It’s been a busy month, so I only managed to read three books, but in my defense, two of them are pretty big, and at least they’re all good. Here goes:
Thunderstruck by Erik Larson:
This book follows the same formula as Erik Larson’s previous non-fiction book, Devil in the White City (which I love): telling two parallel stories, one of a social/historical importance, and the other a sensational murder case. In this case, it’s the invention of radio by Guglielmo Marconi and the case of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, the first murder suspect to be captured with the aid of radiotelegraphy. It’s quite good, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as Devil in the White City, because I didn’t care about Marconi at all (he was kind of a dick) and the Crippen murder is nowhere near as captivating as the murders of H.H. Holmes. The book does pick up toward the last third, when it focuses solely on Crippen, but it’s not quite enough. 3/5
The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer:
I’ve read Ian Mortimer’s other “Time Traveler’s Guide” book, which is about Elizabethan England, and loved it, and this one doesn’t disappoint. I love reading about historical everyday life, and it’s rare to find one like this, full of vivid and entertaining (and sometimes straight-up disgusting, but in a good way) descriptions. It really brings the period to life, as opposed to just listing off facts and figures. Highly recommended. 5/5
The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury:
I’ve just been hired to translate this, which is really exciting because after Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Bradbury is my favorite sci-fi/fantasy writer. Ironically, my favorite book of his (Dandelion Wine) is actually neither sci-fi nor non-fiction, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy his other works. This contains some pretty chilling stories, like something you’d find on Black Mirror today (“The Veldt”, “Marionettes Inc.”), some are surprisingly moving (“The Rocket”, “The Rocket Man”, “The Last Night of the World”), and some are just so cinematic I’m surprised they haven’t been adapted already (“The Fox and the Forest”, “The Visitor”). My only complaint is that the messages in some of them are a bit too on-the-nose (“The Other Foot”, “The Man”), but that’s minor. 4.5/5
What about you guys? What have you read?
October is a very… balanced month of reading. Two fictions, by a male and a female author, and two non-fictions, also by a male and female author, but about very different subject matters. Let’s get to them, shall we?
The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery:
I’ve always been kind of fascinated by octopuses – their intelligence and camouflage abilities are really remarkable, considering they are invertebrates. However, if you’re looking for a scientific book about octopuses, then this isn’t it. True, it features some fascinating facts, but nothing you wouldn’t find on a Wikipedia page. Instead, the main appeal of this book lies in the connections and relationships the author forges with the various octopuses and their caretakers that she meets along the way of her research. Though she tends to get a little gaga about the octopuses at times, which can be annoying unless you love octopuses as much as she does, I still find this an interesting and sometimes touching read. 3/5
The Song Rising by Samantha Shannon:
This is the next book in the Bone Season series, which I’m hired to translate. It’s the only reason I read it. I thought I had reviewed the first two books on the blog before, but apparently I hadn’t, so here’s a quick recap: the series is set in an alternate timeline (still our world but with slightly different history), where people with psychic abilities (called “voyants”) are deemed to be unnatural and forced to become criminals. The main character discovers that the world is actually being controlled by a race of supernatural beings (called “Rephaite”) that enslave the voyants and feed on them, and together with a renegade Rephaite, she starts a revolution to bring freedom to the other voyants.
The basic idea sounds good, but the books aren’t. The world-building is unnecessarily convoluted (I can take the psychic criminal underbelly OR the supernatural beings that enslave people, but not both), the characters are either one-dimensional or predictable, and the central romance between the main character and the Rephaite is every cliché in the YA book. It’s not as bad as Twilight, but that isn’t saying much.
I really wanted to get out of translating this book because I hated the first two so much, but the people at the publishing house said there was no one else, so I had to cave in. The only good thing I can say about it is that I didn’t hate it more than the other two. And the author plans to write SEVEN of these? Please, stop. 1/5
Night Watch by Terry Pratchett:
After the two disappointing Discworld books last month, I wanted to try another Discworld book that I would actually enjoy, so here it is (I also reread “Good Omens”, in anticipation of the TV series.) This is another book about the City Watch, which features Sam Vimes accidentally traveling 30 years back in time and ending up mentoring his younger self while the city is on the brink of a revolution. Despite that premise, the book is pretty serious – there are some heavy musings about society and democracy and what it really means to be a policeman. But the great thing about the Discworld books is that they make you think without being preachy, and besides, it’s great seeing the young versions of Nobby Nobbs and Vetinari. (I never thought I’d go “Aww” over Nobby, but I did.) 4.5/5
The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah:
This book is in the vein of A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun – the author is tired of their dreary life and decides to make a drastic move to some exotic location (Morocco, in this case) to start over. The writing is easy to read, but the story itself, which revolves around the author trying to renovate a house in Casablanca, really frustrates me. In A Year in Provence, for example, the author faces similar difficulties (slow builders, eccentric locals, annoying guests, etc.) but they all seem charming and funny, whereas here, the conditions are truly alarming and the author comes off as a stubborn idiot who refuses to accept that he’s made a terrible mistake. He fails to make me see what’s so great about Casablanca that justifies him going through all that trouble. 2/5
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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
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?
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