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
Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham:
Growing up, the only thing I know about the Chernobyl Disaster is that when it happened, my mom was in Russia, 5 months pregnant with me (but she was quite a safe distance away in Siberia.) However, I just finished the HBO mini-series Chernobyl, and it was so brilliant (very hard to watch sometimes, but brilliant nonetheless) that I knew I had to read more about it. This book is a very well-researched, very detailed exploration of the disaster – from the construction of the power plant to the night of the explosion itself and the long, ongoing cleanup process that follows. It helps that I’ve watched the mini-series though, because there are a lot of characters and a lot of scientific information that it can be a bit overwhelming at times – thankfully, it’s told in chronological order so it’s never difficult to follow. 5/5
Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller:
It’s hard to believe, but I haven’t read any new sci-fi book this year, so when I saw this book being praised for its unique world-building, I decided to check it out. The story certainly sounds interesting – it takes place in a post-apocalyptic floating city, controlled by landlords and crime bosses, where its inhabitants struggle to eke out a living while facing the threat of a contagious neurological disease. Into this setting, a mysterious woman appears, atop an orca with a polar bear by her side, rumored to be the last surviving member of a group of people that had their minds bonded with animals. As various characters react to her appearance, we slowly find out why she is there and what connects them all. From that synopsis, you can probably tell that the book is a bit much, right? And it is. All the elements are good, and the characters are interesting, but as the book keeps jumping from one POV to another, it never really comes together. The first 2/3 of it drags, while the last 1/3 of it is really rushed. Disappointing. 2/5
I just finished translating these two books in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, and while they are still good, they’re not as enjoyable as the previous three. “So Long” is slightly better in terms of tone, while “Mostly Harmless” is better in terms of plot (then again, you don’t read Douglas Adams for the plot, which is why I’m not going to include any summary), but it’s kind of depressing, and, as the final book in the series, it leaves you feeling so bad for Arthur Dent. The poor guy just wants to be left alone and have a cup of tea, dammit! Still, I’m very proud to say that I’ve translated three out of the five Hitchhiker’s Guide books. It’s a major boost to my nerd cred. 3/5
What did you guys read this month?
Summer vacation is ending, so here are the last few casual outfits before school starts again. I wore this to see Spider-Man: Far from Home last week (hence the title, it’s a terrible pun on “Spidey-sense”, see?) Yes, yes, I know, another pair of culottes, but these are so comfy and I just can’t get enough of them.
Anyway, I really enjoyed the movie, which did a great job of exploring the MCU post-Endgame. However, a friend then pointed out that in both MCU Spider-Man movies, the villains are just normal people whose lives were ruined by the Avengers (or more specifically Iron Man, in the case of Far from Home). It makes them more compelling and it makes sense for the scope of these movies, but it’s kind of messed up that the “little guys” are portrayed as the bad guys. I know the idea of superheroes being accountable for their actions has been touched upon in Civil War, but I still want the MCU to really address it. In Phase 4, maybe?
I’ve been reading a lot of heavy non-fiction books lately, so this month I wanted something a little lighter. Here goes:
Geisha, a Life by Mineko Iwasaki:
Mineko Iwasaki is one of the real-life geishas that Arthur Golden interviewed for his novel “Memoirs of a Geisha”. Upset that he revealed her name (despite agreeing not to do so) and twisted the facts to make his story more sensational (the most egregious of all is to add a sexual aspect to the work of geishas, making them appear little more than high-end prostitutes), Iwasaki sued Golden and later wrote her own autobiography to clear things up. While I enjoyed “Memoirs of a Geisha” in a superficial kind of way, I absolutely hate the fact that the main character became a geisha simply because she wants to please a man, so I appreciate Iwasaki’s book for showing us the more accurate and intricate details of the geisha’s world. Unfortunately, her writing leaves a lot to be desired – it’s so dry and plodding that even when she describes some moments of great passion or sadness, I can’t connect to it at all. 2.5/5
I haven’t read any Discworld book in a while – there aren’t many of them left, so I’ve been trying to pace myself. But I wanted some books I knew I would enjoy, so Discworld it is.
Thud! is a Night Watch book, in which Sam Vimes has to solve a case of a murdered dwarf while tension in Ankh-Morpork is running high as the anniversary of a legendary battle between dwarves and trolls approaches. It is a standard Watch novel, which starts with a murder mystery and develops into something much more profound and philosophical, but it has the additional adorable/emotional touch with the appearance of Young Sam, Vimes’ baby son. I dare you to read their scenes together without laughing and crying at the same time. 5/5
Wintersmith is a Tiffany Aching book, which revolves around our young witch-in-training, with the help of her loyal Nac Mac Feegle, dealing with the personification of winter, after she accidentally interrupts the seasonal dance to signify the transition between winter and summer and draw the Wintersmith’s attention. It’s not as funny as the other Tiffany Aching books, but it’s still very good, and I especially love the explanation of what a witch’s work entails – you don’t always see that from the Witches book, but since Tiffany is still in training, you get to learn along with her. 5/5
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert:
Yes, the author is Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame. This is pure chick flick and therefore not my taste at all, but like I said, after so many non-fiction books, I just wanted some fluff. This novel follows Vivian, a 19-year-old girl who, in 1940, is sent to New York City to live with her aunt in a rundown theater and gets swept up in the glamorous, hedonistic lifestyle of theater folks and showgirls. That part is fun, and Vivian is a seamstress, so there are a lot of descriptions of beautiful clothes and outfits, which I must admit that I love to read in any book.
The problem is, the book doesn’t stop there. It’s written in the form of a letter from Vivian, now an old woman, to another woman, Angela, about her relationship with Angela’s father, and this guy doesn’t show up until the last 90 pages or so of a 470-page book! So you keep waiting for this supposedly important guy to appear, and when he does, it feels incredibly rushed and doesn’t have much to do with the main character’s development – in fact, her character arc seems all but finished by the time he shows up. Imagine if you’re watching Titanic and old Rose starts telling her story about Jack, and Jack himself only appears during the last 20 minutes of the movie. That would just be terrible storytelling, wouldn’t it? If this was just a book about NYC and theater life during WWII, it would’ve been much better. 3/5
The Gown by Jennifer Robson:
This came up in Goodreads’ recommendations after I finished City of Girls, and I can see why – it also takes place in the 1940s (1947, in this case, and it’s set in London, not NY) and also features seamstresses, or more exactly, embroiderers who are assigned to work on Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown. The story focuses on two particular women, both struggling with the memories of the war, their personal lives, and with keeping their work on the gown a secret. There is also a storyline in the present as the granddaughter of one of these women tries to uncover her grandmother’s past life. It’s a little light on drama and predictable, but the descriptions of the embroideries are exquisite, and the characters are relatable (much more relatable than City of Girls!) 4/5
Last weekend, I took my niece and nephew to see Toy Story 4 and pizzas afterward. It was kind of a reward for the kids and for myself too, because I’ve been too busy to take them on our annual trip, and with less than a month left before the new semester, it looks like I’m not going to have the time after all. I know, I know, it’s totally a #firstworldproblem, not having a vacation. At least it was nice to have one day when I didn’t have to worry about scripts or books or deadlines. And even if I’m not on vacation, I could still dress like I was!
As for the movie – I enjoyed it but found it rather sad. Not even sad in a moving way like Toy Story 3; just sad. Like, the entire Toy Story franchise has always been about how a toy should always be there for their kid, but this… (mild spoiler) it didn’t go against that theme exactly, it just took it in a different direction that I’m not sure I like. Toy Story 3 is the perfect ending already, they should’ve stopped at that. But I guess the calling of the $$$ is too strong to resist, even for Pixar.
Sorry for the late post – the time just completely slipped my mind. Anyway, it’s a month of non-fiction for me, and on a whole, they’re pretty good. Here goes:
The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson:
This explores life in England in the summer of 1911 – George V has just been crowned, Winston Churchill is Home Secretary, and the Titanic is about to set off on its maiden voyage. The subject matter is certainly interesting – it’s a summer of social and political tension, of traditional values clashing with modern ideas – but the book is definitely a case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. Certain sections are interesting, but the book overall fails to make me see what’s so fascinating about the summer of 1911 and why the author chose to write about it (compare it with Bill Bryson’s “One Summer – America, 1927”, and you’ll see what I mean.) Plus, the chapters are weirdly divided. Ostensibly, they are chronological, starting in Early June, then Late June, and so on until Early September. However, instead of following the events in those time frames (which would be the boring but logical thing to do), each chapter then focuses on a different subject – Early June focuses on Queen Mary’s struggle with the upcoming coronation, Late June focuses on a socialite’s London “season”, etc. The book is certainly well researched, but it feels both too detailed and not detailed enough somehow. 2/5
Bad Blood by John Carreyrou:
This seems to be on everybody’s reading list lately. It follows the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, who managed to build a billion-dollar Silicon Valley startup out of essentially a lie – that her company has revolutionized healthcare by performing blood tests from just a finger prick. I’ve never heard of Holmes or her company, Theranos (which sounds like a Marvel villain), but this is getting rave reviews and being made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, so I decided to check it out. It’s certainly fascinating and disturbing to read about all the lies that Holmes and her cronies told and all the people they stepped on (one Theranos employee ended up committing suicide) on their way to success – the red flags are there from day one, so you’re on the edge of your seat waiting for the moment it all comes crashing down. My one complaint is that the book is very detailed on the “what” and the “how”, but less so on the “who” and the “why” – in other words, we never really find out who Elizabeth Holmes really is. Is she a master manipulator who hoodwinked everyone with her charm, or is she simply a victim of the “fake it till you make it” mentality whose delusions of grandeur got out of hand? We may never know. 4.5/5
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan:
This book attempts to answer the question “What are we having for dinner?” by exploring the three sources of food – industrial, organic (or alternative), and foraged – and showing what really goes into our food. It is interesting stuff if you’re into food and science and history, but sometimes it can be horrifying to read, especially the “Industrial” part, which is about how corn has found its way into everything we eat and how it has ruined not only our taste buds and our health, but also agriculture and the environment (though it is not the corn’s fault. It’s our fault.) It really makes you think about what you’re putting into your body. My complaint is that the writing can be a bit dry, and I sometimes found myself zoning out and just flipping the pages without understanding a single word of what I was reading (but maybe it’s because I always read it before bed.) 4.5/5
I only managed three books this month, but in my defense, two of them are pretty dense, so here goes:
Possession by A.S. Byatt:
I’ve read one other book by A.S. Byatt, “The Children’s Book”, because I was hired to translate it. I didn’t think much of it at first, but after translating it (which took forever because it’s so dense), I’d gained a new sense of appreciation for the characters and their lives. So I decided to check out her more famous novel to see what she does with a more defined and contained plot – two academic/literary researchers stumble upon evidence that two Victorian poets may have had a secret affair, and must rush to discover the truth before their rivals.
It sounded great, but I wasn’t impressed. It’s mainly because I can’t connect to any of the characters, and the stakes aren’t high enough (at the end of the day, it’s just about some dead poets. The emotional stakes just aren’t there.) And I admire Byatt for including the poems and stories by her fictional poets, but they slow down the story a great deal. I often found myself skipping those passages to get back to the main plot, even though I already knew the story from the terrible adaptation with Gwyneth Paltrow. 2/5
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf:
This is another book that hooks me because of its pretty cover. Plus, I’m always interested in books about natures and explores, so a biography of one of the most prominent naturalist explorers of the 19th century seems like a good choice. I’ve never heard of Humboldt before, so it’s fascinating to read about him and to learn that many of our understandings about nature today came from him or were popularized by him – such as the idea of plant geography or the very concept of nature preservation. The book also includes some chapters on how Humboldt has influenced other scientists and writers, like Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir. These can be a little reaching (take the chapter on Simon Bolivar, for instance – sure, Bolivar and Humboldt were close acquaintances after Humboldt’s trip to South America, but how much did Humboldt influence Bolivar, really?) but they’re interesting to read, nonetheless. I also appreciate the fact that everything is in chronologically order instead of jumping all over the places like some biographies I’ve read (like the one on Sissi, for example). 4/5
A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab:
After quite few non-fiction books, I figured it was time to get back to my roots with a fantasy novel. This one, the first of a trilogy (one of these days, I’d like to read a standalone fantasy book for a change, thank you very much), follows Kell, a young magician with the ability to travel between four different worlds – Grey (our non-magical world), Red (the magical, thriving world), White (the world starving for magic), and Black (the world destroyed by magic). One day, Kell stumbles upon a dangerous relic from the Black world, and together with a human pickpocket, he embarks on a journey to restore the balance between the worlds. It’s quite standard fantasy stuff, as you can see, but the world-building is interesting and the action is fast-paced, which makes for a quick, easy read. My only complaint is that the characters, to me, feel a little flat. Still, I enjoyed it enough to want to check out the other two books in the series. 4/5
What did you read this month? You can check out my friend Mike’s read here, or discuss your books in the comment!