Book Reviews: June 2020

I only managed three books this month, but one of them is an absolute whopper, so it’s OK. Here goes:

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides:

I don’t read a lot of them, but I do enjoy a mystery book from time to time, and this book certainly features an intriguing mystery: a successful artist in a seemingly happy marriage suddenly shoots her husband in the face and tries to commit suicide, and afterward refuses to speak another word. The book follows her psychotherapist as he tries to figure out what really happened and how he can help her. Like I said, it sounds promising, but the book is a total flop. I don’t like any of the characters; the writing is boring; the twist (of course there is a twist) is idiotic, and (spoiler) there is no adequate explanation why the main character just stopped talking (she claims she “had nothing to say”, which is totally not true.) I was so mad that I wasted my time with this. 1/5 (if I could give it zero, I would.)

A Woman of Consequence by Anna Dean:

I went from one mystery to another, but this one is definitely lighter. It follows a Regency spinster, Miss Dido Kent, as she investigates a case of possible haunting that may be connected to a 15-year-old disappearance at a local estate. Basically, it’s Jane Austen meets Agatha Christie. The mystery is interesting, but there are too many subplots weighing it down, and I find the characters a little irritating, especially Dido’s love interest. Still, it’s fun to read, and if I should come across another one in the series (this is actually the third book), I’ll pick it up. 3/5

A Campaign in Tonkin by Charles-Edouard Hocquard, translated by Dinh Khac Phach: (There is no English translation so I’m linking this to the Vietnamese translation)

Part travelogue, part war memoir, this was written by a French army doctor who traveled to Tonkin (the name for North Vietnam during the French colonization) to participate in the French-Sino war (1884-1885). It offers detailed observations of life in 19th-century Vietnam, from everyday things (including a pretty gruesome description of a decapitation) to life at court, accompanied by photos taken by the doctor himself. It’s exactly the kind of thing I love to read, but I’m always frustrated with Vietnamese books of the same subject because they are too academic and not detailed enough. This one hits the spot. Of course, it was written from the point of view of a colonizer, so there are some questionable attitudes and opinions here and there, but mostly it’s an unbiased and often enthusiastic account of his experiences in Vietnam. My only complaint is that it’s an absolute door-stopper (600+ pages) which makes it a pain to read in bed. 4.5/5

So what did you guys read?


Book Reviews: May 2020

It’s an OK month of reading – a balance of fiction and non-fiction, mostly female writers (I’m trying to read more books by female writers), but unfortunately, none of the books is that memorable.

Followers by Megan Angelo:

After a month of non-fiction last month, I thought I would get back to something lighter, so naturally I picked a post-apocalyptic drama about the collapse of the Internet. Actually, it’s not as heavy as it sounds – this book contains two storylines, one following a wannabe writer in 2015 who hatches a plan to make her roommate (and herself, by extension) Internet-famous, and another following a government-appointed social media influencer in 2051, who lives her whole life like “The Truman Show” (except she knows she’s on camera), and how those two storylines intertwine. The book does a pretty good job of capturing the entire culture of Instagram and influencers and predicting a chilling future for it, but it can be overwrought at times (I almost quit when I read “white” described as “the color of the space between people”. Ugh.) Still, the story is timely and the characters are relatable. 3.5/5

Grunt – The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach:

I saw the Vietnamese translation of this book at a book fair, and because Mary Roach is one of my favorite non-fiction writers and because I haven’t seen a lot of translations of non-fiction books yet, I decided to check it out. This one, like Mary Roach’s other snappily-titled books, explores a particular field of science – in this case, military science, which includes everything from uniform design to the creation of stink bombs, the use of maggots in treating injuries, how to stay awake on a nuclear submarine, and so on. I’m pleased to say that most of the humor translates quite well into Vietnamese (though sometimes I found myself translating the jokes back into English to see if they work – a force of habit, I suppose), but the science itself is not as interesting compared to her other books. Maybe I’m just not interested in military science. 3/5

Things in Jar by Jess Kidd:

When I saw the blurb of this book – a mystery set in Victorian London, featuring a pipe-smoking lady detective who investigates the kidnapping of a strange child who may be a mermaid with the help of her 7-foot tall maid and the ghost of a boxer – it sounds so intriguing that I had to pick it up. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t quite deliver. The characters are interesting but they never grow or evolve, there is a massive coincidence (mild spoiler: the investigation causes the main character to cross paths with some unsavory people from her past) but it’s just a coincidence and has no impact on the plot, and the writing tries really hard to be all Dickensian and ornate but just ends up overwrought. Disappointing. 2/5

The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins:

I admit, I picked this book up because it’s illustrated by Dave McKean (a long-time collaborator of Neil Gaiman, who illustrated some of his books like “The Graveyard Book” and “Coraline”, did the covers for “Sandman”, and also directed “MirrorMask”) and also because the title sounds kind of interesting. The book turns out to be a very basic introduction to science – good for someone not knowing anything about science (although it’s not exactly a kid’s book), but the information is definitely not new. But it’s not the book’s fault; it’s my fault for judging a book by its cover (and illustrations.) The illustrations are pretty though, which is why I gave this 3/5.

So what did you read?


Book Reviews: March – April 2020

I read 7 books in the past two months, which is my usual rate, but two of those are absolute door-stoppers, so I did manage to read more than usual. Here they are (I can’t remember when I read which, so I’m dividing them into fiction and non-fiction):

The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg:

After all the non-fiction books from January and February, I wanted some easy, fun fiction, so I picked up the Vietnamese translation of this Swedish book. Very similar to The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared (even the cover looks similar), it tells the story of five senior citizens who, fed up with the way they are treated at their nursing home, decide to escape and go on a crime spree. Alas, the story is nowhere as fun as that sounds. The situations are not wacky enough, and the characters achieve everything very easily, not because they are clever, but because they are lucky and everybody else is so incompetent. At least it’s a quick read. 1.5/5

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo:

Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse series (Shadow and Bone trilogy and Six of Crows duology) is one of my favorite YA fantasy series of recent years, so I’m quite excited to read her first adult fantasy book (more of a horror/fantasy.) You know that movie The Skulls with Joshua Jackson, in which he plays a college student that joins a secret society at Yale, only to find out it holds a sinister secret? This is like that, except instead of Joshua Jackson, you have a girl that can see ghosts, and instead of a criminal conspiracy, you have a magical conspiracy. The eight secret societies of Yale are all magic users, and the main character, Alex Stern, is hired as the representative of the ninth society (hence the title), which has the task of making sure none of the other societies does anything harmful or illegal. Of course, something harmful and illegal does occur, and it’s now up to Alex to discover the truth.

In a way, this is quite similar to the Shadow and Bone trilogy – each of the societies deals with a specific branch of magic, just like each of the Grisha disciplines, and the relationship between Alex and her mentor, Darlington, resembles the relationship between Alina and the Darkling (even their names are similar!) The start is a little slow, the wrap-up is a little rushed, and it can be very violent and disturbing at times, but I really enjoy this and am looking forward to the next in the series. 4/5

Roadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky & Boris Strugatsky:

I’ve heard of the Strugatsky brothers before – they are hailed as the best Soviet sci-fi writers, and during my film study, I’ve come across Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which is based on this book – but I’ve never had the chance to read them until now. The story takes place in the aftermath of an alien visit – the aliens came to Earth and left almost immediately, leaving behind dangerous, mysterious landing places called the Zones. The main character is one of the “stalkers” who would venture inside to bring back alien artifacts and sell them on the black market. Now, after years of risking his life and the life of his mutant daughter, he goes on one last mission to enter a Zone in search of a mythical object that has the alleged power to grant wishes.

What I really like about this book is that it tackles an issue I haven’t seen in many other stories about aliens – the fact that, if we do encounter alien intelligence, we may not understand it, and they may not understand us. This is what the title refers to – the aliens’ visit is like a “roadside picnic”, and we are the rodents and the insects that come afterward to pick through the trash and the leftovers. It also feels strangely prophetic, considering it was written 15 years before the Chernobyl Disaster – the idea of a deadly “Zone” that can potentially kill anyone that comes in contact with it and leave their children mutated is hauntingly familiar.

That being said, it is very bleak (but any book written in 1970s Russia is bound to be bleak) and there’s not much of a story here. I appreciate the idea, but I prefer something with a bit more plot. 3/5

The Diaries of Samuel Pepys:

I love reading about how people lived in the past, so I’ve been trying to pick up the Pepys diaries a bunch of time – I mean, what better way to learn about how people used to live than reading the day-to-day life of a guy who actually lived in 17th-century London and witnessed such momentous events as the coronation of Charles II, the Great Fire of London, and the Great Plague? As it spans over 10 volumes and 1000+ pages, I’ve always been daunted by the sheer size of it; however, since we’re all staying home, I had a little extra time on my hands, so I decided to check it out.

It is fascinating to read, simply because it conjures up so vividly the everyday life of a distant past. When you think back to those times, you only think of the great historical events, but these diaries remind us that amidst those events, people still go about their normal life, go to work, eat, entertain themselves, worry about money, argue with their wives about the dog (this is one of my favorite passages), very much like we do today. Pepys was no angel – he was a womanizer, he treated his wife and his sister badly, and was generally quite self-absorbed. But these flaws only made him more human and his diaries more real. I confess – it does get a little tedious after a while though, so toward the end, I just skipped to the juicier bits. 4/5

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker:

This book isn’t just about why we sleep, but also how we sleep, what happens if you’re sleep-deprived, and how modern society and work habits are killing us by forcing us to sleep less. I initially wanted to read this book because I thought I was sleeping too much – I always try to get at least 8 hours a night (meaning I’m in bed for closer to 8.5 to 9 hours) plus at least a 30-minute nap in the afternoon – but after reading this, I feel pretty good about my choice. I only wish it could be a little more entertaining and a little less alarmist (but then again, the lack of sleep is a very real threat to health and safety, so maybe it’s good to be an alarmist.) 3/5

The Body by Bill Bryson:

With the subtitle “A Guide to Occupants”, this latest book by my favorite non-fiction writer is about all things relating to the human body – how it’s built, how it functions, and how it breaks down. The information is not new (at least not to me,) but it’s entertaining to read (it’s Bill Bryson after all); there are a lot of fun anecdotes about the scientists, some well-known, some forgotten, behind all the discoveries of the human body, and the chapter on diseases and virus is especially timely. 3.5/5

The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore:

This book follows all the tsars and tsarinas of the Romanov dynasty through over 300 years of their reign. I picked it up to read before my trip to Russia, but it’s too heavy and dense (nearly 700 pages of very small print), so I had to leave it until now. Now I’m glad I did, because having been to Russia, it makes it easier for me to remember all the names and follow the story. And what a story – murder, madness, mayhem, torture, sex, and war, endless war (“Game of Thrones” has nothing on these guys.) I’d like to read more about the personalities of each monarch and about court life, rather than what war they’re waging and which courtier they’re promoting or demoting, but there’s no denying that this is very detailed and very well-researched. 4/5

So what did you read?


Book Reviews: February 2020

 I only managed two new books this month, but I decided to stick with the schedule anyway, especially since I’m going to miss March’s book reviews (due to SIA). Unfortunately, neither of the books is really enjoyable…

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick:

As a sci-fi fan, I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I haven’t read Philip K. Dick until now (but then again, I haven’t read a lot of the classic sci-fi authors. The only one I really like is Ray Bradbury, and I haven’t even read his most famous work, Fahrenheit 451.) I’ve seen the movies based on his books (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly and The Adjustment Bureau, to name a few), and now, having read one of his novels, I can see why his works are so popular in film and TV – he was a genius at creating believable sci-fi worlds. This book, which revolves around an alternate world in which the Nazis won World War II, is filled with details big and small that make that world seem so real. However, plot-wise, I can’t tell you exactly what happens – there are a bunch of loosely-connected storylines, but they don’t really go anywhere, and the characters are not exactly engaging either (maybe this is why his works have been adapted so many times. They provide ideas on which you can build your own plot.) A+ for concept and C- for story. 2/5

Australia – a Biography of a Nation by Philip Knightley: (I swear I didn’t pick books by authors both named “Philip K” on purpose!!!)

I picked this book to read on my Russia trip because it’s nice and thick, but it ends up being such a slog that I didn’t finish it until after I came home! I’ve always been fascinated by Australia, so I thought a book about its history would be right up my alley. The problem is, I’m very picky when it comes to non-fiction books, and if a non-fiction book is too dry (like this one) or badly organized (it follows the history of Australia chronologically, but the early days are glossed over, while there is a lot about military history), I would get annoyed. There are some parts I enjoyed, especially the anecdotes about the author’s childhood growing up in Depression-era Sydney. I wish the whole book was like that. 2/5


A Year In Review: Books Of 2019

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).