Book Reviews: March – April 2020

I read 7 books in the past two months, which is my usual rate, but two of those are absolute door-stoppers, so I did manage to read more than usual. Here they are (I can’t remember when I read which, so I’m dividing them into fiction and non-fiction):

The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg:

After all the non-fiction books from January and February, I wanted some easy, fun fiction, so I picked up the Vietnamese translation of this Swedish book. Very similar to The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared (even the cover looks similar), it tells the story of five senior citizens who, fed up with the way they are treated at their nursing home, decide to escape and go on a crime spree. Alas, the story is nowhere as fun as that sounds. The situations are not wacky enough, and the characters achieve everything very easily, not because they are clever, but because they are lucky and everybody else is so incompetent. At least it’s a quick read. 1.5/5

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo:

Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse series (Shadow and Bone trilogy and Six of Crows duology) is one of my favorite YA fantasy series of recent years, so I’m quite excited to read her first adult fantasy book (more of a horror/fantasy.) You know that movie The Skulls with Joshua Jackson, in which he plays a college student that joins a secret society at Yale, only to find out it holds a sinister secret? This is like that, except instead of Joshua Jackson, you have a girl that can see ghosts, and instead of a criminal conspiracy, you have a magical conspiracy. The eight secret societies of Yale are all magic users, and the main character, Alex Stern, is hired as the representative of the ninth society (hence the title), which has the task of making sure none of the other societies does anything harmful or illegal. Of course, something harmful and illegal does occur, and it’s now up to Alex to discover the truth.

In a way, this is quite similar to the Shadow and Bone trilogy – each of the societies deals with a specific branch of magic, just like each of the Grisha disciplines, and the relationship between Alex and her mentor, Darlington, resembles the relationship between Alina and the Darkling (even their names are similar!) The start is a little slow, the wrap-up is a little rushed, and it can be very violent and disturbing at times, but I really enjoy this and am looking forward to the next in the series. 4/5

Roadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky & Boris Strugatsky:

I’ve heard of the Strugatsky brothers before – they are hailed as the best Soviet sci-fi writers, and during my film study, I’ve come across Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which is based on this book – but I’ve never had the chance to read them until now. The story takes place in the aftermath of an alien visit – the aliens came to Earth and left almost immediately, leaving behind dangerous, mysterious landing places called the Zones. The main character is one of the “stalkers” who would venture inside to bring back alien artifacts and sell them on the black market. Now, after years of risking his life and the life of his mutant daughter, he goes on one last mission to enter a Zone in search of a mythical object that has the alleged power to grant wishes.

What I really like about this book is that it tackles an issue I haven’t seen in many other stories about aliens – the fact that, if we do encounter alien intelligence, we may not understand it, and they may not understand us. This is what the title refers to – the aliens’ visit is like a “roadside picnic”, and we are the rodents and the insects that come afterward to pick through the trash and the leftovers. It also feels strangely prophetic, considering it was written 15 years before the Chernobyl Disaster – the idea of a deadly “Zone” that can potentially kill anyone that comes in contact with it and leave their children mutated is hauntingly familiar.

That being said, it is very bleak (but any book written in 1970s Russia is bound to be bleak) and there’s not much of a story here. I appreciate the idea, but I prefer something with a bit more plot. 3/5

The Diaries of Samuel Pepys:

I love reading about how people lived in the past, so I’ve been trying to pick up the Pepys diaries a bunch of time – I mean, what better way to learn about how people used to live than reading the day-to-day life of a guy who actually lived in 17th-century London and witnessed such momentous events as the coronation of Charles II, the Great Fire of London, and the Great Plague? As it spans over 10 volumes and 1000+ pages, I’ve always been daunted by the sheer size of it; however, since we’re all staying home, I had a little extra time on my hands, so I decided to check it out.

It is fascinating to read, simply because it conjures up so vividly the everyday life of a distant past. When you think back to those times, you only think of the great historical events, but these diaries remind us that amidst those events, people still go about their normal life, go to work, eat, entertain themselves, worry about money, argue with their wives about the dog (this is one of my favorite passages), very much like we do today. Pepys was no angel – he was a womanizer, he treated his wife and his sister badly, and was generally quite self-absorbed. But these flaws only made him more human and his diaries more real. I confess – it does get a little tedious after a while though, so toward the end, I just skipped to the juicier bits. 4/5

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker:

This book isn’t just about why we sleep, but also how we sleep, what happens if you’re sleep-deprived, and how modern society and work habits are killing us by forcing us to sleep less. I initially wanted to read this book because I thought I was sleeping too much – I always try to get at least 8 hours a night (meaning I’m in bed for closer to 8.5 to 9 hours) plus at least a 30-minute nap in the afternoon – but after reading this, I feel pretty good about my choice. I only wish it could be a little more entertaining and a little less alarmist (but then again, the lack of sleep is a very real threat to health and safety, so maybe it’s good to be an alarmist.) 3/5

The Body by Bill Bryson:

With the subtitle “A Guide to Occupants”, this latest book by my favorite non-fiction writer is about all things relating to the human body – how it’s built, how it functions, and how it breaks down. The information is not new (at least not to me,) but it’s entertaining to read (it’s Bill Bryson after all); there are a lot of fun anecdotes about the scientists, some well-known, some forgotten, behind all the discoveries of the human body, and the chapter on diseases and virus is especially timely. 3.5/5

The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore:

This book follows all the tsars and tsarinas of the Romanov dynasty through over 300 years of their reign. I picked it up to read before my trip to Russia, but it’s too heavy and dense (nearly 700 pages of very small print), so I had to leave it until now. Now I’m glad I did, because having been to Russia, it makes it easier for me to remember all the names and follow the story. And what a story – murder, madness, mayhem, torture, sex, and war, endless war (“Game of Thrones” has nothing on these guys.) I’d like to read more about the personalities of each monarch and about court life, rather than what war they’re waging and which courtier they’re promoting or demoting, but there’s no denying that this is very detailed and very well-researched. 4/5

So what did you read?


Ladybird

It’s April Fools, but I think the time we’re living in is a massive joke already so there’s no need to dwell on that, right? Anyway, this was my last proper “work outfit” before I started working from home. It’s simple, so I added some interest with my ladybird pin.

And because there is nothing else in the outfit to talk about: I finally got around to watching Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women (I was reminded of it because, of course, Lady Bird is also a Greta Gerwig movie starring Saoirse Ronan and Timothee Chamalet.) Maybe I’m partial to the 1994 version with Winona Ryder and Christian Bale (even the 1949 version with June Allyson and Peter Lawford isn’t bad), but I found this version kind of… boring. I appreciate the attempt to make Laurie + Amy make sense, but I’m still not entirely convinced (I’m a steadfast Laurie + Jo shipper), and I think the non-linear structure robs the story of its emotional impact. Plus I absolutely hate the costume design (just because the Marches are poor doesn’t mean they have to be dressed like a bunch of ragamuffins and running around with their hair down and their pants showing.)


Book Reviews: February 2020

 I only managed two new books this month, but I decided to stick with the schedule anyway, especially since I’m going to miss March’s book reviews (due to SIA). Unfortunately, neither of the books is really enjoyable…

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick:

As a sci-fi fan, I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I haven’t read Philip K. Dick until now (but then again, I haven’t read a lot of the classic sci-fi authors. The only one I really like is Ray Bradbury, and I haven’t even read his most famous work, Fahrenheit 451.) I’ve seen the movies based on his books (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly and The Adjustment Bureau, to name a few), and now, having read one of his novels, I can see why his works are so popular in film and TV – he was a genius at creating believable sci-fi worlds. This book, which revolves around an alternate world in which the Nazis won World War II, is filled with details big and small that make that world seem so real. However, plot-wise, I can’t tell you exactly what happens – there are a bunch of loosely-connected storylines, but they don’t really go anywhere, and the characters are not exactly engaging either (maybe this is why his works have been adapted so many times. They provide ideas on which you can build your own plot.) A+ for concept and C- for story. 2/5

Australia – a Biography of a Nation by Philip Knightley: (I swear I didn’t pick books by authors both named “Philip K” on purpose!!!)

I picked this book to read on my Russia trip because it’s nice and thick, but it ends up being such a slog that I didn’t finish it until after I came home! I’ve always been fascinated by Australia, so I thought a book about its history would be right up my alley. The problem is, I’m very picky when it comes to non-fiction books, and if a non-fiction book is too dry (like this one) or badly organized (it follows the history of Australia chronologically, but the early days are glossed over, while there is a lot about military history), I would get annoyed. There are some parts I enjoyed, especially the anecdotes about the author’s childhood growing up in Depression-era Sydney. I wish the whole book was like that. 2/5


A Year In Review: Books Of 2019

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all! I’d debated whether to post today or tomorrow, but I figure it’s best to keep the usual schedule (since we don’t really celebrate Christmas anyway), so here’s the business of the day: a look back at all the books I’ve read in 2019. I had so much fun doing this last year so I decided to give it another go this year. Here we go!

Best books you read in 2019:

– Children’s fiction: the only book that can be in this category is The Owl Service (and even then it’s a bit of a stretch), but I didn’t like it, so none.

– Crime fiction: I only read one crime fiction book this year, Damsel in Distress, but it wasn’t great either.

– Classics: does Douglas Adams’s Mostly Harmless count as classics? I think it does.

– Non-fiction: Midnight at Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham. I never thought a non-fiction book could keep me up at night.

– YA: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. It’s dark and twisted and unique.

– Sci-fi/Fantasy: I’m changing last year’s “Dystopian fiction” into Sci-fi/Fantasy because I think it’s a much broader category. Anyway, my favorite sci-fi/fantasy book this year is Thud! by Terry Pratchett.

Most surprising (in a good way) book of 2019: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. I didn’t expect a book about a Silicon Valley scam to be this absorbing, but I found Elizabeth Holmes so fascinating – what was she thinking? How did she pull that off? It goes to show that it doesn’t matter what your book is about, as long as you have great characters.

Book that you read in 2019 that you recommended most to others: Midnight at Chernobyl

Best series you discovered in 2019: Wayward Children (starting with Every Heart a Doorway) by Seanan McGuire and The Anomaly Files (starting with The Anomaly) by Michael Rutger. Both series are relatively new (each only has two books), but I’m interested to see where they’re going to take the story.

Favorite new author you discovered in 2019: Michael Pollan. I read two of his books this year and he’s quickly becoming my favorite food writer.

Book you were excited about and thought you were going to love but didn’t: The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux, The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicholson, and Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller. Each of them is about something I love (train travel, British history, dystopian sci-fi), and each of them turns ou to be really, really boring.

Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre to you: The Gown by Jennifer Robson. I don’t read a lot of chick lit, but this one is sweet and has a historical element, which is nice.

Book you read in 2019 that you’re most likely to read again: Cooked by Michael Pollan.

Favorite book you read in 2019 from an author you’ve read previously: Every Heart a Doorway and Thud!

Best book you read in 2019 that you read based SOLELY on a recommendation from somebody else: Bad Blood, from a recommendation on Reddit.

Favorite cover of a book in 2019: These two.

Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2019: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. It made me think more about food and our relationship with it.

Book you can’t BELIEVE you waited until 2019 to read: The Owl Service.

Book that had a scene in it that had you reeling and dying to talk to somebody about it: Not reeling so much, and not just a single scene. I just really want to discuss the entirety of The Owl Service or The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay, because I had no idea what the hell is going on.

Favorite relationship from a book you read in 2019: Ove’s friendship with his neighbors in A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.

Most memorable character in a book you read in 2019: Jack and Jill in Every Heart a Doorway.

Genre you read the most from 2019: non-fiction.

Best 2018 debut: I didn’t read any “debut” book, and the only book I read that was published in 2019 is City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert, which I didn’t like enough to put on a “best” list.

Book that was the most fun to read in 2019: Cooked, Bad Blood.

Book that made you cry or nearly cry in 2019: A Man Called Ove.

Book you read in 2019 that you think got overlooked this year or when it came out: Geisha, a Life by Mineko Iwasaki (I guess it got overshadowed by Memoirs of a Geisha, but I’m not surprised because it’s a snooze-fest.)

Total number of books read in 2019: 37 (with some rereads).


Book Reviews: November 2019

In the last review, I said this month I’d just read Discworld books because last month’s books frustrated me so much. However, as I only have three Discworld books left to read, I want to save them until I’m absolutely ready for them. So I turned to my to-read pile instead, which is why this month’s reads are a little random. Here goes:

Cooked by Michael Pollan:

After “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, Michael Pollan is quickly becoming my favorite food writer, so I decided to check out another one of his books. In this one, he explores the four basic methods of cooking, which correspond with four basic elements – grilling (fire), braising (water), leavening (air), and fermenting (earth) – and shows how cooking is the bridge between nature and culture. He actually tries to master these methods of cooking and documents his efforts in detail and even includes the recipes at the end of the book as well. If you’re not interested in food, Pollan can come off cloyingly effusive and a bit bourgeoise in his approach, but I find it all fascinating. 4/5

The History of Hanoi by Philippe Papin:

I’ve read many books on Vietnamese history written by Vietnamese authors and was often frustrated at the lack of organization and research, so in picking up a book by a French historian with a special interest in Vietnam, I was hoping the information would be presented in a more scientific manner and would give me some new insights into the history of my country. The book is certainly well researched, but only from the late 18th century on – the earlier stuff remains frustratingly vague. That’s when I realized the fault is not with the author; our own early history is simply so muddled and under-documented that it’s difficult for anyone to make sense of them (I mean, the classic tome of Vietnamese history, written in the 15th century, still documents a case of a king being turned into a tiger as if it were fact!) Plus the book is really dry. Other than Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveler’s Guide series, I have yet to find an entertaining history book. 3/5

The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain by Christopher Monger:

Well, I did say the books were random, didn’t I? I know of this movie with Hugh Grant but didn’t realize it’s a novel until now. The story is pretty simple – during WWI, two English mapmakers arrive at a small Welsh village to measure their beloved mountain, but when it turns out to be just shy of 20 feet to meet the required height, the villagers set out to change the measurement by any means necessary. It’s nothing special, but it’s a fun, quick read, and the characters are all colorful and memorable. 3/5

This is also the last book review post of the year, as next month I’m going to do the yearly round-up, same as last year. See you then!


Book Reviews: October 2019

I only managed three books this month because two of them are pretty long, and unfortunately, none of them is really enjoyable. It’s so frustrating when you put all the time and effort into a book and it doesn’t pay off, isn’t it? I guess I’m going back to Discworld next month…

Anyway, here are the books:

Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King:

This book revolves around the life of Marcus Gavius Apicius, a famous Roman gourmand dreaming of becoming Caesar’s gastronomical advisor, as told by Thrasius, a slave who is Apicius’s chef and close confidant. I’ve heard of Apicius before (in “The Supersizers“, of all places, a BBC show with Sue Perkins and Giles Coren in which they explore culinary history), so I picked this up hoping for some description of food and life in Ancient Rome. In this sense, the book does not disappoint – the meals that Thrasius makes for Apicius and his guests are lovingly described in mouth-watering details. The thing is, it’s not just a book on food history, but also a novel, and here is where it stumbles. Thrasius is the narrator, but he has little if any stake at all in Apicius’s story, so everything just happens without having anything to do with him. Plus, it seems the author tries so hard to cram all the historical facts into a novel that it ends up feeling forced. Great food, not-so-great story. 3/5

The Anomaly by Michael Rutger:

Imagine The X-Files meets Ghost Hunters, and you’ll have this book – it follows a web series crew that specifies in historical/supernatural mysteries. Usually, their investigation turns up empty, but while doing an episode on a cavern deep in the Grand Canyon, they stumble upon something very real – frighteningly so. This is a pretty quick read, and if you’re claustrophobic like me, it can be scary to read at times – after all, it is about a group of characters being trapped in a dark cave. But the final explanation is a bit too Ancient Aliens and to me, does not live up to the mystery in the previous pages. 3/5

The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay:

Three different storylines, each taking place in a different Venice, in a different time – Venice, Italy in 1591, Venice Beach, California, in 1953, and the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas in 2003 – and each revolving around a man with a secret searching for somebody – now, this sounds interesting, doesn’t it? I certainly thought so and was expecting something in the vein of The Shadow of the Wind – a richly detailed, multi-layered, multi-generational mystery. But boy was I disappointed. This is bloated, pretentious, and full of inane little quirks like no quotation marks around dialogue and invented compound words (like “endtables” and “pistolshots”), which just looks like the editor didn’t do their job. And the three storylines? They never quite come together at all. I almost gave up a few times – and I’ve only ever given up one book before – but in the end, I managed to finish this due to sheer stubbornness. The only good thing I can say about this book is that it’s a cure for insomnia – it’s so tedious that I dropped right off to sleep every time I read it! 1/5

So what did you read?


Book Reviews: September 2019

I missed Book Reviews last week because of SIA, so here’s the make-up. I read four books this month, but I’m reaching that slump now of the year when I don’t feel like reading anything new, which I usually cure by reaching for a Discworld book (since I know I’m going to enjoy it.) The thing is, my stack of unread Discworld books is dwindling so I want to save them. Or, maybe, I should just finish them all and reread them, starting with the Watch books, to prepare for the upcoming adaptation

Anyway, onto this month’s books:

Damsel in Distress by Carola Dunn:

This is a book in the Daisy Dalrymple series, the first of which I’ve read last year and quite enjoyed. I saw this at the used book store and decided it would be an easy book to take on my trip to Malaysia, so I picked it up. Revolving around our socialite amateur investigator dealing with the kidnapping of an American heiress, it’s a fun and quick read, but the stakes are a little low. Well, lower than usual, I mean, since these books are never meant to be suspenseful thriller mysteries in the first place. 2.5/5

Queen Victoria – 24 Days That Change Her Life by Lucy Worsley:

As the title implies, this book focuses on 24 important events in Queen Victoria’s life, from the marriage of her parents to her own wedding, the coronation, the birth of her first child, Prince Albert’s death, etc. In many ways, this is a standard biography, but by focusing on these days, it gives us a good overview of Queen Victoria’s life without overwhelming us with too much information. I’ve read many non-fiction books, especially biographies, that keep jumping from one fact to the next without a good system of organization, so I appreciate this here. It’s not going to change how you see Queen Victoria, but it’s entertaining to read nonetheless. 4/5

If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley:

This is actually a book to accompany a TV series of the same name (and hosted by the author) about the history of the house and domestic life. Again, it’s not the most groundbreaking book or even the most entertaining (Bill Bryson’s At Home and Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveler’s Guide series are vastly superior, IMO), but it’s easy to read and, if you’re a sucker for nonfictions about historical sociology like me, you’ll enjoy it. 3/5

The Owl Service by Alan Garner:

I’ve heard of this book as a YA fantasy classic, so when I saw it on sale at the used book store, I picked it up immediately. The story, as far as I can tell, is set in a Welsh valley and revolves around three teenagers – a girl, her stepbrother, and their housekeeper’s son – that become trapped in an ancient tragic love triangle and are now forced to act out the three roles in it. I say “as far as I can tell” because I’m not quite sure what really happens in it. It consists mostly of snippets of dialogue, and it can be difficult to pick the story out from those snippets. “Show, don’t tell” may be a good thing, but not when showing is used as excessively as this. You can never be sure what a character is feeling or what they are doing or why they are doing a certain thing. I will say this for it, though: the writing manages to conjure up a threatening and oppressive but still magical atmosphere. Too bad the story doesn’t come through. 2/5