2016 FAVORITES

First up: I want to express my gratitude to everyone who has read, liked, linked or commented. Thank you. My best wishes for the new year!

I’ve read 54 titles in 2016, and reviewed 52. Below are the ones I enjoyed most, in no particular order. Click on the covers for the review. After the books, music.

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GARDENS OF THE MOON – Steven Erikson (1999)

gardens-of-the-moonI don’t have a lot of analysis to offer to readers already familiar with Gardens Of The Moon. It’s a massive book (703 pages + an 8 page glossary) and yet I only took 4 notes while reading. In this case, that means there was nothing to complain about structurally or idea-wise: so no plot holes, or bad writing, or philosophically unsound ideas. It also means Erikson didn’t surprise me with particular insights in the human condition.

That last one is not necessarily a negative: I don’t want to imply Erikson writes derivative, superficial stuff – he doesn’t – but I have the feeling I can only start making valid points on his ideological foundations after I’ve read a lot more of this series.

So what do I have to offer to readers familiar with this debut? Nothing but the information I liked it a lot – which may or may not say something about how our tastes align. I was a bit bogged down at the halfway point, but that probably was more because of other things keeping me from reading than because of the book itself.

I do want to convince fantasy readers unfamiliar with Erikson to start this widely acclaimed book, so I’ll devote the rest of this review to doing just that.

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REMBRANDT: THE LATE WORKS – J. Bikker & G.J.M. Weber (2014)

rembrandt-the-late-worksAs I’m a bit bogged down in the 700 pages of Erikson’s epic Gardens Of The Moon, I’ve decided to do a review of an art book I’ve just finished. I will finish that first book of The Malazan series, I like it a lot, but it’s just such a slow, massive read, and on top of that it has been a busy few weeks too. So here’s some thoughts on Rembrandt! There’s more pictures after the jump!


I had the pleasure of coming of age in a group of friends heavily interested in contemporary art – 2 of them painters themselves – and so I’ve spent quite some time of my early twenties in art museums and galleries. I still do, but to a much, much lesser extent. During those years, I’ve come to realize that the history of art has a lot to offer too, and that art doesn’t need to be new and shiny to be of interest. I kinda already knew that, as I cried seeing Botticelli’s fifteenth century masterpiece Allegory of Spring in the Uffizi in Florence when I was 17. But it was only in 2007, when I saw a documentary on contemporary Belgian painter Sam Dillemans, that I gained the right mental tools to really look at “old” art. Dillemans is a huge Van Gogh fan, and he uses Van Gogh to explain that it’s not really important what you paint, but how you paint it. That’s obvious maybe, but to my 28-year old self it was revelatory.

Enter me, 35, seeing Rembrandt Van Rijn’s final self-portrait in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, July 2014. That museum has Vermeer’s The Girl With The Pearl Earing too, but the 1669 self-portrait is the true gem of the collection. I was struck by lightning. I had seen paintings by Rembrandt before, but never one of his late works. The way he painted his hair, topped with a kind of turban or ribbon, is simply stunning. In a way, what I saw was the birth of impressionist and even expressionist painting, already in the 17th century. It took me half an hour before I could continue to the next painting, and before leaving the museum, I returned to it again. A profound delight.

Zelfportret, 1669

So when The National Gallery in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam put on an historic, first time exhibition devoted to Rembrandt’s later works, I was thrilled. The London show ran from October 2014 to January 2015, and travelled to Amsterdam afterwards, from February to May 2015. I saw the Amsterdam exhibition. It was amazing.

I didn’t buy the exhibition’s catalogue afterwards, but the taught of it kept nagging, and a few weeks ago I did order it. Jonathan Bikker & Gregor J.M. Weber have done an excellent job in putting together a clear yet detailed book on Rembrandt’s later works. The book includes contributions of the editors, and Majoerie E. Wieseman, Erik Hinterding, Marijn Schapelhouman and Anna Krekeler. It has 325 pages and tons of illustrations.

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CENTRAL STATION – Lavie Tidhar (2016)

central-stationIt strikes me as odd that people still are into this whole Literature vs. non-Literature distinction, especially people who review science fiction. Yet publishers like Tachyon make themselves complicit to this continuing confusion when they slap stuff like “magnificently blends literary and speculative elements … Readers of all persuasions will be entranced” on the back cover of their books.

It’s understandable Tachyon does so: it adds cultural credits and a veneer of Serious Art to Lavie Tidhar’s newest book. They hope it will help sell more copies of Central Station, also outside the speculative crowd. I think they are mistaken. More on that later.

First, a quick paragraph on my literary views. I don’t think a clear division between literature and non-literature can be upheld. What one can do is list criteria to judge how “good” a book is. People who have spent a couple of years at a university studying literature tend to like stuff like complexity, “depth” and originality. So yes, one could argue for a division between interesting books and superficial books. Whether a book is speculative or not isn’t a factor in that dichotomy. Of course, science fiction has a history in pulp magazines. True. But – newsflash: most books that people dub “literature” are bland and uninteresting too. Pulp is everywhere, not only in the speculative sphere. It’s Sturgeon’s law!

So, back to Central Station. Continue reading

BURNING CHROME and other stories – William Gibson (1986)

burning-chromeOn the final page of the final story – the title story – Gibson envisions a possible future for prostitution.

The customers are torn between needing someone and wanting to be alone at the same time, which has probably always been the name of that particular game, even before we had the neuroelectronics to enable them to have it both ways.

It struck me how much reading books satisfies the same urge: wanting to be alone and needing someone at the same time.

Burning Chrome‘s 10 stories are populated by Gibson’s usual kind of characters, and deal with Gibson’s usual themes – although I probably shouldn’t make a sweeping statement like that, as I’ve only read two Gibson novels so far: Neuromancer & Virtual Light. Those two reading experiences weren’t fully successful, but reading this collection was, 100%.

The stories were published between 1977 and 1986, and are rather short: about 15 pages each, and not one of them above 30 pages. They fly by like a breeze, snappy, in prose that’s top notch. Here’s Gibson – in the voice of a photographer – on some building:

I shot one in San Jose an hour before the bulldozers arrived and drove right through the structural truth of plaster and lathing and cheap concrete.

That sentence alone should convince you.

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NINEFOX GAMBIT – Yoon Ha Lee (2016)

ninefox-gambitI was a bit afraid to start this book. I craved some new, cutting edge space opera. But it looked liked one of the basic plot premises seemed like magic. The calendrical system people use determines what kind of technology – weapons included – works in a particular region?? Could be unbelievable & probably is prone to plot holes. I don’t like fantasy that dresses up as SF (exhibit Dark Orbit), but I decided to give it a go.

Ninefox Gambit is the debut novel of Yoon Ha Lee – famous short story writer. It’s also the first book in a trilogy, The Machineries Of Empire. While the basic story in this volume concludes nicely in 317 fast paced pages, the big story is only just beginning. Nothing new there.

How about that fear?

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WHITE NOISE – Don DeLillo (1985)

white-noiseWhite Noise is a famous novel. It’s one of the prime examples of postmodern literature, and it’s the book that made Don DeLillo big. It won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1985 – Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home was nominated as well. It’s been analyzed to death: there are editions with the novel’s text & criticism side to side.

So yes, indeed, all of the stuff you have read about White Noise is true. There’s irony. Critique on television. Critique of consumer society. A lot of enumerations of consumer products. Enumerations of other stuff. Tiny snippets of commercials, documentaries, radio news, manuals. A protagonist that has been married 5 times to 4 women and who’s a professor in Hitler studies. Musings about death. Stuff about popular culture. General stuff. Specific stuff. Bleak stuff. American stuff. Meta stuff. 310 pages and about 10 meta lines for the literature post grad to feast upon. The novel is self-aware indeed.

I thought that when tradition becomes too flexible, irony enters the voice. Nasality, sarcasm, self-caricature and so on.

A description like that might be off putting to some. But it also misses the point, as postmodern meta-ness is not even the novel’s strength: it’s all fairly transparent anyway. What’s missing in most of the scholarly analysis I’ve read, is the humanity that underlies it all. White Noise, for me, was first and foremost a book with remarkable and deep emotional understanding of family life and fatherhood. Continue reading