Book Reviews: May 2023

I had to read a bunch of thesis scripts in the last two weeks of May, so I resorted to shorter books this month to meet my quota. They’re still interesting though! Here goes:

Paladin’s Grace by T. Kingfisher:

After enjoying “Swordheart” last month, I decided to check out another T. Kingfisher fantasy romance set in the same world. This one follows a perfumer and a paladin whose god has died as they get unwittingly involved in an assassination attempt. As with “Swordheart”, I enjoyed the world of the story and the characters, and this one has a more complex plot than “Swordheart”, which I appreciated as well. However, I didn’t buy the relationship as much (it’s sort of insta-love, which I never find convincing), and the plot gets resolved very easily. 3.5/5

Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Continuing my exploration of poetry, I went with something more classical this time. I’ve heard a lot of great things about Elizabeth Browning’s love poems (these sonnets were written for her future husband, Robert Browning), but after reading them, I became convinced more than ever that poetry is like music. You can’t always explain why you like this song more than the others, just like how you can’t explain why a particular poem hits you harder than the others. That is to say, I appreciate the beauty of Elizabeth Browning’s language and sentiments, but I don’t really connect with them as much as I thought I would. 3/5

Poems by John Clare:

More poetry. I’ve never even heard of John Clare before, but I saw one of his poems quoted on a poetry Instagram account, and his brand of nature and rustic life description hits my exact sweet spot (see my two favorite poets: Seamus Heaney and Mary Oliver). However, while I do enjoy all of Clare’s poems about rural life, their sentiments don’t hit me as hard as Heaney’s or Oliver’s, and I don’t think I would enjoy them half as much if I didn’t read the introduction about Clare’s life. Knowing about his sad, extraordinary life makes me appreciate his poems a lot more. 3/5

4:50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie:

To clear my head after reading all those thesis scripts, I’m back to my usual “easy read”. Since I’ve watched all the Miss Marple adaptations with Joan Hickson, I know what happens in this already (one of Miss Marple’s friends witnesses a strangling on the train, and Miss Marple sets out to discover what truly happened), but it’s interesting in that Miss Marple herself doesn’t feature very prominently in the story. Sure, she is behind the scene pulling the string, but most of the investigation is carried out by the police and her associate Lucy Eyelesbarrow. It makes for a nice change of pace. 4/5

Book Reviews: April 2023

I’ve been rather neglecting reading in favor of writing, but here am I, back with another month of eclectic books:

The Bone Key by Sarah Monette:

I was going to save this series of connected short stories, all revolving around a museum archivist who had some very unpleasant experiences with ghosts and demons and other supernatural creatures, for Halloween, but since I’m planning to write a Gothic fanfic, I thought it would be fun to read it now to get myself in the mood. I quite enjoy this. The main character is rather passive and pathetic, but that’s part of his appeal, and the stories are all quite creepy, if not downright scary. 4/5

The Matchmaker’s Lonely Heart by Nancy Campbell Allen:

Another historical romance for me, though this one is mixed with a bit of crime thriller – I find I always enjoy romance more as a secondary plot. This takes place in Victorian/Edwardian time rather than Regency, and revolves around a young woman who writes a “lonely hearts” column for a newspaper and is unwittingly drawn into a murder investigation by a police detective. It was entertaining enough, though I find the heroine’s naïveté exasperating at times (she has a crush on the main suspect and refuses to see him for the creep he is, then very quickly changes her mind), and my usual complaint of lack of chemistry between the couple still applies. The investigating is rather too easy as well. 2.5/5

Tulips and Chimneys by e.e. cummings:

I’ve been reading a lot of romances lately, and I noticed my writing has suffered for it – not because of the romances themselves, but rather because their writing tends to be quite similar – so I went back to poetry a bit. I’ve read some traditional poetry with Seamus Heaney and Mary Oliver, so I thought I’d try e.e. cummings for something a bit more eccentric. And boy, was I in over my head. The words are pretty, but I don’t understand a lot of the poems; I’m not even sure if I’m reading them right (due to Cummings’ idiosyncratic use of grammar and punctuation). So in the end, I just let the language and the rhythm flow over me and absorb what I could. 3/5

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker:

This one has an interesting premise – a female golem, created to be the wife of a man who unfortunately dies right after he brings the golem to life, and a jinni, trapped in a flask and accidentally released by a tinsmith – meet in New York and develop a friendship. It’s mostly a metaphor for the immigrant experience in America, since both the golem and the jinni are strangers in the human world and must try to fit in to survive. I enjoy all the descriptions of life in turn-of-the-century NYC and the incorporation of the Jewish and Arabian cultures into the story, but the pacing is so, so slow, and the supporting characters, despite being colorful, really weigh it down. Still, it’s well written and I like the two leads enough to give this 4/5


Book Reviews: March 2023

Since Wednesday often coincides with an SIA round-up post, I thought I’d keep the book reviews schedule more flexible, either on the last Friday or the last Wednesday of every month, depending on which of them is closest to the end of the month. That’ll give me more time to finish my reading too, so win-win. Anyway, here are the books I read this month:

Swordheart by T. Kingfisher:

Last year, I’ve quite enjoyed “A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking” by the same author, so when I came across one of her adult fantasy novels, I decided to check it out. This one is more of a fantasy romance – a woman finds herself in possession of a magic sword with an immortal soldier imprisoned inside (think a genie in a lamp, except with a sword), and now the soldier must protect her from those who mean her harm. The plot is quite simple – it can even be simplistic at times, and the pacing definitely suffers for it, for the middle sags a lot, but the romance is very sweet. I found the FMC a little annoying at first, but she quickly grows on me. I also appreciate the fact that the two leads are a little on the mature side (she’s 36 and he’s in his 40s – well, technically, he’s hundreds of years old, but he was in his 40s when he went into the sword.) It goes to show I can enjoy a romance, even if the external plot is not that interesting. 4/5

Snuff by Terry Pratchett:

It’s Terry Pratchett, it’s Discworld, so it’s an automatic 4-5 star read for me, even if the Night Watch books have never been my absolute favorites (I prefer the Death and the Witches books.) This one sees Sam Vimes reluctantly taking a vacation in the countryside with his family, and of course stumbling upon a crime and investigating it. The investigation itself is a little lacking, and the story as a whole is a bit heavy (the Night Watch books are never laugh-out-loud funny for me though), but it’s harrowing and thought-provoking as always. And speaking of a sweet romance with older people, Vimes and Sybil are total relationship goals. 4/5

The Romantic by Madeline Hunter:

OK, so apparently all of the books I read this month feature more mature couples (in their 30s and 40s as opposed to 20s), because this one does too. It’s yet another of my attempt to get into the romance genre – I picked it because it’s historical and features a more interesting premise than your typical bodice-ripper: the hero helps the heroine escape from her abusive husband by having an “affair of convenience” with her to force the husband to divorce her. However, my usual complaints still stand. I don’t see much of the chemistry/connection between the two leads (the hero supposedly has been in love with the heroine since they were teenagers, but we never know why. One day he just became attracted to her), and although they come up with the “affair of convenience” idea (and become physically intimate) pretty early on, they keep going back and forth and never really decide to have an affair until about 2/3 of the book. Like, hello, you already are having an affair! Then, once they decide to have a public affair, it’s over very quickly. The last 1/3 of the book is much more interesting to me because it focuses on the external plot and not on the characters’ emotions. Plus, the two characters are so self-sacrificing and noble that it becomes tiring after a while. 2.5/5

A Mysterious Case in Hakuba Resort by Keigo Higashino: (this one isn’t translated to English so I’m linking the Vietnamese version)

I’ve heard a lot of good things about this Japanese mystery writer, so I decided to try one of his books. It has a good premise – a young woman goes to a mountain resort where her brother died of an apparent suicide a year ago, and while investigating the circumstances surrounding his death, discovers that the Mother Goose-themed rooms of the resort may contain clues leading to a treasure. However, I was disappointed. The mystery is good, but the plot feels repetitive, the characters are boring, and when they do uncover the treasure, it feels too easy. 2/5

Book Reviews: February 2023

I realized I was a week late for the book review post, but February was a short month so I figured I could get away with it. Anyway, I managed 4 books last month, two long and two short, and although my reviews aren’t exactly glowing (except for one), they are kind of interesting, so I can’t complain.

Sketches from a Hunter’s Album (or A Sportsman’s Sketches) by Ivan Turgenev:

I like Russian classic literature, but other than Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Gorky, I actually haven’t read anyone else, so when I saw this at a book sale, I decided to pick it up. It’s precisely the kind of thing I love to read – it’s a series of short stories/anecdotes about life in rural Russia during the 1840s. I enjoy all the descriptions of life and nature, but the stories themselves are so depressing, with nothing but suffering for the peasants and cruelty and callousness from the ruling class. I get that it is this realism that makes the book a classic (Turgenev was actually arrested and confined to his estate because of it), but it still makes it rather a slog to read at times. 3.5/5

The Rat Catcher’s Daughter by K.J. Charles:

I actually read this novella and the one below as research/reference for a story I’m writing. This one is a historical romance between two asexual characters, one of them a trans woman and a music hall singer, the other a cis man and a fence. It’s quite sweet, but a bit too short – I don’t see much chemistry between the two leads. 3/5

In Which Margo Halifax Earned Her Shocking Reputation by Alexandra Vasti:

This is another historical romance novella, about a young debutante with a reputation as a “hellion” – when her twin sister runs away with a less-than-desirable man, she has to enlist the help of their brother’s friend, who has been nursing a crush on her all these years, to stop the elopers. Of course, when they’re stuck together in a carriage for days, sparks fly, yadda yadda yadda. This one is too modern for my taste – I’m not looking for historical accuracy in romance novels, but some of the characters’ behaviors and attitudes feel almost anachronistic. Plus, again, I’m not convinced of the chemistry between the two leads. I guess I like my romances on a much slower burn than this. 2/5

Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo:

In this long-awaited sequel to “Ninth House”, Alex Stern tries to find a way into Hell to save her friend and mentor, Darlington. I only have a vague recollection of what happened in “Ninth House”, but this book does a great job of getting you up to speed and getting the story going. It’s everything I love about “Ninth House”, with the same dark, complex world and characters. My one complaint is that the first half is a little slow, and it’s slightly difficult to keep up with the different time frames. In the second half, as the characters begin preparations for their journey into Hell, the pacing picks up considerably. 4.5/5

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.)