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).
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!
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?
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