Book Reviews: August 2019

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham:

Growing up, the only thing I know about the Chernobyl Disaster is that when it happened, my mom was in Russia, 5 months pregnant with me (but she was quite a safe distance away in Siberia.) However, I just finished the HBO mini-series Chernobyl, and it was so brilliant (very hard to watch sometimes, but brilliant nonetheless) that I knew I had to read more about it. This book is a very well-researched, very detailed exploration of the disaster – from the construction of the power plant to the night of the explosion itself and the long, ongoing cleanup process that follows. It helps that I’ve watched the mini-series though, because there are a lot of characters and a lot of scientific information that it can be a bit overwhelming at times – thankfully, it’s told in chronological order so it’s never difficult to follow. 5/5

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller:

It’s hard to believe, but I haven’t read any new sci-fi book this year, so when I saw this book being praised for its unique world-building, I decided to check it out. The story certainly sounds interesting – it takes place in a post-apocalyptic floating city, controlled by landlords and crime bosses, where its inhabitants struggle to eke out a living while facing the threat of a contagious neurological disease. Into this setting, a mysterious woman appears, atop an orca with a polar bear by her side, rumored to be the last surviving member of a group of people that had their minds bonded with animals. As various characters react to her appearance, we slowly find out why she is there and what connects them all. From that synopsis, you can probably tell that the book is a bit much, right? And it is. All the elements are good, and the characters are interesting, but as the book keeps jumping from one POV to another, it never really comes together. The first 2/3 of it drags, while the last 1/3 of it is really rushed. Disappointing. 2/5

So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish and Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams:

I just finished translating these two books in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, and while they are still good, they’re not as enjoyable as the previous three. “So Long” is slightly better in terms of tone, while “Mostly Harmless” is better in terms of plot (then again, you don’t read Douglas Adams for the plot, which is why I’m not going to include any summary), but it’s kind of depressing, and, as the final book in the series, it leaves you feeling so bad for Arthur Dent. The poor guy just wants to be left alone and have a cup of tea, dammit! Still, I’m very proud to say that I’ve translated three out of the five Hitchhiker’s Guide books. It’s a major boost to my nerd cred. 3/5

What did you guys read this month?

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Book Reviews: July 2019

I’ve been reading a lot of heavy non-fiction books lately, so this month I wanted something a little lighter. Here goes:

Geisha, a Life by Mineko Iwasaki:

Mineko Iwasaki is one of the real-life geishas that Arthur Golden interviewed for his novel “Memoirs of a Geisha”. Upset that he revealed her name (despite agreeing not to do so) and twisted the facts to make his story more sensational (the most egregious of all is to add a sexual aspect to the work of geishas, making them appear little more than high-end prostitutes), Iwasaki sued Golden and later wrote her own autobiography to clear things up. While I enjoyed “Memoirs of a Geisha” in a superficial kind of way, I absolutely hate the fact that the main character became a geisha simply because she wants to please a man, so I appreciate Iwasaki’s book for showing us the more accurate and intricate details of the geisha’s world. Unfortunately, her writing leaves a lot to be desired – it’s so dry and plodding that even when she describes some moments of great passion or sadness, I can’t connect to it at all. 2.5/5

Thud! and Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett:

I haven’t read any Discworld book in a while – there aren’t many of them left, so I’ve been trying to pace myself. But I wanted some books I knew I would enjoy, so Discworld it is.

Thud! is a Night Watch book, in which Sam Vimes has to solve a case of a murdered dwarf while tension in Ankh-Morpork is running high as the anniversary of a legendary battle between dwarves and trolls approaches. It is a standard Watch novel, which starts with a murder mystery and develops into something much more profound and philosophical, but it has the additional adorable/emotional touch with the appearance of Young Sam, Vimes’ baby son. I dare you to read their scenes together without laughing and crying at the same time. 5/5

Wintersmith is a Tiffany Aching book, which revolves around our young witch-in-training, with the help of her loyal Nac Mac Feegle, dealing with the personification of winter, after she accidentally interrupts the seasonal dance to signify the transition between winter and summer and draw the Wintersmith’s attention. It’s not as funny as the other Tiffany Aching books, but it’s still very good, and I especially love the explanation of what a witch’s work entails – you don’t always see that from the Witches book, but since Tiffany is still in training, you get to learn along with her. 5/5

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert:

Yes, the author is Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame. This is pure chick flick and therefore not my taste at all, but like I said, after so many non-fiction books, I just wanted some fluff. This novel follows Vivian, a 19-year-old girl who, in 1940, is sent to New York City to live with her aunt in a rundown theater and gets swept up in the glamorous, hedonistic lifestyle of theater folks and showgirls. That part is fun, and Vivian is a seamstress, so there are a lot of descriptions of beautiful clothes and outfits, which I must admit that I love to read in any book.

The problem is, the book doesn’t stop there. It’s written in the form of a letter from Vivian, now an old woman, to another woman, Angela, about her relationship with Angela’s father, and this guy doesn’t show up until the last 90 pages or so of a 470-page book! So you keep waiting for this supposedly important guy to appear, and when he does, it feels incredibly rushed and doesn’t have much to do with the main character’s development – in fact, her character arc seems all but finished by the time he shows up. Imagine if you’re watching Titanic and old Rose starts telling her story about Jack, and Jack himself only appears during the last 20 minutes of the movie. That would just be terrible storytelling, wouldn’t it? If this was just a book about NYC and theater life during WWII, it would’ve been much better. 3/5

The Gown by Jennifer Robson:

This came up in Goodreads’ recommendations after I finished City of Girls, and I can see why – it also takes place in the 1940s (1947, in this case, and it’s set in London, not NY) and also features seamstresses, or more exactly, embroiderers who are assigned to work on Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown. The story focuses on two particular women, both struggling with the memories of the war, their personal lives, and with keeping their work on the gown a secret. There is also a storyline in the present as the granddaughter of one of these women tries to uncover her grandmother’s past life. It’s a little light on drama and predictable, but the descriptions of the embroideries are exquisite, and the characters are relatable (much more relatable than City of Girls!) 4/5


Book Reviews: June 2019

Sorry for the late post – the time just completely slipped my mind. Anyway, it’s a month of non-fiction for me, and on a whole, they’re pretty good. Here goes:

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson:

This explores life in England in the summer of 1911 – George V has just been crowned, Winston Churchill is Home Secretary, and the Titanic is about to set off on its maiden voyage. The subject matter is certainly interesting – it’s a summer of social and political tension, of traditional values clashing with modern ideas – but the book is definitely a case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. Certain sections are interesting, but the book overall fails to make me see what’s so fascinating about the summer of 1911 and why the author chose to write about it (compare it with Bill Bryson’s “One Summer – America, 1927”, and you’ll see what I mean.) Plus, the chapters are weirdly divided. Ostensibly, they are chronological, starting in Early June, then Late June, and so on until Early September. However, instead of following the events in those time frames (which would be the boring but logical thing to do), each chapter then focuses on a different subject – Early June focuses on Queen Mary’s struggle with the upcoming coronation, Late June focuses on a socialite’s London “season”, etc. The book is certainly well researched, but it feels both too detailed and not detailed enough somehow. 2/5

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou:

This seems to be on everybody’s reading list lately. It follows the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, who managed to build a billion-dollar Silicon Valley startup out of essentially a lie – that her company has revolutionized healthcare by performing blood tests from just a finger prick. I’ve never heard of Holmes or her company, Theranos (which sounds like a Marvel villain), but this is getting rave reviews and being made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, so I decided to check it out. It’s certainly fascinating and disturbing to read about all the lies that Holmes and her cronies told and all the people they stepped on (one Theranos employee ended up committing suicide) on their way to success – the red flags are there from day one, so you’re on the edge of your seat waiting for the moment it all comes crashing down. My one complaint is that the book is very detailed on the “what” and the “how”, but less so on the “who” and the “why” – in other words, we never really find out who Elizabeth Holmes really is. Is she a master manipulator who hoodwinked everyone with her charm, or is she simply a victim of the “fake it till you make it” mentality whose delusions of grandeur got out of hand? We may never know. 4.5/5

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan:

This book attempts to answer the question “What are we having for dinner?” by exploring the three sources of food – industrial, organic (or alternative), and foraged – and showing what really goes into our food. It is interesting stuff if you’re into food and science and history, but sometimes it can be horrifying to read, especially the “Industrial” part, which is about how corn has found its way into everything we eat and how it has ruined not only our taste buds and our health, but also agriculture and the environment (though it is not the corn’s fault. It’s our fault.) It really makes you think about what you’re putting into your body. My complaint is that the writing can be a bit dry, and I sometimes found myself zoning out and just flipping the pages without understanding a single word of what I was reading (but maybe it’s because I always read it before bed.) 4.5/5


Book Reviews: May 2019

I only managed three books this month, but in my defense, two of them are pretty dense, so here goes:

Possession by A.S. Byatt:

I’ve read one other book by A.S. Byatt, “The Children’s Book”, because I was hired to translate it. I didn’t think much of it at first, but after translating it (which took forever because it’s so dense), I’d gained a new sense of appreciation for the characters and their lives. So I decided to check out her more famous novel to see what she does with a more defined and contained plot – two academic/literary researchers stumble upon evidence that two Victorian poets may have had a secret affair, and must rush to discover the truth before their rivals.

It sounded great, but I wasn’t impressed. It’s mainly because I can’t connect to any of the characters, and the stakes aren’t high enough (at the end of the day, it’s just about some dead poets. The emotional stakes just aren’t there.) And I admire Byatt for including the poems and stories by her fictional poets, but they slow down the story a great deal. I often found myself skipping those passages to get back to the main plot, even though I already knew the story from the terrible adaptation with Gwyneth Paltrow. 2/5

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf:

This is another book that hooks me because of its pretty cover. Plus, I’m always interested in books about natures and explores, so a biography of one of the most prominent naturalist explorers of the 19th century seems like a good choice. I’ve never heard of Humboldt before, so it’s fascinating to read about him and to learn that many of our understandings about nature today came from him or were popularized by him – such as the idea of plant geography or the very concept of nature preservation. The book also includes some chapters on how Humboldt has influenced other scientists and writers, like Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir. These can be a little reaching (take the chapter on Simon Bolivar, for instance – sure, Bolivar and Humboldt were close acquaintances after Humboldt’s trip to South America, but how much did Humboldt influence Bolivar, really?) but they’re interesting to read, nonetheless. I also appreciate the fact that everything is in chronologically order instead of jumping all over the places like some biographies I’ve read (like the one on Sissi, for example). 4/5

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab:

After quite few non-fiction books, I figured it was time to get back to my roots with a fantasy novel. This one, the first of a trilogy (one of these days, I’d like to read a standalone fantasy book for a change, thank you very much), follows Kell, a young magician with the ability to travel between four different worlds – Grey (our non-magical world), Red (the magical, thriving world), White (the world starving for magic), and Black (the world destroyed by magic). One day, Kell stumbles upon a dangerous relic from the Black world, and together with a human pickpocket, he embarks on a journey to restore the balance between the worlds. It’s quite standard fantasy stuff, as you can see, but the world-building is interesting and the action is fast-paced, which makes for a quick, easy read. My only complaint is that the characters, to me, feel a little flat. Still, I enjoyed it enough to want to check out the other two books in the series. 4/5

What did you read this month? You can check out my friend Mike’s read here, or discuss your books in the comment!


Book Reviews: April 2019

It’s an OK month of reading – I enjoyed some books and was disappointed by others. I’ve also realized why I’ve been reading so many non-fiction books lately. Between my two jobs, script reading and teaching, I have to read so much crappy fiction writing that I can’t enjoy novels anymore. At least non-fiction doesn’t make me angry, unless it’s terribly written.

Anyway, on to the books:

The Big Necessity by Rose George:

This book is about toilets. When I picked it up, I was hoping for a history of toilets (hey, what can I say? I’m interested in all aspects of history), but this is more about the current problems in the world of toilets and sanitation all across the globe. Yet I wasn’t disappointed, because it is strangely fascinating to read, especially when you realize how many people in the world don’t have access to toilets (in fact, indoor plumbing in Vietnam is still relatively new. I still remember visiting my grandmother in the countryside when I was about 10 and being told to “just go in the nature.”) It really makes me think about my privileges. 4/5

A Million Years in a Day by Greg Jenner:

This is another “historical everyday life” book, sort of like Ian Mortimer’s “The Time Traveler’s Guide” series. It follows the tasks of a normal day – such as brushing one’s teeth, showering, eating, etc. – and looks into the development of those activities throughout history. It’s a great idea, but the execution leaves something to be desired. The book supposedly follows 24 hours in a day (or, more exactly, 15 hours, from 9 AM to 12 AM), but for some reason, the author decides to skip the entire afternoon and go straight from 12 PM to 6 PM. There are also two chapters on alcohol and two on time, which, even though they talk about different things (one chapter is about champagne and the other is about alcohol in general; one chapter is about time-keeping in general and the other is about the development of the clock), feels very repetitive to me. Also, the author is a writer and consultant of Horrible Histories, but some of the jokes feel a little try-hard. 3/5

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke:

I picked this up because the title caught my attention. It’s about a man who accidentally burned down Emily Dickinson’s home near his house when he was 18 years old, and 20 years later, somebody starts burning down writers’ homes all over New England, which forces him to confront his past. Sounds promising, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the book is a total letdown. Mostly it’s due to the characters, who are either feckless or selfish or both. The main character is the worst of all. And then there is the writing, which tries so hard to be funny and profound, and ends up anything but. 1/5

The Haw Lantern & Door into the Dark by Seamus Heaney:

I got so angry reading “An Arsonist’s Guide” that I decided to read some poetry just to forget it. I’ve read Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist” before and loved it. The poems in these two collections are more philosophical and obscure in their meanings, so I didn’t enjoy them as much, but some I still quite like (“Clearances”, in “The Haw Lantern”, is an elegy to Heaney’s mother and very moving). I also love how Heaney managed to describe the most mundane details or activities of everyday life in rural Ireland in such beautiful language (like “A Lough Neagh Sequence”, which is about eels and eel fishermen.) Maybe I’m just biased because I love Ireland. 3.5/5

What did you guys read?


Book Reviews: February – March 2019

I missed last month’s book reviews because it was my turn to host SIA, so here is my reading for both February and March:

Reflections (Indexing #2) by Seanan McGuire:

This is the second book in the “Indexing” series (read my review of the first book here), and it continues to follow Agent Henrietta “Henry” Marchen and her team as they try to stop fairy tales from taking over their world while Henry continues to struggle with being a Snow White. I enjoy the world and the characters, as usual, but I still have the same problem with this book as I did with the first one: the villain’s motivation is not clear. They want fairy tales to manifest in the real world, okay, but why? What would they achieve by doing that? For example, are they trying to pull off a heist by pulling a “Sleeping Beauty” and making everybody fall asleep? No. The only answer the book seems to offer is that they are nuts, but I think that’s a bit lazy. 3/5

The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux:

Considering how much I love train traveling, I’m a bit surprised it took me this long to read this classic travelogue about a train trip from London to the Far East. However, as I read it, I began to understand why. It’s not a humorous travelogue, and I’m used to Bill Bryson’s more relatable travelogues with his self-deprecating humor. I find this boring and the author seems so full of himself. More importantly, the author doesn’t seem to enjoy his journey in particular (as opposed to Bill Bryson’s books, he always finds something nice or at least funny to say about the place he’s been to.) And if he doesn’t, then why should we? 1/5

Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years by John Guy:

This claims to be a biography of Elizabeth I focusing on the latter half of her reign, but I think a more accurate description would be “The Events in the Latter Half of Elizabeth I’s Reign”, because that’s what it is. Most of it focuses on the men around her – Francis Walsingham, Lord Burghley, the Earl of Leicester, Walter Raleigh, and the Earl of Essex, as well as the kings of France and Spain – and how their actions affected the Queen. It delves into the men’s motivations and desires and feelings, but as for those of the Queen, there is very little. It seems that the author is so afraid of making mistakes in his conjectures about the Queen’s thoughts and emotions that he decides to do none at all. It’s well researched, to be sure, but it is not a biography of Elizabeth I. 2/5

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson, illustrated by Golbanou Moghaddas:

This book takes a look at some of the weirdest and most wonderful animals in nature (one for each letter of the alphabet, except there are two “X” animals and I’m not sure why) and discusses how they can help us to better understand our world. Some of the analogies are definitely reaching (for example, what does an axolotl have to do with racism?!) but it’s still fascinating to read. The beautiful illustrations help, too. 4/5

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ by Hooman Madj:

I picked this up before my Iran trip but didn’t get a chance to read it before I left, so I decided to wait until after I got back and see how the book measures up to my own experience. Subtitled “The Paradox of Modern Iran”, this is an attempt to present the modern Iran society in a nuanced and balanced way. The author is an Iranian who grew up and currently lives in the US, so he certainly can understand both worlds; I only wish that he is a better story-teller. The book is a bit too political for my taste – not in the sense that the author tries to force his political views on the reader, but rather, it discusses politics and politicians a lot; I’m much more interested in the parts that describe everyday life. Plus, the author is really fond of long compound sentences. Sometimes I had to reread the beginning of a sentence (going back about half a page) just to remember what it was about! 2/5


Book Reviews: December 2018 – January 2019

I skippe December’s book reviews in lieu of the “Year in Review” post, so here they are, along with the books I read in January. A pretty diverse selection, even if I say so myself:

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman:

This book has a very specific plot that it shares with several other works of fiction – a grumpy but sympathetic Caucasian widower learns to open his heart with the help of his Asian neighbors. “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand”, “Up”, and “Gran Torino” – they all have the exact same plot. Sure, the settings may be different and the actual stories are different, but the plot is the same. That may make it a little predictable, but the characters are all quite interesting, and I dare you to reach the end without choking up a little. 3/5

The Courtiers by Lucy Worsley:

I know Lucy Worsley from her BBC series about the six wives of Henry VIII, and I love anything that has to do with British history, so this book, which revolves around the court of George I and George II at Kensington Palace, is right up my alley, especially since these early Hanoverian monarchs don’t always get a lot of coverage from other historians. What I like about it is that it manages to give us a glimpse of the everyday life at court without getting bogged down by the historical and political facts. The facts are there, but the focus is on the people, and that’s what makes it fascinating. 5/5

The Reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamman:

I grew up watching the trilogy of films about the life of Elisabeth of Austria (or Sissi, as she was usually known) starring a young Romy Schneider, and since then, I’ve always been fascinated by her. This biography doesn’t take such a romantic look at her life; instead, it portrays Sissi as she was – a highly sensitive and complex but also emotionally disturbed woman, thrust into a marriage and a life she was not prepared for. Highly recommended. My only complaint is that the flow of the book is a bit all over the place – the first few chapters follow a chronological order, but then the book turns to specific areas in Sissi’s life (her beauty and fitness regime, her relationship with her children, etc.) which forces the narration to go back and forth in time. I’m familiar with the events in Sissi’s life, so it doesn’t bother me too much, but it can make the book difficult to follow. 4.5/5

Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire:

Have you ever wondered what happened to Alice after she got back from Wonderland, or the Pevensie children after they got back from Narnia, or Dorothy after she got back from Oz? This dark little fantasy explores that question – it takes place at a school for those children who have traveled to fantasy worlds and are now having troubles adjusting to the “normal” world. I’ve read Seanan McGuire before, and I’ve started to recognize a pattern here – her world-building is top-notch and her subversion of the familiar fantasy tropes is super cool, but the story itself tends to be lacking and the ending feels very easy. Still, it’s a super quick read, and like I said, the world and the characters are pretty awesome. 4/5

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor:

It’s a murder mystery set during the Great Fire of London, which sounds exactly like the kind of thing I would enjoy. Unfortunately, this falls completely flat. Even though the murder is introduced quite early on, it’s very slow, and the mystery itself, when it gets revealed, is very anticlimactic. There is no twist or surprise. The problem is that the story alternates between two protagonists (a young man working for the editor-in-chief of The Gazette, and a young woman trying to escape her ruthless cousin and an arranged marriage, both children of fugitive Royalists), but what is seen as a mystery in one storyline is often revealed in the other, so often the reader is left frustrated since we know so much more than both characters. Plus I don’t feel engaged to either of them, and the historical setting is not well utilized either. 1.5/5

Farewell, Lady Opium by Vu Bang:

This memoir tells the story of a well-known Vietnamese writer’s struggle with opium addiction and his arduous road to get sober. I read it mostly for the description of life in Hanoi during the 1930’s, so the opium stuff and especially the author’s ennui can get tedious after a while, but you can’t deny that it’s painfully honest and surprisingly relatable. 3/5