiest tier. I use this rating to describe books that I believe are, overall, essentially bad books – books, that is, that in most respects can be regarded as at least moderate failures – yet that have one or more specific strengths, ways in which the book does succeed. Perhaps the book has an interesting subject matter, or one particularly vivid character. Maybe it’s a bit of a page-turner, or maybe it’s sort of funny. If its strengths are things you’re interested in, a book like this can be worth reading. Indeed, if its strengths and your interests line up well enough, a book like this could even be a favourite. But the chances are, you won’t be that lucky. In general, you have to be pretty enthusiastic about the genre or style of these novels to consider them enjoyable, and you’re only really going to adore them if your tastes match what they offer perfectly, because beyond their one or two strengths they don’t have much else. Chances are, even if you really like them, you can recognise their obvious flaws (you might find them sort of good, but I’d be surprised if many experienced readers found them outstanding) – and, on average, the general reader is unlikely to find them rewarding. Nonetheless, some people will enjoy them, and they can be pretty entertaining if you happen to be the intende audience. Indeed, we could reframe this category from the other direction: these are bad books, but the most enjoyable bad books around. Ironically, I actually quite like almost all of the books I’ve put in this category, more than some ‘better’ books – perhaps because if I think a book will fall into this category, I’m only likely to read it if I have particular reason to think I might like it (and several of these carry fond memories from childhood). Currently these books include:

Tina Daniell: – Dark Heart
David Eddings: – The Diamond Throne
Simon Green: – Winner Takes All
Jeff Grubb: – Lord Toede
Anne McCaffrey: – Dragonsong
Anne McCaffrey: – Dragonsinger
Frank Miller: – Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
E.E. Smith: – The Skylark of Space

 

              **
JUST PLAIN BAD

I know, it’s judgmental. Every book has some redeeming features, doesn’t it? Of course! But there comes a point where my recommendations have to go from “you know, you might be surprised!” to “OK, you won’t be surprised, but…”

If a ‘bad but with redeeming features’ book does some things unusually well, a ‘just plain bad’… doesn’t. It’s not necessarily the worst thing ever. It may be kind of enjoyable if you really like that kind of thing. Maybe, if you really like that kind of thing, it might be… not bad. But for anyone who even slightly doesn’t like ‘that kind of thing’, they’re really not going to have a fun time. The flaws are glaring, and the virtues hard to find; these books are for devotees only, and then only if they’ve run out of anything better. If you really like the genre and the style, and you’re trapped with these books on an aeroplane, your eyes won’t melt from reading them. But I don’t want to promise more than that. These may be regarded as run-of-the-mill pulp fiction genre novels, and I’d recommend them to genre fans who have already read everything else, or might have a particular (eg. historical, or research) interest in them. At the moment, this list includes:

Rachel Aaron: – The Spirit Thief
Robert N. Charrette: – Never Deal With A Dragon
David Cook: – Beyond the Moons

 

                                             *
EYE-GOUGINGLY, EXCRECENTLY TERRIBLE

A ‘just plain bad’ book may have little or nothing specifically to recommend it, but it might, for genre fans, be better than nothing. My one-star books… aren’t. These are books that it’s genuinely, in my opinion, better not to have read, outside of masochism and extreme scientific research. For a book to get only one star from me, it has to have failed, in my opinion, in pretty much every possible respect.

Currently this list comprises… nothing. See, a ‘not bad’ book… isn’t a fine way to spend some time. A ‘redeeming features’ book, well, there’s something there I like, even if only in a particular mood. Even a ‘just plain bad’ book, I may have lingering nostalgia, or curiosity, or even just the whimsy to put up with it in order to say that I have. But when I think a book will be truly terrible… I don’t want to read it. It’s not “so bad it’s good”, it’s just bad. And so far, I’ve pretty much avoided reading any utterly terrible books in the last decade – people tend not to recommend them, and they tend not to appeal. There is one exception… but it was so bad, I literally couldn’t read it. And I don’t think it’s fair to review without reading. In this case, its terribleness was so obvious I was willing to let myself review if I just made it to 100 pages, but I couldn’t. Maybe one day I will. Until then, this section is likely to remain empty.

 

NON-FICTION

I can’t meaningfully assess non-fiction by the same standards as I use for fiction – they’re just too different. But I’ve written reviews of a few non-fictions, which may be of some interest:

Philippe de Commynes (ed. Paul Murray Kendall): – Memoirs, published as The Universal Spider: The Life of Louis XI
John Crace: – I, Maybot
Mark Witton: – Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy
Fulke Greville (ed. Neil Powell): – Caelica, published as Selected Poems

 

AND FINALLY

You may also be interested in checking out my round-up of my Top Ten books reviewed for this blog. It’s a slightly different list from the above, as I limited myself to only one book per author, and I give short summaries of why I found those books so wonderful. Also, I last updated it a couple of years ago, so it’s a little out-of-date.

Oh, and you may have noticed I have a lot of Terry Pratchett reviews here. That’s at least in part because a few years back I decided to do a complete Discworld re-read – that page gathers them all in series order.