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Category: book reviews

Postcard Set Review #8: Grandma’s Dead by Amanda McCall & Ben Schwartz

I found this book of postcards on the bargain shelf of a bookstore in Washington state for $4. It was a book of postcards with cute baby animals in it and it was cheap so of course I bought it. Unfortunately, a closer reading of the captions revealed that some of these “jokes” were more mean than funny, too adult, and on occasion outright offensive. This was published back in 2008, so you can see that in just ten years, the humor has already become somewhat dated.

As physical postcards, these were annoying. There was a printed dotted line for each postcard showing where they should be detached, but there was no perforation–I had to actually cut them out. The paper these were printed on was too glossy. Regular ball point pens could not write on them–the paper only made indentations where I tried to write because the ink couldn’t stick to it. Ink from gel pens beaded up and smeared. The only type of pen that even remotely worked was a sharpie.

I think this postcard book should just have been retitled as “Postcards from Hell”.

Postcard Set Review #7: Have a Little Pun – 30 Postcards by Frida Clements

I think what caught my eye first about Have a Little Pun are the whimsical illustrations rather than the puns. I thought they were quite fun and they would be perfect to send to people who have a whimsical sense of humor, like puns, and like illustrations. I would not send these to “serious” postcard collectors because not only are they not of “collectible” subjects (i.e. tourist postcards, trains, vintage, etc.) and these are oversized postcards.

In terms of the quality of the postcards, I would say it’s pretty high. The cardstock is very sturdy and is typical of the publisher (Chronicle Books) which is also known for publishing many well known postcard boxes including all of the Disney ones. Unlike some other postcard books, each postcard can easily be removed without any perforations since this is held together with padding glue.

Postcard Set Review #5: American Impressionism by Pomegranate Communications

This book of postcards is no flash in the pan–the most recent edition that I bought from the local Half Price Books was in fact the “11th edition” (i.e.  the 2014 edition)–which I will be reviewing separately because it is quite different from the older versions. This particular post is about the 2007 edition and I’ve included scans of this below. Anyways, I really do enjoy impressionism as an art style and as a movement. I am the most familiar with impressionism in music–particularly Debussy and Ravel because I played their piano pieces when I was a teenager. It’s a bit dreamy and romantic, almost otherworldly.

American impressionism has it’s own twist. I find it more bold, brash, and bright.  The artists featured in this postcard book are not as well known. (You can see the list of them here.) But that doesn’t mean that their talent doesn’t come across as well. But if you’re looking for John  Singer Sargent or Mary Cassatt, you may need to look elsewhere (like the newer edition). The selection for the 2007 edition, I feel, is lackluster at best. There are some bucolic scenes that might put one in a deep sleep rather than a dreamy awareness.

In terms of practicality, this is a Pomegranate postcard book, so it’s your typical oversized tear-out postcards with sturdy yet glossy card stock. Compared to other Pomegranate postcard books, it’s not particularly outstanding. If you’re trying to find that postcard with a wow factor, it’s not here. If you specifically want American impressionist paintings with wow factor, definitely check out the newer edition. But they are perfectly acceptable to send if you don’t want to offend anyone.

Postcard Set Review #4: Cats by Browntrout Publishers

Before all you cat lovers frantically search on your favorite bookseller’s website for this title, I want to let you know that this one is currently out of print. Cats is a book of 30 postcards taken by a variety of photographers and collected into this set by Browntrout Publishers back in 1995 (over a quarter of a century ago!) which I obtained from one of my favorite used bookstores in the Mission District for $3. I’ll also save you the trouble of looking for the publisher’s website because Browntrout has apparently transitioned to mostly making calendars and planners. The only postcards that will be available from them will feature Billie Eilish so if you’re a fan of hers, yay for you?

Anyways, back to Cats. It’s a really great photographic collection of cats in various states of repose. Similar to other postcard books by other publishers, the card stock is slick so you have to be careful writing with pens. Let the ink dry before moving it around too much or it will smear. I  usually send these to people who like cats but don’t have any other interests that I can match with any other postcards I have on hand.

Postcard Set Review #2: Lost Ocean by Johanna Basford

I’m afraid how I obtained this particular set of postcards was rather more prosaic. I saw Lost Ocean on sale at Target and I bought it. That’s pretty much it.

In general, I don’t like coloring. I know for others, it’s a calming activity. For me, it’s the opposite. I find myself too constrained by coloring within the lines and picking an acceptable color scheme. It’s just putting color on art that someone else has already created. Coloring to be the grunt work to be done after the creative people are done with it. But those are my own hang-ups about coloring. That doesn’t mean that other people can’t enjoy what I find distasteful.

Anyways, with coloring postcards, I always send them as is and I figure the recipient can color them however they wish. Lost Ocean seemed to be a fun theme as themes go. However, I do know that some postcard enthusiasts insist that it is the sender who must color the postcard before sending. The rationale is that the sender must put in their own effort into the postcard that they send. For me, I’m willing to put in any effort except coloring. My rationale is that once I send a postcard, it belongs to the recipient. And if a coloring postcard is sent to someone, why shouldn’t they be the ones coloring it? After all, it’s theirs.

Postcard Set Review #1: Wildflowers of California by A.R. Valentien

I’ve been thinking for a while about a series of reviews on postcard sets (books, boxes, or otherwise) that I’ve bought and personally used to send to other people. While these reviews will be more like “lightning” reviews and the frequency would be sporadic, it’s more for my own documentation and edification. Feel free to skip to the pictures below if you don’t feel like reading blather.

Several years ago, when I was still living in San Diego, I was browsing the gift shop of the San Diego Natural History Museum and came across this postcard book: Wildflowers of California. I was just beginning my postcard hobby at the time and this seemed like a pretty good deal, getting an entire book of postcards rather than purchasing them one at a time at a dollar a piece. I didn’t think too much about the artist or the subject matter at the time, only that I liked it because I like nature illustrations in general and flowers seemed like a fairly inocuous thing to mail to other random people without possibly offending any sensibilities.

This was also where I first encountered something that was published by Pomegranate–which I later learned also made a lot of other stationary and specialized in printing postcard books of fine art that could be found in a number of different museums. There’s definitely a certain style to postcards printed by Pomegranate. The card stock for postcard books is durable but slippery. I’m always afraid that any ink will smudge if it gets wet and the surface is not good for writing with ballpoint pens which require a rougher surface.
It was only later that I learned who Albert Robert Valentien was and why I was only able to find this postcard book at the San Diego Natural History Museum. It’s a shame that it’s too difficult to find a copy online and another shame that Valentien never saw his work (which took a decade to finish!) get published. His illustrations are really quite wonderful.

The TBR of “Shame”

A recent YouTube video that popped up for me as a recommendation was “Pile of Shame Reading Vlog || Books with Emily Fox.  It’s not so much the books that are depicted in the video but the idea that everyone has books lying around that they’ve started but not finished that had piqued my interest. I have a lot of books which I’ve started and not finished, but I thought I’d list some of them here. For the sake of not boring everyone to tears, I’ve limited this list to non-fiction, plus one fiction book that is masquerading as non-fiction.

  • Jewels: A Secret History by Victoria Finlay – I’m actively reading this one right now. Each section of the book is divided up by gem by increasing hardness on the Mohs scale. It’s a mix of history, science, folklore, and personal anecdotes all rolled into a mix that somehow works. It’s all very interesting and easy reading.
  • Shinto: A History by Helen Hardacre – I bought this book before going on my trip to Japan last year because I knew I would be visiting a lot of temples and shrines. Unfortunately, I’m not even halfway through it yet. The writing is very academic, but I’m still interested. I’m reading this in parallel with Jewels, but this one is quite a bit more slow going.
  • Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen – This book is so relevant with COVID-19 right now, but I actually started this book much earlier. I really do like Quammen’s writing, but at the moment, between reading papers for work on infectious disease and this book–I’d prioritize the papers. And while I find the subject fascinating, reading this just feels like more work at the moment. If you find this interesting too but don’t have time to read this, I recommend watching Joe Scott’s interview with David Quammen.
  • Feeding a Thousand Souls: Women, Ritual, and Ecology in India – An Exploration of the Kolam by Vijaya Nagarajan – I bought this book right after hearing the author speak about her experience with the ritual of kolam in India. It bears a striking resemblance to other magical customs around the world using signs to invoke protection and luck. I’ve never heard about kolam before this but I’m always up for learning about superstition and folklore and how it relates to the societies that come up with them.
  • The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair – This book is divided up by different colors with lots of trivia about those particular colors. I got halfway through and then got distracted by other things. It’s supposed to be a quick read, so I need to get on this.
  • Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova – This is a mix of memoir and travelogue, reporting and essay. The author travels back to where she spent her childhood, in the confluence of Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece. There’s some absolutely wonderful writing in here and I can’t wait to get back to this one once I’ve finished the books I’m actively reading.
  • Cyclonopedia: Complicity by Anonymous Materials by Reza Negarestani – This is a horror novel masquerading as someone’s lost thesis. It’s weird and bonkers at the same time and definitely not something you can breeze through in one sitting. There’s something really compelling about it too, so I’ll be slowly inching towards the end no matter how long it takes.
  • Magic and Mystery in Tibet by Alexandra David-Neel – I am very much aware that this is viewed through the eyes of a French woman in the 1920s, but considering her scholarly achievements in Asia and Buddhism, she’s possibly a better narrator than, say, a random white dude barging into a culture they have no experience with. This has apparently served as inspiration for a number of writers in the Beat Generation so it would be good background reading.

TBR Pile #3 – Dreamland by David K. Randall

Note: The TBR Pile series of posts aren’t strictly book reviews. It’s my excuse for writing a rambling blog post. While it will contain some of my thoughts about the book, I’ll may digress into other topics.

I really enjoy reading popular science books, mostly because if anything I get to learn something from them. Especially if the book’s subject is outside of my expertise. And if I get entertained by the author’s anecdotes and storytelling ability, that’s a bonus. In David K. Randall’s Dreamland, I got to learn all about the science of sleep.

What I found the most fascinating was that much of sleep is cultural. It’s not just about sleeping in separate beds because of middle-class morality or the lack of study in dreams because it’s considered woo. It’s also habit, too. Babies in different countries sleep in different ways. Type of mattress actually doesn’t make a lick of difference in sleep quality. What matters most is consistency, not the type of sleep habit one engages in.

But despite all the sleep labs and pharmaceutical companies touting their solutions for insomnia, there’s still a lot that we don’t know about sleep. I think this is just part of the bigger problem: that we still don’t know much about the brain.

One caveat, though. Randall is a reporter and not a doctor or scientist. He initially got into the topic because he had a problem with sleepwalking and much of the book, I feel, delved into the historical and societal implications of sleep. I would have liked a lot more science (especially since the book was billed as a discussion on the science of sleep)–particularly the neuroscience behind the phenomenon of sleep and the biochemistry used for the drugs that manipulate sleep. But then again, that may just be me. I’m not afraid of reading the technical details about this stuff. The general public, however, would probably be bored to sleep.

TBR Pile #2 – The Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn

Note: The TBR Pile series of posts aren’t strictly book reviews. It’s my excuse for writing a rambling blog post. While it will contain some of my thoughts about the book, I’ll may digress into other topics.

Okay, so my attempt at posting more regularly by writing about my to-be-read pile is not going as smoothly as I’d like. For one thing, I’m pretty busy with work stuff and I just haven’t found all that much free time to devote to reading. And another thing, despite my higher expectations for Shinn’s The Shape of Desire, this has turned out to be a dud. It was even less interesting to me than the first book on the TBR pile. So much so that I’ve decided to give up on it after page 70. Because I really don’t want to waste my time trying to slog through the rest of the book when there’s other stuff I could be reading.

Of course, the book could be absolutely awesome in the latter half. But I don’t have the patience for that. If an author is going to put out a book, it really should hook me from the beginning. I mean, it doesn’t have to be utterly brilliant straight in the first chapter, but it has to have something there in order to make me think, “Hey, something cool might be going on, I’ll read further.” For this book, it really did not help that it was in first person and the main character was an emotional wuss. It didn’t even matter if interesting stuff was happening around her, being in this main character’s head was straight up Boringsville. I don’t have to like the character–I’ve read first person stories before where the main character was a total asshole and yet I couldn’t wait to turn the next page to see what the hell was going to happen next–but the character has to be compelling. This character was not compelling.

Anyways, I am pretty disappointed. I enjoyed all of Sharon Shinn’s Samaria novels and a number of her short stories and novellas, but I didn’t find this urban fantasy novel on that same level. My only consolation is that I got this book at a used book store so I won’t have any qualms about returning it. Maybe the next reader will find it more to their liking.

The next book on the pile is the first book in Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series, The Ruby in the Smoke. And since sometimes I’m more in the mood for non-fiction, I will also be reading Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall at the same time. I started Dreamland about six months ago, but then things got busy and I kind of forgot about the book until now.

TBR Pile #1 – Sixty-One Nails by Mike Shevdon

Note: The TBR Pile series of posts aren’t strictly book reviews. It’s my excuse for writing a rambling blog post. While it will contain some of my thoughts about the book, I’ll may digress into other topics.

At the moment, my bookshelves are mostly unorganized. I say “mostly” because all the fiction books are together and all the non-fiction books are together, but that’s it. I haven’t really had time to organize them alphabetically. So when I made this year’s goal of trying to reduce my to-be-read pile, I simply started by picking the book that was closest to me. And that happened to be the urban fantasy novel Sixty-One Nails by Mike Shevdon. It was first published in 2009, which was approximately when I bought it, randomly at the bookstore. (Yes, I’m one of those people who sometimes buys random books at bookstores.) There are a lot of books on my TBR pile that I bought randomly simply because the back cover blurb sounded interesting.

Unlike a lot of people, I would rather not read series. And I thought this was a standalone since there was no indication on the cover otherwise. So I was rather surprised when I got to the end and there was an excerpt for a sequel. And according to the author’s website, this was simply the first in a quartet. In any case, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to continue on with the series. The first hundred pages was a bit of a slog before the plot picked up and I never really warmed up to any of the characters. The main character/narrator was, frankly, boring. If you’re going to bring the reader into his head, at least make him interesting. Instead he was rather bland–perhaps he was a blank slate for the reader to put themselves into his shoes. I know there are a number of readers who like to do that, but I’m not one of them.

While I thought a number of the elements in the story were too typical for the urban fantasy genre, it was really interesting how the author managed to weave a real world ceremony into the plot. It’s probably the best thing about this book.

Anyways, what’s really bothering me about the book now is the genetics. (Warning: if you don’t want any spoilers, don’t read further.) The main character of the book is part human and part Fey, specifically wraith. And it’s assumed that somewhere in the past, his wraith ancestor dallied with a human. That seemed like the logical conclusion even though the wraiths were part of the group of Fey called the Untainted because they didn’t want to mix with humans. The different courts of the fey are divided by what type of fey they are. The assumption was, if your parents were one type, then you would also be like them. Simple right?

Not exactly. At the end of the book, we find out that mixing in human genes means that it would be completely random what kind of Fey you end up being. Which means that the main character’s ancestor could be a leprechaun for all he knows. This seems counterintuitive to the rest of the book. The main character’s companion/mentor is also part human, but her abilities were just like her mother’s. And since the other Fey did mix with humans, didn’t they have trouble trying to decide which court the kids belonged to if they turned out differently than their parents? And surely there had been other wraiths who had unexpectedly popped up in others’ family trees. If so, why didn’t they just start a new group of good wraiths to counter the bad ones? Or is the protagonist just that special?

Final verdict? Meh. If I weren’t trying to clean out my TBR pile, I would have probably stopped reading sometime before the second chapter and put it back on the shelf. I don’t know what I was thinking when I first bought it in 2009. Maybe my tastes have changed. There are some good points in the book, but not enough to make me want to read the next three books.

The next book on the pile is The Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn, the 2012 Ace paperback edition. It’s another urban fantasy, this time about shape shifters. I have slightly higher expectations with this because I’ve read Shinn’s Samaria novels and liked them a lot.