Book by Book

Welcome to my book review page. I’m Karen Kao, author of The Dancing Girl and the Turtle and many other works.


I learned the word tsundoku in a New Yorker short story written by Camille Bordas called “Most Die Young.” Wikipedia defines tsundoku as follows:

“Tsundoku” (n.) is the condition of acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them. “Tsundoku” originated as Japanese slang (積ん読) “tsun-doku”. 「積ん読」 came from 「積んでおく」 “tsunde-oku” (to pile things up ready for later and leave) and 「読書」 “dokusho” (reading books).

Now I know my condition has a name. At last count, I have 125 books left to read.

book by book

craft writing
Bird by Bird. Image source:

The title of this book review section is inspired by a lovely, generous book by Ann Lamott called Bird by Bird. First published in 1994, the subtitle of the book reveals its remit: Some Observations on Writing and Life.

I had never heard of the book until an end of season get-together of my critique group. As fellow writers, we share our manuscripts with each other for comment and support. For this session, we brought our favorite book on writing. First we explained why we chose that book. Then, if so requested, we agreed to lend our treasure to one of our number.


I borrowed Lamott’s book from my friend and fellow writer, Anna, after hearing how gentle and kind Lamott can be. The inspiration for the title of her book is one example (p.18-19):

[T]hirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulders, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

cold hard facts

Writing is like getting into a cold swimming pool. You can try to inch in, hoping the water will warm if you can wait long enough. You can jump in, feet first and nose held tight and hope you don’t hit rock bottom. Or you can dive to the floor of that pool, now alarming close to your bulging eyes. However it is you write, you’re going to get wet.

All writers are readers. Reading may very well be the only way to learn how to write, other than to just do it. Now that I write professionally, it’s sometimes hard to remember what reading for pleasure is. I’m always looking for the stray comma or the hackneyed phrase. Does the character arc seem a bit too fantastic? (Unless I’m reading fantasy, in which case does the character remain earthbound?) In that sense, a critique group is a master class in writing. You can reduce a story to its constituent parts, laying it out with anatomical accuracy on the examining table.

But where is the joy in that? If I read only to understand the mechanics of a story, how can I find its soul?

the best of the best

book of short stories
Best American Short Stories 2014. Image source: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt website

Heidi Pitlor, the long-serving series editor of the Best American Short Stories, plaintively said in her 2014 introduction:

From my vantage point, there are moments when it seems that more people in this country [USA] want to write than read. Many people who read this book are in fact writers in training, reading in order to learn to write books.

Yes, I read to learn but I want to read for pleasure too. For me, pleasure comes at that moment when a book ceases to be a book and becomes a journey. Maybe I’m on a bus staring out the window, dreading the class I’m about to teach. Or, I’m hurtling down a rocky road in a pickup truck whose brakes are indifferent to time and speed. For sure, I’m feeling what the characters feel however painful or silly or gross that might be.

It doesn’t always happen, I’m sorry to say. Some stories just don’t move me. But that’s ok because I can still think about why that is.

So every book I pick up, I’ll read to the end. I’ll read widely, even promiscuously. I’ll mix short form with long form fiction, non-fiction with memoir, journals with podcasts, English and Dutch. Will you join me on my journey across the (virtual) page, book by book?

my book reviews

My first book review was back in 2017. Since then, I’ve written the occasional review for Bookish Asia. But all the others are here on my website, too many to fit on a single screen. So I’ve grouped them by category below. Just click on the link for example for fiction (long), you’ll find every review I’ve written for novels. Fiction (short) will lead you to my review of short story collections. Ditto for the categories of literary journals, nonfiction, and poetry & plays.

Or you can use the side bar to navigate from one title to the next. Check it out.

literary journals
fiction (long)
fiction (short)
poetry & plays

If you can’t stand the idea of missing my next book review, follow me on Instagram where I publish #bookstagrams or on  Goodreads where you can find extracts of my reviews. 

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