Book Reviews: December 2020

Usually, around this time of year I’ll post my yearly book reviews, but as I’m doing my “yearly review” posts next week, I thought I’d post my monthly reviews now. It’s another eclectic collection:

Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewelry Box by Madeleine Albright

I know that Madeleine Albright was Secretary of State under Bill Clinton and was the first woman to hold that position, but I didn’t know that she is also famous for her collection of brooches and pins. Just like Ruth Bader Ginsberg (RIP) and her collars, Madeleine Albright used her brooches to send certain messages and convey certain images, and this book shows us a number of those brooches along with stories of their significance to her. You guys know I love my brooches, so this book really speaks to me. What I love about Albright’s attitude to her brooches is that the sentimental value of each brooch is far more important than its monetary value. And of course, the accompanied photo illustrations are beautiful and make me green with envy. 5/5

Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages by Gasten Dorren:

The idea sounds great – exploring the 20 most-used languages in the world (starting with Vietnamese at #20) – but the execution is rather uneven. What I find really annoying is that the author’s idea of “exploring” the language is so inconsistent. For example, the chapter on Vietnamese is about the author’s own experience of learning the language, then the chapter on Korean is about the characteristics of Korean pronunciation, then the chapter on Tamil is about its role in the national conflicts of India and Sri Lanka, then the chapter on Turkish is about the history and development of modern Turkish. You see what I mean? There is no uniformity in approach between the chapters, so in the end, I came away with a bunch of trivia but no complete view of the languages. 1.5/5

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia:

The title says it all – it’s a Gothic novel set in Mexico in the 1950s, in which a spirited young socialite is sent to a remote town to check on her cousin, who has married into a family of English mine owners and is now sickening and behaving oddly. I’ve never actually read any classic Gothic novel (unless you count Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights), so I quite enjoyed it. It’s very atmospheric and reminds me a lot of Crimson Peak. However, it can feel too familiar – I appreciate the subtext of colonization and racism, but I think it can dig a lot deeper and put a new twist on the traditional Gothic tropes. Plus, book commits the cardinal sin (in my opinion) of making the main character an observer instead of directly involving her in the plot, so there isn’t much urgency behind her journey until the very end – and even then, she doesn’t exactly discover anything; it’s all told to her. 3/5

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen:

After being disappointed by “Let’s Talk about Love” and its failure to represent asexuality in a nuanced and interesting manner, I have to turn to a non-fiction book instead. Using interviews, social studies, and the author’s own experiences, this book explores what it means to be asexual in a society where sexual desire is treated as default. It really resonates with me – I don’t think I’ve ever highlighted so many passages in a book before. It’s really helped me to better understand not just asexuality, but sexuality on a whole. On the other hand, it made me a little depressed that in this day and age, asexuality is still so misunderstood and underrepresented, and a non-fiction book like this is unlikely to change that. What we need is more representation in the media. Maybe I should get on that. 4/5

Stay tuned for a yearly review of all the books I’ve read!

Book Reviews: November 2020

Another eclectic selection of books this month (but then again, when have my books not been eclectic?) – here we go:

Catch & Kill by Ronan Farrow:

I only know the broad strokes of the Harvey Weinstein scandal – that he was exposed for decades of sexual abuse/assault/harassment, and that it sparked the #MeToo movement. I didn’t know that Ronan Farrow was one of the reporters behind the story (he is no stranger to sex abuse scandals, being the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen), and I definitely didn’t know how difficult it is to even get the story out, as the. I remembered not feeling shocked about Weinstein’s crimes at the time (mostly because I didn’t know their details, but also because his predatory tendencies have been an “open secret”, even to one with some marginal knowledge of Hollywood), but now, reading this book, I was shocked at how long they have been going on and how systematically they were covered up. It’s truly harrowing to read. 5/5

A Song of Wraiths and Ruins by Roseanne A. Brown:

After “Catch and Kill”, I wanted something to take my mind of the horrible reality of it all, so what’s better than a YA fantasy that takes inspiration from West African mythology? The cheesy title has me rolling my eyes a little bit, but the story is actually interesting – it revolves around a boy who must kill a princess to save his sister from an evil spirit, and the princess, who must kill a king to bring her mother back to life. There are the usual YA sci-fi/fantasy tropes, such as people being divided into different categories and a competition for some high prize, but the African mythology helps to set this apart. However, I can’t connect to the main characters, especially the princess, who is a whinny, spoiled brat. Yes, I know she’s only 17 and this is all overwhelming for her, what with being the sole surviving member of the royal family and all, but can she go just one minute without complaining about it and doing something completely selfish? Plus, I find the writing a bit expository, so the rich mythology doesn’t come through as clearly as it should. There will be a sequel, but even in this first book, there is too much information and story, making it really rushed. 3/5

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke:

This is the second novel of the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and it explores many similar themes – the idea of magic being gone from our world, the search for the other, magical world, and the relationship between magic and madness, to name a few, but in many ways, it’s completely different. For one thing, it’s quite slim (245 pages), and it’s much more intimate – it mostly deals with one man, Piranesi (not his real name), who inhabits a strange, vast, labyrinthine House, with a sea in its basement, clouds on its top floor, and thousands of statues in between. It is Piranesi’s entire world, and he explores it both for himself and at the behest of an older man, the Other (because he’s the only other person in this world), who is in search of a great and ancient knowledge. As Piranesi explores the House, the truth begins to emerge about who he is, who the Other is, and what is really going on. I managed to guess the reveal quite early on, but it doesn’t detract from the story – the beauty of it is not in the reveal (if anything, the reveal is a little too neat and convenient for me; I was hoping for something more twisted), but in how it affects the main character. 4/5

The Days of Morisaki Bookstore by Satoshi Yagisawa: (translated in Vietnamese as “The Dreams of Morisaki Bookstore”)

There is no English edition for this, so I’m linking it to the Vietnamese translation. This slim and simple book tells the story of a young woman who goes to live at her uncle’s used bookstore after discovering that her boyfriend is two-timing with another girl. Here, amongst the dusty old books and the eccentric people that frequent the store, she finds a way to heal her broken hearts and helps to heal a few other hearts along the way. I’d read anything with the word “bookstore” in the title, and although this is not my usual fare – like I said, it’s very simple, almost simplistic even, but that’s the beauty of it – I quite enjoyed it. 3.5/5

Book Reviews: October 2020

I read 5 books this month, and they’re quite an eclectic mix:

Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann:

This is something out of the norm for me – a YA romance about a biromantic, asexual girl who has to figure out what she wants in life. I’m on the ace spectrum myself, so even though this isn’t my usual fare at all, I was curious to see how it represents asexuality and being in a relationship as an asexual. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. The book tries too hard to be cutesy but just ends up being annoying, the main character is a whiny brat (but maybe because she’s young and I’m an old hag?), and my biggest problem with it is that it doesn’t show how you have to work to build and maintain a good relationship. The main character simply meets this guy who is perfect (not just perfect for her, but simply perfect all around – gorgeous, loves kids, knows how to cook, you know the type. Blergh) and adores her, so all she needs for a happily-ever-after ending is to get over her damn self. It’s all too cloying for me. I want to read a book about what comes after they decide to date, realize they may not be sexually compatible, and find ways to work it out. 1/5

Time Stops at Shamli and Other Stories by Ruskin Bond:

I’ve never heard of Ruskin Bond before, but I saw this cover of one of his short story collections and found it so charming that I had to check him out. I couldn’t find that particular collection, so I settled for this one instead. Like most of his stories, these are set around India, mostly the foothills of the Himalayas. Some are moving, some are funny, and there are even some quite scary horror stories, but they are all told in an engagingly straightforward manner. I was in the mood for something simple and cozy, and these just hit the spot. They’re like Seamus Heaney’s poetry in a way – simple but enchanting because they speak of universal experiences. 5/5

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan:

From one short story collection to another – this little book (only 96 page) is described as a “children’s book for adults”, and I think it’s pretty accurate. It has the beautiful illustrations and simplicity of a children’s book, but the stories are just a little too strange, too unsettling, too melancholic to be suitable for kids. Regardless, it’s a super quick read, and it’ll make you look at everyday life a bit different. 5/5

Around the World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh:

This is actually a sequel to the author’s previous book around train travel around India, but I’m not familiar with traveling in India, so I thought I’d check this out first. The first half is really uneven – the author quickly skims through large parts of the trip (including the Trans-Siberian! Sacrilege!), but it picks up in the later section, with the travels through North Korea, China, and Tibet. However, I can never connect with it the same way I connect with other travel books I’ve read, like Bill Bryson’s. I think it’s because the author herself comes off as detached – she seems more focused on counting off the number of trains rather than enjoying herself. She can be quite judgy toward the trains and her fellow passengers, and her purple prose about the wonders of train traveling rings hollow. I love train traveling, but it seems both train travel books I’ve read (Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar before this) fail to live up to expectations. Perhaps I should just write my own. 2.5/5

Elsewhere by Rosita Boland:

From one travel book to the next – can you just tell I’ve got a bad case of the wanderlust? Usually, around this time of year I’d be planning for my winter break trip, but what with the pandemic and all, it’s not happening this year, so I have to turn to books to ease my itchy feet. Part travelogue, part memoir, this book is a series of essays in which the author revisits 9 places she’d traveled to in the past 30 years and explores how each place makes her feel and changes her. It’s beautifully written, but again, I have a hard time connecting with it because 1) this is not how I travel (I can’t imagine traveling to a place without knowing where I’d stay that night, or traveling without a camera, for example) and 2) I was hoping for more travelogue and less memoir. 3/5

What did you guys read?

Book Reviews: September 2020

I only managed three books this month, but they’re all pretty dense, so here goes:

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton:

Groundhog Day meets Gosford Park with some body-switching thrown in: during a house party at an English mansion, a man wakes up in somebody else’s body and is told he will get to relive the day eight times, in eight different “hosts”, in order to solve a murder, and only in doing so can he escape the time loop. The idea is interesting, but it gets bogged down by the how and the why of the body-switching and the time loop, which distracts from the murder mystery. Plus, from the setup, I was expecting some huge reveal, and although there is a twist (of course there is, it’s a mystery), the resolution feels rather anticlimactic and still leaves some questions about the time loop unanswered. I’d prefer it if it didn’t explain the time loop at all (like in Groundhog Day) 2.5/5

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography by Agatha Christie:

I noticed that recently I’ve been doing this a lot – going from one book to another of similar genre/subject matter/theme. Here, I went from a murder mystery to the autobiography of the Queen of Mystery herself. I don’t read a lot of biographies, and my knowledge of Agatha Christie mostly consists of the adaptations of her books, but she happened to live in England in the first half of the 20th century, and I’m a sucker for anything set in that time and location (I Capture the Castle, Nancy Mitford’s books, Merchant & Ivory films, etc.) Agatha Christie actually had a pretty ordinary upper middle-class life – compared to the standard of that time, of course – but her recollection makes it extraordinary. I especially love her descriptions of her idyllic childhood and her travels, such as her trips around the world and to the Middle East on the Orient Express. Modern-day travel may be more convenient, but you can’t have the same sense of glamor and romance. 5/5

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer:

I was still feeling non-fiction-y after Agatha Christie’s autobiography, so I reached for this book by a Potawatomi botanist. It’s a series of essays in which the author combines her Native American heritage with her scientific knowledge to explore the relationships between humans and plants – both good and bad, what plants can teach us about ourselves and the world, and what we can do to return their gift. It’s beautifully written, and though it gets a bit too philosophical/spiritual for me at times, other parts can be very touching, and it really makes you think. 4/5

Book Reviews: July – August 2020

I missed last month’s reviews because of SIA, so here are the books I read during July and August (I actually read 11 books but 6 of them are very short and in the same series so I counted them as one):

The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K. Le Guin:

I have tremendous respect for Ursula K. Le Guin, but after translating her Earthsea series and reading The Left Hand of Darkness, I have to admit that her novels are not for me. So when I saw this book of her essays and talks, I decided to pick it up just to see if I prefer her non-fiction writing, and as it turns out, I actually do! It has the same thoughtfulness and quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) passion as her novels, but some of it is much funnier than I thought Le Guin could be and her ideas and observations about writing and reading are quite thought-provoking. The part about the rhythm of prose gets a little technical for me, but overall, I enjoy it. 4/5

Monday Starts on Saturday by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky:

After Roadside Picnic, I decided to give the Strugatsky brothers another go with this book, which is much more my style – a computer programmer is roped into working for the Nation Institute for the Technology of Wizardry and Thaumaturgy (conveniently abbreviated as NITWIT), and soon discovers that when magic and socialism collide, chaos is not far behind. This has been compared to both Harry Potter and Discworld for its depiction of magic study, but actually, in terms of tone and structure, I find it much closer to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – it’s a series of loosely connected comic sketches, in which the bizarre and the banal go head-to-head (and the banal often ends up winning.) I think the comedy could be a lot stronger, to show how absurdly bureaucratic a communist-socialist institution can be, but it’s quite a fun read. 3.5/5

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Goward:

“Magical realism set in England revolving around a creepy mermaid” seems like an oddly specific description, yet I managed to read two books that fit it in just a few months, the first being Things in Jars, which is set in Victorian time. This one, which takes place in the late 18th century, is less of an outright fantasy; it only uses a fantastical element (the mermaid) to tell a human story – a widowed merchant comes into possession of a dead mermaid, and in the course of trying to make money from it, he crosses path with a courtesan who is trying to find some security in her life. The book draws me in right away with its vivid description of life in Georgian England, but that and the gorgeous cover are its only good points. The plot moves like molasses; the characters are foolish or selfish or both, and their actions make no sense – they act like completely different people from one moment to the next simply because the plot dictates it. Plus, there are a lot of subplots that never go anywhere, including one about a mixed-race prostitute that should have been its own story. 1.5/5 (and that’s only because the world-building is good.)

The Professor and the Mad Man by Simon Winchester:

I’ve always been interested in languages and the history of languages, so this book is right up my alley. It is about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary and two remarkable men involved in the monumental task – James Murray, the self-taught editor of the OED, and William Minor, an American doctor incarcerated in an asylum for the criminally insane, who was one of the dictionary’s most prolific volunteers. However, I find the story of the OED actually much more interesting that William Minor’s life, no matter how many times the book tells me how “sad” or “tragic” it is. Yes, it is sad, but I’d like to read more about his work on the OED and how this work helped to improve (or at least seemed to help) his condition, instead of about the condition itself. 2/5

The Enola Holmes series by Nancy Springer:

After some pretty heavy books, I wanted something easy and fun, and having recently learned about the movie adaptation of this YA series, which revolves around the teenaged sister of Sherlock Holmes, I decided to pick it up (besides, any story that necessitates the casting of Henry Cavill as Sherlock Holmes is worth checking out. Henry Cavill, I tell you! It’s got to be one of the most out-there interpretations of the character that I’ve ever seen.) As their mother disappears and her brothers set on sending her to boarding school, young Enola runs away to London to search for her mother herself. Each book follows a different case Enola investigates while the search for her mother continues. They’re very quick read, and while the cases are fairly simple, the stories are not dumbed down at all. The representation of female characters has always been one of my problems with the Sherlock Holmes series, so it’s great to have a different perspective. More importantly, Enola is a relatable character – she is smart, but unlike other “girl detectives” I’ve read like Flavia Luce or Mary Russell, is not precocious – she makes mistakes and is vulnerable, and that goes a long way toward making her more sympathetic. 4/5

The Victorian City – Everyday Life in Dickens’ London by Judith Flanders:

Going from a fictional series set in Victorian London to a non-fiction book about everyday life in Victorian London seems natural to me. This book, as the title says, details life on the streets of London (so no domestic stuff, just public) as it is described in Dickens’ works as well as the works of other contemporary writers, covering everything from city planning, transportation, and sanitation, to food and entertainment. It’s very well researched and the information is interesting, but because there is an enormous amount of it and the author doesn’t seem to want to cut anything out, it’s a slog to read. It didn’t help that I read it before bed – I often found myself turning the pages without retaining a single word, because it’s all so dense. 2/5