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

Book Reviews: January 2022

It’s an interesting month of reading. I’ve been thinking of doing more themed reading since I had so much fun with it last October, but then I decided the stress of deciding which theme to read for which month would take the enjoyment out of it, so I just went with my random approach as usual.

Queen Lucia and Miss Mapp by E. F. Benson:

I stumbled across these after reading the Merry Hall trilogy by Beverley Nichols last year – they’re basically the fictional version of Nichols’ stories about life of the upper-middle class in quaint and quintessential English villages. There is very little plot, but then again, you don’t read these for the plot. You read them for the descriptions of tea parties, dinner parties, bridge parties (basically, all sorts of parties) and all the spying, scheming, and social rivalry between the characters. It’s exceedingly frivolous, and it would’ve been a lot funnier if the writing was a little dryer, a bit more sarcastic – like Nichols’ writing, it’s old-fashioned and fussy, but it doesn’t have the beautiful descriptions of nature like Nichols’ to justify the purple prose. Still, the characters are fun (albeit in a bitchy, snobby way) and I enjoy laughing at them. 3.5/5

The Magic Summer (aka The Growing Summer) by Noel Streatfeild:

It’s been a while since I read a children’s book, and when I came across this old book about four siblings spending a summer at the house of their eccentric great-aunt in Ireland, I jumped at it – it sounds exactly like the kind of book I would enjoy. And I did. It’s charming and idyllic, the kids are not cloyingly precocious, their sibling squabbles are realistic, and the adults are never patronizing and all kind in their own way. Plus, it’s just refreshing to read something so quick and uncomplicated. 5/5

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

I went from one kid’s book to the next – this one caught my attention due to the fun title. It’s about a 14-year-old girl with a talent of working magic into dough – bread, cookies, pastries, etc. – who is unwittingly called into defending her city when all wizards in the city are killed or driven away. It’s fun and charming, though the first half is a little slow, there is a bit of incongruity between the quirky premise and the epic final battle, and the characters are a little bland. I know it’s a kid’s book and sometimes the characters are deliberately bland so the readers can better see themselves in the characters, but it doesn’t have to be that way (see: the Tiffany Aching books by Terry Pratchett). 3/5

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud:

I realize the reason I stopped reading YA fantasy books altogether is because I got tired of the Chose One/love triangle tropes. However, this book, which is about a ghost-hunting agency run by three teenagers (in this world, where ghosts and hauntings are endemic, children are most susceptible to paranormal activities and thus make up most of the ghostbusters), is refreshingly free of all the usual clichés. The world-building is interesting, the characters is believable (if nothing unique), and the story is nicely spooky. I’ll keep this series in mind for my Halloween read. 4/5

A Year In Review: Books Of 2021

It’s been a very theme-heavy year of reading. A lot of my books this year deal with nature and the countryside – I guess it’s only natural (heh), given the year we’ve had, to want to escape to some cottagecore fantasy. I also read more mystery and horror too (more escapism). Here’s an overview:

Best book you read in 2021:

– Crime/Mystery: The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

– Horror/Thriller: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

– Sci-fi/Fantasy: A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark

– Romance/History/Other: The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

– Non-fiction: Merry Hall trilogy by Beverley Nichols

– YA: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire. I actually read more than one YA book this year, but this still won by default.

Most surprising (in a good way) book of 2021: Numbers and the World by Do Minh Triet

Book that you read in 2021 that you recommended most to others: Wilding by Isabella Tree, Extraordinary Insects by Anne Sverdup-Thygeson, Beyond Words by Carl Safina, The Travelling Cat Chronicles

Best series you discovered in 2021: Merry Hall trilogy

Favorite new author you discovered in 2021: Beverley Nichols, Lillian Beckwith, Mary Oliver

Book you were excited about and thought you were going to love but didn’t: Fashion Victims by Allison Matthew David, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer, All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre to you: Numbers and the World

Book you read in 2021 that you’re most likely to read again: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration/Regency Britain by Ian Mortimer

Favorite book you read in 2021 from an author you’ve read previously: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration/Regency Britain

Favorite cover of a book in 2021:

Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2021: Wilding

Book you can’t BELIEVE you waited until 2021 to read: The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie. I’ve read Agatha Christie before but not the Miss Marple books.

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.): The Elementals by Michael McDowell

Favorite relationship from a book you read in 2021 (be it romantic, friendship, etc.): Vic and Maggie in NOS4A2, Nana and Satoru in The Travelling Cat Chronicles

Most memorable character in a book you read in 2021: Miss Marple? I may be biased because of the TV series, but honestly, she is more memorable than anyone else.

Genre you read the most from 2021: Non-fiction (about nature, specifically)

Book that was the most fun to read in 2021: The Truth about Animals by Lucy Cooke

Book that made you cry or nearly cry in 2021: The Travelling Cat Chronicles, East of Croydon by Sue Perkins

Total Number of books read in 2021: 65 (including 2 Miss Marple books and 5 volumes of Dream of the Red Chamber that are not included in the monthly reviews, since they were more of a re-read).

Book Reviews: December 2021

I’m posting my book reviews a little earlier this month, because next week is going to be the yearly book wrap-up and I don’t want to group my December books with next month, which would make the post too long. Anyway, the books I read during the last month of 2021 are as eclectic as ever. Here goes:

The Hebridean Trilogy (The Hills is Lonely, The Sea for Breakfast, The Loud Halo) by Lillian Beckwith:

These semi-autobiographical books, about an English woman who moves to a small village in the Hebrides, first to recover after an illness, and then permanently as she falls in love with the island and its inhabitants, are both charming and hilarious. What I love about them is that they don’t romanticize life on the island at all; in fact, such life can be really tough (no running water, having to cut your own peat for winter’s fuel, very little diversion/entertainment from the daily chores, etc.), and the villagers and their many quirks are as exasperating as they are endearing. Yet they still make me want to settle down on a Scottish croft myself! I mean, who can reject the fun of having a picnic on the moors and being joined by several inquisitive Highland cows, the scrumptiousness of heather-fed lamb and homemade dumplings, or the charm of listening to the annual shoal of herring making the surface of the sea “bubble with laughter”? 5/5

A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark:

It’s been a while since I read a fantasy book, and I was drawn to this by its setting – a steampunk Egypt at the turn of the 20th century. Basically, 40 years ago, a mysterious man called al-Jahiz opened up the gate between our world and the world of magic and djinn, and thanks to that magic, Egypt has been turned into a super power that rivals those of Europe and America. The story, which revolves around a female investigator dealing with a mysterious figure claiming to be the returned al-Jahiz, is a little slow in the first half, but it picks up considerably in the second half. My one complaint is that the characters are rather boring, especially the lead – she doesn’t have much of a personality, except for her sense of style, which I love (all those spiffy suits!) But the world-building is excellent and the story isn’t bad, so I still give this 4/5

P/S: There are two prequel short stories, A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015. I’d recommend reading A Dead Djinn in Cairo first, to familiarize yourself with the world and the characters.

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters:

I went from a steampunk Egypt to a historical Egypt – this cozy mystery takes place in the 1880s, at the height of Egyptomania. It revolves around Miss Amelia Peabody, a spinster who travels to Egypt to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming an Egyptologist and become embroiled in a mystery involving a walking mummy. It’s quite slow – being the first of a series, it has to take its time to introduce us to the characters, and the mystery is not the most involving. Plus, I find Amelia’s love interest rather annoying – it is too obvious an attempt at the tired “enemies to lovers” trope. Still, I enjoy all the description of the travels down the Niles and the explorations of the old tombs and pyramids. 3/5