I only managed three books this month because two of them are pretty long, and unfortunately, none of them is really enjoyable. It’s so frustrating when you put all the time and effort into a book and it doesn’t pay off, isn’t it? I guess I’m going back to Discworld next month…
Anyway, here are the books:
Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King:
This book revolves around the life of Marcus Gavius Apicius, a famous Roman gourmand dreaming of becoming Caesar’s gastronomical advisor, as told by Thrasius, a slave who is Apicius’s chef and close confidant. I’ve heard of Apicius before (in “The Supersizers“, of all places, a BBC show with Sue Perkins and Giles Coren in which they explore culinary history), so I picked this up hoping for some description of food and life in Ancient Rome. In this sense, the book does not disappoint – the meals that Thrasius makes for Apicius and his guests are lovingly described in mouth-watering details. The thing is, it’s not just a book on food history, but also a novel, and here is where it stumbles. Thrasius is the narrator, but he has little if any stake at all in Apicius’s story, so everything just happens without having anything to do with him. Plus, it seems the author tries so hard to cram all the historical facts into a novel that it ends up feeling forced. Great food, not-so-great story. 3/5
The Anomaly by Michael Rutger:
Imagine The X-Files meets Ghost Hunters, and you’ll have this book – it follows a web series crew that specifies in historical/supernatural mysteries. Usually, their investigation turns up empty, but while doing an episode on a cavern deep in the Grand Canyon, they stumble upon something very real – frighteningly so. This is a pretty quick read, and if you’re claustrophobic like me, it can be scary to read at times – after all, it is about a group of characters being trapped in a dark cave. But the final explanation is a bit too Ancient Aliens and to me, does not live up to the mystery in the previous pages. 3/5
The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay:
Three different storylines, each taking place in a different Venice, in a different time – Venice, Italy in 1591, Venice Beach, California, in 1953, and the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas in 2003 – and each revolving around a man with a secret searching for somebody – now, this sounds interesting, doesn’t it? I certainly thought so and was expecting something in the vein of The Shadow of the Wind – a richly detailed, multi-layered, multi-generational mystery. But boy was I disappointed. This is bloated, pretentious, and full of inane little quirks like no quotation marks around dialogue and invented compound words (like “endtables” and “pistolshots”), which just looks like the editor didn’t do their job. And the three storylines? They never quite come together at all. I almost gave up a few times – and I’ve only ever given up one book before – but in the end, I managed to finish this due to sheer stubbornness. The only good thing I can say about this book is that it’s a cure for insomnia – it’s so tedious that I dropped right off to sleep every time I read it! 1/5
So what did you read?
I missed Book Reviews last week because of SIA, so here’s the make-up. I read four books this month, but I’m reaching that slump now of the year when I don’t feel like reading anything new, which I usually cure by reaching for a Discworld book (since I know I’m going to enjoy it.) The thing is, my stack of unread Discworld books is dwindling so I want to save them. Or, maybe, I should just finish them all and reread them, starting with the Watch books, to prepare for the upcoming adaptation…
Anyway, onto this month’s books:
Damsel in Distress by Carola Dunn:
This is a book in the Daisy Dalrymple series, the first of which I’ve read last year and quite enjoyed. I saw this at the used book store and decided it would be an easy book to take on my trip to Malaysia, so I picked it up. Revolving around our socialite amateur investigator dealing with the kidnapping of an American heiress, it’s a fun and quick read, but the stakes are a little low. Well, lower than usual, I mean, since these books are never meant to be suspenseful thriller mysteries in the first place. 2.5/5
Queen Victoria – 24 Days That Change Her Life by Lucy Worsley:
As the title implies, this book focuses on 24 important events in Queen Victoria’s life, from the marriage of her parents to her own wedding, the coronation, the birth of her first child, Prince Albert’s death, etc. In many ways, this is a standard biography, but by focusing on these days, it gives us a good overview of Queen Victoria’s life without overwhelming us with too much information. I’ve read many non-fiction books, especially biographies, that keep jumping from one fact to the next without a good system of organization, so I appreciate this here. It’s not going to change how you see Queen Victoria, but it’s entertaining to read nonetheless. 4/5
If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley:
This is actually a book to accompany a TV series of the same name (and hosted by the author) about the history of the house and domestic life. Again, it’s not the most groundbreaking book or even the most entertaining (Bill Bryson’s At Home and Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveler’s Guide series are vastly superior, IMO), but it’s easy to read and, if you’re a sucker for nonfictions about historical sociology like me, you’ll enjoy it. 3/5
The Owl Service by Alan Garner:
I’ve heard of this book as a YA fantasy classic, so when I saw it on sale at the used book store, I picked it up immediately. The story, as far as I can tell, is set in a Welsh valley and revolves around three teenagers – a girl, her stepbrother, and their housekeeper’s son – that become trapped in an ancient tragic love triangle and are now forced to act out the three roles in it. I say “as far as I can tell” because I’m not quite sure what really happens in it. It consists mostly of snippets of dialogue, and it can be difficult to pick the story out from those snippets. “Show, don’t tell” may be a good thing, but not when showing is used as excessively as this. You can never be sure what a character is feeling or what they are doing or why they are doing a certain thing. I will say this for it, though: the writing manages to conjure up a threatening and oppressive but still magical atmosphere. Too bad the story doesn’t come through. 2/5
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
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?
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
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
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
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!
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?