Book Reviews: November 2021

It’s a month of nature books! I’ve read a lot of fiction lately, so I’m going back to some non-fiction this month to cleanse my palate, so to speak. Here goes:

The Truth about Animals by Lucy Cooke:

This book details some of the common myths about animals (sloths are pointless, hyenas are cowardly, pandas are bad at sex, etc.), talks about the history of animal studies that lead to such myths, and of course, busts them wide-open. It’s hilarious – several passages make me laugh out loud, such as the bit about making a pair of breeches for frogs to collect their semen, for example (you had to be there) – and offers some great insights into the world of zoology as well. 5/5

Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy:

Earlier this year, when I read “Wilding” by Isabella Tree, I lamented that not all of us have a huge estate to let it return to nature, so the same philosophy can’t be applied to a suburban garden. Well, this seems to answer my wish – it’s about how we can all contribute to biodiversity by reintroducing native plants to our gardens. Unfortunately, it’s only applicable for North America (though the general idea of sticking to native plants is applicable everywhere, I guess), and the writing is rather a little dry and matter-of-fact, so I’m filing this under “books I appreciate but not necessarily enjoy”. 3/5

What a Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz:

This book takes a look at how plants experience the world, through familiar senses such as seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, sense of direction, and memories. It actually reminds me a lot of “Brilliant Green” by Stefano Mancuso, which I read earlier this year and didn’t enjoy, because it’s too basic for me. This is much better though – it explains a plant’s workings on a molecular, cellular, and genetic levels, and goes into the history of the research behind each of the plant’s “senses” as well (it even answers the question about the Venus flytrap I posed after reading “Brilliant Green”). It gets a bit dry at times, but still fascinating to read. 3.5/5

The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell:

The concept of this book is simple: the author chose a patch of old forest near his home in Tennessee and visited it over the course of a year, and used his observations as jumping-off points to talk about biology, ecology, and human’s relationship with nature. The science is nothing new, but the writing is beautiful and reflective without trying to be too profound. 4/5

Book Reviews: October 2021

I’ve never been one for theme reading, but for some reason, this October, I felt like reading something a bit spooky (probably because October this year is appropriately chilly and Halloween-y, instead of still being uncomfortably warm), so I decided to read all horror/thriller. Here goes:

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix:

I started my month of spooky reads with this haunted house horror set in an IKEA-like superstore. It starts out well (it reminds me of China Mieville’s short story “The Ball Room” – now that’s a spooky one!) as the store employees experience strange things around the store and stay for an overnight shift to figure out what’s going on. However, as the mystery is revealed, it becomes a little too tangible for me – it’s still tense, but not so scary anymore. I prefer books like The Haunting of Hill House, which relies more on terror and the unknown and let your imagination do most of the work. Still, it has some good parts and is a super quick read. 3/5

We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix:

I saw this one by the same author while I was checking out Horrorstör and thought it looked interesting – it’s about a former guitarist of a 90s metal band who discovers that the lead singer literally sold the band’s souls to some dark force in exchange for fame and fortune for himself, and now, as he’s preparing for the biggest tour of his career, she must set out to stop him and get back what’s rightfully hers. Since I’m doing a month of horror/thriller anyway, I decided to pick it up. I’m not much of a metal fan (not 80s/90s metal anyway. I did listen to some nu metal back in high school), but I do understand the power of music and the feeling that, with the right song, you can change the world, so I quite enjoyed this. The story and characters are more developed than Horrorstör, though not particularly scary (it’s gory, for sure, but I never find gore scary.) My only complaint is that the mythology behind the soul suckers is not quite clear, which leads to a rather rushed ending. 4/5

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter:

This is a more straightforward thriller than what I usually read – a woman, after her husband’s death, discovers that he may have something to do with the disappearance of her eldest sister over 20 years ago and countless other missing women. The first half of it is pretty gripping, but then we have a “twist” reveal that is… not stupid, per se, but convoluted and implausible, and it completely took me out of the story. Plus the bad guy is so cartoonishly evil and depraved, and his evil deeds are so far-reaching, that I find the story unbelievable. Like a Michael Bay movie, it’s not bad if you don’t think too much about it. 2/5

Slade House by David Mitchell:

Now this is a more traditional Halloween read. It’s a series of stories all taking place in a mysterious house that can only be found once every nine years, when its inhabitants – a pair of sinister brother and sister – would invite a hapless visitor and steal their soul. Apparently it takes place in the same world as one of the author’s previous books, The Bone Clock, but you don’t need to read that one to enjoy this. It’s spooky and a little trippy but not downright scary (it actually reminds me a lot of Coraline), and even though in each story, we know what’s coming (each visitor finds their reality collapsing around them as they’re lured deeper and deeper into the house), there is still that “Oh shit!” moment when we realize what’s really going on. However, I never really connect to any of the characters, and the ending is, you guess it, a bit rushed, so I’m only giving this 4/5

The Elementals by Michael McDowell:

Two Alabama families, after the death of one of their matriarchs, go to their summer houses on the Gulf Coast for a vacation, only to encounter some unknown, vicious horrors in one of the houses, which is abandoned and filled with sand. Michael McDowell was best known for writing the screenplay for Beetlejuice, but I’ve never read any of his books before, and this is also the first Southern Gothic horror I’ve read. It’s very atmospheric – yes, the “monsters” make some memorable appearances, but the true horror of the book comes from a vague but pervading sense of menace and oppression from both the setting and the characters. There is no explanation of what the monsters are or where they come from either, which doesn’t make for a very satisfying ending, but certainly adds to the horror. 4/5

That was fun. I may have to do some more themed reading in the future!

Book Reviews: September 2021

It’s a pretty eclectic month of reading, even by my standard. Here goes:

East of Croydon: Travels in India and South East Asia by Sue Perkins

I like Sue Perkins as a presenter both on The Great British Bake-Off and The Supersizers. I like traveling. I live in South East Asia. So when I came across a book about Sue’s travels during her making of a documentary about the Mekong River, of course I had to pick it up. It’s as funny as I’d expected though – it’s a mix between hilarious travel/childhood anecdotes and poignant and even depressing observations about life. And then it gets really depressing, in the parts about the environmental destruction in China and the abject poverty of India and the devastation of her father’s death. It’s powerful stuff, but a bit too heavy for me. 3.5/5

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan:

Written as a memoir of a lady naturalist/explorer who looked back upon the expeditions of her youth to study the mythical dragons, this is a fun take on the usual fantasy adventure genre. However, I have a few quibbles. One, the world-building is less-than-imaginative – why bother changing the names of the countries when they’re clearly based on the real world (Scirland = England, Vystrana = Russia, etc.)? Just write it as an alternate history (like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) and be done with it. And two, I don’t connect with the characters, and as a result, the story feels very low on tension. Sure, there are physical hardships and dangers, but the personal stakes are not there. The very fact that the main character is alive and writing her story as an old woman lets us know that she will be fine, and as for her companions, I’m not invested enough to care what happens to them. 2.5/5 

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant:

So I move from one fantastical creature to the next – from dragon to mermaid. But this isn’t your typical Ariel. The book revolves around a research ship that goes out to the Mariana Trench to find out what happened to a previous ship that went missing there seven years ago, leaving only behind footage of man-eating mermaids. The idea of killer mermaids sound awesome, and I like the author’s other works (as Seanan McGuire), but this one is a bit disappointing. One, everyone seems to treat the loss of the original voyage as a mystery and keeps saying they will find out “what really happened”, but we know what happened – there is footage of the mermaids attacking and eating the crew – so they’re not finding out what happened; they’re only confirming it (it may be just semantic, but it really bugs me.) Two, it is so, so slow. The technical and scientific stuff about the ship and the research is very dry. I figure it was included to make the story more realistic, but I was hoping for “Aliens” and got a scientific manual instead. And all the personal details weigh the story down as well – I don’t want to read about a character’s struggle with their marriage/love life/disability/sexuality if it has nothing to do with the story! By the end of the book, I’m actively cheering the mermaids on to kill them all… but of course, the ending turns out to be a disappointment too, because it screams anti-climax. 2/5 (and that’s only because the mermaids are cool.)

A Bicycle Made for Two by Mary Jayne Baker:

I don’t read much romance (or even at all), but after the slog that is “Into the Drowning Deep”, I want something light and easy to relax with. I picked this up because it’s set in the Yorkshire Dales, one of my dream destinations, and the story – about a woman trying to get the Tour de France to come to her village – actually sounds fun. I still find the romance part a bit annoying (I find the main character’s chemistry with one of the side characters much sweeter and more believable than with the love interest), but the rest of it is not bad. 3/5

Book Reviews: August 2021

Next Wednesday is scheduled for the SIA round-up, so here’s the book reviews, a week early. It’s been an interesting month of reading, and I enjoyed all of them except one!

Merry Hall trilogy by Beverley Nichols:

I came across a quote by Beverley Nichols on a gardening blog and was immediately drawn to his humor and his way of describing nature, so I immediately tried to find more of his books. Not all of them are available in ebook format, but I did manage to find this trilogy, which is a memoir about his endeavor to restore a Georgian manor house and its garden (kind of similar to A Year in Provence, but with more of a post-war British vibe rather than a French vibe.) Nichols’s writing is a little old-fashioned, sure – the books were written in the 1950s, and he loves his purple prose – but his observations remain true and his British humor goes a long way toward making this enjoyable. I had a constant smile on my face as I was reading it, and even laughed out loud a few times – only a few authors (Terry Pratchett, Bill Bryson, and Mary Roach) manage to do that for me. His house and garden are pretty much an Anglophile’s idea of Heaven (that Anglophile being me), his neighbors and friends are entertainingly depicted in a super British way, AND he’s a cat person. How could I not love this? 5/5

The Murder at the Vicarage & The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie:

Beverley Nichols has put me in the mood for something British, and what’s more British than a couple of Miss Marple murder mysteries? I’ve read a few Agatha Christie books before (And Then There Were None and Death on the Nile, mostly because I love the two adaptations – the 2015 BBC version of And Then There Were None, and the 1978 version of Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov), and of course I’ve watched all the Miss Marple series with Joan Hickson, but this is the first time I read the Miss Marple books. Despite being familiar with the stories already, I was still drawn into them (well, it helps that I watched the TV series a while ago and didn’t remember exactly what happened.) They may be a little slow for the modern reader (“The Body in the Library” is a little more fast-paced), but there’s a reason Agatha Christie is called the Queen of Crime. The characters are wonderfully drawn, the murders themselves are full of twists and turns, and there are enough side plots to keep you guessing until the end. 4/5

All Systems Red (Murderbot Diaries #1) by Martha Wells:

I decided to take a break from all the British village drama and go in the opposite direction – a sci-fi novella about a self-aware android. The eponymous Murderbot is responsible for the security of a team of explorers on a new planet, but it couldn’t care less about humans and only wants to spend its days watching TV (we’ve all been there, haven’t we.) However, when they lose contact with another team on the other side of the planet, it is up to Murderbot and its human clients to figure out what’s wrong. I expect to love this (an anti-social android is so me), but… well, I didn’t. For one thing, the characters are not that great – the book starts with Murderbot already self-aware, so we never got to know it fully, the humans are all interchangeable, and the relationship between Murderbot and the humans are supposed to be awkward and sweet, but it’s just bland to me. Plus there’s the plot, which manages to be both complicated and vague at the same time. 1/5

(P/S: If you want a book about a self-aware android – well, kind of an android – that is hilarious, features an interesting plot, and also tackles some pretty thought-provoking ideas about what it means to be humans, read Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett instead.)


Book Reviews: July 2021

I read 5 books this month, and since I’ve been reading a lot of non-fictions lately, I decided to have a full fiction month. Here goes:

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

I’m starting with a short story collection by sci-fi writer Ted Chiang, since I’ve heard a lot of good things about him. However, while some of the stories have interesting ideas, I didn’t enjoy them as much as I thought. They tend to be too technical and philosophical without much emotional resonance, and they all more or less deal with the same theme – the fact that there is no true free will – which I find repetitive and rather depressing. I may still check out Chiang’s other collection, Stories of Your Life Others (the novella Story of Your Life is the basis for the film Arrival) but I wouldn’t call him my new favorite author. 3/5

Tales from the Gas Station: Volume 1 by Jack Townsend

This book is about a gas station where a lot of weird/unsettling things happen, and at the center of it is a clerk who has learned to turn a blind eye to these events and documents them in a nonchalant, matter-of-fact way. It got a chuckle or two out of me, but considering that it’s based on a creepypasta, I expected it to be a lot more, well, creepy. The stories are just too out-there to be believable urban legends, and the decision to join them up into an overarching plot doesn’t work, because there are too many loose threads. I kept reading in the hope that there would be a point to it all, but in the end, there is no point. It would be much better as a series of unconnected stories. A very generous 1.5/5 (that half star is only because it doesn’t annoy me.)

Borderline by Mishell Baker:

This is basically the movie Men in Black but with fey instead of aliens – a young woman with borderline personality disorder, who recently survived a suicide attempt, is recruited by an agency that monitors all fey activities in our world. I picked this up because it’s set in LA, and, having lived in LA for 7 years, I was interested to see how the book combines urban fantasy with the movie industry. The basic concept is that a lot of successful people in the movie/creative business have the help of fairy “muses”, and in turn, the fairies can benefit from the humans’ reasoning and organizing skills (it’s pretty similar to the idea of the fairy servants in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell). The agency also recruits people with mental problems because they are more acceptable of the magical world (again, this is similar to the correlation between madness and magic in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell). The world-building is good, but I never quite connect with the main character, who is defined solely by her BPD, and the main plot, which revolves around the search for a missing fairy, feels too easy. Still, it’s interesting enough that I might check out the rest of the series. 3/5

The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali:

As a change of pace from all the dark sci-fi and fantasy, here’s a romance: two teenagers fall in love in 1953 Tehran, but are torn apart by political upheaval and fate, until fate again brings them back together 60 years later. I enjoyed all the descriptions of life in 1950s Tehran (it’s the main reason I picked this up), but I was reminded of why I don’t read romance much – I just don’t buy it. I don’t buy that the main characters can fall in love so quickly and completely (they’re 17!!! What the heck do they know?), and that their love is still going strong 60 years later. It’s not that I’m a cynic either, but it’s just that I’m more of a fan of “slow burn” romance, you know? There are some good parts that are quite moving though, so I still give this 3/5

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa:

I was going to read this after “The Traveling Cat Chronicles” last month, but I figured two slice-of-life Japanese novels in one month would be a little redundant, so I saved this until July. It revolves around a housekeeper working for a math professor whose memories only last 80 minutes due to an accident, and the friendship that develops between her, the professor, and her young son. Like most of the Japanese novels of this type, not much happens – or rather, everything is understated and the book leaves you to reflect on your own feelings, rather than tell you how to react – but despite that, or perhaps precisely because of that, it is still very moving. 4/5