Book Reviews: August 2022

It’s been an interesting month of reading (as I say every month). I’m definitely sticking to the theme of “woman having an adventure” this month, maybe because it’s my birth month and I’m feeling the need to have some sort of adventure of my own… Anyway, here are the books:

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley:

I don’t remember how I came across this little book, but I picked it up because the title reminds me of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which gives the book an air of quirky magical realism (it’s not actually magical realism though), and the story sounds right up my alley – a spinster gets fed up with keeping house for her brother, a famous author, and impulsively decides to join a bookseller on his traveling wagon for an unlikely adventure. It’s a fun, quick read, and traveling around in a portable bookstore is exactly my kind of retirement plan, so of course I can relate. I don’t buy the central love story and the ending so much – I wish the main character could continue on her way without getting married (this is not a spoiler, by the way, because the opening of the book pretty much gives the ending away) – but the book was first published in 1917 and written by a man, so I guess that’s as progressive as it gets. 4/5

Winter Pasture by Li Juan:

After a fiction book about a single woman joining a nomadic bookseller, here’s a non-fiction book about a single woman joining a nomadic family of Kazakh herders as they move their cattle to pasture for the winter. It has all the themes that I’m interested in (adventure, nature/animals, and everyday life), but I’ve never read about the Kazakhs or nomadic herders before, so I expected to enjoy this. However, while the descriptions of the herders’ life are interesting, something must have gotten lost in translation (it was translated from Chinese), because I find the prose rather stilted and clunky. Plus, I think it’s badly organized – the first part is about the nomadic life in general, then the second part describes the people she stayed with, and the third part is the author’s emotions and reflections about her experience. Wouldn’t it be much better if these three are organically woven together? There are some beautiful stories and moving observations, but because the book is divided like this, the whole thing feels repetitive and disjointed. 3/5

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James:

I enjoyed Simone St. James’s “The Sun Down Motel” enough when I read it last year, so this year I got another supernatural mystery by her, thinking I’ll save it for Halloween, but I got impatient, so here it is. This one shares the same formula as “The Sun Down Motel” – two interweaving stories, one involving a missing/murdered girl in the past, and one involving a woman in the present trying to uncover the mystery, with a supernatural element – except it’s set at a boarding school for girls that is supposedly haunted instead of a motel that is supposedly haunted. But that doesn’t mean that it’s formulaic or predictable. The characters are well written and relatable (much more so than “The Sun Down Motel”), the mystery is absorbing, and the story is atmospherically spooky but not scary. The resolution feels a little easy, but overall I enjoyed it. 4/5

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris & Mrs. Harris Goes to New York by Paul Gallico:

Continuing my theme of “woman going on an adventure”, I finished this month with these two short and sweet novels about a London charwoman who goes to Paris to buy a Dior dress and later, goes to New York to help an abandoned boy find his father. I recently saw the trailer of the movie adaptation of the first book and found it very charming, so I decided to check it out. I prefer the “Paris” book, not just because it’s fashion-adjacent, but also because the “New York” one is a bit more predictable. Still, the stories are very lighthearted and amusing (though not exactly funny), and there are some great descriptions of Paris and New York. 4/5

Book Reviews: June 2022

I’m posting this a week early since next Wednesday is reserved for the SIA round-up post, plus June was a busy month, so I only managed 3 books:

The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger:

I’ve always found Old Hollywood fascinating, so this book, which discusses how movie stars were manufactured (and they were manufactured, not merely “discovered”) by the studio system during the Golden Age of Hollywood (1930s-1950s, roughly), is right up my alley. It details the step-by-step process of making a star and features several “case studies” of when the machine worked and when it didn’t, and why, by examining of the careers of Tyrone Power, Lana Turner, Errol Flynn, Deanna Durbin, Jean Arthur, Norma Shearer, and others. It’s very insightful and entertaining at the same time, and I’ve been on a classic movie binge because of it. 5/5

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce:

I quite enjoy Rachel Joyce’s previous book, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”, so of course I had to check out her next book. It’s about a spinster teacher in post-WWII London who teams up with an unlikely “assistant” to travel to New Caledonia and search for a mysterious beetle. It combines several of my favorite genres and subject matters (travel, nature, a bit of history, adventure), and at the heart of it is a moving story about friendship and going out of your comfort zone – pretty similar to “Harold Fry”, in fact. I found the two characters a bit silly and annoying at first, but I soon warmed up to them. My one complaint is the two subplots – one feels forced and a little repetitive, and the other goes nowhere. Still, it’s very good and fairly quick read. 4/5

A Pho Love Story by Loan Le:

I don’t often read romance, and I read YA romance even more rarely, so the only reasons I decided to read this – a star-crossed romance between two Vietnamese-American teens whose families run rival pho restaurants – are 1) I’m Vietnamese and 2) I like food-themed books. I was prepared to not like the romance, so in a way, the book meets my expectation – the romance is pretty clichéd. The chapters switch between the main characters’ POVs, but their voices are not different enough, so I often found myself confused as to whose POV I’m following. Plus, the reason behind the families’ feud is too slight and not convincing at all. As for the food descriptions, they’re okay, except for one glaring issue: you do NOT put hoisin sauce in pho! Also, I find the Vietnamese phrases scattered throughout the book rather distracting – some are downright incorrect, and even the correct ones are too stilted and not natural enough. For the teens, that can be forgivable, because they’re not born in Vietnam, but even the parents’ Vietnamese is questionable. 2/5

Book Reviews: May 2022

Another fantastic month of reading (though to be fair, the two TV books are very quick reads):

Teacher, Teacher! by Jack Sheffield:

This is basically “All Creatures Great and Small” by James Herriot, but with a teacher instead of a vet – it’s about a young man appointed to be the headmaster of a small primary school in rural Yorkshire in the 1970s. Just like “All Creatures Great and Small”, it contains anecdotes about the students, staff, and the eccentric villagers, based on the author’s own experiences. It’s sweet (though only mildly amusing – if you’re looking for something laugh-out-loud, you’ll be disappointed), and I really enjoyed reading about all the school activities, like Bonfire Night, Summer Fair, and Christmas Pantomime. It must be the Anglophile in me. 4/5

The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford:

When checking out a new author, especially in fantasy/sci-fi, I always try to find a short story collection, since they’re more accessible than a full-length work. I’ve never heard of Jeffrey Ford before, but I saw this title floating around some book recommendation website and it immediately grabbed my attention. It’s been a while since I read an adult fantasy book too, so a short story collection seems like the right choice to get back into it. The stories are a little familiar – they mostly revolve around a mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary (like a fairy recounting his life in a sandcastle, or Charon taking a holiday) – and remind me a bit of Ray Bradbury (especially the novella “Botch Town”), but that’s no bad thing. However, though I enjoyed them, most of the stories are quite unsatisfying – they tend to be circular, in that details and events from earlier are used or mentioned again at the end, but we never find out what that means. I don’t need the story to spell everything out for me, but some explanation would be nice. 3.5/5

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch:

I don’t often go for sci-fi/thriller books, but this one has an interesting premise – a man is replaced by his alter ego/doppelganger from another universe and must now get back to his family. The multiverse seems everywhere these days, so I thought, why not check this out? It is very fast-paced and cinematic book (and of course, it’s getting adapted into a TV series), but the story gets bogged down by its own logic of the multiverse-travel instead of the emotional/philosophical ramifications of it. The character only very briefly wonders what his life would turn out like if he’d chosen a different path, but never stops to do anything about it – it’s all about getting back to his family. Plus, the author wrote himself into a corner, so the ending is a total cop-out. I have this author’s next book, “Recursion”, on my TBR list, but I’m not sure if I want to read it now when this one is so disappointing. 2.5/5

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas:

I was going to read this last month after “To Say Nothing of the Dog”, but I thought two time travel books consecutively may be too much for me, so I saved this for later. It starts out well – four scientists invent time travel in 1967, but when one of them has a nervous breakdown, she is cast out to protect the group. 50 years later, she is informed of a future murder, prompting her granddaughter to uncover the mystery. If the book had stuck with this murder mystery angle, I would’ve enjoyed it more, but instead, it keeps cutting back and forth between at least 3 different timelines, with many different characters, none of whom I really connect with, so in the end, I don’t care about the mystery anymore. True to its title, the book also raises some interesting issues about how time travel can affect one’s mental health (for example, a time traveler gets so chronologically lost that she becomes anorexic), but again, the story is all over the place so none of those is explored to its fullest. 2.5/5

Taskmaster: 200 220 Extraordinary Tasks for Ordinary People by Alex Horne:

Ever since the pandemic, Taskmaster has been my one constant source of joy and sanity preservation (ironic, given how insane the show is), so when I saw this book at the used book store, of course I had to snap it up. To be fair, it’s not really a book to read – rather, it contains ideas and suggestions for you to host your own Taskmaster event, or just simply pass the time (there are sections for pub tasks, rainy day tasks, transport tasks, and solo tasks if you have no social life, like me.) Still, for a fan of the show, the book can be fun even if you don’t do the tasks. I got a kick out of spotting tasks that have been on the show (the book came out after series 7, but I’ve recognized some tasks from later series, like “make your knee look like a famous person” from series 9), and there are various behind-the-scene tidbits throughout the book that I really enjoyed too. 4/5

Inside Black Mirror by Charlie Brooker, Annabel Jones, and Jason Arnopp:

This is another TV behind-the-scene book I picked up from the used book store (somebody must have gotten rid of their collection.) This book breaks down each “Black Mirror” episode (this came out before “Bandersnatch” and S5, so they’re not present, but I’m OK with it because those are the weakest episodes anyway) with the two showrunners, Brooker and Jones, along with other members of the cast and crew discussing their creative process – basically, it’s like a DVD commentary in book form. It’s great for any fan of the show, plus the hardcover edition is beautifully printed and illustrated, like a coffee-table book (which makes it a bit awkward to read in bed, but other than that, no complaint.) I was tempted to rewatch the show along with the book, but just the thought of watching “The National Anthem” or “White Bear” again is enough to stress me out, so maybe I’ll just watch some of the lighter/happier ones… “San Junipero”, basically (“Hang the DJ” also has a happy ending but it’s not as good. I guess “USS Callister” counts as a happy ending too.) 5/5

Book Reviews: April 2022

Another great month of reading (in terms of quantity; the quality is not great but not terrible either), and eclectic as always:

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman:

I only know Richard Osman from his appearances on British comedy panel shows like Would I Lie to You and Taskmaster, but I’ve heard good things about this book and it seems to scratch my “British murder mystery” itch, so I decided to check it out. The premise is simple enough – four retirees form a “murder club” to discuss unsolved cases and add some excitement to their lives, but when a real murder occurs in their retirement village, they find themselves getting involved in the investigation. I was expecting something like Miss Marple, but I was sorely disappointed. The investigation moves like molasses; each chapter switches to a different POV, which causes the whole thing to be so fragmented and repetitive; and the resolution is super easy – basically, the characters just sit the killer(s) down and say “Right, we know you kill these people. Now tell us why.” And it’s not even funny! I slogged through it because I hate to leave a book unfinished, but when I reached the end, I couldn’t care less. 1/5

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis:

For a bit of fun, I decided to pick up this book, described as a “time travel romantic comedy”. It takes place in a world where time travel is possible but only used for research/study and revolves around a history student who is sent back to Victorian England for a rest after too many trips back and forth in time. Here, he finds himself in an adventure reminiscent of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) – hence the title – and having to prevent a disruption in the space-time continuum. I’ve read Three Men in a Boat a while ago and quite enjoyed it, and this one is enjoyable as well. It’s a bit slow and rambling at first, as the book doesn’t spend a lot of time on world-building, but once you get used to it, it picks up considerably. It reminds me a lot of the Thursday Next series, from the quirky sci-fi elements and the literary homage to the quintessential Britishness of it all. 4/5

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry:

I’m working my way through my TBR list so the books are a bit all over the place. This murder mystery, which takes place in 19th-century Edinburgh, sees a medical student teaming up with a housemaid to solve a series of gruesome deaths involving pregnant women. I was drawn to it because of the setting (Edinburgh is one of my favorite cities) and the grim, potentially graphic quality of the story could serve as a good counterpoint for the cozy mystery of The Thursday Murder Club (warning: it is quite graphic though. There are some detailed descriptions of difficult childbirths and amputations.) However, the pacing is super slow – the investigation doesn’t begin in earnest until halfway through. Plus, the writing is a bit clunky, I think in an attempt to make it sound old-timey. The characters are not bad though, and the other books in the series look promising, so I may check them out one day. 3/5

The Spirit Level by Seamus Heaney:

“The Way of All Flesh” was a bit heavy – at least viscerally – so I tried to lift my mood and lighten my mind with some poetry, turning, as usual, to Seamus Heaney. But my mind wasn’t entirely in it, so I struggled with this more than usual and had to turn to this website, which analyzes Heaney’s poems, to help me understand some of them. Still, there are some poems which, though their exact meanings may have escaped me, I was able to enjoy just for their sheer rhythms and melodies (A Brigid’s Girdle, Postscript). Some of my favorites, though, are the ones with very simple subject matters, but their emotions and meanings still come through (Mint, A Call, The Butter Print.) 3/5

(Unrelated, but why do poetry books have such boring covers? I believe more people would read poetry if the book covers were more exciting. I know I would.)

The Great Western Beach: A Memoir of a Cornish Childhood between the Wars by Emma Smith:

I’m working my way through my TBR list, which is why my books this month are a bit all over the place (more than usual, I mean.) This book serves as a nice break after The Way of All Flesh – it’s a memoir of the author growing up in Cornwall from 1924 to 1935. However, it’s not as fun or idyllic as, say, Gerald Durrell’s Corfu trilogy, for example, because the author’s home life is less than ideal – she and her siblings are terrified of their father, who is bitter and cruel, and their mother is understandably depressed. Luckily, their maid is a great comfort, and the friendly and eccentric neighbors are a source of fun and support as well. The book does a great job of capturing a child’s memories – it’s written in first-person present tense, and each section gets longer as the author grows up and her memories become more detailed. I’ve always enjoyed reading about everyday life in the past, so even though nothing much happens, the beach picnics, tea parties, various incidents (both pleasant and not) the author experienced, and her childlike yet accurate observations of people more than make up for the lack of a proper story. 4/5

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben:

I got this book last year along with a bunch of books about trees and nature (Entangled Life, What a Plant Knows, and The Forest Unseen). If I had read it back then, I would probably enjoy it more, but having read all the others, this one just feels repetitive, because all the information is similar to what I’ve already read. It feels repetitive within the book itself as well – it mostly just talks about beeches, oaks, pines, and spruces of Central Europe. What about the other species and other locations? Plus, I’m not a fan of the cutesy writing (referring to saplings as youngsters and teenagers and such). The good thing is that the chapters are short, so it’s a quick read. 2/5

Book Reviews: February & March 2022

I actually managed 11 books (the Hebridean books are a trilogy, and a Miss Marple reread) in the past two months, which is a record for me. Let’s check them out:

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse:

After the Mapp & Lucia books turn out to be not as funny as I’d hoped, I decided that if I wanted comedy about the upper middle-class, I should just go straight for the classics (this is technically the second book in the Jeeves series, but it’s the first to feature both Jeeves and Wooster, so I’m counting it as the first.) I’ve known the Jeeves stories from Jeeves & Wooster, the TV series with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie (and indeed, as I read this, I heard the dialogue in their voices), but this is my first time actually reading them, and here I finally found the super dry, super British sense of humor I was looking for. Some of the slang and references took me a while, but the humor is still there. There is not much plot either – it’s pretty much a series of sitcom-like stories – but that’s the great thing about it; I could pick it up and put it down whenever I want. Now, to rewatch the Fry & Laurie series… 4/5

Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran by Jason Elliot:  

Out of all the trips I’ve taken in the past few years, Iran is one of the most memorable – it’s so completely different from anywhere else, and the combination of the awe-inspiring landscapes and architecture and the warmth of its people make it an irresistible destination. This February marks the 3-year anniversary of my Iran trip, so it’s the perfect time to pick this up. The author’s journeys are a lot more in-depth than your usual tourist’s trip – he had three years and many hosts and guides amongst the locals – but I still enjoy reliving my trip through them. My one complaint is that he tends to get too detailed with the art and architecture, which I find rather distracting. I don’t mind reading about them, but not at the expense of the travel stories. All those musings about the history and meaning of Islamic art could have been a separate book – I mean, when the book is actually telling the readers to skip a section if they’re not interested in Islamic art, then it’s not a well-structured book. 3.5/5

The Secret Lives of Colors by Kassia St. Clair:

The Iran book was a bit of a slog to finish, so I went on to something lighter and easier – a book on colors. It’s a series of short essays about the history, anecdotes, and trivia surrounding 75 selected colors, ranging from white to black and everything in between. It’s a very quick read – almost too quick, as I wish each chapter could go a bit deeper into the history of each color – but enjoyable and informative nonetheless. 4/5

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson:

When I read the summary of this book, I knew I had to pick it up because it just sounds so weird. It’s a true-crime account of how a man broke into the British National Museum in 2009 to steal hundreds of rare bird specimens for their feathers and sell them on the fly-tying (as in artificial flies for fly-fishing) underground market, and the author’s own search for the missing birds 5 years later. Who knew that fly-tying was such an obsession that it would even have a dark side?! It’s definitely not about the flies (most tiers don’t even know how to fish); it’s about possessing something rare and beautiful – like the feathers of endangered birds. The book goes into the histories of the specimens themselves, of the craze for exotic bird feathers, and of fly-tying, which reached its height in the 19th century, but I still don’t understand it. And I don’t think the author does either – it’s clear that he’s condemning that obsession and blaming the fly-tying community for allowing such a crime to happen. But there’s no denying that the book is absorbing and well-written, even if the subject matter is terribly niche. 4/5

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz:

I seem to have unwittingly gone with an avian theme, though this book cannot be more different from “The Feather Thief” – it’s also about an investigation, yes, but it’s a whodunit, a rather meta homage to the Golden Age of Mystery. In it, a book editor receives the latest – and last – novel from a famous mystery author, only to find that the novel is missing its last section, so she must set out to solve two mysteries – those of the novel and the author’s untimely death. The first half of the book is the manuscript of the novel itself, which is pretty good, but the second half, which consists of the “real world” investigation of the editor, is a little slow. I’d expected that solving the murder in the manuscript would also solve the author’s murder, but it’s actually the other way around, which feels too simple. Plus, I was annoyed at a number of glaring typos – at first, I thought they were intentional (since the manuscript of the novel is a first draft) and perhaps even clues, but nope. It’s kind of ironic that a book about an editor-turned-detective didn’t even have a decent proofreader. 2.5/5 (I actually had to re-read my favorite Miss Marple story, “Sleeping Murder”, after this, just to remind myself what a good whodunit is supposed to be like.)

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong

It seems a bit counterintuitive during a viral pandemic to read about microbes and their effects on our life, but this book doesn’t just discuss diseases or talk about how microbes can be good for you. Rather, it gives us a closer look (no pun intended) at microbes, the complex relationships they have with other organisms, humans included, and how we can – and are trying to – manipulate those relationships to our benefit. I’ve never been a germaphobe, but this book certainly gives me a new perspective on microbes and their many functions. It gets a bit drawn-out at times, but the subject matter is fascinating enough that I still find it quite accessible. 4/5

Water, Wood, and Wild Things: Learning Craft and Cultivation in a Japanese Mountain Town by Hannah Kirshner:

Japan has always been one of my dream destinations – in fact, two years ago, I’d planned a trip to Japan before the pandemic put it on indefinite hold. So, in lieu of traveling, I’ve been looking for travel books on Japan so I could live vicariously through them. This one immediately grabbed my attention because it is the sort of travel I wish I could do – to stay in the country for an extended period of time and really get to know it. The author, an American food stylist, went to Yamanaka, a small mountain town and former hot spring resort, to learn about its traditional ways – everything from tea ceremony and sake-brewing to woodturning and lacquer-making – while also connecting with the local community. It’s clear that she loves and respects Japanese culture, but she never fetishizes it or glorifies its more old-fashioned aspects. Accompanied by the author’s own lovely pen-and-ink illustrations and recipes, the book beautifully captures the essence of Japanese culture. 5/5

The Second Hebridean Trilogy (A Rope – in Case, Lightly Poached, and Beautiful Just) by Lillian Beckwith:

Last year I fell in love with Lillian Beckwith’s semi-autobiographical books about her life on a remote Scottish island, and this year, as I’m feeling a bit stressed (just about the general state of the world), I went back for more. Some of the stories are not as funny as in the previous trilogy – some of them are quite sad, actually – but it’s still so comforting to read about the work on the crofts, the many gatherings with the neighbors, and the eccentric villagers and the natural wonders of the island. Sometimes these books really make me wish I could just pack everything and leave… 4/5