Category Archives: book reviews

Book Review: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old ChinaMidnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A friend who lives in Beijing recommended this book to me on the occasion of my visit there. I like to read about places that I plan to visit, so I picked it up eagerly. The atmosphere of pre-war Peking is vividly drawn, the author’s attention to detail is exhaustive, and I found myself caring about Pamela’s fate and wanting to know what happened next. Unlike some other reviewers, however, I found the writing style and pacing to be rough going. The events unfolded in repetitive fashion and since we knew from the get-go that the case remained unsolved, there wasn’t much suspense. The lack of a clear protagonist or viewpoint character added distance, compounding the distance already afforded by time and space.

Parallels beg to be made between the story of Pamela Werner, a complex young girl–both beautiful and dark–who was brutally murdered, and the city of Peking itself with its residents brutalized under wartime occupation. I felt that most opportunities to draw such parallels were missed, although perhaps they were just too subtle for me and my scant knowledge of the history of the period.

In general I thought that the author assumed more historical knowledge than most of his readers are likely to possess. Certain descriptors were repeated so often that they became monotonous, but given little context or explanation. For example, I had to google the term “White Russian.” The entire first page of hits for this term was about a cocktail. Its wikipedia entry is a bit more helpful, but even that claims that the term can refer to one of four different possible groups of people, including members of the “White” movement during the Russian Civil War, ethnically “white” emigres fleeing the Russian Civil War, people from Belarus, or a religious group also called Old Believers. I suspect the author meant the first of those four, but it should have been clearer and made more of a difference. I was also brought up short by the many repeated references to “DCI Dennis” and “ETC Werner.” I would have preferred that these men were referred to by their given names.

While I understand the objections to the evidence collected by Pamela’s father in a study that purports to be objective, I don’t think those concerns matter for the purposes of telling an entertaining story and giving Pamela her small measure of justice. The author admits to being himself convinced by Werner’s evidence; he might as well go all in and not hedge. So, in my opinion, the author should have told the story from Edward Werner’s point of view, and started the narrative from the point where the police gave up on the investigation and Werner picked it up on his own. The false starts and trails gone cold followed by the police could be told in interspersed flashbacks as Werner works the case, confronts the alleged killer in prison, and eventually returns to his home, defeated but in another way unbowed.

The Fox Tower, where Pamela’s body is found, is believed in Peking folklore to be the home of the King of the Fox Spirits. The legend held that on a nocturnal visit to a cemetery, a fox would exhume a deceased body and then balance a skull upon its head. It then bowed reverentially to the God of the North Star. If the skull did not topple from the fox’s head, the fox would be transformed into a spirit who would live for eight to ten centuries.

I enjoyed the stories about the Fox Spirits so much that I plan to visit the tower when I visit Beijing. The book’s website has an interesting and very readable article about the tower, which warns visitors that if you let a Beijing taxi driver know that you want to go to the Fox Tower and “you will be met with a blank look and perhaps a gruff shenme difang’r delivered as a tu hua challenge.” http://us.midnightinpeking.com/pdf/th…

This is just the kind of thing the book itself needed more of.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Little Book of Thomasisms by Marc Townsend

 I received the The Little Book of Thomasisms for review soon after I’d been listed on the Book Review Directory. It is a quick, easy read: a collection of stories told from the point of view of a young man growing up with a brother who has autism. The stories are humorous and the voices of the narrator and his brother both come through quite strongly. After reading this book, I felt that we could all learn both compassion and resilience from Thomas and Marc. It caused me to question, and often to soften, the daily assumptions I make about other people’s intentions and motivations.

Continue reading Book Review: The Little Book of Thomasisms by Marc Townsend

Book Review: The Road to Beaver Mill by Annis Pratt

The Road to Beaver Mill: Volume Three in the Infinite Games SeriesThe Road to Beaver Mill: Volume Three in the Infinite Games Series by Annis Pratt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book begins with an interesting set-up. I was especially taken with the author’s stated goal in writing the Infinite Games series: to show what happens to a society when its environment is degraded. Her blog, linked here, says that Infinite Games is the story of the Marshlanders’ struggle to create  communities in harmony with nature.  Continue reading Book Review: The Road to Beaver Mill by Annis Pratt

Book Review: The Winter Knife by Laramie Sasseville

The Winter Knife (Minnesota Strange Book 1)The Winter Knife by Laramie Sasseville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good YA literature will stay with me long after I am finished with it, even as an adult. I would have been in the prime target audience for this book when I was a teenager, and I would have devoured it (pun intended). The story was a pleasant surprise on several levels. First, the author has a real gift for character and voice, especially with young teens. She manages to tell a fantastical story without talking down or condescending to her audience, while at the same time not going to any of the despairing, hopeless, or crazy places I feared she might be heading with the supernatural element.  Continue reading Book Review: The Winter Knife by Laramie Sasseville

Book Review: Catalyst Moon: Incursion by Lauren L Garcia

Incursion (Catalyst Moon #1)Incursion by Lauren L. Garcia

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the first installment of an enjoyable saga, Catalyst Moon. I don’t read many series, though, and this book reminds me of why. Incursion does a good job of setting up the characters, the world, and the conflicts, but the pace is leisurely and once things are really getting going, the book ends. I might read the next one, but I have so many other things to read in the meantime that it will be months if not years until I get around to it. I don’t believe this book stands on its own.

Continue reading Book Review: Catalyst Moon: Incursion by Lauren L Garcia

Book Review: The Moon by Whale Light, by Diane Ackerman

The Moon by Whale Light and Other Adventures Among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians and WhalesThe Moon by Whale Light and Other Adventures Among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians and Whales by Diane Ackerman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is an appealing, attractively packaged collection of four essays on animal behavior, all of which originally appeared in the New Yorker. While the subject matter is interesting and entertaining, reading this book can be even more educational if attention is paid to what it reveals about current perceptions of scientists and issues of “animal rights” in the general media.

Continue reading Book Review: The Moon by Whale Light, by Diane Ackerman

Book Review: A Gleam of Light by TJ and ML Wolf

A Gleam of Light (The Survival Trilogy #1)A Gleam of Light by T.J. Wolf

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Gleam of Light has many of the elements of a first-rate thriller: a sympathetic protagonist, mystery, conflict, and a fascinating backdrop. It’s clear that a great deal of thought and research has gone into this book. These elements, however, need to be put together differently to keep the reader really turning its pages.

Continue reading Book Review: A Gleam of Light by TJ and ML Wolf

Book Review: Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey

Author’s Note: Anne McCaffrey was one of my favorite authors as a teen. A high school friend gave me a copy of Dragonflight and I was hooked. But as time went on and I read more of the series I started to see its flaws. I wrote this review in college, when I was closer to both my love of and irritation with the books. Years later, I read the Harper Hall trilogy to my daughter, who enjoyed it but who never showed any inclination to pick up McCaffrey’s work on her own. The Harper Hall trilogy probably remains my favorite of all of McCaffrey’s work.

Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern (Pern, #7)Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you enjoyed Anne McCaffrey’s previous six Pern books, you’ll probably enjoy this one. If you were getting tired of meeting the same characters with different names or beginning to get frustrated by the discrepancy between the books’ potential and what they actually delivered, Moreta will be more of the same.

Continue reading Book Review: Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey

Book Review: Tales From Alternate Earths

Tales From Alternate EarthsTales From Alternate Earths by Daniel M. Bensen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked this idea for an anthology and even though the premise is popular and often tried, I was intrigued to pick it up and explore the stories. My favorites were “Twilight of the Mesozoic Moon,” which also had the best title and the most imaginative characters, and “The Secret War,” which provided a unique twist to a story I already thought I knew something about.

Continue reading Book Review: Tales From Alternate Earths

Book Review: They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different by Shiela Tobias

This review was first written in 1992, and I wonder how much has changed. The projected shortfall in scientists has not come to pass. It is more difficult than ever for PhDs to get jobs in science. But the challenge of public scientific literacy remains.

***

They're Not Dumb, They're Different: Stalking the Second TierThey’re Not Dumb, They’re Different: Stalking the Second Tier by Sheila Tobias

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This independently funded book, called an “occasional paper,” probably isn’t available in the local bookstore. I came across a largely favorable review of it in Science magazine, and sent for a copy. It addresses the question “what turns people off science?”

Continue reading Book Review: They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different by Shiela Tobias