Book Reviews: June 2021

I managed six books this month (some are quite short though), and they are as eclectic as ever:

The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James:

NOS4A2 has put me in the mood for some horror, so I picked this up because the story seems interesting – it follows two storylines, one of a young woman in 1982working at a supposedly haunted motel and disappearing from there, and one of her niece, 35 years ago, who goes to the motel to find out what happened to her aunt. The story is nicely spooky, but the characters are boring, and I find the niece’s crush on a guy-with-a-tragic-backstory (of course he does) so eye-rolling. Plus, the author has this annoying habit of describing people’s clothes and hairstyles in detail which has little to no significance in the story. 3/5

Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present by Allison Matthews David

I’ve wanted to read this book for the longest time, because it takes a look at one of my favorite genres – fashion history – from a different angle: how clothing can kill, through poisonous dyes (arsenic green), chemicals (mercurial hats), body-altering extreme silhouettes (crinolines and hobble skirts), and other gruesome means. It’s a fascinating subject, and it also points out how, even in our world today, the health and well-being of workers are still overlooked for the sake of fashion. So it’s really too bad that the book is super dry. It reads like an academic research paper. I can only imagine how much more entertaining it would be if written by a more humorous author, like, say, Mary Roach. 3/5

Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake:

Fungus is the least studied and least understood of all the natural kingdoms, and this book, which revolves around fungi and their effects on the natural and human worlds, goes to show how little we know about them. There are some very interesting bits about “zombie fungi”, how fungi create a “wood wide web”, and how they can be the material of the future (fungal leather, anyone?) However, it doesn’t pull me in as much as I’d hoped. The author is clearly passionate about his work (and by the way, how awesome is his name? It sounds like a Harry Potter character. Heck, the guy even looks like a Harry Potter character), but the organization of the book leaves something to be desired. The chapters jump from one subject to the next instead of going from the basic to the more complex, so while some bits and pieces grab my attention, the book as a whole feels rather rambling. 3.5/5

On Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho by Matsuo Basho, translated by Lucien Stryk:

In my attempt to read more poetry, I thought I would try some haiku. The simple language and the focus on natural imagery sound right up my alley, and what’s a better place to start than Basho, one of the most famous Japanese poets? However, I think haiku may be too simple for me, if that makes sense? It requires a certain amount of Zen-like focus to appreciate the beauty of these poems, and I read too quickly for that. This is an entirely me problem, though, so I still give the book 4/5 (afterward, I sought out the Vietnamese translation of some of Basho’s haiku and did enjoy them better, so it may be a translation/language problem as well.)

The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, translated by Philip Gabriel:

After Basho, it seems natural for me to pick up this Japanese novel about a cat going on a road trip with his owner. Their journeys are told from the cat’s point of view, and the owner’s backstory is also revealed while he visits old friends in order to find the cat a new home. I was expecting something quirky and lighthearted, but, and the reason why the owner can no longer keep the cat gradually, heartbreakingly becomes clear, I found myself bawling my eyes out. Read it and give your pet a hug afterward. 4.5/5 (and that’s only because the theme of the story is a little on-the-nose.)

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer:

I picked this up because the title sounds awesome, and the subject matter – a group of librarians banding together to save valuable centuries-old Arabic manuscripts from Al Qaeda in 2012 – sounds awesome as well. The start is strong enough, as it introduces the man behind the operation, Abdel Kader Haidara, and talks about the history of Timbuktu as a center of culture in the 15th and 16th centuries. However, the book then starts focusing on the rise of Al Qaeda in the Malian desert, and I lost interest. Why do we have to go into such detail about the backstory of the Al Qaeda leaders, while Haidara only gets a chapter with some broad strokes about his childhood and no explanation as to how he became such a passionate and dedicated collector (he had inherited his father’s library quite reluctantly)? And so many of his fellow librarians, who risked their lives to save these manuscripts, remain nameless? Basically, there is too much focus on Al Qaeda and not enough on the manuscripts and the librarians themselves. 2/5

Book Reviews: May 2021

It’s a good month of reading. I managed 5 books, and they’re all pretty interesting, so here goes:

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones:

Part A-to-Z reference book of the fantasy genre, part tongue-in-cheek travel guide, this book contains explanations of every trope and cliché you’ll find in fantasy (or encounter during a tour through Fantasyland) from ambush and assassin to wizard and zombie. It’s not exactly a book that you can sit down and read thought – it’s more of a reference book. It’s not as hilarious as I’d hoped, but it did give me a few good chuckles here and there, and it can be useful if you’re an aspiring fantasy writer and/or Dungeon Master. 3/5

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain & The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain by Ian Mortimer:

So I went from a fantasy guide to two history guides. What can I say? My feet are getting itchy again. I’ve enjoyed Ian Mortimer’s previous Time Traveller’s Guide books (to Medieval England and Elizabethan England) a great deal, and these two are no different. I’m more familiar with these eras – Restoration, thanks to Samuel Pepys’ diary, and Regency, thanks to the many Jane Austen adaptations (and both thanks to “The Supersizers”, the TV series with Sue Perkins and Giles Coren) – so the information is not exactly new, and there’s quite a lot of statistics that can be a bit dry, but the whole is still very readable and entertaining. I especially enjoy the various quips about Pepys’ diary in the Restoration guide (I’d forgotten what a dick Pepys was!) 4.5/5

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill:

After three guidebooks, I wanted something a little different – horror. I don’t read/watch much horror anymore, and if I do, I definitely prefer ghost/haunting to gore; however, I came across this on r/booksuggestion, and, seeing it as a new take on vampires (NOS4A2 is pronounced “Nosferatu”) and knowing that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, I thought I’d check it out. It follows a woman who can teleport to the locations of missing objects (I’m simplifying things a great deal here), and this causes her to cross paths with an immortal that feeds on the souls of children. Comparison to Stephen King is inevitable – the setting of New England and the theme of childhood horrors certainly remind me of It – but I think Joe Hill can stand on his own. The story is creepy but not too scary; it’s a quick read despite the length (nearly 700 pages); and the characters are all memorable, including the minor ones. My one complaint is the ending – not the climax, but the wrap-up afterward, which feels rushed. 4/5

Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, edited by Doug Murano and D. Alexander Ward

NOS4A2 has put me in the mood for some more horror, but I’m a bit of a wimp and don’t want to be too scared, so I decided to pick up this short story anthology – if it gets too intense, I can always put it down. Now, the stories in this collection are not “horror” in the traditional sense; rather, they’re about the dark side of the human condition. However, I didn’t love any of the stories. Some have good ideas (“Picking Splinters from a Sex Slave”, “Cards for His Spokes, Coins for His Fare”, “When We All Meet at the Ofrenda”, “Hey Little Sister”) but the endings are disappointing or predictable, while the others are just plain disappointing. It does feature a Neil Gaiman story (“The Problem with Susan”) but it’s actually one of my least favorite of his so… yeah. It was a letdown. 2/5

Book Reviews: April 2021

It’s an interesting month of reading. Some of the books are not my usual fare, but I enjoyed them all, so here goes:

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr:

It seems my specialty this year is short, simple novels about the human condition and non-fiction books about nature. Since I just read a non-fiction book about the English countryside (“Wilding”), I thought I’d read a fiction book about the English countryside next. Revolving around a shell-shocked WWI veteran hired to restore a medieval mural in a Yorkshire church, this book definitely falls into that Ruskin Bond camp of “profoundly simple and simply profound”. On the surface, it doesn’t seem to be about much – the main character interacts with the locals, commiserates with a fellow veteran/archeologist, falls in love with the wife of the local vicar, and muses about the anonymous artist behind the mural, all in a very restrained, understated manner. But the whole book is filled with a powerful sense of nostalgia, for things that were and things that could have been, that will leave you both heartbroken and deeply touched. 4/5

Wintering Out by Seamus Heaney:

I’m still slowly working my way through Heaney’s works, and it seems natural to move from “A Month in the Country” to this. I’m still struggling with poetry as a whole (maybe because English is my second language, so some of its nuance is lost on me?) and this collection, which is the most abstract of Heaney’s that I’ve read so far, doesn’t make things easier. My favorite poems in this (“The Wool Trade”, “Veteran’s Dream”, “First Calf”, and “Mother of the Groom”) are about very simple and even prosaic things, but they reveal deeper meanings upon reflection, whereas some others I don’t even know what they’re about, so I just let the lyricism and musicality of the language wash over me. Sometimes that may be the best way to enjoy poetry. 3/5

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges:

I took a break from my usual non-fictions with this combination of my two favorite genres – non-fiction and fantasy. This encyclopedia lists 120 mythical creatures from religion, folklore, and fantasy writings from around the world, ranging from the well-known (Banshee, dragon, elf) to the more obscure (axehandle hound, chon-chon, squonk). It’s a good reference book, though I was hoping for a more scientific, consistent approach. You know, like an actual encyclopedia – an entry may consist of descriptions of the creature, its origin and history, etc. Here, they are a bit all over the place. Most do describe the creature and its origin, but others are only excerpts from whatever book or piece of writing that mentions the creature. It may be irrational to demand a scientific approach, considering that this is a book about fantasy creatures, but I think it would make it much more interesting to read. 3/5

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot:

From imaginary beings to very real animals, my next read is this classic memoir (actually, I’d call it a work of autobiographical fiction, since the stories are only loosely based on the author’s experiences.) It’s a series of anecdotes that tells the story of a country vet in 1930s Yorkshire (again). The anecdotes, which are about the animals as much as the colorful people and landscape of the Yorkshire Dales, are sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-wrenching, but always moving and full of human interest. The TV series (at least the 2020 version, I haven’t watched the 1978 version yet) is very enjoyable as well. 5/5

Devotions by Mary Oliver:

After Seamus Heaney, I wanted to branch out to other poets. I thought about reading some “classics” like Robert Frost and e.e. cummings, but then I came across Mary Oliver’s name and found her a little more accessible, so I read her first. One of the reasons I never quite “get” poetry is because I tend to skim while I read, while poetry requires slower, more meditative reading, and Mary Oliver’s simple language is easier to absorb. Her poems all deal with nature, which is another reason I’m drawn to them, and while they’re a lot more introspective (compared to Heaney, which is more narrative), they’re also beautiful in their simplicity. 4.5/5

Book Reviews: March 2021

My reading this month is as usual – two short works of fiction and two longer works of non-fiction. I don’t really read much fiction anymore, unless the premise is really, really interesting, or the story promises to be cozy/relaxing, or I’ve read that author before. As for non-fiction, I’m reading a lot of books on nature this year, as you can see:

My Sweet Orange Tree by Jose Mauro de Vasconcelos:

This book revolves around a young boy growing up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, who finds comfort with an orange tree in his backyard and later develops an unlikely friendship with an old man in the neighborhood. It reminds me of Ruskin Bond in its profound simplicity (perhaps that’s why I picked it up), and also reminds me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, as both deal with childhood hardship and… both have a “tree” in their titles? It can be quite depressing, though, as the boy is treated quite harshly by his family and it ends with (spoiler) a tragedy, with little to lift up the story. I like it, but it’s just too sad. 3/5

Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison:

I’m a big sci-fi fan, but I’m terrible about reading classic sci-fi authors – I’ve never read Asimov, Heinlein, or Vonnegut; I’ve read but don’t really enjoy Ursula K. LeGuin or Philip K. Dick; in fact, I think the only classic sci-fi authors I regularly read and enjoy is Ray Bradbury. However, this is mentioned in the afterword of American Gods, and it’s a short story collection, so I decided to check it out. I can definitely see the influence on American Gods – most of the stories deal with gods and beliefs in one way or another, some subtle, some explicit. However, it can be exhausting at times, because it’s so… intense. It doesn’t have the dreamy quality like Bradbury or the whimsical touches like Gaiman to lift it up. So, though I quite enjoy it, I’m not tempted to check out Ellison’s other works (well, the fact that he was a bit of a dick doesn’t help either.) 4/5

Extraordinary Insects by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson:

I’m sure that for many of us, insects are at best a nuisance and at worst, disease-infested creepy-crawlies, but this book, which explains how insects are essential to life on Earth, may change your mind. I, for one, have always found insects fascinating (except for mosquitoes and flies), so the information in this book may not be as surprising, but I still found it quite fun and enjoyable to read, and by the end of it, I had to grudgingly accept that even the pesky mosquitoes and flies have their roles in the ecosystem. 4/5

Wilding by Isabella Tree:

This book came up in the “Recommendation” section of Goodreads because I’d just finished Extraordinary Insects, and when I found out it’s about a couple’s attempt to return their British farm to the wilderness, I immediately picked it up. It turns out to be less romantic than I thought – it’s about conservation of a huge estate (, involving careful science and planning, not just letting a little backyard garden run wild – but it’s no less riveting. It certainly gives me a different perspective about nature and our place in it. I only wish it had something about how this “rewild” effort can be applied on a smaller scale. 5/5

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire:

This is the second book in the Wayward Children series, but it’s actually a prequel to the first book, Every Heart a Doorway, which I read back in 2019. It tells the story of twins Jack and Jill and what leads to the events in EHAD. It is very quick read (I finished it in 2 sittings), but not as subversive as Seanan McGuire’s other books and I find the characters a little flat, though it certainly does a good job of exploring the complex dynamic between twins. 3.5/5

Book Reviews: January – February 2021

The first two months’ reading has been interesting. I read 9 books, and as usual, they’re an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction. There are some Vietnamese books too. Let’s get to them:

A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow by Laura Taylor Namey:

I wanted something easy and cozy to start the year, and although this book (YA chick lit) is not my usual fare, it has two things that spark my interest: it’s set in England and revolves around food (baking, to be precise). The main character is Lila, a Cuban-American girl sent to stay with her aunt in England to recover after a series of heartbreaks – her beloved grandmother passed away suddenly, her boyfriend broke up with her, and her best friend changed their plan for the future without telling her. Then, of course, she meets an English boy and all is well. The story is cute, too cute in fact – there isn’t a lot of drama here, despite what the book keeps telling us. And perhaps because I’m an Anglophile, but I find Lila rather whiny – imagine having to spend three months in England with free room and board, the horror! This seems to be a recent common complaint of mine with YA books – the main characters all come off as whiny, spoiled brats. Maybe I’m getting too old for this shit. 2.5/5

Chữ số và Thế giới (Numbers and the World) by Đỗ Minh Triết:

This book about the history of numbers, written by a Vietnamese mathematician, was a Teacher’s Day present from my students, who said they didn’t know what kind of fiction I like, so they picked a non-fiction book to be safe (very sensible of them.) I’ve read a lot of books on the history of languages and other social sciences, but never on numbers before – it hadn’t even occurred to me that numbers could have such a long and diverse history – so this is fascinating to read. Some technical bits (such as how people used to do math when they had no zero and even no concept of zero) are a little difficult to follow, but overall, it’s well-researched and quite engaging. 4/5

The Room on the Roof and Vagrants of the Valley by Ruskin Bond:

I discovered Ruskin Bond last year from a short story collection, so this year, I decided to read two of his novels – “The Room on the Roof” (written when Bond was only 17!!!) and its sequel. They are autobiographical, telling the coming-of-age story of an Anglo-Indian boy who runs away from his abusive guardian, makes friend with the local youths, and experiences love as well as heartbreak. Like Ruskin Bond’s other writings, both books are simple, quick reads, but they’re about profound things like growing up, first love, friendship and solitude, and finding your identity and your place in the world. They can be too prosaic at times, but after you finish, the characters will surely stay with you. 3.5/5

Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence by Stefano Mancuso, translated by Alessandra Viola:

I picked this up because the premise (proving that plants are just as intelligent and animated as animals or even humans) sounds interesting, but as I read it, I realized I was the wrong audience for it. This book is for someone who knows nothing about plants and thinks of them as inanimate things, because the evidence cited by the author to prove the existence of plants’ intelligence is very basic and well-known. I was hoping for more explanations as to how plants know how to do these things (for example, how did the Venus fly trap evolve into a carnivorous plant?), but there is very little of it. 2/5

Gánh Hàng Hoa (The Flower Seller) by Khái Hưng & Nhất Linh:

This novella is a classic of Vietnam’s Romanticism movement (1930-1945), so I’m well acquainted with the story; I just never read the actual book until now. It’s about a struggling student who, after an accident renders him partly blind, gains unexpected fame as a writer, but it also causes him to betray his loyal wife, a flower seller. Written at a time when Vietnamese literature was hugely influenced by French romance novels, this can be very maudlin and melodramatic, but there is something charming in its naïveté, and the description of life in the olden days is always a plus for me. 3/5

Đi Trốn (Going Hiding) by Bình Ca:

This is another Vietnamese book, which tells the story of a group of teenagers who run away from their evacuation camp during the Vietnam War (which, in Vietnam, is called the American War) and go on an adventure in the wilderness of Northwest Vietnam. I picked it up because I enjoy this kind of adventure stories, but this one turns out to be a disappointment. The writing is rather dry, and the story takes itself so seriously that the fun and innocence of the kids’ adventure are lost. There are some interesting bits that describe life in an evacuation camp, but that’s about it. 2/5

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicolas Carr:

For the last couple of years, I noticed that my ability to concentrate has gone down considerably – before, I used to be able to read two or even three screenplays a day, but now I’m lucky if I can read one a day. I blame burn-out (if the script is well-written, I can finish it much more quickly), but there appears to be more than that, and this book confirms I’m not the only one suffering from this form of ADD. It takes a look at the concept of neuroplasticity and explores how intellectual technologies, starting from maps and the printing press, all the way to the Internet, have affected the human brain. It’s not anti-Internet or anti-technology, but it certainly makes you think harder about how you can use technologies without losing yourself to it. I only wish it was a bit more entertaining to read – it can be a bit dry at times. 3/5

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina

This book focuses on three animals – the elephant, the wolf, and the killer whale – and the science of animal behaviors and answer the questions: Do animals feel? Do they think? Do they communicate (both with each other and with us)? It goes to show that we humans are a lot more similar to animals (we are, after all, animals too) than we think. It can be heartbreaking to read at times, especially the parts on how callously we treat these animals and consider ourselves superior to them simply because we can think and feel and talk. However, it’s also powerful, beautiful, and moving. 5/5