Friday, August 17, 2018

The Zenith by Duong Thu Huong

After enjoying the first two Anne of Green Gables books, I decided to try something harder - one of the books that I’ve been thinking of reading for the SEA Reading Challenge. And now that I’ve finished it, I can confidently say that if not for this challenged, I would not have picked up this book or finished it.

The Zenith is a confusing story. As far as I can make out, there are two plot lines. One follows the aging president of Vietnam as he slowly dies in isolation, supposedly loved and respected but really under house arrest, and his relationship with one of his subordinates (who has his own relationship issues). The other follows a family in the Woodcutter’s Hamlet, as the father remarries and brings strife (and lots of gossip to the village).

As it turns out, the patriarch of the family in the woodcutter’s hamlet is the guy who died in the opening of the book. I’m sure that they referenced it somewhere at the start, but I didn’t make the connection until much later.

Looking back, I guess there was some action in the story, but it just felt so long. Everyone seemed inclined to make a speech about politics or sex or sex and politics/marital relationships which dragged the story out. I think that if all the speeches were cut out, the book would be half it’s length and at least twice as interesting.

Although I’m not sure if that would help because the story about the president bored me. The characters were unsympathetic and not very interesting, and it felt like the message of “all ideals will be corrupted by power and politics” was hammered into every speech. In fact, the times where I considered giving up on this book happened mostly during the section about the president and his party officials.

I suppose that if this book was only about the family in the Woodcutter’s Hamlet and without speeches, I would have enjoyed it a lot more. There is, after all, some romance and lots of family drama inside. But as it is, this book felt like a thinly veiled political essay and that isn’t really what I wanted to read

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Anne of Avonlea by L. M. Montgomery

I have finished the next book in the Anne of Green Gables series! This is also a really charming book, although it probably won’t make much sense if you haven’t read the first one.

Warning: Spoilers for Book 1

Anne of Avonlea picks up directly where Anne of Green Gables ended, with Anne starting her new job as the schoolmistress of the local school. Between the challenges of getting her students to like her and the arrival of twin children to the farm, Anne definitely has her hands full.

I’ve gotta say, I really miss the presence of Matthew here. He might have been quiet, but he was a huge presence in the first book and the first person who openly showed affection towards Anne. Marilla is definitely getting better at showing her love, but I do miss seeing Matthew do this best to spoil Anne.

But then again, the Anne in this book isn’t the lonely orphan of the first book. While she still loves to use her imagination and occasionally lets her feelings get the better of her, she is, on the whole, a more level-headed and mature individual. Which follows the theme of her growing up, but I do miss child Anne (although she’s between 16 to 18 here, which I feel is super young).

Oh yeah, and if you’re a Gilbert/Anne person like me (she finally buried the hatchet with him at the end of the first book), you should know that there isn’t much relationship development here. The book even explicitly says that while Anne is maturing, she’s very much still a child in the ways of love. And I guess it’s a strong reason for me to read the third book.

Overall, this is a very charming sequel to book 1. I was actually a bit worried that I wasn’t going to like all the new characters because I tend to enjoy having the same characters go on new adventures, but I found them all growing on me and I look forward to reading more about the people Anne befriends. I’ll just end my review with a quote that I thought was lovely:
"Living so that you beautify your name, even if it wasn't beautiful to begin with . . . making it stand in people's thoughts for something so lovely and pleasant that they never think of it by itself."
There are lots of quotable lines in the book (and the first one, come to think of it), but this was the one that stood out.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

For some strange reason, I never read Anne of Green Gables as a kid. Loads of Enid Blyton, yes, and even Caddie Woodlawn, but no Anne. When the Netflix series came out, I watched the first two episodes and was interested enough to pick up the book.

Now I regret not reading it sooner!

If you’re like me and haven’t read the book OR watched the Netflix show (anyone else living under a rock too?), Anne of Green Gables is the story of a little orphan girl with red hair who gets adopted by an elderly pair of siblings.

To be honest, the story doesn’t sound like much, since it’s just episodes in Anne’s life. But L. M. Montgomery has such a talent for writing that I was pulled in from the very start! Everything Anne did was charming, even though she made a lot of mistakes.

(I am basically Miss Barry)

I suppose the reason that I like Anne is that she likes reading and writing and she has a hot temper, which I also have. The difference is that I don’t have half her imagination or her skill (or red hair). Seeing Anne grow up gradually made me so happy! Like Anne mentioned, she doesn’t really change who she is, she’s just “pruned down and branches out”. All the good in Anne is still there, but her weaknesses aren’t as obvious.

By the way, the dialogue here is fantastic. I think a good majority of the book is dialogue - Anne relaying what happened and how she feels. Normally, that would make me put the book down because I like reading about things happening rather than people telling me about them, but Anne’s way of speaking is so charming and vivid that I loved all her little speeches.

And it’s not just Anne, the dialogue for all characters was marvellous and made me feel like I really got to know them - especially Marilla and Matthew.

The book ends with Anne coming to the end of her childhood and looking forward to her new life. I really hope that the second book is as good as the first because I am going to read it straight away.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu

The first time I saw this book, a stranger was reading it in Japanese. I thought it looked interesting, but didn't give it a second thought. But after enjoying The Three Body Problem (which he translated) and having loved The Grace of Kings (which he wrote), I decided to pick this up. As you can probably guess, I had high expectations for this collection.

The stories in this collection are:

- The Book Making Habits or Select Species: This is just an exploration/worldbuilding piece on how other alien species might read. There isn’t any plot but it’s still a cute piece.

- State Change: I loved this one! It’s about Rina, this girl who’s soul is an ice-cube. Her life revolves around making sure her soul doesn’t melt, until she meets an interesting guy in the office. I felt that this was such a great story because it had a good plot with twist, great characters, and a unique setting.

- The Perfect Match: Think of Google’s ledger, if it came to life. But, the story questions of the huge company running the internet is good or bad, which adds another layer of nuance to this story about preferences, algorithms, and free will. Another story that I loved.

- Good Hunting: A story about hunting hulijing and what happens when Western ‘magic’ invades. An East vs West clash kinda story but very captivating.

- Literomancer: Another East meets West story, but this time of an American girl who moves to Taiwan and meets a Literomancer, a man who divines meanings from words. It adds in politics to turn the charming story into a sad one.

- Simulacrum: Another very strong story that I really enjoyed, centered around a father and daughter, about how holograms, recording memories, and what it means to betray another.

- The Regular: Someone is killing high class prostitutes. Ruth Law is asked to find out why. I almost skipped this because the first section is pretty graphic but it turned out to be a good crime story.

- The Paper Menagerie: About a half-Chinese boy who tries to reject his Chinese half, and his mother who makes living, moving paper animals for him. It’s a good story, but somehow, it didn’t touch me.

- An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition: I did not understand this one.

- The Waves: A story about people on the space ship and the choice between immortality and letting your kid grow up. I felt that it started strong but I lost interest halfway, probably because the ending wasn’t really related to the beginning.

- Mono no Aware: It’s the story of this sole Japanese guy on an American spaceship that managed to escape the destruction of earth. Despite the fact that parts of this took place in Kitakyushu and Kagoshima, I didn’t feel like the characters were there at all (I know this is alternate reality but on some level, it should at least feel like the Kyushu I lived in). Which means that I don’t know why he picked a Japanese main character when any other would do.

- All the Flavours, A Tale of Guan Yu, the Chinese God of War, in America: I didn’t think I would like this but I did! It’s about someone who probably is Guan Yu, moving to America to pan for gold, and the little girl he makes friends with. A good story about how different cultures can meld together.

- A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel: An alternate history story where Japan became a world power peacefully and there wasn’t WWII. This story didn’t really engage me for some reason. And I was quite puzzled by these lines:

“ “Hoka no okyakusan ga imasu yo. Nani wo chuumon shimasu ka?” Her Japanese is quite good [...] though she is not using the honorific.”

I didn’t quite understand the “she is not using the honorific” line. The Japanese was in standard Japanese, the kind that is fine for strangers and that I’ve heard in many restaurants. So I don’t get why it’s singled out. If the author is referring to “keigo”, then yeah I get it but I would think that if they were going the five-star service way, there’s no way that she would have said “hoka no okyakusan ga imasu yo”, even in the ultra-polite form.

I feel like if I said that at my former workplace, the managers would have told me off for making the customer uncomfortable because we are not to rush them.

- The Litigation Master and the Monkey King: I loved this historical fiction story. It’s based on the Yangzhou Massacre and asks the question: “is it more important to do what’s right, or to keep yourself alive?”

- The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary: The last story in this anthology, it’s about a Chinese-American and Japanese-American couple that claim they can get people to literally experience history. I’m not sure if it’s because of the narrative form, but I did not get this story and ended up tuning out halfway.

Overall, I thought this was a pretty good collection! There were a few stories that I just didn’t get, but that’s more on my part than the story’s (I can see that the story is well-written, but it just did not resonate with me emotionally). I would definitely recommend it to fans of science fiction and fantasy.