Tales from the Ramen Bookshelf: A year in reading

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2015 is slowly drawing to a close. With exams officially over I now finally have a bit more time on my hands. Even so, my aim is to get 5 blogs done by New Years, with three dedicated to the J1 and two towards reading and writing. I know. I’d want to get a move on.

I wouldn’t say it has been an amazing year for reading. It’s probably a year where I read more random books than I’m used to, much of this due to being on a J1 and not wanting to bring any books I would be distraught if I lost. You might wonder how I could lose a book, but there were eight of them and they were all being lugged around in my carry-on bag. In airports like JFK and Heathrow this isn’t exactly standard practice. When security at San Francisco wanted a look in my bag, the last thing I was expecting was for him to hold up Game of Thrones and say “Oh, is this good? I love the show.”As you can tell, San Diego was my prime reading time. With no internet and a work schedule that meant I might be alone in our apartment for hours at a time, books fell like dominos. Also, I simply love reading. I wouldn’t say that’s a cliché, more so a “well obviously Kyle you’re writing a whole blog on it”. Still, there were many times on the J1 where I wanted nothing more than a book in my hand and a seat by the pool. While I’ll always remember the nights out, working and mayhem around the apartment, it was during these quiet moments that the J1 really became a therapy. Sometimes you need a break, and if you need a break within a break, it’s handy to have a book nearby. For this blog, I’m just going to give a quick review of my 2015 reading list to the best of my memory (those first few months were neither productive or memorable but I’ll try my best).

The Walking Dead: Descent (Jay Bonansinga)

If I’m being entirely honest, I don’t remember much of this book. I’ve previously read (and reviewed) four books in this series, and by and large this installment was much the same. It’s a niche book (I enjoy the Walking Dead TV series, as you might guess) where the writing is intended to be tense, fast-paced and not at all verbose. It’s the kind of book you could knock out in a day if you really wanted to, which in some cases is a good thing. I liked Descent, it was an improvement on its predecessor “The Fall of the Governor” even if it was weaker than the first two books in the series. Again, it’s about Woodbury and at this stage differs largely to what Walking Dead fans are seeing on screen. This is good, because unless a TV show is amazing I really don’t care to read the book version of the plot (see Game of Thrones later for when I really do care to). That’s not to say The Walking Dead isn’t a brilliant show, but it’s a plot that works best on Sunday night on AMC, and considering the source material is a comic, you can be pretty sure nobody is going to want to read the same plot in a third and weaker format. Overall, a solid edition to the series and I’ll be buying the next one

Rating = 6.5/10

The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss)

I’m not keen to review this book, if I’m being honest. It’s not that it’s a bad book – quite the opposite. It’s more, I have issues with this book that are unusual, and explaining them isn’t easy. I digress.

The Name of the Wind came highly recommended to me, and of course people threw up the name Tolkien places and I’ll admit I got quite excited. I actually started this book in August 2014, but it dragged over to 2015. The main character Kvothe, a legend in his time now posing as a simple innkeeper, recounts his story to the fabled Chronicler, who has sought him out to find the true version of events. What follows is a sort of in-book autobiography, which at first I hated but soon grew to love with the constant change in location, characters etc. It was fresh, ambitious and the author controlled it. And I’ll concede, the worldbuilding was excellent. For the first fifty pages it was a little jarred but once the autobiography portion started I really felt part of the world. The dialogue was snappy, clever and witty. The characters for the most part were memorable, and for a plot that spent a lot of time detailing ordinary events, the story seemed quite extraordinary.

My biggest problem with the whole book was the main character. Yes, I’m aware, that’s bad, and it was. I simply hated Kvothe for large portions of the book. He was arrogant beyond measure, talented at pretty much everything, and loved to convince himself he was having a rough time of things. Yes, his life was tough, but given how much luck came his way I found it very hard to sympathise with him at all. This all manifested through the author’s excessive use of detail, sometimes spending pages showing off whatever he had popped into google on the day he wrote that chapter. It is clear the research was meticulous, but delivery is important in terms of how much you tell a reader. And Kvothe, the super-intelligent sponge, just had to tell us all of it. On a side note for all men, Kvothe also insists he is terrible with the ladies, but with his outcomes I’d have to call him a liar. He’s that type who sells himself as socially awkward and an introvert even though he is a master of small-talk, flirting etc. Overall, the Name of the Wind is brilliant. The above is a huge flaw, but damn it the book is good. Again, I digress…

Rating = 8/10

RED – my autobiography (Gary Neville)

Considering this was the first book of the J1, it may be already apparent that the first 6 months of 2015 were fairly poor in terms of reading. RED was a book I’ve owned for a quite a while now, but never got round to reading. As I said above, it’s those kind of books that came to San Diego with me by and large. I flipped the book open 8 hours into a flight to LA, when it was clear I wasn’t going to watch a fourth movie after the shambles that was “Exodus Gods and Kings”. As a United fan, I of course enjoy any story that involves the treble, the premier league titles, the wonder teams, the class of ’92 etc. And RED didn’t fail to deliver. Gary Neville is a clever man who has always worn his heart on his sleeve. He’s a face value sort of guy and for an autobiography that’s pretty pivotal. Outside of just the football, I enjoyed RED for the tale that it was. Neville recounts his upbringing with a sort of fondness and humour we would all be jealous of. For the entire novel he seamlessly blends the life on the pitch with the life at home and the world in his head. To my surprise, I found his stories of the England team some of the most interesting. Neville’s outings for his country give an insight into the sort of questions we constantly pose of one of football’s greatest nations. I would consider this a must-read for a United fan, and something you might look into if you like a good autobiography in any case.

Rating = 7.5/10

I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Zlatan Ibrahimovic)

Where to start with this one? Basically, it would be nice to see Kvothe and Zlatan have a conversation. Zlatan, is for all intents and purposes, the most self-confident man I’ve ever read about. And yet, I loved it. This wasn’t some made-up character spouting rhetoric the author fed them, this was a real human being taking on the world as they saw fit. What surprised me about this book was how deftly Zlatan dealt with his upbringing. While we are constantly hearing of wonder kids raised in Favelas and going on to be football legends, I didn’t expect the same social history for one of Europe’s greatest footballers. Zlatan is funny in every page, maybe every paragraph. He pokes fun at the world, at opponents, at himself. Nobody is safe within the confines of this book, with huge names like Pep Guardiola being ripped to absolute shreds. Like a Conor McGregor of football, Zlatan talks a lot but has never failed to back it up throughout his time in football. Capable of changing a game in a second, of tearing through defences, of sublime skill typical of a Brazilian, he has an illustrious career to regale across several countries. Even those with little interest in football would enjoy this book, which is as much Zlatan painting you a picture of the high-life as it is a look at his moments on the pitch.

Rating= 8/10

The Big Fight (Sugar Ray Leonard)

At this point in San Diego we had just moved into our apartment, with this being the first book I sprawled out on our then clean carpet to read. This was perhaps my favourite of the three autobiographies, not only because I knew little of Sugar Ray’s career, but also because of the backstory. Neville’s introduction was heartwarming, Zlatan’s was surprisingly full of hardship, but Sugar Ray’s was king of them all. There’s something about reading about life growing up in America that stirs you a little. Sugar Ray probably had it harder than both Zlatan and Neville, and certainly had knock-on effects from his childhood for the rest of his life. One of the greatest boxers in history, this was him peeled away to nothing and laid bare over 300 pages for all to see. Before, I knew Sugar Ray as a king; an Olympian who went professional and became a master showman while demolishing some of the greats. After reading, this image seems 2D at best. It’s a story of addiction, sex, fame, money, divorce and finally, and most poignantly, redemption.

Rating = 8.5/10

The Woman in Black-Angel of Death (Martyn Waites)

You can surely see now that I had strict criteria for “books I wouldn’t be distraught if I lost”. By the middle of June, I had reached this book, and looked forward to a few nights reading by my phone light in the dark of our apartment scaring myself half to death. Sadly, this was not the case. I should have seen the problems with this book in that it was a sequel wrote by a different author and worse, was only published to tie in with the movie of the same name. Adapting a movie into a book is shaky, very shaky. This was Richter Scale shaky. I love the original Woman in Black story. It’s so menacing, so tense and full of dread. This was a diluted version of that. It still had a haunted feel to it, and was scary for short periods. Based around children moving to the “empty” house during WWII, it had strong potential to be chilling. It floundered in the writing, and then ultimately met its demise in the very predictable ending. It’s strongest point was the manner of deaths, which I guess given the genre will earn it some salvation in my rating.

Rating = 5.5/10

Theft of Swords (Michael J Sullivan)

Every year, I’ll find a book that I especially like for some reason. In 2014, it was Stella Gemmell’s “The City”. I recommend that book to everybody. This year, it’s Theft of Swords. Given this was book five of the J1, and the first fantasy book, it’s fair to say I was highly looking forward to reading this. I’d got it as a gift a month before I left, after spotting it in what was then Porters, Wilton. What was obvious right from the off was how different this was from Name of the Wind. Whereas the latter was clearly heavily researched, detailed and mastered over a long time, this was far more….fluid? Lost for words there. Fluid suffices. Theft of Swords had far more room to breathe than Name of the Wind did. It didn’t over emphasise anything, it just ran with the story and asked you the small price of keeping up. The opening scene was brimming with clever dialogue. I loved the two main characters, a pair of mercenaries known together as “Riyria”, who through a wicked conspiracy get caught up in a case of murder. The book follows their attempts to reconcile this which unearths larger events in their world. To be honest, some people may read this book and criticise the plot or the writing or some of the characters. But at the heart of it all, it’s simple adventure. It’s what’s asked of fantasy novels right from page one. It doesn’t lean on a crutch of memorable description like some successful novels do, or build a world almost freakishly real, but what it does do is give us two main characters that we can care about. It puts them in simple plot lines and then injects the odd twist, a good deal of action and a constant change of scenery. Overall, I was just “content” reading this novel.

Rating: 8.5/10

No Safe House (Linwood Barclay)

While Theft of Swords was a brilliant book, it was also a long one, and came right at my busiest time of San Diego. So it was not until July that No Safe House came out of the book shelf my room mates had “constructed” from a Ramen Noodles box. When it did, I was apprehensive. No Safe House is not a fantasy novel. I know, who cares? People always say to read outside your comfort zone. Who knows, you might find something you like. Writers are also told the same. But your zone is comfortable for a reason, and we humans like comfortable things. So when I bought No Safe House as a sort of homage to the above advice, I felt all grandiose and like I was finally expanding my view. I was wrong. No Safe House wasn’t a bad book, I’m not being fair. It was an OK book, but I’m not on this earth to read OK books. I like thrillers, I’ve read a lot and so I expected a big name in the genre was going to blow me away. I just sort of wasn’t though. I tried to like this book for 200 pages, and with a plot of “woman who has disturbing past finds herself in new nightmare”, it wasn’t overly hard. But with time, the book wore on me. I felt like it was taking too long to get to that “Oh my God that’s what happened” moment, and when it did it wasn’t enough for me to appreciate the wait. The best portions of the book were the “setup phase”, as I call it, where some character inadvertently sets a chain of events in motion. Cynthia, the woman described above, has a daughter who along with her boyfriend find themselves in the wrong house at the wrong time. All of this part was good. It was the second half of the novel that just didn’t do it for me. How characters resolved things was predictable and boring rather than rash and exciting. If you like a crime thriller, this might be for you. If you, like me, prefer Middle Earth and Winterfell, then I’d perhaps give it a skip. And next time, think twice about leaving the comfort zone.

Rating 6.5/10

Game of Thrones (George R.R. Martin)

I feel a little guilty reviewing this book. It’s a re-read, and one of my favourite books by a longshot. In fact, outside of Tolkien, I would say this is the best fantasy I’ve ever read. Now I know there are still plenty I have to read, but coming back to this book a second time was an enjoyable as the first. I read Game of Thrones for the first time nearly four years ago, but this time instead of poolside in Gran Canaria I was poolside in San Diego. It’s the last book of the J1, and I only finished it once I got home to Ireland. To put it quite simply: read this book. I am jealous of those who will be reading it for the first time sometime soon. Game of Thrones is addictive as a book. I brought the first one on holidays for a week and after two days was coming to an end. The use of multiple view points is not exclusive to GoT, but it’s a great example of it being done well. Unlike Theft of Swords, this plot really is complex, with more going on than you can keep up with at times but each chapter tense, thrilling and riddled with mystery. Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, is called to be Hand of the King by Robert Baratheon, his old friend who sits on the Iron Throne in King’s Landing. Ned is to replace Jon Arryn, who died mysteriously. The next 700 pages are incredible, with characters larger than life who all interact within the labyrinthine Red Keep, where secrets are hard to keep and political conspiracy and betrayal are rife. This is all mixed in with action far to the north at the Wall and at Winterfell. For any fan of the show, I think the book towers over the TV series, and have yet to meet someone who read the book after and disagreed.

Rating = 9.5/10

On Writing (Stephen King)

I only just finished this book recently, and so it just makes the list for 2015. Obviously this is a different sort of book, but out of curiosity I wanted to read it (you shouldn’t turn your back on advice from Stephen King). To my surprise, King manages to use his own life story to perfectly give you a look into the writing process. I thought this autobiographical approach made the advice more palpable, more relatable and easier to digest. King doesn’t nit-pick or focus too heavily on grammar, structure etc. He works with what he knows best about the art, and brings it to life through his story of becoming the world renowned writer he is today. I didn’t expect anything less of him, and for anybody interested in writing, I would say it is worth a read. It’s an easy read, not something you get bogged down in like you would expect.

Rating = 8/10

So, a good year for reading overall I suppose. I’m looking forward to 2016, with my current book being “The World of Ice and Fire”, and I already know I’ll be reading “The Three Musketeers” sometime soon too. Perhaps I’ll stray again outside my comfort zone, though there’s definitely enough books within it to keep me going for another year.

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