Book Reviews: August 2021

Next Wednesday is scheduled for the SIA round-up, so here’s the book reviews, a week early. It’s been an interesting month of reading, and I enjoyed all of them except one!

Merry Hall trilogy by Beverley Nichols:

I came across a quote by Beverley Nichols on a gardening blog and was immediately drawn to his humor and his way of describing nature, so I immediately tried to find more of his books. Not all of them are available in ebook format, but I did manage to find this trilogy, which is a memoir about his endeavor to restore a Georgian manor house and its garden (kind of similar to A Year in Provence, but with more of a post-war British vibe rather than a French vibe.) Nichols’s writing is a little old-fashioned, sure – the books were written in the 1950s, and he loves his purple prose – but his observations remain true and his British humor goes a long way toward making this enjoyable. I had a constant smile on my face as I was reading it, and even laughed out loud a few times – only a few authors (Terry Pratchett, Bill Bryson, and Mary Roach) manage to do that for me. His house and garden are pretty much an Anglophile’s idea of Heaven (that Anglophile being me), his neighbors and friends are entertainingly depicted in a super British way, AND he’s a cat person. How could I not love this? 5/5

The Murder at the Vicarage & The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie:

Beverley Nichols has put me in the mood for something British, and what’s more British than a couple of Miss Marple murder mysteries? I’ve read a few Agatha Christie books before (And Then There Were None and Death on the Nile, mostly because I love the two adaptations – the 2015 BBC version of And Then There Were None, and the 1978 version of Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov), and of course I’ve watched all the Miss Marple series with Joan Hickson, but this is the first time I read the Miss Marple books. Despite being familiar with the stories already, I was still drawn into them (well, it helps that I watched the TV series a while ago and didn’t remember exactly what happened.) They may be a little slow for the modern reader (“The Body in the Library” is a little more fast-paced), but there’s a reason Agatha Christie is called the Queen of Crime. The characters are wonderfully drawn, the murders themselves are full of twists and turns, and there are enough side plots to keep you guessing until the end. 4/5

All Systems Red (Murderbot Diaries #1) by Martha Wells:

I decided to take a break from all the British village drama and go in the opposite direction – a sci-fi novella about a self-aware android. The eponymous Murderbot is responsible for the security of a team of explorers on a new planet, but it couldn’t care less about humans and only wants to spend its days watching TV (we’ve all been there, haven’t we.) However, when they lose contact with another team on the other side of the planet, it is up to Murderbot and its human clients to figure out what’s wrong. I expect to love this (an anti-social android is so me), but… well, I didn’t. For one thing, the characters are not that great – the book starts with Murderbot already self-aware, so we never got to know it fully, the humans are all interchangeable, and the relationship between Murderbot and the humans are supposed to be awkward and sweet, but it’s just bland to me. Plus there’s the plot, which manages to be both complicated and vague at the same time. 1/5

(P/S: If you want a book about a self-aware android – well, kind of an android – that is hilarious, features an interesting plot, and also tackles some pretty thought-provoking ideas about what it means to be humans, read Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett instead.)


Book Reviews: July 2021

I read 5 books this month, and since I’ve been reading a lot of non-fictions lately, I decided to have a full fiction month. Here goes:

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

I’m starting with a short story collection by sci-fi writer Ted Chiang, since I’ve heard a lot of good things about him. However, while some of the stories have interesting ideas, I didn’t enjoy them as much as I thought. They tend to be too technical and philosophical without much emotional resonance, and they all more or less deal with the same theme – the fact that there is no true free will – which I find repetitive and rather depressing. I may still check out Chiang’s other collection, Stories of Your Life Others (the novella Story of Your Life is the basis for the film Arrival) but I wouldn’t call him my new favorite author. 3/5

Tales from the Gas Station: Volume 1 by Jack Townsend

This book is about a gas station where a lot of weird/unsettling things happen, and at the center of it is a clerk who has learned to turn a blind eye to these events and documents them in a nonchalant, matter-of-fact way. It got a chuckle or two out of me, but considering that it’s based on a creepypasta, I expected it to be a lot more, well, creepy. The stories are just too out-there to be believable urban legends, and the decision to join them up into an overarching plot doesn’t work, because there are too many loose threads. I kept reading in the hope that there would be a point to it all, but in the end, there is no point. It would be much better as a series of unconnected stories. A very generous 1.5/5 (that half star is only because it doesn’t annoy me.)

Borderline by Mishell Baker:

This is basically the movie Men in Black but with fey instead of aliens – a young woman with borderline personality disorder, who recently survived a suicide attempt, is recruited by an agency that monitors all fey activities in our world. I picked this up because it’s set in LA, and, having lived in LA for 7 years, I was interested to see how the book combines urban fantasy with the movie industry. The basic concept is that a lot of successful people in the movie/creative business have the help of fairy “muses”, and in turn, the fairies can benefit from the humans’ reasoning and organizing skills (it’s pretty similar to the idea of the fairy servants in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell). The agency also recruits people with mental problems because they are more acceptable of the magical world (again, this is similar to the correlation between madness and magic in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell). The world-building is good, but I never quite connect with the main character, who is defined solely by her BPD, and the main plot, which revolves around the search for a missing fairy, feels too easy. Still, it’s interesting enough that I might check out the rest of the series. 3/5

The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali:

As a change of pace from all the dark sci-fi and fantasy, here’s a romance: two teenagers fall in love in 1953 Tehran, but are torn apart by political upheaval and fate, until fate again brings them back together 60 years later. I enjoyed all the descriptions of life in 1950s Tehran (it’s the main reason I picked this up), but I was reminded of why I don’t read romance much – I just don’t buy it. I don’t buy that the main characters can fall in love so quickly and completely (they’re 17!!! What the heck do they know?), and that their love is still going strong 60 years later. It’s not that I’m a cynic either, but it’s just that I’m more of a fan of “slow burn” romance, you know? There are some good parts that are quite moving though, so I still give this 3/5

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa:

I was going to read this after “The Traveling Cat Chronicles” last month, but I figured two slice-of-life Japanese novels in one month would be a little redundant, so I saved this until July. It revolves around a housekeeper working for a math professor whose memories only last 80 minutes due to an accident, and the friendship that develops between her, the professor, and her young son. Like most of the Japanese novels of this type, not much happens – or rather, everything is understated and the book leaves you to reflect on your own feelings, rather than tell you how to react – but despite that, or perhaps precisely because of that, it is still very moving. 4/5

Book Reviews: June 2021

I managed six books this month (some are quite short though), and they are as eclectic as ever:

The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James:

NOS4A2 has put me in the mood for some horror, so I picked this up because the story seems interesting – it follows two storylines, one of a young woman in 1982working at a supposedly haunted motel and disappearing from there, and one of her niece, 35 years ago, who goes to the motel to find out what happened to her aunt. The story is nicely spooky, but the characters are boring, and I find the niece’s crush on a guy-with-a-tragic-backstory (of course he does) so eye-rolling. Plus, the author has this annoying habit of describing people’s clothes and hairstyles in detail which has little to no significance in the story. 3/5

Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present by Allison Matthews David

I’ve wanted to read this book for the longest time, because it takes a look at one of my favorite genres – fashion history – from a different angle: how clothing can kill, through poisonous dyes (arsenic green), chemicals (mercurial hats), body-altering extreme silhouettes (crinolines and hobble skirts), and other gruesome means. It’s a fascinating subject, and it also points out how, even in our world today, the health and well-being of workers are still overlooked for the sake of fashion. So it’s really too bad that the book is super dry. It reads like an academic research paper. I can only imagine how much more entertaining it would be if written by a more humorous author, like, say, Mary Roach. 3/5

Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake:

Fungus is the least studied and least understood of all the natural kingdoms, and this book, which revolves around fungi and their effects on the natural and human worlds, goes to show how little we know about them. There are some very interesting bits about “zombie fungi”, how fungi create a “wood wide web”, and how they can be the material of the future (fungal leather, anyone?) However, it doesn’t pull me in as much as I’d hoped. The author is clearly passionate about his work (and by the way, how awesome is his name? It sounds like a Harry Potter character. Heck, the guy even looks like a Harry Potter character), but the organization of the book leaves something to be desired. The chapters jump from one subject to the next instead of going from the basic to the more complex, so while some bits and pieces grab my attention, the book as a whole feels rather rambling. 3.5/5

On Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho by Matsuo Basho, translated by Lucien Stryk:

In my attempt to read more poetry, I thought I would try some haiku. The simple language and the focus on natural imagery sound right up my alley, and what’s a better place to start than Basho, one of the most famous Japanese poets? However, I think haiku may be too simple for me, if that makes sense? It requires a certain amount of Zen-like focus to appreciate the beauty of these poems, and I read too quickly for that. This is an entirely me problem, though, so I still give the book 4/5 (afterward, I sought out the Vietnamese translation of some of Basho’s haiku and did enjoy them better, so it may be a translation/language problem as well.)

The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, translated by Philip Gabriel:

After Basho, it seems natural for me to pick up this Japanese novel about a cat going on a road trip with his owner. Their journeys are told from the cat’s point of view, and the owner’s backstory is also revealed while he visits old friends in order to find the cat a new home. I was expecting something quirky and lighthearted, but, and the reason why the owner can no longer keep the cat gradually, heartbreakingly becomes clear, I found myself bawling my eyes out. Read it and give your pet a hug afterward. 4.5/5 (and that’s only because the theme of the story is a little on-the-nose.)

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer:

I picked this up because the title sounds awesome, and the subject matter – a group of librarians banding together to save valuable centuries-old Arabic manuscripts from Al Qaeda in 2012 – sounds awesome as well. The start is strong enough, as it introduces the man behind the operation, Abdel Kader Haidara, and talks about the history of Timbuktu as a center of culture in the 15th and 16th centuries. However, the book then starts focusing on the rise of Al Qaeda in the Malian desert, and I lost interest. Why do we have to go into such detail about the backstory of the Al Qaeda leaders, while Haidara only gets a chapter with some broad strokes about his childhood and no explanation as to how he became such a passionate and dedicated collector (he had inherited his father’s library quite reluctantly)? And so many of his fellow librarians, who risked their lives to save these manuscripts, remain nameless? Basically, there is too much focus on Al Qaeda and not enough on the manuscripts and the librarians themselves. 2/5

Book Reviews: May 2021

It’s a good month of reading. I managed 5 books, and they’re all pretty interesting, so here goes:

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones:

Part A-to-Z reference book of the fantasy genre, part tongue-in-cheek travel guide, this book contains explanations of every trope and cliché you’ll find in fantasy (or encounter during a tour through Fantasyland) from ambush and assassin to wizard and zombie. It’s not exactly a book that you can sit down and read thought – it’s more of a reference book. It’s not as hilarious as I’d hoped, but it did give me a few good chuckles here and there, and it can be useful if you’re an aspiring fantasy writer and/or Dungeon Master. 3/5

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain & The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain by Ian Mortimer:

So I went from a fantasy guide to two history guides. What can I say? My feet are getting itchy again. I’ve enjoyed Ian Mortimer’s previous Time Traveller’s Guide books (to Medieval England and Elizabethan England) a great deal, and these two are no different. I’m more familiar with these eras – Restoration, thanks to Samuel Pepys’ diary, and Regency, thanks to the many Jane Austen adaptations (and both thanks to “The Supersizers”, the TV series with Sue Perkins and Giles Coren) – so the information is not exactly new, and there’s quite a lot of statistics that can be a bit dry, but the whole is still very readable and entertaining. I especially enjoy the various quips about Pepys’ diary in the Restoration guide (I’d forgotten what a dick Pepys was!) 4.5/5

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill:

After three guidebooks, I wanted something a little different – horror. I don’t read/watch much horror anymore, and if I do, I definitely prefer ghost/haunting to gore; however, I came across this on r/booksuggestion, and, seeing it as a new take on vampires (NOS4A2 is pronounced “Nosferatu”) and knowing that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, I thought I’d check it out. It follows a woman who can teleport to the locations of missing objects (I’m simplifying things a great deal here), and this causes her to cross paths with an immortal that feeds on the souls of children. Comparison to Stephen King is inevitable – the setting of New England and the theme of childhood horrors certainly remind me of It – but I think Joe Hill can stand on his own. The story is creepy but not too scary; it’s a quick read despite the length (nearly 700 pages); and the characters are all memorable, including the minor ones. My one complaint is the ending – not the climax, but the wrap-up afterward, which feels rushed. 4/5

Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, edited by Doug Murano and D. Alexander Ward

NOS4A2 has put me in the mood for some more horror, but I’m a bit of a wimp and don’t want to be too scared, so I decided to pick up this short story anthology – if it gets too intense, I can always put it down. Now, the stories in this collection are not “horror” in the traditional sense; rather, they’re about the dark side of the human condition. However, I didn’t love any of the stories. Some have good ideas (“Picking Splinters from a Sex Slave”, “Cards for His Spokes, Coins for His Fare”, “When We All Meet at the Ofrenda”, “Hey Little Sister”) but the endings are disappointing or predictable, while the others are just plain disappointing. It does feature a Neil Gaiman story (“The Problem with Susan”) but it’s actually one of my least favorite of his so… yeah. It was a letdown. 2/5

Book Reviews: April 2021

It’s an interesting month of reading. Some of the books are not my usual fare, but I enjoyed them all, so here goes:

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr:

It seems my specialty this year is short, simple novels about the human condition and non-fiction books about nature. Since I just read a non-fiction book about the English countryside (“Wilding”), I thought I’d read a fiction book about the English countryside next. Revolving around a shell-shocked WWI veteran hired to restore a medieval mural in a Yorkshire church, this book definitely falls into that Ruskin Bond camp of “profoundly simple and simply profound”. On the surface, it doesn’t seem to be about much – the main character interacts with the locals, commiserates with a fellow veteran/archeologist, falls in love with the wife of the local vicar, and muses about the anonymous artist behind the mural, all in a very restrained, understated manner. But the whole book is filled with a powerful sense of nostalgia, for things that were and things that could have been, that will leave you both heartbroken and deeply touched. 4/5

Wintering Out by Seamus Heaney:

I’m still slowly working my way through Heaney’s works, and it seems natural to move from “A Month in the Country” to this. I’m still struggling with poetry as a whole (maybe because English is my second language, so some of its nuance is lost on me?) and this collection, which is the most abstract of Heaney’s that I’ve read so far, doesn’t make things easier. My favorite poems in this (“The Wool Trade”, “Veteran’s Dream”, “First Calf”, and “Mother of the Groom”) are about very simple and even prosaic things, but they reveal deeper meanings upon reflection, whereas some others I don’t even know what they’re about, so I just let the lyricism and musicality of the language wash over me. Sometimes that may be the best way to enjoy poetry. 3/5

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges:

I took a break from my usual non-fictions with this combination of my two favorite genres – non-fiction and fantasy. This encyclopedia lists 120 mythical creatures from religion, folklore, and fantasy writings from around the world, ranging from the well-known (Banshee, dragon, elf) to the more obscure (axehandle hound, chon-chon, squonk). It’s a good reference book, though I was hoping for a more scientific, consistent approach. You know, like an actual encyclopedia – an entry may consist of descriptions of the creature, its origin and history, etc. Here, they are a bit all over the place. Most do describe the creature and its origin, but others are only excerpts from whatever book or piece of writing that mentions the creature. It may be irrational to demand a scientific approach, considering that this is a book about fantasy creatures, but I think it would make it much more interesting to read. 3/5

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot:

From imaginary beings to very real animals, my next read is this classic memoir (actually, I’d call it a work of autobiographical fiction, since the stories are only loosely based on the author’s experiences.) It’s a series of anecdotes that tells the story of a country vet in 1930s Yorkshire (again). The anecdotes, which are about the animals as much as the colorful people and landscape of the Yorkshire Dales, are sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-wrenching, but always moving and full of human interest. The TV series (at least the 2020 version, I haven’t watched the 1978 version yet) is very enjoyable as well. 5/5

Devotions by Mary Oliver:

After Seamus Heaney, I wanted to branch out to other poets. I thought about reading some “classics” like Robert Frost and e.e. cummings, but then I came across Mary Oliver’s name and found her a little more accessible, so I read her first. One of the reasons I never quite “get” poetry is because I tend to skim while I read, while poetry requires slower, more meditative reading, and Mary Oliver’s simple language is easier to absorb. Her poems all deal with nature, which is another reason I’m drawn to them, and while they’re a lot more introspective (compared to Heaney, which is more narrative), they’re also beautiful in their simplicity. 4.5/5