Tag Archives: book review

Cadence of a lullaby

Gail Tsukiyama’s words are simple.  Her story is simple.  But her words are poetic.  Her story is beautiful.

a hundred flowersTsukiyama’s A Hundred Flowers tells of the Chineese communist crackdown on intellectuals in the late 1950’s.  The story revolves around Kai Ying, a devoted mother, wife, and daughter-in-law.  In the first few pages Kai Ying’s husband, Sheng, is torn from his family and sent to a labor camp for his letter criticizing the Communist Party.  From that moment, Kai Ying must endure the hardships of uncertainty, silence, and single parenthood.  Kai Ying is resilient and strong.  She perseveres.  Unfortunately, in her perseverance, she uncovers painful secrets.

The story line is straightforward, but filled with poignant moments that draw the characters close to your heart.  And there is a sub-plot, gently and expertly weaved in, that nearly made me cry each time it became the focus.

Tsukiyama’s soft tone  takes on the cadence of a lullaby.  The great hope and deep love in this story will wrap you up in a warm, comfortable blanket.

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Want to be smarter? Knowing The Meaning of Everything will help.

You wouldn’t expect a story about writing a dictionary to be very interesting.  After  all, dictionaries themselves are hardly riveting material.  In fact, do people even read, look at, or own dictionaries any more?  Isn’t Google the wellspring of information?

by Simon WinchesterAs a kid working on homework, when I had a question about a word or the spelling of a word my parents sent me to the dictionary.  I would beg, “please, just help me out.  It will take so much longer to look it up.”  I would manipulate, “you probably don’t really know!”  Or I would ignore the problem altogether and find a synonym, or just plain not do the work.  Now, even though I am fascinated by language, have a thirst for knowledge, and appreciate learning, it is very likely that I will google the definition (yes, I just used google as a verb thereby potentially securing my place in history as one who helped to lay the written foundation to define google as an action-you’ll understand if you read the book) rather than look it up in one of the two dictionaries I have on the shelf.

Since something like looking up the definition of a word has become so simple and so ubiquitous, it is incredibly easy to take for granted the immense undertaking of cataloging every word in the English language.  Have you ever considered what it took to bring all that information together?  I hadn’t.  And that is why I found Simon Winchester’s non-fiction history on the dictionary so impressive.

Winchester is skilled with his words.  His story unfolds with the thrill of a novel.  He clearly presents the key players and critical moments in history that seem to miraculously coalesce so that the behemoth now known as the Oxford English Dictionary could be born.  The suspense and the drama move the story right along; from year to year, decade to decade, a job that seemed to grow increasingly more impossible struggles against the odds.

It is no spoiler to tell you that the many men and women who were necessary to complete the task eventually succeeded-today, the OED is synonymous with dictionary.  Don’t know what a jingoist is?  Check the OED.  Don’t know what oleaginous means?  Check the OED.  See what I mean?  The OED is the go to reference for all things English.

This story is not merely a list of definitions, but rather the experience of gathering and ordering the information used to create the definitions that fill the dictionary.  And it is more diverse and surprising than you can imagine.  Did you know a murderer was an essential participant?  Or that J. R. R. Tolkien helped?  There is also a thrilling short history of how the English language evolved.  The book is filled with incredible facts, and sometimes incredible definitions.  My favorite is this: RETREAT from the Dictionary of Marine: “Retreat is the order in which a French fleet retires before an enemy.  As it is not properly a term of the British marine, any fuller account would be out of place” (236).

I highly recommend this book to anyone.  And though you won’t walk away from it actually knowing the meaning of everything, you will almost certainly have a new-found appreciation for the work that went into writing, editing, and publishing the Oxford English Dictionary.

*I found most of the book to be quite accessible and easy to understand, but there were times when the boundaries of my vocabulary were stretched and I was sent running, not to Google, but to the OED (online).  I’m making myself vulnerable here, don’t laugh at what I don’t know.

xvi: anticyclone- winds spiraling outwards

xx: jingoist-chauvinist, an extreme bellicose nationalist

xx: numistmatist- collector and student of money

xxi: lucifers- a match struck by rubbing it on a rough surface

3: suzerainty- a sovereign or state having some control over another state that is internally autonomous

6: elided- omit a sound or syllable when speaking

10: simulacrum- an image or representation of someone or something; unsatisfactory imitation

19: inchoate- just begun and so not fully formed or developed

84: oleaginous- rich in, covered with, or producint oil; oily or greasy

99: desuetude- a state of disuse

120: interrobang- ?!, a combination question mark and exclamation mark

123: orthoepy- the correct or accepted pronunciation of words

140: Stakhanovite- a worker in the former USSR who was exceptionally hardworking and productive

169: adumbrated- report or represent in outline; indicate faintly; foreshadow or symbolize

211: assiduity- constant or close attention to what one is doing

226: catafalque- a decorated wooden framework supporting the coffin of a distinguished person during a funeral

233: gallimaufry- a confused jumble or medley of things

235: forfend- (archaic) avert, keep away, or prevent (something evil or unpleasant)

The Nothern Clemency

I must have read a really good book review about Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency at some point, because my wife gave it to me as a gift.  When I looked quizzically at this unfamiliar book, she said it was on my Amazon wish list.

northern clemencySo when I opened this book for the first time, I truly had no idea what it was about; a very rare experience for me and the way I read.  I so wish I could find that initial review that interested me so much, I want to know what in the world it said, ‘cuz I could find nothing particularly engaging in this novel.  Yet, so much of what the promotional comments on the back cover claimed were true.

New Statesman: “A good old-fashioned story about two families, beginning in 1974 and spanning twenty years…Hensher is at his brilliant best in the details.”

The Spectator: “Hensher presents the great drama and inexhaustible wonder of ordinary life…”

The Times: “Hensher is a brilliant anatomist of familial tension and marshals his large cast of characters deftly.  He has an impeccable eye for nuances of character and setting.”

It is very clear that the author in question is a skilled writer.  He has mastery of the language and is subtle and nuanced, his sentences are clean and relatable.  Some of his anecdotes are humorous, and reflect life with perfect clarity.

But now let’s examine the other claims of the reviewers; the New Statesman claims this is a “terrific novel”, the Spectator says it is “a page-turner” and the times says The Northern Clemency is “an engrossing and hugely impressive novel.”

Lies!  Gross exaggerations!  Hyperbolic salesmanship at its worst!

Well, maybe that is a little harsh.  But I found this book to be boring.  The characters and story lines that I thought were most interesting were dropped and ignored.  I found The Northern Clemency to be a long-winded family melodrama with no cohesive plot.  The seeds of intrigue planted early in the pages are not cared for, left to wither and die long before you get to the last pages.  Unfortunately, Hensher’s good writing becomes a moot point in his frustratingly uninteresting novel.

*As a side note, it is clearly for an English audience, relying on aspects of modern English history, politics, mining, and daily culture to tell the story.  Since I have no knowledge of any of that, it could be that I was just the very wrong audience for this tale.

This book doesn’t fly

I have been away for a while.  This summer, I started a M.A. program in literature at UC Irvine.  So, even though I haven’t been blogging, I sure have been doing a lot of reading.  Over the 8 weeks of classes this summer, I was reading close to 6 hours a day.  Poems, short stories, novels, research articles; I was reading all of it and when it ended I was a little burned out on reading.  I took a few weeks off where I didn’t touch a book (despite being tired of reading, it was much harder to not read than I would have thought).  But now I am back and am reading regularly.  With that said, here is my latest review.

A great title.

A great concept.

A poorly executed story.
A Once Crowded Sky by Tom King is a disappointment.

Arcadia City, a typical metropolis, is the beneficiary of a plethora of superheroes.  The ultimate fighter of the group is none other than the metal man Ultimate.  His mechanical body makes him the perfect, indestructible, enemy of all things evil.  His sidekick, Penultimate, is an orphaned boy whose fatal wounds were healed when Ultimate fixed him with his own super-powered wires.

But when an evil force requires the ultimate sacrifice, Penultimate becomes the most powerful man on earth.  The trouble is, he isn’t sure he wants the responsibility.  He really just wants an ordinary life with his wife; he is through with the whole superhero business.

The premise is intriguing.  Strange blasts start destroying the city and the superheroes must join together in one last fight, otherwise evil will destroy everything.

The presentation is just as intriguing.  The story occasionally switches from prose to graphic novel style storyboards.  The art is top-notch, and I loved the idea of combining the two story telling styles.  But this book suffers from a very undeveloped plot.  The characters are flat and the conflict is convoluted and confusing.  The unique story telling can’t carry this book, and though I had great hope for it, I can’t recommend this book.

There are Very Bad Men in this world…

and their stories make for very good books.

Becoming an avid reader has introduced me to so many books I don’t think I would have otherwise taken an interest in.  Very Bad Men by Harry Dolan is one of those.  The cover is of an ace of diamonds dripping with a little blood against a gray background.  It is dark, mysterious, kinda gross, and frankly-a little boring.  Not the kind of book I would normally be drawn to.

Which is why I’m glad I gave this book a try.  It was a highly entertaining crime thriller.  It was fast paced, action packed, and believable.  David Loogan is not a cop.  He is an editor of a small crime magazine called Gray Streets but he finds himself being drawn into serial killer Anthony Lark’s world.

Loogan’s involvement begins when he finds a manuscript outside his office door.  The story is about three murders and begins with “I killed Henry Kormoran.”  The difference between this and many other stories is that this manuscript wasn’t fiction.  And so the manhunt begins.

This book is being sold as a sequel to Harry Dolan’s best-selling Bad Things Happen.  And while I haven’t read that one, and don’t think the plot line is impaired as a result, I will look forward to going back and reading it at some point.

Falling into a fairytale

The motif is simple, tried and true: a child climbs into a dark and mysterious attic, finds an old dusty book, opens the covers and is immersed in magical golden light.  The child is then carted off to untold adventures and thrills.  Is that not the fantasy of all young readers?

Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children created for me just that experience.  I had no expectations going in, but very quickly I felt like I was falling into a fairytale, and I loved it. 

As a child, Jacob was thrilled by his grandfather’s tales of a mysterious island, children will magical, special powers, and adventures fighting monsters.  Jacob especially loved the old photographs his grandfather had of some of these children.  Then, of course, as always happens, little boys with quick imaginations grow into rational, disbelieving 16 year-olds.  Jacob comes to learn that the island was a last-ditch effort during World War II by his great-grandparents to save their son.  And the monsters, well, those obviously were the Nazis Grandpa fought in the war.  As for the photographs, they were just cheap parlor tricks.  Believable enough for a kid, but quite transparently fake  for a teenager.

However, when Jacob’s grandfather is horrifically killed, Jacob is forced to reexamine all he knows, or what he thinks he knows.  His search takes him to a foggy fishing village off the coast of Wales, and right into a fantasy adventure of his own.

This was a very enjoyable, quick read of fictional fairytale styled fantasy.  One bonus to this book is that the story is carried along by antique photographs that play well into the story.  This is a fitting book for high school aged readers, but also for adult fiction lovers.  Beware, there is a mild amount of swearing in this book.

Upped my nerd quotient a whole bunch

Pretty much every Monday, when I am going through the routine “how was your weekend?” stuff with my classes, I remind them what a total and complete nerd I am.  My weekend usually goes, as I relate to them, something like this: time with family, at the park, church on Sunday, and lots of reading.  It is beyond them that I choose to spend my free time with a book.

ImageThat is why choosing to spend my free time reading Just My Type by Simon Garfield would be so far beyond their comprehension that I would probably lose what little respect they might have for me.

To warm you up for this, watch this short video:

I think my interest in fonts began when I noticed in the publication information (yes, I read all that junk) that the font of the book was specifically mentioned.  I am aware of many different fonts thanks to Microsoft Word, but I had never thought about the choice that went in to choosing a font for a book publication.  Anyway, that prompted me to buy this book even to the ridicule of my loving parents.

I was hoping this book would be more of a history of printed type.  I had hoped it would describe the evolution of one font to the next.  I had hopped it would detail the differences between the fonts.  Unfortunately for me, it didn’t really do any of that.  I am not the intended audience for this book.  This is a book for dedicated graphic designers, and not a survey for the layman.

There were certain interesting aspects of this book; it did briefly discuss the designer and inspiration for many popular fonts, it had a few funny chapters such as the world’s worst fonts, it showed some details of obscure fonts.  But mostly, reading this book was a labor of love that by the end turned into just plain labor.

Any graphic designers out there?  Give it a try.  Let me know what you think.  For the rest of you, check out something more captivating, like Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.