Book Reviews: September 2018

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


Book Reviews: August 2018

It’s a good month of reading – 6 books, and they’re all more or less enjoyable, with one exception. Here goes:

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters:

I only know Sarah Waters from the adaptations of her works (Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith, and The Night Watch, I haven’t watched Affinity), but I’ve never actually read her novels before. So when I came across this in the used bookstore and remembered seeing a trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation, I decided to pick it up. It takes place post-WWII and revolves around a country doctor whose life becomes entangled with an aristocratic family living in a crumbling mansion as they are plagued by increasingly strange and sinister incidents. It’s a ghost story in the vein of Henry James and Shirley Jackson, in that the supernatural elements are very subtle, and you have to wonder if they are really supernatural or merely psychological. It can be frustratingly slow at times and don’t expect a tidy explanation at the end, but Waters is so good at creating a creepy and oppressive atmosphere that I had to stop reading it before bed. 4.5/5

Spook by Mary Roach:

After a ghost story, it seems natural that I would read about the scientific studies of ghosts and the afterlife. I’ve quite enjoyed Mary Roach’s other books (Stiff and Packing for Mars), and this one, while not as informative as those two, is still very entertaining. And no, she doesn’t come up with a tidy explanation for ghosts either, but it’s fun to read anyway. 4/5

Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton:

I picked this up because of the pretty cover. And also because it’s a fictional account of the life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, an eccentric 17th-century writer, which sounds right up my alley. The blurb says it’s “not a historical novel but a modern novel set in the past”, so I didn’t expect a bildungsroman, but I did expect the normal stuff – you know, plot, character developments, details about life in 17th England and Europe. What I got instead is a rambling series of prose, like the diary entries of someone with ADHD, written in an overwrought, clumsy attempt at being poetic. There is no character development; the main character comes off vain, silly, and delusional, not brilliant and misunderstood like the book tries to make her out to be. Oh and, it switches POV halfway through (the first half is written in first person, the second half in third person). Why? No reason. The real Margaret Cavendish deserves so much better than this drivel. The only good thing I can say about it is that it’s short, so I didn’t waste too much time reading it. 1/5

The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant by Drew Hayes:

With a title like this, I was expecting something in the vein of “What We Do in the Shadows” or at least “The Reformed Vampire Support Group“, something humorous that details the mundane, everyday struggle of a vampire and subverts all the usual vampire tropes. It turns out to be a series of very standard adventures with all the usual – werewolves, zombies, mages, etc. Sure, there are things like a were-pony or an ancient dragon masquerading as a 7-year-old boy, but it’s nowhere near as clever as I hoped. Also, the writing is super expository. It is trying to be personal, like Fred is addressing the reader, but it just ends up flat. It’s not terrible, actually, just disappointing. 2/5

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly:

This has a typical fantasy premise: a boy in WWII-England, mourning the death of his mother and resenting the presence of his new stepmom and his half-brother, ends up in a world that contain elements of his favorite fairy tales, but they have been twisted into something dark and dangerous (in fact, I once wrote a screenplay with a very similar premise). Although the main character is a kid, it’s not a YA book by any means – it goes to some pretty dark places. And that’s also my problem with it. The story is good and the world is interesting, but it’s just so grim. I don’t mind dark fairy tales; heck, I live for dark fairy tales (especially Neil Gaiman’s), but in those, there is still a sense of magic and wonderment. Here, aside from some communist dwarves who are oppressed by Snow White, everything is so somber and heavy all the time. 4/5

The Nature Fix by Florence Williams:

You may have known that nature is good for you, but have you ever wondered why? Well, this book goes into all the scientific research behind the restorative power of nature and how it is being used to improve our life in general, from “forest bathing” in Japan to bushcrafting (sort of like survival skills, like making fire and shelter, but less about the survival and more about interacting with nature) in Scotland, and also how much time you need to spend in nature to feel its positive effects (5 hours/month, according to the Finns). I’ve always loved being in nature, but I have to admit, I don’t go outside as much as I should, so this book has made me a lot more mindful of that. 4/5

What did you guys read? Let me know in the comments and make sure to check out my friend Mike’s book reviews here.

Book Reviews: July 2018

I’ve been rearranging my bookshelf and rediscovering some classics, so this month I only managed 3 new (to me) books, and here they are:

Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn:

After the brain-buster that is The Name of the Rose last month, I wanted some light, easy read, and this cozy mystery just fits the bill. It features the Honorable Daisy Darymple, an aspiring journalist who visits a country estate to write an article about it and ends up entangled in a murder case that occurs during her stay. It’s very standard stuff, and at another time I may find it boring, but it’s a super quick read and the main character is refreshingly relatable, unlike the leads in some detective novels I’ve read (Flavia de Luce and Mary Russell come to mind). I might check out other books in this series. 3/5

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows:

This epistolary novel revolves around a writer in 1946 England who starts a correspondence with some people in Guernsey and learns about their experience of the German occupation in World War II. It’s mostly about books and book lovers, so of course I enjoy it. Don’t let the twee title deter you, the story is sweet but not cloyingly so, because the World War II stuff always adds a somber note. My only complaint is the romantic storyline, which I finds a bit predictable. 4/5

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly:

I adore the movie, so naturally, I was excited to read this book, which is a non-fictional account of the black female mathematicians’ work at NASA from World War II up to the 1960’s. Unfortunately, the book is nowhere as good. It’s well researched, to be sure, but it seems the author was so in love with her research that she didn’t want to leave out any details. What’s worse is that she is not much of a storyteller, so the book is just a dense collection of dry facts and the women featured in it are just a series of names, instead of being actual characters whose lives you want to follow. It’s a shame, really. These women’s stories are extraordinary and they could have been told in a much more entertaining manner. 2/5

What did you guys read?

Book Reviews: June 2018

I’m kind of indifferent to all of this month’s read, but here we are:

Word by Word by Kory Stamper:

It’s interesting how all of the books on language I’ve read so far all have the same sentiment: language changes, so despite how you feel about them, even words like “irregardless” have their places in the dictionary. This book, which revolves around the author’s time as an editor for Merriam-Webster, reinforces this more than anything else. It’s quite funny and reveals some interesting things about dictionaries as well as the persons behind them (actually I never even thought about the writers and editors of the dictionaries at all, but now that I think about it, dictionaries, like any other book, need to be written by someone). 4/5

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevallier:

I took this with me on my trip to Da Nang. Since it’s a beach trip, I figured a book about two women hunting for fossils on the beach of England in early 19th century would be appropriate. It’s too bad that the book itself is boring. There are some interesting bits about fossil hunting and the way women are written out of history, but none of those really pans out. I don’t connect with either of the narrators (Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot), and I hate the fact that when they have a falling-out, it is because of a man. So much for feminism. 2/5

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco:

I saw the movie adaptation of this a long time ago, and all I remembered about it was Sean Connery and Christian Slater in funny haircuts solving a series of murders at a monastery. The book is so much more than that. In fact, the murder mystery part is only incidental to the book. It is mostly a book on Christianity, philosophy, history, and much else. However, it is the murder mystery part that I’m interested in – it’s basically medieval Sherlock Holmes (the main character’s name is William of Baskerville, and in the movie he even says “It’s elementary.”) So I admit, I skimmed through a lot of the other parts to get back to the mystery, which becomes frustrating after a while. Just as the mystery is getting interesting, it is interrupted by a long discussion about the poverty of Christ or a description of an altar or a hallucination or something like that. And of course, being only incidental, when the mystery does get resolved, it feels anticlimactic. I’m not saying it has to be some stupid conspiracy like The Da Vinci Code or something, but I wish the murder mystery could have been a little more intergrated into the whole thing. 3/5

Book Reviews: May 2018

I got an eclectic mix of books this month, but the good news is that all of them are enjoyable, each in its own way. Let’s hit it!

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan:

I just finished the series based on this (once you get past the Blade Runner rip-off aesthetic, it’s very good, plus Joe Kinnaman is not too terrible to look at either) so naturally, I wanted to check out the book. It is set in a distant future when human consciousness can be digitized and stored, which allows people to change bodies (called “sleeves”). As you can’t rely on physical appearances to tell who is who, it is the perfect setting for a murder mystery. The mystery itself is quite standard, but the setting makes all the difference. I’m glad that I watched the series first though, because it makes the sci-fi lingo a lot easier to follow. The thing is, the series deviates quite a bit from the book, so about halfway through, I lost track of the plot a bit, but in the end, just like when I watched the series, I sort of let the story wash over me and didn’t think too hard about it, and I was able to enjoy it much more. 4/5

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett:

After Altered Carbon, I wanted an easier book, and a Discworld novel just fit the bill. This book revolves around the Witches, who have to face a family of modern vampires that threaten to take over their country. It contains some hilarious bits about the “edgy” vampires (who stay up during the day, drink wine, and give themselves names like “Tracy” and “Gerald”), some adorable bits about Igor and his dog Scraps (or Thcrapth, in Igor’s accent), and some profound bits with Granny Weatherwax (“Sin is when you treat people as things”). A great Discworld novel, all around. 5/5

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore:

I’m rounding up this month’s reviews with a non-fiction book. This, as you can guess from the title, is about the women who worked in US factories during the 1920’s and 1930’s, painting watch dials using self-luminous paint and contracting radium poisoning as a result, and their legal fights against their employers for compensation. It is horrifying to read about how radium literally eats its way through these women’s bodies (there are some very graphic descriptions and photos) and how their employers callously dismiss their suffering. At the same time, the women’s strength and determination can be very touching and inspiring. I can’t imagine how they can go through so much pain and still do everything they can to get justice for themselves and all workers like them. 5/5

Book Reviews: April 2018

This month I only managed to read two new books because I was rereading the complete Sherlock Holmes. Why? Well, it’s like this: I just read a Lovecraftian script for work. Anything Lovecraftian reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s A Study in Emerald, which is essentially Holmes/Cthulhu fanfiction, so I reread that. And then I realized it’s been a while since I read the original A Study in Scarlet, so I reread that, and I figured, might as well reread all the Holmes stories and novels while I’m at it. And that is how a bibliophile’s mind works…

Anyway, onto the two new books I read:

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Michael Sullivan:

I’m a bibliophile (see above), so any book that has to do with bookstores or libraries or writers can catch my interest. This one is essentially a murder mystery set in a bookstore – a homeless young man kills himself in the bookstore he usually frequents, and the bookseller that knows him must confront her own dark past to unravel the mystery of his death. It’s a very quick read and the mystery itself is pretty engaging, but I find the beginning too slow and the resolution a bit too easy, and I didn’t really connect much with the main character. 3/5

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden:

This is the third fantasy books I’ve read based on Russian folklore and mythology (after the Shadow and Bone trilogy and Deathless.) I guess I’m just drawn to them because I grew up with Russian fairy tales. Anyway, the plot of this book is quite standard – Vasya, a young girl whose mother dies giving birth to her, inherits some of her mother and grandmother’s otherworldly abilities, and she uses those abilities to protect her village from a dark force. Still, the world of the story feels very authentic, and the characters are well-portrayed. My only complaint is that the ending is a little rushed (I was expecting a more epic journey, but I guess that’s for the sequels). Also, if I have to read that Vasya’s stepmother “shrilled” or “shrieked” once more, I’m going to shriek too. 4/5

Book Reviews: March 2018

As promised, here is the book review post of March. It’s all fiction this month, but unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy any of them 😦

Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome:

I was going to read this during my Cuba trip – it is a humorous travelogue about three friends (and their dog) who decide to take a boating trip down the Thames, which would make the perfect travel read. But in the end, I chose Bill Bryson’s book, so I didn’t read this until now. It’s quite enjoyable if you’re into British humor (which I am), but my problem with it is the weird inconsistency in the tone – between the humorous and sarcastic observations, there would be some horrible purple prose mixed in. At first, I thought it was supposed to be satire, but then toward the end, there is this scene in which the characters find the body of a woman who drowned herself and the narrator muses about what might have happened to her, and I don’t know if I was supposed to laugh or cry. It’s really strange. 3/5

The History of Bees by Maja Lunde:

I was offered a chance to translate this book, and as its blurb compares it to Station Eleven, which I love, I decided to check it out. It contains three interwoven stories, one set in England in 1852, one in the US in 2007, and one in a dystopian China in 2098, revolving around three characters whose lives are defined and changed by bees and beekeeping. It sounds interesting, and I could see where the Station Eleven comparison comes from, but this is nowhere near as captivating and touching as Station Eleven. I had a hard time identifying with any of the characters, William, the 19th-century character, downright annoys me, with his self-absorption and constant whining. This is what happened when you started out with a theme and built the story to fit it, instead of letting the story and the characters speak for themselves. (I’m still going to translate it though.) 2.5/5

Red Rising by Pierce Brown:

I’ve been wanting to read this for a while, but I guess I’ve waited too long and now I’ve grown out of the whole YA dystopian genre. I wouldn’t even bother with a summary because it is just like every other YA dystopian novel – a bit of The Hunger Games, a bit of Divergent, a bit of The Maze Runner. And yes, of course it is part 1 of a trilogy. Sure, it’s set on Mars and the story is more violent than most YA novels, but it’s the same “plucky teen overthrowing tyrannical government” plot. Read one and you’ve read them all. I think that’s why I liked the Six of Crows series so much, because the plot is like a breath of fresh air compared to the usual YA stuff. 2/5

What did you guys read this month?