Book reviews: Year 2019

How to Be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living by Massimo Pigliucci

This works really well as a follow-up to Irvine's "Guide to the Good Life" (and actually references it in a few places.) The book examines some modern issues as well as timeless questions, and uses quotes from Epictetus to look for answers. Insightful.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson

The author can really lay it on thick with the language sometimes, and the speaking in absolutes only, but y'know, I decided not to give a f*ck and to focus on the message instead. The message is good: we only have so much time, attention, energy in this life and we should make sure we spend it on the things that are truly important to us. It's entertainingly packaged, and considering the ideas discussed even when I didn't agree with them made for interesting thinking.

The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson

Breathtaking pace and as usual, a new fascinating kind of magic revealed. It's quite a short book. And another excellent Sanderson fantasy book.

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1) by Martha Wells

Wonderful storytelling. I meant to check out the first couple of chapters only to get a feel for the atmosphere and accidentally started caring about the plot immediately and then got attached to the characters too. A short, cool sci-fi story. You should read it too.

Unf*ck Your Habitat by Rachel Hoffman

This is a really good book if you find cleaning and tidying somewhat overwhelming. There is a quote at the back that starts with "A must-read for people who are terrified by Marie Kondo" and this seems somewhat appropriate! This is a very kind book that recognises that getting our homes to a magazine-photo level of cleanliness is unrealistic for most, because life doesn't work that way and also because of limitations like chronic illnesses, mental illnesses, etc. It's very kind and takes you at whatever level you're at without letting you make excuses to do absolutely nothing either. You can adapt the framework and exercises to what it is you can actually do. It also describes the basics of how to actually clean, which not everyone has necessarily learnt and becomes difficult to ask about or figure out as an adult.

Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

This book came highly recommended to me. The author is a psychiatrist and neurologist who is also a Holocaust survivor. The book talks about logotherapy, spirituality and the search for meaning in life. Unfortunately it wasn't a book for me or at least not for me at this moment. I found the first third quite confusing and sometimes bewildering (the chapter on dream interpretation...), and while I did find interesting insights in the latter part I found it overall quite difficult to approach.

Still, next I'm planning on grabbing his previous book about his life in concentration camps and how this philosophy of life helped him.

Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save The Economy by Elly Blue

A well-researched book on the benefits of cycling with a ton of references, that also made me want to get out and hop onto the bike for a quick cycle at times (a problem as I usually read in bed at night). I didn't realise how much of the content was aimed at a US audience though. I would have thought it doesn't matter, but a lot of the discussions involving numbers, taxes, subsidies, etc, and the overwhelming car culture made me want to skip ahead at times. Still, interesting.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie's foray into fantasy after the wonderful Ancillary Justice doesn't disappoint. Lots of originality in the storytelling style, interesting characters, an intriguing storyline interlaced with good mythology. Gripping. A few of the characters may be somewhat one-dimensional, and some things get resolved a bit quickly at a point in the story, but then the surprises continue to come from there on anyway so I most definitely finished the book feeling satisfied. Massive bonus points as well for a LGBT-friendly fantasy world (not a plot point or storyline or anything - it just is. And that felt damn refreshing.) Also bonus points for a standalone fantasy book!! Although I would be more than happy to read more stories in the same world.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini

Really interesting book, although I think 200 pages would have worked better than 300. The anecdotes are useful to show how these techniques can be used against you but it felt a bit too long toward the end. It's a really good book though. Every chapter describes a different way our instincts can be used and abused by scammers, or just as bad how sometimes we mislead ourselves all on our own. The chapter on social proof was particularly scary: when we are uncertain of the situation we look to strangers for what is the right thing to do, when in fact it's just what they're doing too and so we might let someone die at our feet and walk right past them because if no one else is doing anything, it must not be important.

Most beneficially, every chapter ends with a section on "how to say no" or generally recognise moments when it might be be wise not to trust our instincts, while acknowledging how difficult that can be. I think these sections will be worth a regular re-read.

悪夢の六号室 by Hanta Kinoshita


The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness by Dave Ramsey

I'd heard of Dave Ramsey's personality before reading the book so I was prepared for the loud, idiosyncratic tone. I skipped the paragraphs detailing mechanisms that are only relevant to the US, and enjoyed the book in general. It's the right mix of encouraging, tough, and concrete. You come out of it motivated to look at your debts and assess your lifestyle, and also with a simple (but not easy!) plan for the next steps.

Nymphéas noirs by Michel Bussi

J'ai trouvé le début un peu difficile, la plupart des personnages n'étant pas particulièrement attachants. Mais après la première centaine de pages, certains s'humanisent et d'autres apparaissent pour qui on s'inquiète plus facilement, et le mystère s'épaissit et intrigue énormément. Je ne m'attendais pas du tout au dénouement, et ai trouvé la fin très satisfaisante !

獣の奏者 8 (青い鳥文庫 273-8) by Nahoko Uehashi

I really enjoyed it.

Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez

This is a powerful book. Others probably think the same as I had to wait a year for my hold to come through at the library! It was absolutely worth the wait.

This is not just a book about personal finances. It's a book about life and how to structure yours to match your values. Not in the "follow your passion" kind of unhelpful advice, but at a much deeper level. It addresses consumerism, which destroys not just our finances but also the planet and its limited resources. It aims to help you discover what "enough" means for you - no hard rule that applies to everyone but what makes sense for yourself. Although the exercises are about managing money, all of the questions and advice are connected to life, to the limited amount of hours we have left and helping us figure out how to make them meaningful both personally and in our communities.

I read a lot of this book on public transport and many times I found myself arriving at my stop lost in thought, at the same page for the last 20 minutes. Chewing on the questions, absorbing them and letting them shine a light on dusty corners of my soul; maybe reflecting on the origins of a belief I didn't even know I held, or remembering forgotten feelings and dreams. Much of the content is challenging in the best way possible, and makes you question expectations, beliefs, and other knowledge you may have taken for granted. You may not change your thinking each time, but the thought process will likely bring more clarity to your own answers and values.

The authors recommend reading the book in one go, then starting again at the beginning and doing the exercises this time. Next I plan to get my own copy and slowly work my way through each step. I can't wait to find out where this leads me.

Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living by Elizabeth Willard Thames

One person's tale of slowly realising the traps of consumerism and lifestyle creep, and using frugality to buy freedom and get more enjoyment out of life. Lots of interesting ideas to consider, even if one doesn't personally wish to move into a homestead in the woods.

No et moi by Delphine de Vigan

Des sujets difficiles (les sans-abris, des familles brisées, l'impuissance face à l'injustice...) abordés avec candeur.

A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan, #1) by Arkady Martine

If you like political intrigue, you're in for a treat! I actually don't really, because I always have trouble following who's on who's side and I don't like being suspicious of everyone all the time. I do enjoy getting to know characters and seeing how they interact with each other though, so although some interactions sometimes felt a bit wooden and squeezed in in-between all the plot, that was still a fun read. The best part of all though is the world building. This is great scifi, made even better for a language nerd like me as the protagonist is constantly having to think and interact in a foreign language, the structure of which forces her to adjust the way she thinks (as languages do!). It's great. Also murders and cool tech.

Ireland's House Party by Derek Brawn

A book published in 2009 about the property crisis. It is stats-heavy and I couldn't follow all of it, but it was very interesting and helpful to understand what happened, from multiple angles.

Rome's Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar by Rob Goodman

A balanced and extremely readable account of Cato's life, contrasting the man with the Stoic legend. The book is very approachable even if your knowledge of Ancient Rome is rusty at best. That period of history is really intriguing and I certainly came out of my reading interested in (re-)learning more about a few of the historical figures that show up through the book.

The Mun by Lynn Connolly

I moved to Ireland in 2005 around the time the demolition of the Ballymun flats started and never managed to really understand what was the story except, "it was bad" and "it's good the towers are going away, that stuff doesn't work in Ireland." This short memoir gave me some insights and perhaps a more balanced view than what is usually presented in the media.

On a personal level I also found the comments on life in Ireland in the 70s and 80s really, really interesting. For example it's one thing to know intellectually that divorce was illegal until very recently, but another to be made to understand what that can mean for real people with real lives and feelings. And I won't even talk about the nuns...

Stormdancer (The Lotus Wars, #1) by Jay Kristoff

I really wanted to like this book. Japanese steampunk! How cool does that sound!! Unfortunately the book turned out not to be for me. The worldbuilding starts interesting and fun and then gets really heavy, with more and more once-off Japanese words thrown in for little gain. The book tries so hard to be cool. I could have lived with that, and the random Japanese words creeping into the English dialogue in a way that doesn't flow like Japanese would. The main deal-breaker for me was the attitude of the characters, who turned out to be spunky and rebellious in exactly the same americanised way we see everywhere else. No cultural subtlety or influence on their personality. That made the supposed "Japanese" setting feel tacked on and cheap. I wish the story had been fully set in an original world, I think that would have worked wonderfully.

Profit First: Transform Any Business from a Cash-Eating Monster to a Money-Making Machine by Mike Michalowicz

"Pay yourself first" applied to businesses. A simple concept expanded over perhaps more pages than was really needed, but the author's writing style is entertaining and that gives you more chances to take it all in. Every chapter ends with clear actionable TODOs.

Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries, #2) by Martha Wells

Damn, I love these bots.

Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries, #3) by Martha Wells

I really enjoyed it.

Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries, #4) by Martha Wells

I love Murderbot. That was such a great series. This last book for the diaries is also a bit under 200 pages, so if you don't like reading novellas you could do worse than reading all 4 at once and have an awesome time. There's several great lines in the book I wish I could quote, but I don't want to rob them of their full in-context impact (though I'll just say that Murderbot makes the ultimate sacrifice). Really enjoyable sci-fi story told from a socially awkward security bot's perspective that somehow ends up completely relatable despite all the, you know, ability to kill. I mean, security expertise. Can't wait for the novel next year!

I Will Teach You to Be Rich: No Guilt. No Excuses. No BS. Just a 6-Week Program That Works by Ramit Sethi

I saw this book recommended before but ignored it because of the title. Then I heard several people say that it was similar to "Your Money or Your Life" by Vicki Robin in that it's about determining what a "rich life" means to you and setting up systems to achieve it.

In terms of comparison to Your Money or Your Life, it doesn't really hold a candle. Your Money or Your Life sends you on a soul-searching journey that will leave you raw, while this book kind of assumes you already know what's important to you and that might be getting a latte every day. Which is cool.

The rest of the advice is pretty sound, the usual pay off your debts, earn more, spend less, invest the difference. The book really shines in terms of showing you how to set up a system and automate your savings so that you don't have to think about it anymore. If I lived in the US I'd give the book 5 stars because it really handholds you through everything, which bank or credit card to choose, which financial instruments to invest with, etc. If you're based elsewhere, you need to already know enough to understand what applies to your country, if there's even an equivalent at all (or the different tax implications!) Still I learnt a few things and got motivated enough to make changes to my own system. The book aims to demystify a lot of concepts that people ignore because they sound too complicated.

Not the worst book to start with if you're not sure how to start getting your finances in order! There's a lot of actionable, pragmatic advice in there, broken down into very simple steps.

Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch - Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods by Jennifer Reese

I usually don't review cookbooks because I borrow them, try one or two recipes and then return them, which hardly seems fair. However I did end up reading that one from start to finish, as every recipe has a little story and I found the author's tone delightful.

This book is about whether it is worthwhile to make from scratch a lot of things that we buy every day without thinking or even knowing that it is possible to make yourself. Hence the title. It's not just about cost, every recipe also has a "hassle" factor and some comments about taste. So some recipes are marked as "Make it" even though they're a bit more expensive, and conversely some recipes that turn out cheaper are on the "Buy it" (or "Make it. Once.") side. Like, I think I'm at least 2 decades away from finding the courage to bake croissants, even if they're cheaper and tastier homemade. I wish pastas were easier too.

I made the everyday bread recipe a few days after getting the book (hassle rating: "Can you stir? You can make this bread." I wish every cookbook was this clear and honest.) and it turned out really nice and it was sooooo easy to make. There's a bunch of other strange and wonderful things I never would have thought to try and make, like nutella (no palm oil involved) or vanilla extract. I really like the variety (from how to cure meats to full dinners to desserts to sauces to hotdog buns to hot chocolate to vermouth) and how some of the recipes build on the leftovers of other ones. For example the bread can be made with water, or with the whey leftover from making yoghurt. If your bread starts going stale (not a problem I had yet, though eating an entire loaf in 24 hours will probably bring other issues if I continue.....), there are recipes on how to use that to make bread crumbs or croutons. It's really interesting.

I removed a star because some of the stories handling animals were a bit dismaying (like raising bees beside a tree that's poisonous to them), but I'm probably going to get my own copy. There's more things I want to try, and also it'd be easier to write directly on the book metric translations for the silly american measures. And ingredients sometimes. I had to look up what a cup of "half-and-half" could possibly be :-) (Cream!)

きっと、よくなる! by 本田 健


Who Fears Death (Who Fears Death, #1) by Nnedi Okorafor

I really enjoyed it.

More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age by Antonia Macaro

It was fine.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

I really enjoyed it.

The Princess who Flew with Dragons (Tales from the Chocolate Heart, #3) by Stephanie Burgis

I didn't realise this was the last book of a trilogy when it was recommended to me, but since the protagonist is different from the other two I think it worked quite well stand-alone. This is a sweet coming-of-age story. Bookworms, a cat, humans and goblins and kobolds and dragons discussing philosophy while eating cinnamon rolls, amazing tales of friendship... Short & pleasant.

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1) by N.K. Jemisin

This is a difficult book to read. The worldbuilding isn't handed over to you; you have to piece together the culture, the shape of the world, the history as you follow a bunch of characters around. It's also a lot harsher in terms of themes than I usually go for in my fiction choices. But there was something about the characters and their stories, a raw humanity that just pulled me along even if I had to grit my teeth sometimes, and I cried together with the main character at least once.

I didn't realise this was the first book in a trilogy so the abrupt ending caught me by surprise but damn. I want to know what happens from here on.

The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth, #2) by N.K. Jemisin

I find the world a bit of a struggle to get used to. I'm never quite sure if I'm making the right base assumptions, in a way that's more annoying than "oh, clever worldbuilding." I'm also unclear about the boundary between science-fiction and fantasy but I think that's meant to be this way (stone magic is cool either way). Otherwise my loves and difficulties are the same than in book 1: the humanity of the characters is compelling and sometimes grips you right at the throat, but they all live in a harsh world that makes them harsh and sometimes it feels safer to take a break and just care about the other creatures for a while. Until these also show what the world has made them into, anyway.

The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth, #3) by N.K. Jemisin

This is a trilogy that starts with a mother coming back home to find her 3 year-old beaten to death by her husband, his father. Now the father is missing and so is their daughter. This is a book dedicated "To those who've survived: Breathe. That's it. Once more. Good. You're good. Even if you're not, you're alive. That is a victory." You know you're not working toward a Disney ending, especially after the last two books.

This is a very good story though. And it's not completely hopeless either (I don't think I could have read that). It's not exactly hopeful either. Maybe some? There is something though. Through all the fundamental unfairness of it all, large and small, there is something about the furious humanity, the ferocious will to survive, even when getting up yet another time seems too much, that is very compelling. And that applies to more than just the protagonist, in a world like that one.

The worldbuilding is really interesting. The horror and tragedy are handled compassionately - I'm not sure if that is the right word, but nothing is gratuitous and whenever something really awful happens, like that starting scene in book 1, it is handled like it should be. Again I don't think I could have read a book with scenes like that one otherwise, if these were just plot devices the characters go through. They do what they have to do, and pay the cost that comes with that. From every moment onward.

悪意 [Akui] (加賀恭一郎, #4) by Keigo Higashino




Since a translation exists under the title Malice, might as well write this review in English too!

Another great book that shows off Higashino's talent. Right from the start, every character feels so real it's hard not to feel involved and care about the story.

But I liked it a lot less than his other books. I think there are two reasons. First, normally I'm pretty dumb when reading crime fiction and can't guess at anything until the end. But this time I figured things out from the middle (the title is a big hint) so it was less interesting. And my second reason comes from the title as well: this is not the most positive story and you end up always having to imagine the worst about people. It's tiring. When I read "The devotion of Suspect X" (available in English! Read it!) or "Red fingers" (disponible en français ! Lisez-le !), even though these are murder stories, in my opinion there were a lot more places showing positive human interactions and psychology.

Still a great book though!

Raven Stratagem (The Machineries of Empire, #2) by Yoon Ha Lee

I wish I hadn't waited so long to read this second book in the trilogy. I remember I enjoyed the first one tremendously, but I can't for the life of me remember how it ended - who's an ally, who betrayed who, and other relationships. The narrators and perspective are different this time, which is interesting but means there is no place for book 1 reminders. Online synopsis only mention events, not people. Anyway it's still quite the excellent story and I can't wait to read the next book (without waiting 2 years for it this time), and to be honest the story stands on its own even you forgot. But there was this constant undercurrent of feeling like I should know if someone is lying or what they are up to that added an unnecessary layer of distraction and frustration the whole time.

Revenant Gun (The Machineries of Empire, #3) by Yoon Ha Lee

I really enjoyed it.