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
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?
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
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
I want to do a different “Year in Review” for the books. As opposed to just rounding up the favorite books of 2018, I got this list of questions from Kezzie, which I think is a fun way to look back at my reading of the year. Here we are:
Best books you read in 2018:
– Children’s fiction: I didn’t read any that can be comfortably called children’s fiction (the closest is The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly, but it is too dark for a kid’s book), so I guess none.
– Crime fiction: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Michael Sullivan. Actually I prefer Altered Carbon, but it belongs to a different category (see below).
– Classics: I didn’t read a lot of books in this category so Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee pretty much wins by default.
– Non-fiction: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore. It’s horrifying but uplifting at the same time.
– YA: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. The Book of Lost Things deserves an honorary mention, though again, I think it’s not a true YA book. More like a fantasy for adult featuring a kid as the main character.
– Dystopian fiction: Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. I’m not sure if this is true dystopian, but it’s definitely better than the “true dystopian” book I read this year, Red Rising.
Most surprising (in a good way) book of 2018: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. It sounds like a typical ghost story at first, but it ends up haunting me even now.
Book that you read in 2018 that you recommended most to others: A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain, The Little Stranger, any Discworld book.
Best series you discovered in 2018: Either the Takeshi Kovacs series (Altered Carbon) or the Daisy Dalrymple series (Death at Wentwater Court) by Carola Dunn. Both are crime series, though they cannot be more different – one is set in a futuristic, Blade Runner-like world, and the other is set in the upperclass British society of the 1920’s – but they’re both enjoyable in their own ways.
Favorite new author you discovered in 2018: Mary Roach. I have read Mary Roach before, but this year solidifies her position as my favorite science writer. When I pick up one of her books, I know I’m going to enjoy it. The list of authors whose books I always enjoy is very short – Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and Bill Bryson – so I’m glad to add another author to it.
Book you were excited about and thought you were going to love but didn’t: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly and Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton. Hidden Figures is merely disappointing, but Margaret the First absolutely infuriates me with how bad it is.
Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre to you: People who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry. It’s not the first true crime book I read, but it’s definitely more modern and sensational than my usual fare, yet it turns out to be really well-researched, well-written. A true page-turner.
Book you read in 2018 that you’re most likely to read again: A Cook’s Tour. I like to reread travelogues whenever my wanderlust hits me, and I always like to read about food, so a book that combines both is naturally going to be reread multiple times.
Favorite book you read in 2018 from an author you’ve read previously: Monstrous Regiment and A Cook’s Tour.
Best book you read in 2018 that you read based SOLELY on a recommendation from somebody else: Death at Wentwater Court. I picked this up after reading about it on Kezzie’s blog, so thanks, Kezzie!
Favorite cover of a book in 2018: Margaret the First. Too bad the book isn’t good.
Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2018: The Nature Fix by Florence Williams. I’ve always loved nature, but this book has made me a lot more aware of my relationship with nature and made me resolve to spend more time in nature.
Book you can’t BELIEVE you waited until 2018 to read: Speak. It’s such a classic YA book, and I like the movie and also enjoy the author’s other works so I didn’t know why it took me so long.
Book that had a scene in it that had you reeling and dying to talk to somebody about it: The ending of The Little Stranger (the entire book, actually, especially the interpretation of who the “ghost” might be).
Favorite relationship from a book you read in 2018: the friendship between the soldiers in Monstrous Regiment.
Most memorable character in a book you read in 2018: Sergeant Jackrum of Monstrous Regiment (if this was the Oscars, then Monstrous Regiment would be the movie that sweeps all the categories before winning Best Picture).
Genre you read the most from 2018: sci-fi/fantasy (of course) and non-fiction (surprisingly).
Best 2018 debut: Tell the Machine Goodnight by Kate Williams (it’s not a debut book but at least it was published in 2018. All the other books were published earlier).
Book that was the most fun to read in 2018: A Cook’s Tour and The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson. Bonk by Mary Roach is funny as well but it’s just too gross sometimes.
Book that made you cry or nearly cry in 2018: Monstrous Regiment.
Book you read in 2018 that you think got overlooked this year or when it came out: The Road to Little Dribbling, maybe? I don’t know if it’s “overlooked”, but it’s definitely not well-received as Bill Bryson’s other books. I still enjoyed it though.
Total number of books read in 2018: 40 (with some rereads).
If you guys want to do something similar, feel free to grab these questions. I can’t wait to read your round-up!
I reread Bill Bryson’s At Home earlier this month, so I only managed 3 new books, but they’re all quite enjoyable. Here goes:
Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett:
Continuing my Discworld read from last month, I picked another one-off book (it features supporting/cameo roles from some familiar characters like Sam Vimes and William de Worde, but the main characters are one-off). The story is set in the small country of Borogravia, which is always at wars with its neighbor, and revolves around a very special regiment made up of a girl disguised as a boy to find her brother, a troll, a vampire, an Igor, and several other eccentric characters. It starts out a little slow, but the pace soon picks up and it ends up becoming something quite profound and moving – not just a funny story about girls dressed up as boys, but also about the nature of men and women, about war and religion, and about finding your place in the world (with the help of a well-placed pair of socks). 5/5
The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett:
This is often listed as a Rincewind book, though Rincewind plays more of a supporting role in this one. The main character is Cohen the Barbarian, who, along with his Silver Horde, decides to embark on one last quest and return something stolen from the gods by the first hero – fire. This threatens to destroy the entire Discworld, so Rincewind has to reluctantly step in to stop them. This book is quite short, but to make up for it, it is gorgeously illustrated by Paul Kidby. I think people tend to dismiss the Rincewind books as goofy adventure tales and not as “deep” as the other Discworld books, but I dare you not to smile and cheer at the end of this one. 4.5/5
Bonk by Mary Roach:
To be fair, I only read this because it is mentioned in At Home, but I’ve always enjoyed Mary Roach’s books, so why not? As the title says, this is about the scientific study of sex, and I have to admit, it’s more information that I ever wanted to know. I constantly made this face while I was reading it:
and occasionally this face:
But at least it was entertaining. 3/5
So what did you guys read? Check out my friend Mike’s reviews here!
Happy Halloween! Fall is a good time for reading, isn’t it? I don’t think there’s anything nicer than curling up with a good book and a cup of tea. And it was a good month of reading for me too, with all the books being quite enjoyable, more or less.
The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu:
This is the second book in the silkpunk epic series Dandelion Dynasty, which I describe as “Romance of the Three Kingdoms meets Game of Thrones“. I’ve read the first book, The Grace of Kings, a while ago, so I don’t remember much of it, but that’s OK, because they can more or less stand on their own, and it only takes a while to get caught up with the story. This one revolves around the next chapter in the reign of Kuni Garu, his children, the power struggle within his court, and the threat of foreign invaders (who are clearly based on Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire). As with the first book, the world-building is great and the science interesting (such as when they discover electricity and use it to fight the invaders’ dragons, resulting in some epic air battles.) However, just like the first book, character development remains Liu’s weakness – the characters are either flat and boring or unsympathetic. And the romantic subplot is a joke (it’s – mild spoiler – between two women, so one gets the impression that the author includes it only for the sake of representation and not because it makes sense for the story.) 3/5
Tell the Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams:
I got this from a Buzzfeed quiz, something like “What Book Should You Read Next Based on Your Favorite TV Show”. I picked Black Mirror, and got this, which is perfect, because it could’ve easily been a Black Mirror episode. It takes place in the near future, revolving around a machine that can tell you how to be happy, with an ensemble cast – a “happy technician” working the machine, her co-workers and clients, her anorexic teenage son and his friends, her pretentious artist ex-husband, his current wife who’s harboring a dark secret, etc., with each chapter focusing on one of their stories.The world is fascinating and the characters, though deeply damaged, are relatable. However, the story never becomes as powerful as Black Mirror, because there is very little conflict, and when things do get resolved, it feels too easy. 3/5
Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee:
This memoir consists of a series of unconnected chapters detailing the author’s time growing up in the Cotswold during and after World War I. Actually, they don’t “detail” much; they’re mostly just fragments of memories and impressions from his childhood. I would’ve preferred some more details and descriptions of life in the village, but the writing is lyrical and beautiful to read, and it perfectly captures both the random, innocent memories of childhood and the nostalgia we feel when we look back upon them later in life. 4/5
The Truth by Terry Pratchett:
I’m reaching my Discworld phase in the year – it’s when I suffer what I call “reader’s fatigue” and just want something fun that I know I will enjoy, so I return to Discworld. This particular book, which deals with the arrival of the printing press and subsequently the newspaper in Ankh-Morpork (it belongs in the same category as other “Industrial Revolution” books like Moving Pictures and Going Postal), has a slow start, but once the pace starts picking up, it becomes very enjoyable. The main character, the aptly named William de Worde, may not be quite memorable (though he does come to his own toward the end), but there are some funny side characters – like a reformed vampire photographer and a pair of hitmen straight out of Pulp Fiction (there is even a parody of the “Royale with cheese” scene). And even though it was published 18 years ago, the story is still very relevant. The bit about a Patrician candidate, an unscrupulous businessman who wants “a return to the values and traditions that made the city great”, is eerily prophetic. 4.5/5
What did you guys read this month?
It’s a pretty eclectic month of reading, in that none of the books I read have any similarities, but here goes:
A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain:
I’ve always been a fan of Anthony Bourdain (RIP), and this book, which details his travels around the world in search of “the perfect meal”, combines two of my interests – food and travel – so of course I love it. His writing is funny (in a biting, belligerent kind of way, very different from Bill Bryson’s self-deprecating humor) and vivid; the travels are fascinating and the food mouth-watering (in most cases. I’m not sure about the sheep testicles.) Sure, there are graphic descriptions of a pig getting slaughtered in Portugal, a sheep getting butchered in Morocco, and a snake getting killed in Vietnam (where else?), but that’s what makes the book come to life. 5/5
The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson:
I quite enjoyed Helen Simonson’s first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and this one, which revolves around life in the idyllic town of Rye in the summer of 1914 before World War I breaks out, seems right up my alley. Unfortunately, it doesn’t live up to its predecessor. Like Major Pettigrew, it deals with a close-minded community and how they react when faced with changes, but the characters are not memorable and the conflict is light. The most effective part, ironically, is the last few chapters which deals with the war itself. The “before” part is really boring. 2/5 (and that’s only because I have a superficial liking for passages describing life in a British town, like the kind of clothes people wear and the food they eat.)
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson:
I’m a bit embarrassed that it took me so long to read this. I’ve read one other book by Anderson, Winter Girls, and loved it, and I also quite like the movie adaption of this book (starring a young Kristen Stewart), but I never got around to reading it until now. In a way, it’s a standard YA novel about a girl becoming a selective mute after being sexually assaulted, but the main character’s voice is strong and relatable and reflects her struggle really well. My only complaint is that there is no strong event to prompt the main character to “speak” out about her trauma and begin her journey toward recovery, but I know it’s more realistic that way. 4.5/5
People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry:
When it comes to non-fiction, I enjoy some true-crime books from time to time, especially if it’s historical crimes (like Erik Larson’s books.) This one, which deals with the disappearance and death of Lucie Blackman, a British young woman, in Japan in 2000, is decidedly more modern than I prefer, but it’s a fascinating read nonetheless. The case itself is not that special; what makes the book so gripping is the way it delves into the lives of the victim, her friends and family, as well as her killer. It may contain too many details, but it really shows the dark side of Japanese society and the devastating ripple effect of a tragedy. 4.5/5