Book Reviews: January 2023

Despite being on break, I didn’t read as much as I’d like, but that’s OK, because I’ve been writing a lot. Anyway, here are my book of January:

The Runaway Bride by Mary Jayne Baker:

The first half of January is still a busy time for me (it doesn’t help that the Lunar New Year comes so soon this year) so I opted for a pure fluff book to start. Last year, I quite enjoyed Mary Jayne Baker’s “A Bicycle Made for Two”, especially its description of the Yorkshire Dales, so I went with another book of hers. The story itself is pretty predictable – a young woman flees from her wedding after catching her new husband cheating, gets picked up by an itinerant widower/children’s book author, and sparks fly, yadda yadda yadda. The romance is cute enough, I guess, though the author relies a lot on dogs and kids to deliver the cuteness, and I appreciate the attempt to tackle some heavy issues such as emotional abuse and grief. My main complaint though, is that the last 1/3 of the book is so filled with all of the most eye roll-inducing soap opera tropes you can think of (honestly, I was expecting a character to have faked their death!), that it completely took me out of the story. 1.5/5

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman:

The romance book annoyed me so much that I had to find a non-fiction book to cleanse my palate. Plus, I’ve read plenty of non-fiction about nature over the past few years, but not one about birds. It is as fascinating as I thought it would be – the book discusses different types of intelligence (using tool, social intelligence, navigational skills, etc.) and shows that perhaps the intelligence of birds (and other non-human animals) shouldn’t be measured by human standards. I also enjoy the lovely descriptions of the author’s own travels and observations; I wish there were more of those. 4.5/5

100 Million Years of Food by Stephen Le:

I think one of my favorite genres of non-fiction is historical anthropology, or books about how people used to live in the past, so when I picked this up, I expected it to be about the eating habits of our ancestors and how those have changed over time. And while it does contain that, to a certain extent, it is more of a book on food science and nutrition than a book about food history. Further, I don’t know if it’s the quality of the translation (I read the Vietnamese edition) or the book itself, but I can’t quite figure out what the author was trying to say, or rather, even when his points are summed up at the end of the book, I’m not quite convinced. I find the anecdotes about the author’s own food experiences (such as eating insects in Saigon) the most interesting; unfortunately, there aren’t many of those. 2/5

The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa:

It’s the Year of the Cat, so of course I had to end the month with a book about a cat (and books!) The premise seems right up my alley: a teenage boy, whose grandfather recently passed away, is about to close their secondhand bookshop when a strange talking cat appears and asks for his help to save books from those who are misusing them. Sounds great, right? But the story just doesn’t click with me. It’s too allegorical and too preachy. I don’t mind symbolism and allegories in books, but they must be woven into a good story first. 2/5 (and that’s only because there are some cute scenes with the titular cat.)

A Year In Review: Books Of 2022

It’s been an… okay year of reading. Not many outstanding or memorable books, and I felt burned out a couple of times. I guess it’s because it’s a good year for TV, so I didn’t read as much or spend as much time discovering new books. Anyway, here’s an overview:

Best book you read in 2022:

– Crime/Mystery: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James (there is a supernatural element to it, but I’m counting it as a mystery)

– Horror/Thriller: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

– Sci-fi/Fantasy: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

– Romance/History/Other: A Room with a View by E.M. Forster (it was a toss-up between this and Howards End, but Howards End was too depressing for me)

– Non-fiction: Water, Wood, and Wild Things by Hannah Kirshner and Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes by Rob Wilkins

– YA: A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

Most surprising (in a good way) book of 2022: Meat Eater by Stephen Rinella

Book that you read in 2022 that you recommended most to others: Water, Wood, and Wild Things, The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger

Best series you discovered in 2022: The Screaming Staircase and Magic Bites are both the first books of series but I haven’t read any other books in them, so I’m not sure those count. I guess Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris by Paul Galico?

Favorite new author you discovered in 2022: Maybe T. Kingfisher? I have some of her books in my TBR list.

Book you were excited about and thought you were going to love but didn’t: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre to you: Meat Eater

Book you read in 2022 that you’re most likely to read again: Meat Eater (because of the script I’m writing), Water, Wood, and Wild Things (because I hope to plan a trip to Japan)

Favorite book you read in 2022 from an author you’ve read previously: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Favorite cover of a book in 2022: The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair. I like the simplicity of it.

Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2022: I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

Book you can’t BELIEVE you waited until 2022 to read: Howards End, A Room with a View

Book that had a scene in it that had you reeling and dying to talk to somebody about it (a WTF moment, an epic revelation, a steamy kiss etc.): Magpie Murders, mostly because of how bad it is when it could’ve been brilliant (apparently there’s a TV adaptation, I might watch it just to see if it improves on the book at all)

Favorite relationship from a book you read in 2022 (be it romantic, friendship, etc.): the friendship between Miss Benson and Enid in Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce

Most memorable character in a book you read in 2022: I’d have to go with Leonard Bast from Howards End, not just because I’ve been in love with Joseph Quinn for the past 7 months, but I do love the character himself (poor, poor Leonard). Valancy from The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery is a close second too

Genre you read the most from 2022: Non-fiction, as usual

Book that was the most fun to read in 2022: The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse, To Say Nothing of the Dog (Unseen Academicals was fun too but I was anticipating some tear-jerking moments in Sir Terry’s biography, so I couldn’t appreciate the humor wholeheartedly).

Book that made you cry or nearly cry in 2022: Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes

Total Number of books read in 2022: 56

Book Reviews: December 2022

Since next week will be a week of Year in Review posts, I’ve decided to post the last book reviews of 2022 a bit early instead of combining it with next month’s. December is always an “anything goes” month in terms of books – either I would read a bunch of books I still have left on my TBR list, or I’d go for something light and easy to end the year with. This year I definitely went the “light and easy” route, except for one (guess which one!)

The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield:

I read one of Jane Hirshfield’s poems (“Burlap Sack”) in the Poetry Pharmacy book and found it beautiful, so I decided to seek out her other works. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t resonate with me at all – I’m not sure if it’s my issue with poetry in general or it’s her style in particular, but I only “got” a few of the poems, and even those I only understood on a very surface level. The rest I didn’t even understand, let alone enjoy. I tried focusing on their rhythm and the flow of the words, but that didn’t help much either. One good thing though: finally, a poetry book with a pretty cover! 2/5 

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie:

I’ve watched all of the adaptations with Joan Hickson, so I know the story already – a financial tycoon is poisoned with some rye in his pocket, and two deaths later, Miss Marple arrives at the scene to discover that the murders are all based on the “Four and twenty blackbirds” nursery rhyme. However, the book still offers something new (a couple of subplots that got cut, a slightly different ending, and most importantly, more insight into the characters) that kept me interested. 4/5

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery:

Romance is a genre I’ve tried again and again but could never get into. When I want something light and easy, I’m much more likely to reach for a cozy mystery rather than a romance. But then I realize that what I don’t like is contemporary romance – the Hallmark movie type, you know – so I decided to try some historical romances instead. I picked this one because I know I’m in safe hands with the author (I’m not the biggest fan of the Anne of Green Gables books, but I did enjoy them), and the main character, Valancy, resonates with me: a 29-year-old woman, resigned to being a spinster and oppressed by her family, receives news that she has only about a year to live and decides to make the best of the time she has left. I really enjoyed the scenes where Valancy stands up to her horrible family and was almost sorry when the story moves to the “romance” part – the romance is nice enough, I guess, but I would’ve been perfectly happy reading an entire book of Valancy sassing back at her asshole relatives. I guess that’s why romance is not for me – even in a romance book, I enjoyed the non-romance part more! Still, it’s a fun and charming book. 4/5

Magic Bites (Kate Daniels #1) by Ilona Andrews:

I’ve heard a lot of good things about the fantasy and urban fantasy series of Ilona Andrews, so I thought I’d check one of them out. This one takes place in a world where technology and magic constantly compete with each other, and revolves around a mercenary (the eponymous Kate Daniels) who has to go up against the two warring factions in her city – an order of necromancers and a pack of shape-shifters – to find out who murdered her guardian. The world-building takes a while to make sense, but I’m grateful that there is no giant info dump to explain it. The story itself is pretty involving, though nothing remarkable or unique. All in all, I’d say it’s the fantasy version of those “light and easy” murder mysteries/thrillers, so it’s good to have some more options. 3/5

Book Reviews: November 2022

Another month, another eclectic assortment of books. Let’s go!

Angels and Insects by A.S. Byatt:

I didn’t think much of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book when I first read it, and I liked Possession (arguably her most famous book) even less, but now, a few years after I finished translating The Children’s Book, I’ve come to appreciate it more and enjoyed its depiction of life in Edwardian England. Also, after reading Terry Pratchett’s biography, I learned that Byatt has always been one of Sir Terry’s staunchest defenders, while other literary types tend to dismiss his books as lowbrow stuff, which goes a long way toward endearing Byatt to me. So, I decided to try one of her other books.

This actually contains two novellas, “Morpho Eugenia” and “The Conjugal Angel”. “Morpho Eugenia” (the basis for the 1995 film Angels and Insects) bears some similarities to The Children’s Book – it’s about an outsider (a shipwrecked naturalist, in this case) who is taken in by an aristocratic family and becomes drawn into their seemingly idyllic life while uncovering some messed-up family dynamics. I enjoy the description of the family’s life and how it mirrors the insects that the main character is observing; however, it gets bogged down by too many passages from the various books that the characters are trying to write. This is also what I also dislike the most about The Children’s Book and Possession. I don’t mind a few excerpts here and there if they add to the overall story, but when I can skip most of them and still follow the plot, they’re a distraction. 3.5/5

“The Conjugal Angel” deals with the Victorian craze for spiritualism and follows several people in a séance. One of the characters is Emily Jesse, the younger sister of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who was engaged to Arthur Hallam, the subject of Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam – both the poem and Emily’s relationship with Arthur play important roles in the novella. This one is more abstract, with a less clear-cut plot. Though some of the descriptions of the characters’ emotions and inner thoughts are interesting, they border on stream-of-consciousness and get too repetitive for me. 2/5

Overall rating: 3/5

Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter by Steven Rinella:

I read this as research for a script I’m writing – I have no interest in hunting, and would never have read a book on hunting otherwise. However, I do have an interest in the “return to nature” kind of lifestyle, and this book is very much about that. Though the author loves hunting for its sense of adventure and nature communion, he also hunts for a much more prosaic reason – for meat (even with mountain lions! I didn’t know you could eat mountain lions). So despite my initial hesitation about the subject matter, this approach makes the book a lot more enjoyable. It also helps that the author managed to discuss the ethics and morals of hunting without sounding preachy or macho about it, was very candid about his past mistakes, and clearly loves and respects the animals he hunts and always makes sure their deaths serve a purpose. It may not have converted me into a hunter, but it does give me some interesting information for my script. 4/5

The Night Shift by Alex Finlay:

November is a busy month, so I wanted something easy and straightforward – a murder mystery. This one has an interesting premise: in 1999, four teenagers working at a small town’s Blockbuster are brutally murdered, leaving behind only one survivor, and 15 years later, a similar crime occurs, which brings together three people – the first survivor, now a troubled therapist; the brother of the suspect in the first case, now a lawyer; and a pregnant FBI agent – to figure out the truth. The mystery is pretty absorbing, and even though I managed to guess the identity of the killer early on, it didn’t ruin the read for me. The ending is a bit rushed though, and the characters, while likeable, are not that memorable. 3/5

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold:

I was looking for a book on Jack the Ripper when I came across this, and thought it looked interesting. Rather than focusing on the murders themselves, it’s an ensemble biography of the five “canonical” Ripper victims – Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly – and the circumstances that led to their murders. In doing so, the book offers a look at life in Victorian London, especially the hardship endured by women (because contrary to popular belief, the five Ripper victims were not prostitutes, not professional ones anyway, but rather women who had fallen on hard times.) It’s not your typical Jack the Ripper book, but it makes for a fascinating and harrowing read nonetheless. 4/5

(The only problem is, I’m still looking for my definitive Jack the Ripper book. Any suggestion?)

Book Reviews: October 2022

So apparently October was a busier month than I thought, because I only managed 3 books. But they’re interesting books, so it’s fine.

Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them) by Sallie Tisdale:

Talk about a misleading title. I picked this for my October/Halloween read because the title sounds hilarious and slightly macabre, and I was expecting something along the line of Stiff by Mary Roach. However, it turns out to be a fairly standard self-help book about death, your own as well as your loved ones, and how to prepare yourself for it, mentally and physically (I should’ve looked more closely at the Goodreads shelves and noticed the lack of “Humor”). It’s pretty well-written and I was fascinated enough by the subject to keep reading, and there is some quite practical advice, which I appreciate, but in the end, it wasn’t what I wanted. Perhaps I should’ve gone for Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs instead. 3/5

The Thief of Always by Clive Barker:

I’ve never read Clive Barker (only know him as the mind behind Hellraiser), but I know I’m too much of a wuss to read his books for adults, so for Halloween, I decided to try one of his kid’s books instead. I remember reading somewhere that this book was an influence on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, and I can definitely see that – it’s about a boy who, out of boredom, accepts an invitation to come to a house filled with delights, only to discover that it holds sinister truth. It reminds me of Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 as well, if it’s told from the POV of one of Manx’s victims. Anyway, it’s not as creepy as I expected – more of a dark fantasy than a horror, really (Coraline is way creepier) – but it’s scary enough for a Halloween read. 4/5

Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes by Rob Wilkins:

Finally, here’s the book for which I’ve been mentally preparing myself the whole month – Sir Terry Pratchett’s biography, based on his own notes and written by his assistant and collaborator, Rob Wilkins (Discworld fans would know him as the namesake of the Vimes’ butler, Wilikins, and the Nac Mac Feegle Rob Anybody). As biographies go, it’s very straightforward – it simply follows Terry’s life from his birth to his death – but for his fans, it is a must read. There is no shocking revelation here, to be sure (Terry lead a very ordinary life, and he got to where he was by incredibly hard work), but it confirms everything I know about him from Discworld – his worldview, his humor, his compassion, even his anger. The last few chapters, which detail Terry’s battle with Alzheimer’s (or, as he termed it, the “Embuggerance”), are hard to read, but his bravery still shines through (funnily enough, there is a mention of Terry and his dying wish of having his unfinished books destroyed in Advice for Future Corpses.) The only thing that spoils my enjoyment of the book is how much more funny and biting it would have been, had it been written by Terry himself. But that would have been a different book. Wilkins did a great job, and I think Terry would’ve been happy with how he is presented. 5/5