Book Reviews: February 2018

Because I couldn’t post this in February due to a lack of Internet access in Cuba, here is a belated book review.

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker:

I’m always on the lookout for more books about language and linguistics, so when Steven Pinker’s name came up in John McWhorter’s Words on the Move, I decided to check out his books. If Words on the Move deals with the social and historical development of English, then this one focuses more on the neurological and psychological aspects of language (not just English). It’s fascinating, but I have to admit that some parts are too technical for me and I found myself not retaining a single word after reading several pages. It probably didn’t help that I always read this before bed. It’s not really a bedtime sort of book. Still, a great book if you’re interested in linguistics. 4/5

Vietnamese Festivals by Nguyen Van Huyen:

This collection of essays was written in French during the 1940’s by one of Vietnam’s leading historians and folklorist, and later translated into Vietnamese. It offers a wonderful look into the traditional festivals of Vietnam, most of which are still celebrated today, though some of the traditions are now lost or their meanings have become obscure. My only criticism is that it’s a collection of essays, so some of the information tends to be repeated. 4/5

The Spy by Paolo Coelho:

I knew this was going to be disappointing even before I read it, because I was hoping for a biographical novel about Mata Hari and this is too thin. But I read it anyway, figuring that even if it doesn’t give me all the details about Mata Hari’s life, then at least it could give me some sort of insights into her personality. The book, a series of letters from Mata Hari to her lawyer, is certainly supposed to do that, but it doesn’t. It tries to depict Mata Hari as a tragic figure who just wanted to be an independent woman, and that proved to be her downfall, but I don’t sympathize with her character or have any investment in her life. The book is simply too truncated to leave any kind of resonance. 1/5

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson:

This is the book I read during my Cuba trip – non-fictions are best travel read, I find, because you can pick it up and put it down anytime you want. Subtitled “More Notes from a Small Island”, this details more of Bryson’s travel around the British isle. It may not be funny as the first Notes from a Small Island, but I still really enjoyed it, because I identify with Bill Bryson as a traveler (like me, he always seeks out the museums in every town he visits and grumbles about the prices of everything). 4/5

So that’s my books for February. What have you read?


Book Reviews: December 2017 – January 2018

I actually didn’t read any new books in January, I just reread Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (and rewatched the mini series) and The Ladies of Grace Adieu (by the same author), so here are the books I read in December:

Words on the Move by John McWhorter:

I’m always interested in linguistics and entymology, but there are so many books on the subject that I don’t know where to start. My friend Debbi actually recommended another book by John McWhorter (The Power of Babel), but I haven’t been able to find it, so I read this one instead. It’s about the development of English and basically why you shouldn’t make fun of people for saying “irregardless”, because a lot of words started out very different from what they are now. It looks into meanings, pronunciations, compound words, and grammar, to show how English have changed over the course of history. It’s very interesting, but I would still judge people who say “could care less” and “hold down the fort” though. 4/5

The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr:

This is the second book in the series that starts with The Alienist (which was just adapted into a mini-series with Daniel Bruhl, Luke Evans, and Dakota Fanning), which revolves around a psychiatrist, Dr. Kreizler, and his friends – a reporter, a female private detective, and two police officers with some newfangled ideas about criminology – as they investigate crimes in fin de siècle New York. This one sees them investigating a kidnapping, which them to confront a dangerous and manipulative woman. I quite enjoyed the first one, but this, unfortunately, isn’t nearly as good. The crimes are not as horrifying as the serial murders in The Alienist (despite every attempt to sensationalize it), the antagonist is not as fascinating, and the pacing is very slow. The last 100 pages or so are OK, but the first 600 just drags. Plus, the writing has a tendency to replace “that” with “what” (as in, “It’s the cake what I want” instead of “It’s the cake that I want”) because the narrator is supposed to be working-class, which gets really annoying. 2/5

The Circle by Dave Eggers:

I’ve heard a few people saying that they decided to cut down on their online presence after reading this techno thriller, so I decided to give it a go. Well, after reading it, I have to say I don’t see what the big deal is. The story, which revolves around a young woman getting a job at a powerful tech company called The Circle and getting swept up in its plan for world domination, is supposed to be a cautionary tale about our dependence on technology and social media, but I just don’t buy it. For one thing, this company is so obviously sinister that I can’t believe people would be OK with any of its inventions. You would expect it to brainwash people gradually by convincing them of the small things first, right? Not here. In one of the early scenes, the company announces its plan to install tiny, undetectable cameras around the world and everybody just cheers like it’s the best thing in the world. WTF?

Two, the main character is a complete doormat. In stories like this, either she would start out a skeptic and end up getting brainwashed by the company, or she starts out as a believer and end up realizing the darker side of the company. But nope. She starts out thinking The Circle is the best and at the end (spoiler) still thinks it is the best. She doesn’t go through any changes, so the entire story is rendered pointless.

Now I know why the movie adaptation flopped so terribly despite a solid cast. It’s not their fault. The story just sucks. Do yourself a favor and just watch Black Mirror instead. 1/5

Anyway, that’s me. If you want to see more book reviews, check out my friend Mike’s blog.

Favorite Books Of 2017

(This was taken earlier this year, when I was organizing my bookcase alphabetically. That, of course, is my Discworld/Terry Pratchett pile).

In lieu of a book review, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at all the books I’ve read this year and pick out some favorites. In no particular order:

Gentlemen & Players by Joan Harris: An engaging mystery with a pretty good twist. Even though I could kinda guess it, it’s still quite well done.

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England and The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer: Combining my two favorite genres, travel and history.

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo: Morally gray characters, a richly detailed world, and nary a love triangle in sight, this is not your usual fantasy YA series.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach: Funny, educational, and makes me want to become a tree after I die.

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett: Of course, how would my book list be complete without a Discworld book, right? (Though by my calculation, I only have 10 books left in the series, so I need to space them out.) “Feet of Clay” may have been the book that makes me fall in love with the Watch, but this is the one that solidifies that love. It’ll make you cry.

Honorary mentions: Big Little Lies (Liane Moriarty), City of Thieves (David Benioff), The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson), and The Illustrated Man (Ray Bradbury).

Overall, it’s a balanced mix of genres, fictions and non-fictions, and male and female authors. A pretty good year of reading, wouldn’t you say?

The Gray Jedi

It seems every time I go to see a Star Wars movie, I always wear black and red (well, this is more like gray and red). It’s unintentional, of course – my wardrobe simply has more colors of the Dark Side. Besides, what are the colors of the Light Side? White, yes, and… blue? Green? I’m not even sure.

Anyway, back to the movie – The Last Jedi. I gushed about The Force Awakens, but I have to say, I’m disappointed with the follow-up. It’s just… a mess. A bunch of storylines go nowhere, there is no character development to speak of, and with all the talks about how different it is from other Star Wars movies, it still looks and feels very familiar to me (it follows the same basic plot points as Empire Strikes Back, just like how The Force Awakens follows A New Hope). Oh, there are certainly a lot of cool moments, but they’re just that – moments, with no connection between them. The movie ends up being way less than the sum of its parts. I may see it again this week if I have time, but I don’t see my first impression changing.

Book Reviews: November 2017

It’s been a busy month, so I only managed to read three books, but in my defense, two of them are pretty big, and at least they’re all good. Here goes:

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson:

This book follows the same formula as Erik Larson’s previous non-fiction book, Devil in the White City (which I love): telling two parallel stories, one of a social/historical importance, and the other a sensational murder case. In this case, it’s the invention of radio by Guglielmo Marconi and the case of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, the first murder suspect to be captured with the aid of radiotelegraphy. It’s quite good, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as Devil in the White City, because I didn’t care about Marconi at all (he was kind of a dick) and the Crippen murder is nowhere near as captivating as the murders of H.H. Holmes. The book does pick up toward the last third, when it focuses solely on Crippen, but it’s not quite enough. 3/5

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer:

I’ve read Ian Mortimer’s other “Time Traveler’s Guide” book, which is about Elizabethan England, and loved it, and this one doesn’t disappoint. I love reading about historical everyday life, and it’s rare to find one like this, full of vivid and entertaining (and sometimes straight-up disgusting, but in a good way) descriptions. It really brings the period to life, as opposed to just listing off facts and figures. Highly recommended. 5/5

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury:

I’ve just been hired to translate this, which is really exciting because after Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Bradbury is my favorite sci-fi/fantasy writer. Ironically, my favorite book of his (Dandelion Wine) is actually neither sci-fi nor non-fiction, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy his other works. This contains some pretty chilling stories, like something you’d find on Black Mirror today (“The Veldt”, “Marionettes Inc.”), some are surprisingly moving (“The Rocket”, “The Rocket Man”, “The Last Night of the World”), and some are just so cinematic I’m surprised they haven’t been adapted already (“The Fox and the Forest”, “The Visitor”). My only complaint is that the messages in some of them are a bit too on-the-nose (“The Other Foot”, “The Man”), but that’s minor. 4.5/5

What about you guys? What have you read?

Book Reviews: October 2017

October is a very… balanced month of reading. Two fictions, by a male and a female author, and two non-fictions, also by a male and female author, but about very different subject matters. Let’s get to them, shall we?

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery:

I’ve always been kind of fascinated by octopuses – their intelligence and camouflage abilities are really remarkable, considering they are invertebrates. However, if you’re looking for a scientific book about octopuses, then this isn’t it. True, it features some fascinating facts, but nothing you wouldn’t find on a Wikipedia page. Instead, the main appeal of this book lies in the connections and relationships the author forges with the various octopuses and their caretakers that she meets along the way of her research. Though she tends to get a little gaga about the octopuses at times, which can be annoying unless you love octopuses as much as she does, I still find this an interesting and sometimes touching read. 3/5

The Song Rising by Samantha Shannon:

This is the next book in the Bone Season series, which I’m hired to translate. It’s the only reason I read it. I thought I had reviewed the first two books on the blog before, but apparently I hadn’t, so here’s a quick recap: the series is set in an alternate timeline (still our world but with slightly different history), where people with psychic abilities (called “voyants”) are deemed to be unnatural and forced to become criminals. The main character discovers that the world is actually being controlled by a race of supernatural beings (called “Rephaite”) that enslave the voyants and feed on them, and together with a renegade Rephaite, she starts a revolution to bring freedom to the other voyants.

The basic idea sounds good, but the books aren’t. The world-building is unnecessarily convoluted (I can take the psychic criminal underbelly OR the supernatural beings that enslave people, but not both), the characters are either one-dimensional or predictable, and the central romance between the main character and the Rephaite is every cliché in the YA book. It’s not as bad as Twilight, but that isn’t saying much.

I really wanted to get out of translating this book because I hated the first two so much, but the people at the publishing house said there was no one else, so I had to cave in. The only good thing I can say about it is that I didn’t hate it more than the other two. And the author plans to write SEVEN of these? Please, stop. 1/5

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett:

After the two disappointing Discworld books last month, I wanted to try another Discworld book that I would actually enjoy, so here it is (I also reread “Good Omens”, in anticipation of the TV series.) This is another book about the City Watch, which features Sam Vimes accidentally traveling 30 years back in time and ending up mentoring his younger self while the city is on the brink of a revolution. Despite that premise, the book is pretty serious – there are some heavy musings about society and democracy and what it really means to be a policeman. But the great thing about the Discworld books is that they make you think without being preachy, and besides, it’s great seeing the young versions of Nobby Nobbs and Vetinari. (I never thought I’d go “Aww” over Nobby, but I did.) 4.5/5

The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah:

This book is in the vein of A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun – the author is tired of their dreary life and decides to make a drastic move to some exotic location (Morocco, in this case) to start over. The writing is easy to read, but the story itself, which revolves around the author trying to renovate a house in Casablanca, really frustrates me. In A Year in Provence, for example, the author faces similar difficulties (slow builders, eccentric locals, annoying guests, etc.) but they all seem charming and funny, whereas here, the conditions are truly alarming and the author comes off as a stubborn idiot who refuses to accept that he’s made a terrible mistake. He fails to make me see what’s so great about Casablanca that justifies him going through all that trouble. 2/5

Book Reviews: September 2017

This month’s reading is almost exactly the same as August – another busy month, another double bill by the same author followed by a non-related book – except this month’s books are a bit more mediocre. But it’s actually a good thing. I’ve been so busy that a boring book would be better than a page-turner, because that means I can put it down whenever I want.

Making Money & Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett:

When it comes to my favorite Discworld characters, Moist von Lipwig is pretty far down the line (even though I quite enjoy Richard Coyle in the TV adaptation of Going Postal), but when I saw these at the used bookstore, I decided to get them to take with me on my German trip, because they would be lighter than my Kindle. Unfortunately, they’re the first Discworld books that I did not actually enjoy. They’re not as funny as the usual Discworld book, and Moist’s character arc already seems completed in Going Postal, so his “crook with a heart of gold” shtick feels kind of repetitive here.

To be fair, I did get a chuckle or two out of “Making Money”, especially from the main antagonist who’s obsessed with becoming Vetinari. “Raising Steam”, however, is just plain weird. It doesn’t even read like Terry Pratchett. It’s like a poor imitation of his writing by someone else with no understanding of the characters. For example, there is a scene in which Vetinari bangs his fist on the table in excitement, which I can’t imagine Vetinari ever doing. I understand that the book was written while Terry Pratchett was struggling with his Alzheimer’s and he wrote by dictating to his assistant, but this feels like it was written by the assistant himself.

I think another problem I had with these books is that they feature little of the usual Discworld parody. At least Going Postal has some fun with the world of postal service in the clacks (a Discworld version of telegraphy) and the invention of stamps, whereas “Making Money” (which deals with Moist taking over the world of banking and minting) and “Raising Steam” (steam train/railways) feel too close to the real world. 2.5/5 (3/5 for “Making Money” and 2/5 for “Raising Steam”).

All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka:

This is the Japanese sci-fi novel/manga that got adapted into the Tom Cruise&Emily Blunt-starring sci-fi action flick, Edge of Tomorrow. I can see why it got Hollywood’s attention – the premise is interesting: in the future, when humans are locked in a war against alien invaders called Gitai (Mimics in the movie), a rookie finds himself trapped in a mysterious time loop in which he is forced to relieve his first day of battle (and his death) over and over again. He then meets a female soldier who was once trapped in a time loop of her own, and they team up to defeat the aliens. It’s a very quick read, and despite being quite short, the characters are pretty well crafted. My only complaint is that the relationship between the two characters, which is the emotional core of the whole story, is developed too quickly, so it doesn’t leave much resonance. Still, it’s better than the movie, which completely missed the point of the ending. 3.5/5

So that’s it for this month. Hopefully next month’s books will be more enjoyable. How about you guys? What did you read?