Book Reviews: September 2017

This month’s reading is almost exactly the same as August – another busy month, another double bill by the same author followed by a non-related book – except this month’s books are a bit more mediocre. But it’s actually a good thing. I’ve been so busy that a boring book would be better than a page-turner, because that means I can put it down whenever I want.

Making Money & Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett:

When it comes to my favorite Discworld characters, Moist von Lipwig is pretty far down the line (even though I quite enjoy Richard Coyle in the TV adaptation of Going Postal), but when I saw these at the used bookstore, I decided to get them to take with me on my German trip, because they would be lighter than my Kindle. Unfortunately, they’re the first Discworld books that I did not actually enjoy. They’re not as funny as the usual Discworld book, and Moist’s character arc already seems completed in Going Postal, so his “crook with a heart of gold” shtick feels kind of repetitive here.

To be fair, I did get a chuckle or two out of “Making Money”, especially from the main antagonist who’s obsessed with becoming Vetinari. “Raising Steam”, however, is just plain weird. It doesn’t even read like Terry Pratchett. It’s like a poor imitation of his writing by someone else with no understanding of the characters. For example, there is a scene in which Vetinari bangs his fist on the table in excitement, which I can’t imagine Vetinari ever doing. I understand that the book was written while Terry Pratchett was struggling with his Alzheimer’s and he wrote by dictating to his assistant, but this feels like it was written by the assistant himself.

I think another problem I had with these books is that they feature little of the usual Discworld parody. At least Going Postal has some fun with the world of postal service in the clacks (a Discworld version of telegraphy) and the invention of stamps, whereas “Making Money” (which deals with Moist taking over the world of banking and minting) and “Raising Steam” (steam train/railways) feel too close to the real world. 2.5/5 (3/5 for “Making Money” and 2/5 for “Raising Steam”).

All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka:

This is the Japanese sci-fi novel/manga that got adapted into the Tom Cruise&Emily Blunt-starring sci-fi action flick, Edge of Tomorrow. I can see why it got Hollywood’s attention – the premise is interesting: in the future, when humans are locked in a war against alien invaders called Gitai (Mimics in the movie), a rookie finds himself trapped in a mysterious time loop in which he is forced to relieve his first day of battle (and his death) over and over again. He then meets a female soldier who was once trapped in a time loop of her own, and they team up to defeat the aliens. It’s a very quick read, and despite being quite short, the characters are pretty well crafted. My only complaint is that the relationship between the two characters, which is the emotional core of the whole story, is developed too quickly, so it doesn’t leave much resonance. Still, it’s better than the movie, which completely missed the point of the ending. 3.5/5

So that’s it for this month. Hopefully next month’s books will be more enjoyable. How about you guys? What did you read?

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Book Reviews: August 2017

It’s a month of non-fictions! Non-fictions by female writers, no less. Last month’s books made me so angry that I decided to for all for non-fiction books this month, hoping they would annoy me a little less. Let’s see how they did.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers & Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach:

Originally I’d only planned on reading “Packing for Mars”, but then I saw “Stiff” and thought it looks interesting, in a morbid kind of way, so I decided to check them both out. They’re both funny and quite informative (I find “Packing for Mars” more interesting, but then again because I’m more interested in space travel than dead bodies), and the humorous approach makes them quite easy to read. Some may find Roach’s writing too cutesy for such subject matters, and some of the jokes do get a little repetitive, especially in “Stiff”, but I’d say you need that kind of humor for some of the heavier topics. One thing though: I wouldn’t recommend reading “Stiff” before a meal because there are quite a lot of graphic descriptions of body decomposition.

On a side note, when I read about the amount of bone and muscle loss the astronauts suffer in space due to zero gravity in “Packing for Mars”, I’ve actually started exercising again. I figure since I’m not in zero gravity, there’s no excuse for it. 4/5

An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England by Venetia Murray:

This is my second attempt to read a historical book about the Regency.  This one is easier to read than A Gentleman’s Daughter (at least I finished it), and there are some amusing or interesting bits here and there, but as a whole it’s not very well written and edited. The chapters are divided by topics, but the topics seem to be assigned randomly because the author didn’t bother sticking with them at all. There are a lot of overlapping and repetition. For example, the chapter about beaux, dandies, and rakes are mostly about the dandies, with some paragraphs about the rakes thrown in near the end like an afterthought. Or, in another chapter about the gentleman’s clubs, about half of it is about the food at these clubs, which is fine, but then the very next chapter is about the pursuit of pleasure and gluttony, so of course we’re reading about food again. Also, I’m not very familiar with the Regency (other than the most basic fact – the Prince Regent, the Napoleonic Wars, Jane Austen) but a quick glance at some reviews shows that there are a lot of factual errors in the book as well. It’s too bad. I’m beginning to feel I don’t have any luck with books about this particular era. 2/5

What about you guys? What have you read?

 


Book Reviews: July 2017

I actually read 5 books this month but two of them are re-read (both by Bill Bryson) so I won’t bother with reviewing them. I re-read them mostly because two of the new books I was reading annoyed me so much. You’ll see which one.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson:

This is considered a classic now, but for those of you that don’t know it, a quick summary: a group of people stay at a house rumored to be haunted, where, naturally, supernatural incidents do occur. It sounds deceptively simple and even boring, but Shirley Jackson is a master at getting us inside the character’s head and building tension from the most normal of interactions. The supernatural incidents are not actually scary, but they are really, really disturbing, mostly because they are described from the characters’ POV. My only complaint is that the ending feels a little rushed. 4/5

Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs:

This is the third and final book in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series (or, as I call it from the movie adaptation, Tim Burton’s X-Men). I enjoyed the first book and didn’t care much for the second, but that one ends on such a cliffhanger that I decided to check out this one anyway. I’d say it’s on about the same level as the second book. The photographs, which are so creepy and cleverly used in the first book, feel forced and gimmicky here, the plot is drawn-out, and the characters boring. The ending picks up the pace a bit, but then it gets wrapped up in a really lazy way. 1.5/5

Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi:

I admit, I picked up this book because of the pretty cover of the Vietnamese edition. Plus, it’s a murder mystery set in Giverny, the village where Claude Monet spent the last 30 years of his life, so I expected some nice scenery descriptions and a fast-paced plot. Well, the scenery is there, but not as much as I would’ve liked, and as for the story… gods, this must be the most boring murder mystery I’ve ever read. The plot moves like molasses; I cannot relate to any of the characters, and it features one of the most idiotic “twists” I have ever seen. Basically the book lied to you the whole time and then called that a twist. And then there is the writing. The POV switch is all over the place – one chapter would be in first person, one chapter in third person limited, and another in third person omnipresent. Also, almost all the dialogues end in either an ellipsis or an exclamation mark, which gives the impression that these characters have the annoying habit of not finishing their sentences or yelling them out. By the end of it, I wish they were all dead already. 1/5

Here’s hoping that the books next month will be more enjoyable.

 


Book Reviews: May – June 2017

Last month I replaced my usual book review posts with a TV review post, so this time there are a few more books than usual, but I’ll try to be brief:

History of the Vietnamese Civil War from 1771 t0 1802 by Ta Chi Dai Truong:

It’s one of my ambitions to write a series of epic/historical fantasy books using the history of Vietnam in the vein of A Song of Ice and Fire, so I’ve been reading more books about Vietnamese history. This deals with a fascinating subject matter: the war between three different factions (the Le kings in the North, the Tay Son rebels in the Midland, and the Nguyen kings in the South) before Vietnam was finally united and entered its modern history. It’s well researched, but unfortunately, the writer is not a very good storyteller. This has been my problem with historical books lately – the information is interesting, but the writer doesn’t arrange or tell them in an interesting manner, so the book becomes a chore to read. A good source for references, nothing more. 2/5

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty:

I quite enjoyed the adaptation by HBO, so I decided to check out the book. I’m happy to say that the mini-series stayed pretty close to the book (for a summary of the story, check my TV review), except Reese Whitherspoon’s character is less bitchy and more sympathetic, and the book ends on a much more finite note. The suspense is still there, even though I already knew where it was going. Overall, it’s a quick and enjoyable read. 4/5

City of Thieves by David Benioff:

I really, really dislike what David Benioff has done to Game of Thrones, but I have to admit that I quite enjoyed this book. It’s sort of a buddy tragi-comedy set during the Siege of Leningrad in World War II: a teenager arrested for looting and a deserter are given the impossible mission of finding a dozen eggs for a colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. It’s funny, but can be very visceral and tense as well. Also, this is the second book I’ve read set during the Siege of Leningrad (the other is Catherine Valente’s Deathless), and to be honest, if those are fictional accounts, then I don’t want to read about the real thing. 4/5

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu:

Usually, when I want to check out a new fantasy/sci-fi author, I would start with their short stories before moving on to their novels. With Ken Liu, I did the opposite – I enjoyed his novel The Grace of King, so I wanted to see how he is in the short form. There are some interesting stories here, but just like with The Grace of King, Liu’s writing feels very flat, almost pedantic, to me. It seems he is so concerned with getting the science/history/mythology right that he forgets to use good characters and plots to make the story stand out. 3/5

Maskerade and Jingo by Terry Pratchett:

These I read during my week-long vacation. I didn’t want to slog through some book that I hate during my vacation, so I picked something I would be sure to enjoy. Unfortunately, these are probably two of the weakest Discworld books that I’ve read. “Maskerade” is a Witches novel, which finds Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg following the potential third member of their coven into the crazy world of opera, while “Jingo” is a Watch novel revolving around Sam Vimes and his ragtag Watch trying to prevent a war between Ankh-Morpork and a neighboring country. Of course, they’re still a lot of fun, but the jokes are a bit… obvious, you know what I mean? 3.5/5

So that’s it for me. What did you guys read?


Book Reviews: April 2017

I briefly considered doing a TV review instead of book reviews for April because I’ve watched some amazing shows (Legion and Big Little Lies), but more amazing shows are coming out at the end of the month (The Handmaid’s Tale, American Gods) so maybe I’ll wait until May. In the meantime, here are the books that I read this month:

The Magicians by Lev Grossman:

This has been hailed as Harry Potter for adults, though I’d say it’s more Harry Potter meets Narnia meets Catcher in the Rye – a young man gets accepted into a magical college in upstate New York and together with his friends, explores a magical kingdom while musing about the big questions of life, universe, and everything. If you think it sounds derivative and pretentious, then you’re absolutely right. The worldbuilding is nothing new, the characters are some of the worst I have ever seen – whiny, entitled, and self-absorbed – and the story feels both rushed and dragging. I was mildly curious about the TV adaptation, of which I’ve heard good things, but after reading this, I don’t think I want to check it out anymore. 1/5

The Spring Tone by Kazumi Yumoto: (“Spring Organ” in the Vietnamese edition)

I’ve loved the first two book by Kazumi Yumoto, Summer Garden (“The Friend” in English) and Autumn of the Poplar (“The Letters” in English), so I decided to check this out as well. Unfortunately, I was disappointed with this. It explores the same coming-of-age theme as the other two books, but the characters are not as memorable and the conflict feels weak. 1/5

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo:

I’m putting these two together because they’re really one story split into two books. Out of all the YA series I’ve read over the years, the Grisha trilogy by Leigh Bardugo is one of my favorites, so I was quite excited to check out these books. They’re set in the same world as the Grisha trilogy, but while the trilogy is kind of standard YA fare – a “chosen one”, a grand good vs. evil battle, that sort of thing – these two books are on a refreshingly smaller scale.

They’re about a group of young criminals in a city (clearly based on Amsterdam) with the impossible task of breaking into a maximum security prison and rescue a scientist with an important secret (“Six of Crows”) and what happens after that (I can’t reveal the plot of “Crooked Kingdom” without spoiling the first one, so you just have to bear with me.) Basically, it’s a crime thriller/heist story with magical elements. It’s what The Bone Season series could have been. I really enjoyed these. They’re fast-paced, the world is well crafted, and the characters are colorful and sympathetic. I like Six of Crows a bit more, but then again the first one is always better, isn’t it? 4.5/5


Book Reviews: March 2017

It was kind of a mediocre month of reading, but I was so busy that I didn’t really care. Anyway, here goes:

Charlotte by Kathryn Shevelow:

I always saw this languishing on the shelf at my favorite used bookstore, so when it went on sale, I finally picked it up. The subject matter is certainly interesting – it’s a biography of Charlotte Charke, an 18th-century actress famous for her cross-dressing on and off the stage. Well, after reading it, I have to say I can understand why it was on the shelf for so long. It contains some interesting descriptions of the theatrical world of England in that time, but Charlotte herself is not a very engaging protagonist. I find it very hard to sympathize with her – she seems fickle, feckless, and lacking in common sense. Her circumstances are unfortunate, but they don’t justify some of her questionable choices in life. 2/5

The Gentleman’s Daughter by Amanda Vickery:

I’m going to start this review with a disclaimer – I never quit a book in the middle. I may skim, but I always read a book cover to cover. Heck, I read Twilight cover-to-cover! But this, this I had to give up. It was recommended by a Jane Austen fansite as a good source for information about genteel women’s lives during Austen’s time. Since I’ve read a book on women’s lives in the 17th century, I thought I would enjoy a book on the same subject but focusing on the next century. But gods, this is possibly the driest book I have ever read. It reads like a thesis. I tried and tried, but after 17%, I had to give up. I’m sure it’s very well-researched and would be a good source if you want some authentic information about the era, but it doesn’t make for very good reading. 0.5/5

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman:

After giving up on a difficult book, I turned to something easier to read and I knew I would be more likely to enjoy – Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the stories from the Norse mythology. Now, I only have the most basic knowledge of Norse mythology (Odin, Thor, Loki, etc.) and a fair bit of that comes from Marvel, so I was quite excited to read this. In the end, though, I was a bit disappointed. Sure, it’s a very quick read and Gaiman did a good job of humanizing these mythological figures, but he didn’t rewrite the story enough to make them more interesting. Basically, after reading it, I had to wonder, what’s the point of this book at all? Not the response you would want. 3/5

A Street Cat Named Bob by James Bowen:

Now this is a truly easy read. It’s the true story of James Bowen, a recovering drug addict and former homeless man who turned his life around after he befriended a stray cat. Bowen himself wrote this with the help of a ghost writer, so don’t expect a literary masterpiece, but it’s a very sweet and touching story, and a must-read for any cat person. I also recommend the movie adaptation, in which Bob plays himself 🙂 3/5


Book Reviews: February 2017

It’s been a short and busy month, so I only managed 3 books, but my reactions to them vary widely, so here goes:

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The Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Rudolf Erich Raspe:

My only knowledge of this book of tall tales comes from the adaptation by Terry Gilliam (I’ve never seen the movie, but I know of it), but it was on sale and I thought it would be a fun, quick read. Well, it’s certainly quick, but not as entertaining as I hoped. Some tales get a chuckle or two from me, others are just too random and meandering for my taste. 2/5

The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata:

This book was recommended to me by one of the editors at the publishing house I freelance for, so I thought it was worth considering. It’s about a group of children on a remote Indonesian island who defy all odds to maintain their rights to an education. I expected it to be one of those sweet, charming, inspirational children’s books (in the vein of one of my favorite books, Totto-chan). Boy, was I wrong, on both counts. This could have been a great book, but the writing was terrible. The author keeps telling us everything instead of showing us, so the inspirational becomes preachy, the moving becomes cheesy, the funny becomes cliched. And it was supposed to be semi-autobiographical, but I didn’t buy any of the stuff that happened in it nor did I connect to any of the characters. I don’t think I’m going to take a recommendation from these editors ever again. But then, these are the people who thought a pile of garbage like The Atlantis Gene (it’s not even a best-selling pile of garbage like, say, the Twilight series) is worth translating, so what did I expect? 1/5

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer:

No, this is not a sci-fi/fantasy time-traveling story, it’s just non-fiction book about life in Elizabethan England, both the good and the bad, the glorious of a “Golden Age” and the not-so-glorious. It is incredibly detailed, but it’s written like a travelogue, with chapters devoted to what to eat, what to wear, where to stay, how to travel, what to do for entertainment, etc. so it’s really easy to read. Some may find the details tedious, but I love it. I’m going to read his other book, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, as well. 5/5

So that’s it for me this month. What books have you guys read?