A Year In Review: Books Of 2018

(I didn’t post on Christmas, so it seems appropriate to bring back this book tree for this post, doesn’t it? Happy Boxing Day!)

I want to do a different “Year in Review” for the books. As opposed to just rounding up the favorite books of 2018, I got this list of questions from Kezzie, which I think is a fun way to look back at my reading of the year. Here we are:

Best books you read in 2018:

– Children’s fiction: I didn’t read any that can be comfortably called children’s fiction (the closest is The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly, but it is too dark for a kid’s book), so I guess none.

– Crime fiction: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Michael Sullivan. Actually I prefer Altered Carbon, but it belongs to a different category (see below).

– Classics: I didn’t read a lot of books in this category so Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee pretty much wins by default.

– Non-fiction: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore. It’s horrifying but uplifting at the same time.

– YA: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. The Book of Lost Things deserves an honorary mention, though again, I think it’s not a true YA book. More like a fantasy for adult featuring a kid as the main character.

– Dystopian fiction: Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. I’m not sure if this is true dystopian, but it’s definitely better than the “true dystopian” book I read this year, Red Rising.

Most surprising (in a good way) book of 2018: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. It sounds like a typical ghost story at first, but it ends up haunting me even now.

Book that you read in 2018 that you recommended most to others: A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain, The Little Stranger, any Discworld book.

Best series you discovered in 2018: Either the Takeshi Kovacs series (Altered Carbon) or the Daisy Dalrymple series (Death at Wentwater Court) by Carola Dunn. Both are crime series, though they cannot be more different – one is set in a futuristic, Blade Runner-like world, and the other is set in the upperclass British society of the 1920’s – but they’re both enjoyable in their own ways.

Favorite new author you discovered in 2018: Mary Roach. I have read Mary Roach before, but this year solidifies her position as my favorite science writer. When I pick up one of her books, I know I’m going to enjoy it. The list of authors whose books I always enjoy is very short – Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and Bill Bryson – so I’m glad to add another author to it.

Book you were excited about and thought you were going to love but didn’t: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly and Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton. Hidden Figures is merely disappointing, but Margaret the First absolutely infuriates me with how bad it is.

Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre to you: People who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry. It’s not the first true crime book I read, but it’s definitely more modern and sensational than my usual fare, yet it turns out to be really well-researched, well-written. A true page-turner.

Book you read in 2018 that you’re most likely to read again: A Cook’s Tour. I like to reread travelogues whenever my wanderlust hits me, and I always like to read about food, so a book that combines both is naturally going to be reread multiple times.

Favorite book you read in 2018 from an author you’ve read previously: Monstrous Regiment and A Cook’s Tour.

Best book you read in 2018 that you read based SOLELY on a recommendation from somebody else: Death at Wentwater Court. I picked this up after reading about it on Kezzie’s blog, so thanks, Kezzie!

Favorite cover of a book in 2018: Margaret the First. Too bad the book isn’t good.

Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2018: The Nature Fix by Florence Williams. I’ve always loved nature, but this book has made me a lot more aware of my relationship with nature and made me resolve to spend more time in nature.

Book you can’t BELIEVE you waited until 2018 to read: Speak. It’s such a classic YA book, and I like the movie and also enjoy the author’s other works so I didn’t know why it took me so long.

Book that had a scene in it that had you reeling and dying to talk to somebody about it: The ending of The Little Stranger (the entire book, actually, especially the interpretation of who the “ghost” might be).

Favorite relationship from a book you read in 2018: the friendship between the soldiers in Monstrous Regiment.

Most memorable character in a book you read in 2018: Sergeant Jackrum of Monstrous Regiment (if this was the Oscars, then Monstrous Regiment would be the movie that sweeps all the categories before winning Best Picture).

Genre you read the most from 2018: sci-fi/fantasy (of course) and non-fiction (surprisingly).

Best 2018 debut: Tell the Machine Goodnight by Kate Williams (it’s not a debut book but at least it was published in 2018. All the other books were published earlier).

Book that was the most fun to read in 2018: A Cook’s Tour and The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson. Bonk by Mary Roach is funny as well but it’s just too gross sometimes.

Book that made you cry or nearly cry in 2018: Monstrous Regiment.

Book you read in 2018 that you think got overlooked this year or when it came out: The Road to Little Dribbling, maybe? I don’t know if it’s “overlooked”, but it’s definitely not well-received as Bill Bryson’s other books. I still enjoyed it though.

Total number of books read in 2018: 40 (with some rereads).

If you guys want to do something similar, feel free to grab these questions. I can’t wait to read your round-up!

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Book Reviews: November 2018

I reread Bill Bryson’s At Home earlier this month, so I only managed 3 new books, but they’re all quite enjoyable. Here goes:

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett:

Continuing my Discworld read from last month, I picked another one-off book (it features supporting/cameo roles from some familiar characters like Sam Vimes and William de Worde, but the main characters are one-off). The story is set in the small country of Borogravia, which is always at wars with its neighbor, and revolves around a very special regiment made up of a girl disguised as a boy to find her brother, a troll, a vampire, an Igor, and several other eccentric characters. It starts out a little slow, but the pace soon picks up and it ends up becoming something quite profound and moving – not just a funny story about girls dressed up as boys, but also about the nature of men and women, about war and religion, and about finding your place in the world (with the help of a well-placed pair of socks). 5/5

The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett:

This is often listed as a Rincewind book, though Rincewind plays more of a supporting role in this one. The main character is Cohen the Barbarian, who, along with his Silver Horde, decides to embark on one last quest and return something stolen from the gods by the first hero – fire. This threatens to destroy the entire Discworld, so Rincewind has to reluctantly step in to stop them. This book is quite short, but to make up for it, it is gorgeously illustrated by Paul Kidby. I think people tend to dismiss the Rincewind books as goofy adventure tales and not as “deep” as the other Discworld books, but I dare you not to smile and cheer at the end of this one. 4.5/5

Bonk by Mary Roach:

To be fair, I only read this because it is mentioned in At Home, but I’ve always enjoyed Mary Roach’s books, so why not? As the title says, this is about the scientific study of sex, and I have to admit, it’s more information that I ever wanted to know. I constantly made this face while I was reading it:

and occasionally this face:

But at least it was entertaining. 3/5

So what did you guys read? Check out my friend Mike’s reviews here!


Book Reviews: October 2018

Happy Halloween! Fall is a good time for reading, isn’t it? I don’t think there’s anything nicer than curling up with a good book and a cup of tea. And it was a good month of reading for me too, with all the books being quite enjoyable, more or less.

The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu:

This is the second book in the silkpunk epic series Dandelion Dynasty, which I describe as “Romance of the Three Kingdoms meets Game of Thrones“. I’ve read the first book, The Grace of Kings, a while ago, so I don’t remember much of it, but that’s OK, because they can more or less stand on their own, and it only takes a while to get caught up with the story. This one revolves around the next chapter in the reign of Kuni Garu, his children, the power struggle within his court, and the threat of foreign invaders (who are clearly based on Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire). As with the first book, the world-building is great and the science interesting (such as when they discover electricity and use it to fight the invaders’ dragons, resulting in some epic air battles.) However, just like the first book, character development remains Liu’s weakness – the characters are either flat and boring or unsympathetic. And the romantic subplot is a joke (it’s – mild spoiler – between two women, so one gets the impression that the author includes it only for the sake of representation and not because it makes sense for the story.) 3/5

Tell the Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams:

I got this from a Buzzfeed quiz, something like “What Book Should You Read Next Based on Your Favorite TV Show”. I picked Black Mirror, and got this, which is perfect, because it could’ve easily been a Black Mirror episode. It takes place in the near future, revolving around a machine that can tell you how to be happy, with an ensemble cast – a “happy technician” working the machine, her co-workers and clients, her anorexic teenage son and his friends, her pretentious artist ex-husband, his current wife who’s harboring a dark secret, etc., with each chapter focusing on one of their stories.The world is fascinating and the characters, though deeply damaged, are relatable. However, the story never becomes as powerful as Black Mirror, because there is very little conflict, and when things do get resolved, it feels too easy. 3/5

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee:

This memoir consists of a series of unconnected chapters detailing the author’s time growing up in the Cotswold during and after World War I. Actually, they don’t “detail” much; they’re mostly just fragments of memories and impressions from his childhood. I would’ve preferred some more details and descriptions of life in the village, but the writing is lyrical and beautiful to read, and it perfectly captures both the random, innocent memories of childhood and the nostalgia we feel when we look back upon them later in life. 4/5

The Truth by Terry Pratchett:

I’m reaching my Discworld phase in the year – it’s when I suffer what I call “reader’s fatigue” and just want something fun that I know I will enjoy, so I return to Discworld. This particular book, which deals with the arrival of the printing press and subsequently the newspaper in Ankh-Morpork (it belongs in the same category as other “Industrial Revolution” books like Moving Pictures and Going Postal), has a slow start, but once the pace starts picking up, it becomes very enjoyable. The main character, the aptly named William de Worde, may not be quite memorable (though he does come to his own toward the end), but there are some funny side characters – like a reformed vampire photographer and a pair of hitmen straight out of Pulp Fiction (there is even a parody of the “Royale with cheese” scene). And even though it was published 18 years ago, the story is still very relevant. The bit about a Patrician candidate, an unscrupulous businessman who wants “a return to the values and traditions that made the city great”, is eerily prophetic. 4.5/5

What did you guys read this month?


Book Reviews: September 2018

It’s a pretty eclectic month of reading, in that none of the books I read have any similarities, but here goes:

A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain:

I’ve always been a fan of Anthony Bourdain (RIP), and this book, which details his travels around the world in search of “the perfect meal”, combines two of my interests – food and travel – so of course I love it. His writing is funny (in a biting, belligerent kind of way, very different from Bill Bryson’s self-deprecating humor) and vivid; the travels are fascinating and the food mouth-watering (in most cases. I’m not sure about the sheep testicles.) Sure, there are graphic descriptions of a pig getting slaughtered in Portugal, a sheep getting butchered in Morocco, and a snake getting killed in Vietnam (where else?), but that’s what makes the book come to life. 5/5

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson:

I quite enjoyed Helen Simonson’s first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and this one, which revolves around life in the idyllic town of Rye in the summer of 1914 before World War I breaks out, seems right up my alley. Unfortunately, it doesn’t live up to its predecessor. Like Major Pettigrew, it deals with a close-minded community and how they react when faced with changes, but the characters are not memorable and the conflict is light. The most effective part, ironically, is the last few chapters which deals with the war itself. The “before” part is really boring. 2/5 (and that’s only because I have a superficial liking for passages describing life in a British town, like the kind of clothes people wear and the food they eat.)

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson:

I’m a bit embarrassed that it took me so long to read this. I’ve read one other book by Anderson, Winter Girls, and loved it, and I also quite like the movie adaption of this book (starring a young Kristen Stewart), but I never got around to reading it until now. In a way, it’s a standard YA novel about a girl becoming a selective mute after being sexually assaulted, but the main character’s voice is strong and relatable and reflects her struggle really well. My only complaint is that there is no strong event to prompt the main character to “speak” out about her trauma and begin her journey toward recovery, but I know it’s more realistic that way. 4.5/5

People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry:

When it comes to non-fiction, I enjoy some true-crime books from time to time, especially if it’s historical crimes (like Erik Larson’s books.) This one, which deals with the disappearance and death of Lucie Blackman, a British young woman, in Japan in 2000, is decidedly more modern than I prefer, but it’s a fascinating read nonetheless. The case itself is not that special; what makes the book so gripping is the way it delves into the lives of the victim, her friends and family, as well as her killer. It may contain too many details, but it really shows the dark side of Japanese society and the devastating ripple effect of a tragedy. 4.5/5


Book Reviews: August 2018

It’s a good month of reading – 6 books, and they’re all more or less enjoyable, with one exception. Here goes:

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters:

I only know Sarah Waters from the adaptations of her works (Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith, and The Night Watch, I haven’t watched Affinity), but I’ve never actually read her novels before. So when I came across this in the used bookstore and remembered seeing a trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation, I decided to pick it up. It takes place post-WWII and revolves around a country doctor whose life becomes entangled with an aristocratic family living in a crumbling mansion as they are plagued by increasingly strange and sinister incidents. It’s a ghost story in the vein of Henry James and Shirley Jackson, in that the supernatural elements are very subtle, and you have to wonder if they are really supernatural or merely psychological. It can be frustratingly slow at times and don’t expect a tidy explanation at the end, but Waters is so good at creating a creepy and oppressive atmosphere that I had to stop reading it before bed. 4.5/5

Spook by Mary Roach:

After a ghost story, it seems natural that I would read about the scientific studies of ghosts and the afterlife. I’ve quite enjoyed Mary Roach’s other books (Stiff and Packing for Mars), and this one, while not as informative as those two, is still very entertaining. And no, she doesn’t come up with a tidy explanation for ghosts either, but it’s fun to read anyway. 4/5

Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton:

I picked this up because of the pretty cover. And also because it’s a fictional account of the life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, an eccentric 17th-century writer, which sounds right up my alley. The blurb says it’s “not a historical novel but a modern novel set in the past”, so I didn’t expect a bildungsroman, but I did expect the normal stuff – you know, plot, character developments, details about life in 17th England and Europe. What I got instead is a rambling series of prose, like the diary entries of someone with ADHD, written in an overwrought, clumsy attempt at being poetic. There is no character development; the main character comes off vain, silly, and delusional, not brilliant and misunderstood like the book tries to make her out to be. Oh and, it switches POV halfway through (the first half is written in first person, the second half in third person). Why? No reason. The real Margaret Cavendish deserves so much better than this drivel. The only good thing I can say about it is that it’s short, so I didn’t waste too much time reading it. 1/5

The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant by Drew Hayes:

With a title like this, I was expecting something in the vein of “What We Do in the Shadows” or at least “The Reformed Vampire Support Group“, something humorous that details the mundane, everyday struggle of a vampire and subverts all the usual vampire tropes. It turns out to be a series of very standard adventures with all the usual – werewolves, zombies, mages, etc. Sure, there are things like a were-pony or an ancient dragon masquerading as a 7-year-old boy, but it’s nowhere near as clever as I hoped. Also, the writing is super expository. It is trying to be personal, like Fred is addressing the reader, but it just ends up flat. It’s not terrible, actually, just disappointing. 2/5

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly:

This has a typical fantasy premise: a boy in WWII-England, mourning the death of his mother and resenting the presence of his new stepmom and his half-brother, ends up in a world that contain elements of his favorite fairy tales, but they have been twisted into something dark and dangerous (in fact, I once wrote a screenplay with a very similar premise). Although the main character is a kid, it’s not a YA book by any means – it goes to some pretty dark places. And that’s also my problem with it. The story is good and the world is interesting, but it’s just so grim. I don’t mind dark fairy tales; heck, I live for dark fairy tales (especially Neil Gaiman’s), but in those, there is still a sense of magic and wonderment. Here, aside from some communist dwarves who are oppressed by Snow White, everything is so somber and heavy all the time. 4/5

The Nature Fix by Florence Williams:

You may have known that nature is good for you, but have you ever wondered why? Well, this book goes into all the scientific research behind the restorative power of nature and how it is being used to improve our life in general, from “forest bathing” in Japan to bushcrafting (sort of like survival skills, like making fire and shelter, but less about the survival and more about interacting with nature) in Scotland, and also how much time you need to spend in nature to feel its positive effects (5 hours/month, according to the Finns). I’ve always loved being in nature, but I have to admit, I don’t go outside as much as I should, so this book has made me a lot more mindful of that. 4/5

What did you guys read? Let me know in the comments and make sure to check out my friend Mike’s book reviews here.


Book Reviews: July 2018

I’ve been rearranging my bookshelf and rediscovering some classics, so this month I only managed 3 new (to me) books, and here they are:

Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn:

After the brain-buster that is The Name of the Rose last month, I wanted some light, easy read, and this cozy mystery just fits the bill. It features the Honorable Daisy Darymple, an aspiring journalist who visits a country estate to write an article about it and ends up entangled in a murder case that occurs during her stay. It’s very standard stuff, and at another time I may find it boring, but it’s a super quick read and the main character is refreshingly relatable, unlike the leads in some detective novels I’ve read (Flavia de Luce and Mary Russell come to mind). I might check out other books in this series. 3/5

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows:

This epistolary novel revolves around a writer in 1946 England who starts a correspondence with some people in Guernsey and learns about their experience of the German occupation in World War II. It’s mostly about books and book lovers, so of course I enjoy it. Don’t let the twee title deter you, the story is sweet but not cloyingly so, because the World War II stuff always adds a somber note. My only complaint is the romantic storyline, which I finds a bit predictable. 4/5

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly:

I adore the movie, so naturally, I was excited to read this book, which is a non-fictional account of the black female mathematicians’ work at NASA from World War II up to the 1960’s. Unfortunately, the book is nowhere as good. It’s well researched, to be sure, but it seems the author was so in love with her research that she didn’t want to leave out any details. What’s worse is that she is not much of a storyteller, so the book is just a dense collection of dry facts and the women featured in it are just a series of names, instead of being actual characters whose lives you want to follow. It’s a shame, really. These women’s stories are extraordinary and they could have been told in a much more entertaining manner. 2/5

What did you guys read?


TV Reviews: May – July 2018

Book reviews are still coming next week, but in the meantime, I thought it would be fun to do some TV reviews, since my last one was over a year ago. There are too many new shows now that it took me a long time to decide which show to keep watching and which show to drop. I’ve been watching mostly old shows (Black Mirror, The Crown), though I’ve had to give up on some, too, like Legion (too weird) and The Handmaid’s Tale (too grim). Nevertheless, here are the new shows that I’ve watched:

Cobra Kai:

I’m a fan of the original Karate Kid (fun fact: the high school where they shot it is just down the street from my apartment building back in LA), but I’m well aware of its cheese factor, so when I heard that they were making a sequel focusing on Johnny Lawrence reopening the Cobra Kai dojo and reigniting his old rivalry with Daniel LaRusso, I thought it sounded stupid and would surely be bad. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be really, really good. The series manages to capture the nostalgic feel for the movie while still updating the story to the modern day; the continuation of Johnny and Daniel’s characterization is believable, and the new characters are fun too. I can’t wait for season 2.

The Durrells:

I’ve actually been watching this for a while (it finished its 3rd season, and the 4th is coming next year), but I never got around to reviewing it before, so consider this a belated review. It’s based on the Corfu trilogy by Gerald Durrell, which I love. I’ve seen two other adaptations of My Family and Other Animals, but neither of them manages to depict the magic and the ridiculousness of the Durrells’ life on Corfu. The series does a little better, though I still find the Durrell children selfish and horrible to their poor, long-suffering mother, and I think it would be better as a half-hour comedy/drama than a one-hour drama/comedy. Still, between the beautiful setting, the breezy 1930’s costumes, and the fun (but sometimes exasperating) storylines, it’s the perfect summer watch.

Harlots:

I’ve been meaning to check this out since last year but I haven’t gotten around to it until now (it’s now in its 2nd season). I mostly watch it for the gorgeous costumes, but the story, which revolves around the rivalry of two brothels in 18th-century London, is actually very good. The anachronistic modern soundtrack requires some getting used to, but it’s nowhere near incongruous and annoying as Marie Antoinette. Also, despite its subject matter, the sex scenes are not as graphic as I’d expected, and best of all, they serve a purpose in advancing the plot and developing the characters, as opposed to being a gratuitous and exploitative way to grab the audience’s attention, like in Game of Thrones.

Set It Up:

This is technically a movie, but it’s streamed on Netflix so I count it as a TV movie. Now, for all of my preference for dark, angsty series like Black Mirror and such, I also have a soft spot for rom-coms, though I tend to favor period or non-American rom-coms (The Decoy Bride, Austenland, etc.) This one, on the other hand, is a very standard American rom-com about two overworked assistants who set up their bosses (or, as they say in the movie, “Cyrano them” and “Parent Trap them”) so they could have more free time. I wasn’t going to check it out (Netflix series are usually good; Netflix movies, not so much), but everybody was raving about it, so I decided to give it a go and ended up really enjoying it. Sure, it’s predictable as hell, but it’s also cute, and the two leads are charming and have great chemistry, so it’s good for a Friday night in.