Book Reviews I’ve Written

Following are a few of the books for which I have written a book review. They are grouped into a number of loose categories.

Literary Fiction

A Dream of the Red Mansion 樓夢
Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹

(for advanced Chinese language learners)

This is the most renowned Chinese classic novel that has been extensively discussed and intensively studied worldwide. I’ve only read the book in Chinese, and therefore cannot comment on the merits or readability of the translated versions. With a multitude of allusions and references to traditional literature, political system and the customs and ways of life in the old days of China, I can imagine what a huge task it must have been for the translators to translate such a master piece to another language. In fact, consensus cannot be reached even among the Chinese scholars with respect to the interpretation of certain details in the book or the intentions and purpose of its author. On the surface, the story revolves around the innocent feelings of love between two young adults living on the same compound (the red mansion) of a prominent Chinese family during the Qing Dynasty. This is what the film adaptations are able to show to the audience. However, one will have to read the book to appreciate the deeper meanings the author wished to relay, how he criticized in a covert way the political corruption, the extravagance and decay of the government, and how he bemoaned the emptiness and shortness of human life. The readers cannot help but marvel at the literary genius of the author when they come across the poems composed by the characters in the book, when they see how intricately the multitude of characters and interrelated elements are woven into the fabric of the tale, and when they realize how this novel embodies the very essence of the Buddhist philosophy.

Don Quijote
Pierre Groussac

(Book review posted on amazon.com)

He who reads much and travels much sees and knows a great deal.Cervantes

This is a Spanish-English bilingual book, in which each paragraph in Spanish is followed by a paragraph in English displayed in a different font. As I don’t speak Spanish, I’ve only read the English text. However, I think this is excellent reading material for a Spanish-speaking person who wants to learn English, or vice versa, because it covers such a wide range of subject matters. Via the vehicle of the world-renowned story of a crazed but noble-minded gentleman the author, Miguel de Cervantes, expresses his view points on writing, publishing, religion, knighthood, beauty, love, marriage, friendship, prejudice, slavery, foods, and what not. In addition, loads of proverbs and folk sayings are sprinkled here and there throughout the book. Although you might find faults with some of the repetitions and inconsistencies in this book, the author’s congenial voice and tone will make you want to keep on reading. And at the end, you will be rewarded with a sense of accomplishment as well as a reawakening of your sentiments about the purpose of life, the ideals you’re pursuing, as well as your personal successes and failures.

The Corn Standard
Dennis Myers

(Book review posted on amazon.com)

Be careful what you wish for.

In a style reminiscent of that of James Joyce, this thought-provoking literary fiction demands attentive reading. Lucien, a young small-claims lawyer from Indianapolis takes on the task of delivering a “cease and desist” order to Iowa, where presidential campaigns are actively taking place. The story is set in a future dystopian era, but it appears that many of the follies of contemporary and past politics have carried over, giving the author ample opportunity to sprinkle mockery and ridicules throughout the book in good humor. Lucien is met with red tapes and gets mixed up with a number of crucial local characters. In the end, he accomplishes the mission not only on a personal level but also in the grand scheme of things. At times you might get the feeling of reading a detective story in which clues are thrown at you from various angles. And when they finally converge, the surprising grand finale might leave you speechless.

The Bless Me, Father Series Books 1–5
Neil Boyd

(Book review posted on amazon.com)

Lunchtime will be a happy hour for many days to come

Half way through reading the preview, I decided I must get this book series. At about 5% into it, I already felt I should tell my fellow readers about it. And then the good-natured humor keeps pouring out of the pages, as the author shares his keen observations of human foibles through wise-cracks that elicit knowing smiles or bursts of laughter. Through hilarious dialogues among lively and lovable characters, this book manifests diverse social experiences as well as ample accumulated spiritual and worldly wisdom. It won’t matter to me how the story will end (how I wish it won’t), because it appears that each segment is a self-contained clever and amusing episode in itself. It tickles me to know that I can look forward to many an enjoyable lunch hour reading this book, which is indeed a godsend during this dispiriting pandemic lock-down period. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Mathematics and Science

Infinite Powers
Steven Storgatz

(Book review posted on amazon.com)

Beauty is truth, truth beauty (John Keats)

What a treat! This book contains so many interesting anecdotes about my idols in mathematics and physics. I’m quite sure my college professors were also not aware of these stories about Archimedes, Fermat, Descarates, Newton, Gauss and other giants in these fields. With his excellent communication skills, the author makes this book easy to read and the calculus concepts explored easy to understand. He delves into the origin of differential calculus and talks a little about integral calculus. It is obvious that, because this book is directed at non-mathematicians, the author has made an effort not to overwhelm the readers with the mechanics of solving differential equations. Rather, he places the emphasis on the tremendous impact of this important branch of mathematics on science (the understanding of nature) as well as its fascinating applications to help solve real-life problems in technology, health and society. I think this book should be an inspiring read for high school and college math students. It can also equip high school and college math teachers with fascinating background information and thought-provoking insights to share with their students.

Alice and Bob Meet the Wall of Fire
Editor: Thomas Lin

(Book review posted on amazon.com)

This is the beginning, not the end.

I look back fondly at those few occasions in my childhood when my father and I were walking home under a moonlit and star-studded night sky. Instead of telling me the story about the moon fairy, my father encouraged me to wonder about the vastness of the universe and to admire its magnificence. Thus the seed of an interest in science was planted. I often think about the current finding that our universe does not appear to have a boundary. I’m also curious about what causes some vines to spiral clockwise around their support, while others twine counterclockwise. Ultimately, I want to know what turns a cell, which is fundamentally a collection of molecules and atoms, into a living organism. The infinite wisdom packed into the complex workings of the human body is beyond fascinating.

As the articles in this book show, great efforts on the part of the finest minds have been applied toward the research on such topics in science, much of which is supported by government funds. Anyone could come up with any hypothesis about how certain things work, but the predictions of the hypothesis must pass rigorous scientific testing to establish the hypothesis as a valid theory or law of nature. Without having to skim through complicated mathematical formulas and equations, I can sit back and review the triumphs and failures in scientific studies that parade across the pages of this book. From time to time I encounter an unfamiliar term or concept. When I look up that particular subject on the Internet, I often find much interesting information that I normally would not have come across.

Having previously read a few of the articles in the Quanta Magazine, I am already aware of the excellent writing skills and reporting styles of the individual science journalists. What’s special in this well organized collection is that it presents a coherent tale that has taken me along the scientists’ quest for knowledge about our universe from the infinitesimally small all the way to the infinitely large. I think, if you are a student of science, reading this book could help you see more clearly how your study fits into the larger picture. Reading this book will also enable you to realize that much remains to be done to further our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. May you endeavor to become the one to help break through the current bottleneck in fundamental science.

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh
Carl Zimmer
(Book review posted on amazon.com)
Informative, inviting and thought-provoking

Carl takes you into a theater that presents a four-dimensional panoramic view of the development of our understanding of heredity. I am amazed by the vivid details provided in the innumerable relevant anecdotes, including one about the unpublicized personal struggle of Pearl S. Buck, author of The Good Earth. I think these interesting stories as well as Carl’s account of how the genome-sequencing technology has impacted himself serve to draw the reader into a subject that otherwise could be dry or formidable to read or think about. The spotlight shines on heredity from many different angles, helping the readers see the connections to all aspects of human existence. The suspense of how the Homo sapiens might employ the newfound powerful tools to rescue or destroy the world will grip the readers hard when they realize that they are actually at the center stage of this evolutionary drama.

Nikola Tesla: Imagination and the Man That Invented the 20th Century

Sean Patrick
(Book review posted on amazon.com)
Inspiring and informative

It would be a tall order to really delve into the inventive mind of a genius like Tesla. Therefore I can see why the author places the emphasis on pointing out that Tesla’s extraordinary power of imagination and memory played a crucial role in his creativity. The faculties of imagination and memory are unique characteristics of intelligent beings. To some degree we all possess the capability to imagine and to remember. Otherwise, a writer would not be able to put together a novel, an artist would not be able to complete a painting, a musician would be able to compose a song, and you and me would not be able to anticipate joyfulness at the next family reunion. In this book the author makes an effort to encourage us to cultivate and develop our imagination. He presents the life story of Tesla to show us to what heights imagination could take a person. While reading the story, we also come to realize that perseverance is also very important in helping a person achieve his or her goal. I think this book is a beneficial quick read, especially for middle and high school students. I have included a link to it in one of my blog posts.

History

Women’s Letters
Lisa Grunwald and J. Adler
(Book review posted on amazon.com)
Fascinating

I normally wouldn’t attempt reading a book this size for leisure. However, with “Women’s Letters”, each individual letter is a story in itself, a convenient stopping point, and a new window into the lives of real people in the American history.

Thank you, Lisa Grunwald and J. Adler, for compiling, editing and preserving this precious collection of letters for all of us.

An Unnecessary Woman
Rabbih Alameddine
(Book review posted on amazon.com)
Written with the art of a literary talent and the clarity of an engineer.

Don’t be scared off by the mentioning of book translations and the multitude of allusions and references to literary works. This book is about people of flesh and blood much like you and me. The author writes very well and has excellent storytelling skills. He chisels out his characters bit by bit and lets Aaliya reveal them to us little by little. I believe no more than three days have transpired from the beginning to the end of the book. The plethora of philosophy, literature and life stories the author is able to pack into these few days is mind-boggling. It is a delight to read a book that was written with the art of a literary talent and the clarity of an engineer. Under the author’s pen, post-war Beirut comes alive as an organic entity that you can see, feel and smell. With tongue in cheek, I’d say that the moral of the story is: Reading and translating literature are unnecessary to living a real life. Study engineering! 🙂

Eminent Victorians – Cardinal Manning – Florence Nightingale – Dr. Arnold – General Gordon
Lytton Strachey
(Book review posted on goodreads.com)
A view into the lives and mental journeys of four eminent Victorians

I downloaded this book mainly to read more about my childhood idol Florence Nightingale, but I ended up learning more than I cared to about the English Catholic Church and their education system. The depiction of Florence Nightingale as a mostly stern and uncompromising person surprised me not a little. However, it did not diminish the high respect I have toward her. Rather, it has drawn me closer to her by deepening my understanding of her personality and abilities. It has also enabled me to see how her strong drive and dedication propelled her toward her admirable accomplishments. What surprised me even more was that, of the four biographies in this book, I found the story of General Gordon the most absorbing. While all the four Victorians shared a serious personality and possessed virtues of earnestness and persistence, the life experience of General Gordon was simply fabulous. At high school I did read a few lines about General Gordon in our history book, but nothing prepared me for this fascinating tale. As with the other eminent Victorians featured in this book, the author brought General Gordon to life by giving the reader a rare view of his mental journey.

Under the Light of the Italian Moon
Jennifer Anton
(Book review posted on amazon.com)

A seamless combination of history and family memoir

Charming Italian small-village culture, everyday life in a sizable family, sibling rivalry, the rare enduring love between a faithful husband and equally faithful wife, the changes in society under an overzealous leader, as well as the atrocities of war, all are skillfully depicted in this memoir/historical novel. Under the author’s masterful pen, the entire village of Fonzaso and its inhabitants come to life. Particularly impressive are the main characters Nina, her strong-minded mother Adelasia and her loving husband Pietro. Historical events appear to be much more tangible when we can see them through the eyes of the characters we care about and feel their impact through the character’s personal experiences. Overall this has been an enjoyable and educative read. It could have been tightened somewhat by cutting out a number of details. My own historical fictions tend to be on the terse side. Perhaps a median can be found somewhere in between?

Art and Music

The Practice and Science of Drawing
Harold Speed
(Book review posted on amazon.com)
A book to treasure

This is the best book on drawing and painting that I have come across. I am amazed at how well the author was able to put in words what I thought was intuition and could only be felt. The clear analysis and thorough explanations provided in this book have opened my eyes. It will be difficult if not impossible to find such a knowlegeabel, skillful and patient teacher in real life. I agree it is rather cumbersome to page forward and backward on a Kindle to find the illustrations referred to in the text, and I do hope there will be a version available in the future with a much better reproduction of the artwork.

Middle-grade and Young Adult

Treasure Island

Robert Louis Stevenson

One of my favorite classics in English literature

As a kid I read an abridged Chinese version of Treasure Island. Even though I was not a boy, this story about pirates and treasures captivated my imagination. Later, after reading the full English version, I was able to better appreciate the literary merits of this novel and understand why it had become the most famous adventure story in the world.

The plot of this novel is fantastic yet plausible. The twists and turns lead to a surprise ending, and the answer to a puzzling question is kept under wraps until near the end. The characters are people in blood and flesh, walking and talking the way they are supposed to in real life. From the coarse language and sea chants of the buccaneers, one can readily conjure up images of those rough and tough ruffians and visualize the brutality and violence that is part of their lives. By contrast, Dr. Livesey’s sagacity and kindness and Captain Smollett’s discipline and loyalty command the readers’ respect.

The main character, a teenager named Jim, is also the main narrator of the story. Twice he leaves his group to embark on his own escapades, but who can blame him? Boys will be boys. Besides, had he stayed with the group, he would not have discovered the marooned Ben Gunn. Nor would he have fallen into the hands of the pirate chieftain, Long John Silver, who is the most sophisticated and intriguing character in this novel. When this cunning “seafaring man with one leg” smiles, one would wonder what treachery hides beneath his warm appearance. And when he speaks, one could almost hear the duplicitous thoughts churn in his evil mind. The image of this cruel and crafty pirate will be imprinted on the minds of the young and old readers and never be forgotten.

The author also depicts the settings in great detail so that one can see clearly the backdrops against which the actions take place. The actual location of the buried treasures is roughly indicated on a hand sketched map, complete with riddle-like directions and enigmatic hints. I think it is clever for the author to include a parrot in the story, and the idea of letting it keep watch while the pirates sleep at night is nothing short of a stroke of genius. The only minor fault I could find with this novel is the lengthy account of how the high waves thrust Jim about while he was riding the coracle. Those pages do not help the story along, but they do serve to showcase the author’s mastery as a writer The vivid descriptions nearly made me dizzy.

I highly recommend this novel to middle school and high school students as well as anyone who appreciates excellent literature. The fact that the book was not written in contemporary English does not detract from its value but lends a special charm to the story. I chose to purchase this particular edition as a gift for a youngster because of the helpful annotations and illustrations as well as the nice layout and easy-to-read font. The information provided in the front matter of the book is also a big plus.

By the Great Horn Spoon
Sid Fleischman

(Book review posted on amazon.com)

Entertaining and Educative

This is the wittiest and funniest children’s book I’ve come across. Reading this book together with the youngster provided an excellent opportunity for him to learn about the California Gold Rush. Adults and children alike have much to learn from the resourceful praiseworthy butler.

Louis Braille: The Boy Who Invented Books for the Blind
Margaret Davidson

(Book review posted on amazon.com)

Informative and very well written

This book draws the reader into the extraordinary life of Louis Braille, starting from his childhood. It enables you to experience what Louis went through and also how he felt. Now whenever I see or think about the Braille symbols in an elevator, admiration arises anew from my heart for Louis, who dedicated most of his life to the education of the visually impaired.

The London Eye Mystery
Siobhan Dowd

(Book review posted on amazon.com)

An educative and fun read

I, as a grownup, enjoyed reading this book. The main character is a 12-year old boy named Ted. Through the first-person narrative and the dialogues, we come to realize that Ted is afflicted with a high-functioning form of autism. Ted does not like to be touched. He flaps his hand when he feels nervous. He is exceptionally knowledgeable about meteorology but has some issues with communicating with people because he lacks common sense and also tends to interpret idioms and expressions verbatim. The author skillfully utilizes this fact to introduce to the younger readers a number of meteorological terms as well as a bunch of idioms and popular sayings. Although the mystery in the story is a bit contrived, I think kids will learn from Ted how to employ deductive reasoning to solve a problem. All of the other characters in this book are also well portrayed. Expect to chuckle at the humor sprinkled throughout this book.

Books for the Very Young

Cat and Rat

Melinda Thompson

(Book review posted on amazon.com)

Eureka! Exactly what I need.

I’ve been thinking about putting together a simple reader for a four-year-old who has recently mastered the 26 letters in the English alphabet and is now able to call out the letters in the words we show him. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I came across this series of Budding Reader books. Cat and Rat starts by presenting a series of illustrations to let the parent and the child tell the story in their own words. Then a number of relevant printed words were gradually introduced in successive short sentences that build on the previous sentences. Repetition and association reinforce memorization. Pretty soon the child realizes that he or she is actually able to read a book by themselves! This eBook includes a link to the Budding Reader website, from which you could download and print out the “writing practice” and “write your own book” worksheets, which are excellent resources for learning to write. As an extra bonus, the black and white “write your own book” worksheets could be used as coloring book.

Bubbles: Big Stink in Frog Pond

Ben Woodart

(Book review posted on amazon.com)

Kids learn a lesson through laughter

This is a cute story that teaches young kids a lesson in social behavior. Nice for parents to read together with their kids. The text could be enlarged somewhat.

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