I have read a lot of things since last time, so I am dividing this post into fiction and nonfiction, starting at the top with the one book that everybody ought to read right now and then giving some briefer comments on everything else.
FictionThe Key to Extraordinary
by Natalie Lloyd.
It is a known fact that the most extraordinary moments in a person’s life come disguised as ordinary days.
It is a known fact to me, at least.
Because that morning started out mostly the same as all mornings before: I woke to an ache in my chest, the smell of chocolate, and the sound of the ghost making a racket in the kitchen.
Now, I’m not the sort to dwell on doom and sorrow. Life is too short for that. But I should at least try to describe the ache briefly:
It’s not the kind that comes from eating tacos too late at night.
It’s the kind that comes from being left behind.
I think my heart knows I should be filling it with new memories, new jokes, and wondrous adventures with the one person I loved most of all. But that person is gone now.
This book made me laugh, cry, and connect more to what it means to be a human being.
The premise is that the narrator is born into a family where every woman has a "destiny dream." She is trying to figure out her destiny while also looking for a way to save the cafe-and-house where she grew up (which is connected to her memories of her mother, who recently passed away) from being sold. All the while, the book also deals a lot with themes of grief, family, and friendship. From that description, the plot might not sound
exciting, but it was a very engrossing tale from the opening lines to the way that every chapter had a hook to make you want to keep reading. It was also incredibly beautiful and heartwarming, and as extra bonus, it is written by a Christian and has some themes of faith woven in here and there, mainly in the faith of the characters in the story (which comes up in things like the folk songs they sing).
I loved the fact that it is the women
in this story who have special abilities. I loved how awesome all the women in this story are: permanently grumpy business-owning Greta on her pink scooter, grandmother Blue who rides a Harley Davidson, the narrator’s electric-guitar-playing mom, the rock-drummer narrator herself. I loved it that the heroine is the sort of girl who goes around trying to befriend all of the lonely kids that sit by themselves . . . but that she still slides under the table when the handsome-boy-whom-she-met-in-the-graveyard-last-night looks at her across the room. (“I’m small enough to fit easily into tight places. I consider this the Lord’s way of making sure the dork species survives.”)
Mostly, I really fell in love with the narrator. She is brave and shy and poetic and a rock drummer and all the right things to make this book pure magic.
Also, Greta’s flower shop slogan:
The First Chill of Autumn
GRETA’S MAGICAL GARDEN
GET YOUR FLOWERS—THEN GO AWAY
by W.R. Gingell, third book of the trilogy that started with 12 Days of Faery
. This book was pretty good. One thing I admire about this author is that she is able to write so many different types of personalities--with a few exceptions, most of her heroes and heroines from different books all have very different personalities from each other.Spindle
by W.R. Gingell: Did not finish. Although I've really been getting into this author a lot recently (as anyone can tell from my recent posts), I suspect that this book is one of her earlier works, and it shows. Everything is either poorly explained or not explained. Magic seems to work merely by willpower, i.e. a character wills something to be a certain way, and it is. This seems to be an influence from Diana Wynne Jones, and while that works out all right in Howl's Moving Castle
, in this book, it feels lazy and derivative. I also hated the way the male lead treated the female lead (ignoring her needs, ignoring her questions, getting into her personal space and doing things to her [note: not in a sexual way] without permission, and basically not showing any consideration to her as a human being). With apologies to W.R. Gingell, this is just not her best work.
(If anyone is interested in getting into this author, I would recommend Wolfskin
as the best of the several of her books I have read, followed by 12 Days of Faery
.)Beneath Cruel Fathoms
by Anela Deen. An indie fantasy book, girl-meets-merman. The plotting was pretty good, and I appreciate that the author addressed the issue of infertility (something people are often silent about) in a genuine way. There were a few other things, however, that I felt a bit ambivalent about; overall, the book was decent but not great.Arabian Nights
: a very truncated edition that just included some of the most famous stories, like Aladdin and the lamp, Sinbad and the Sailor, and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. It was nice to be able to read all of those famous stories without all the (sometimes extremely explicit) not-so-famous ones; I particularly enjoyed The Magic Horse.The Book of Dragons
by E. Nesbit. Delightful. Only evil dragons, but still, the stories were mostly very charming and just the right thing to read in little breaks (since this is a collection of short stories).
The Firebringer Trilogy: Birth of the Firebringer
, Dark Moon
, and Son of the Summer Stars
, by Meredith Ann Pierce. YA fiction in which the characters are sentient unicorns living in a world which they share with creatures like gryphons and pans; the male lead is the one who is destined to lead his people to take back their ancient homeland from their enemies which have overrun it. I first read these books in my childhood, and it was a real pleasure to revisit them. While still moving along well, the pacing was a little bit more relaxed than the extremely frenetic pace that seems to be a requirement in order to hold readers' attention in recent years. Also, there was a part where the main character sees a vision of the cycle of life and death and the universe, which is largely based on Eastern religions but I found to be very moving.The Breadwinner
by Deborah Ellis. It’s about a girl growing up in Afghanistan when it was controlled by the Taliban who must dress as a boy to earn money for her family to eat when her father is taken to prison and there is no one else in her family who can go outside and earn money. Overall, it was good and provided a bit of knowledge about life in Afghanistan during that time, and the Afghanistan people, and bits of their history. On the other hand, it is written by a Canadian, so a few little bits came across as culturally Western, and I feel like it is a bit simplistic and overly sunny in terms of what happens to the main character and her family (maybe so that it's not too traumatizing to young audiences). It made me want to move on to reading books by actual Afghani writers. City of Ember
by Jeanne DuPrau. Interesting concept, mostly well-written in a simple, straightforward style, and there were some parts I found moving, like the part about standing against the darkness. Complaints are that all of the evil characters were ugly, what was going on was too easy for me to piece together as a reader (maybe because I am older than the target YA audience?), and the starry-eyed pie-in-the-sky "Believers" and the way they were out of touch of reality made the book come across as strongly anti-religion.
The following four books are all from the Crestomanci Series by Diana Wynne Jones:Charmed Life
. I had read this and The Lives of Christopher Chant as a child, and at that time, The Lives of Christopher Chant engaged me much more, but coming back to them as an adult, I found that Charmed Life was also extremely delightful. It had great humor and some nice progression in how the other children who at first are only being polite to Cat gradually start to genuinely accept and want to spend time with him.The Lives of Christopher Chant
, on the other hand, was also still great, but a bit darker than I remembered, and that shadowed my enjoyment of it somewhat.The Magicians of Caprona
: I had a bit of a hard time getting into this story, but I was really moved by one particular scene in the story that conveys sense of being willing to sacrifice onself:
SPOILER: Highlight text to read: the Duke of the city, knowing that the city is surrounded by enemies on all sides and he is going to be killed whatever he does, is determined to leave the palace to comfort his people during their darkest hour, to pat the heads of children and sing with the choir. Actually, the main characters save the day and nobody dies, but he still fully believes he is going out there to die together with his people.Witch Week
contained some unpleasantness that I don’t find it pleasant to read about (bullying and so on), but for whatever reason, it got me hooked and moving along much better than The Magicians of Caprona. The characters were interesting and unique persons, and the plot moved along nicely. On the other hand, I can see why this series has not won any major awards, because there really was not much of any deep message to it, and the certain aspects of the story in this book in particular (
SPOILER: Highlight text to read: the bullying
) resolved in the end in a way that was a little bit facile.
信濃の昔ばなし第二集 (Folk tales of Shinano
, volume 2). There was a lot more murder and death than I expected in what I thought would be a kid-friendly collection of Japanese fairy tales, but not all of the stories were so dark (the one about the quarrel between Mt. Fuji and the mountain range Yatsugatake was memorably humorous), and these were very enlightening in terms of Japanese worldview and values. Also, Shinano is an area in Nagano Prefecture which I have visited, so it was really neat getting to read stories from that specific locality.The Book of Elves and Fairies: Stories Old and New
, published by Longmeadow Press. It was interesting to see so many different takes on fairies and fairy-land. For example: A story where a man feasted in fairy-land but could not to bring anything back with him, or he would never be able to return to fairy-land, versus a story where a girl was taken to fairy-land and encouraged to eat, but if she had, she would never have been able to return home. Then there was Childe Charity, in which the main character is taken to fairy-land as a guest, feasted sumptuously, and returned with rich gifts which did not turn into leaves or mud or anything but were genuine. Also, there was a version of Cinderella which was much nicer to the step-sisters in the end than anything I remember from other versions.
容疑者Xの献身 (The Devotion of Suspect X
) by Higashino Keigo. (Note: This book has been translated and is readily availble in English). So, this is a murder mystery that unfolds in exactly the opposite way of a typical western whodunnit story. We see the murder happen at the very beginning and we know who did it, but then there unfolds a war of intellects between the investigating detectives (and a genius civilian, a recurring character in Higashino's novels, who helps them out) and the person who tried to conceal the crime. Readers do not know at the beginning what was done to conceal the crime, so there's this gradual unfolding of information as you follow the progress of both sides and try to figure out what strategies the accomplice used to conceal the crime and whether the detectives will figure the puzzle out in the end or not. It's a dark story that ends on a rather hopeless note, and it also touches on some pretty horrible realities, like the woman who (together with her daughter) committed the murder at the very beginning was being stalked by her abusive, drunkard, unemployed ex-husband who was fired from his job for embezzlement (so, he actually is a criminal, but was never charged for anything) and who is extorting money from her and threatening her daughter (from a previous marriage, not his daughter) when she tries to refuse to see him. Although she calls the police numerous times, they never help her
but instead take her ex-husband's side because he says he just wants to get back together with her.
This book is famous in Japan, but I would mainly recommend it to people who have an interest in mysteries and crime stories to begin with.
NonfictionThe Hundred-Year Lie
by Randall Fitzgerald. The premise is that American society's rampant overuse of chemicals is a health hazard (in particular, the chemical symergies that a person could be exposed to due to the amounts of chemicals we are exposed to environmentally, in food, and in personal care products.) Overall, I suspected that the author was barking up the *right* tree, but he is an investigative journalist, not a specialist in any of the fields that he discussed, and even without much effort I was able to identify some facts that were incorrect. It was also more than a bit scare-journalism-ish, which was not appealing. So, I would cautiously state that this book is worth reading for the premise, but the data that the author uses needs fact-checking.Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills
by Russel L. Blaylock, MD (audiobook version). This is a book written by a neurosurgeon examining all the research data that we have on excitotoxins (MSG, aspartame, etc.) and explaining how to interpret those studies and what they actually show. This is pretty much the opposite of the above broad-and-shallow Hundred-Year Lie in that the author is
a specialist, and he does
read and analyze the research very carefully. Much more trustworthy, but sticks to a very narrow focus (his field of expertise). (Side note: I bet that extreme-sounding subtitle was created by the publisher who wanted to push copies by causing a sensation, not by the scientist-author himself.)
夢をかなえるゾウ (The Dream-fulfilling Elephant
) by 水野敬也 (Mizuno Keiya) (audiobook). It is basically a self-help book but told in a humorous fiction narrative style (the narrator has a statue of the Hindu god of prosperity, Ganesha, and when he prays to it, Ganesha comes to life and starts giving him advice, but Ganesha's personality is of someone who is always loafing around and goofing off). Although I liked the humorous approach to the self-improvement topic, I found it extremely male-oriented in terms of the characters (all male) and also in the approach to success in a typical male-defined way (career, fame, money). I just noticed this because it is something that has been on my mind, however, so if there is someone out there who likes self-help books and understands Japanese, I would encourage them to not let that stop them from enjoying this book. Change your Beliefs, Change your Life
by Nick Hall (audio program). This was pretty fascinating as it is the perspective of someone who studied both psychology and immunology and I think one other medical field, and has something like two or three graduate degrees in different fields, and he used that multidisciplinary insight to pioneer the field of psychoimmunology. The premise is that basically, if you live your life in a way that conflicts with your core (deeply held) beliefs, it can have a lot of negative consequences in terms of things like health and not being able to really live to your full potential.Self-Discipline in 10 Days
by Theodore Bryant. This was okay. It gave a very shallow psychological overview of some problems that typically arise keeping people from self-discipline (fears such as fear of failure, fear of success, fear of mediocrity, etc.) and gave what are basically a few hacks to help with productivity, but long before the “life hacks” culture arose. It also gave an overview of the planning, preparation, action, and maintenance stages of working towards a goal. So overall, just a very, very simple overview.The Sum of My Parts
by Olga Trujillo. Very harrowing, and also very hard-to-put-down story of a woman who was sexually abused by her family from a very young age and developed dissociative identity disorder, which in her case manifested as parts that identified themselves by the age that she was at the time she experienced a certain traumatic event (Seven, Ten, and so on).The Life of St. Sava
by Nichola Velimirovich. Although it was good to gain some understanding of this saint and what he did, and also a bit of knowledge of the history of the Serbian people, it was written in a highly pietistic style. I would not recommend it to a non-Orthodox person.