Monday, July 23, 2018

Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 by Naoki Higashida

Someone from Church lent me this and it is so good! Written by the same author of The Reason I Jump (which I haven’t read but really want to now), this book contains the thoughts of a young man who happens to be severely autistic.

Naoki Higashida writes using an alphabet grid, without anyone else’s hand touching his, so you can be sure that the words in this book really did come out of his mind. And when you look at the subjects he muses about, his poetry, and his short story, it’s clear that he has an extra-ordinary mind.

In this books, he talks about his struggles to learn and communicate, as well as encourage all neurotypical people not to give up on people with autism, because they do want to live their best life and they can pick up our emotions. If this wasn’t a library book, I would have highlighted so many quotes, such as:
"On the surface, a sheltered life spent on your favourite activities might look like paradise but I believe that unless you come into contact with some of the hardships other people endure, your own personal development will be impaired."
And I probably would have bookmarked all his poetry. I’m normally not a poetry type of person, but I find that his poems inspire and uplift, even when they look on the slightly more unpleasant side of life. Two that I particularly liked are Rumours and Words - look out for them if you're reading the book!

I would totally recommend this book! It’s a moving and uplifting insight into a person that we might not even think we can communicate with. The beauty of his words show that there is deep potential within everyone, and that we should not be so quick to write off people as unable to contribute to society.

Definitely read this if you have the chance!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Dollars and Sense by Dan Ariely

Found this book through another Dayrean's review and since I enjoyed Dan Ariely’s other books, I thought I’d give it a go!

Dollars and Sense is a personal finance book, only instead of telling you what to do, the book shows you the financial mistakes you’ve been making and explains why. The first part of the book covers what money is (foundation) and the second, longest, part covers the not-so-rational ways we think about money, such as:

- Relative prices (we’re tempted to buy when we think that we’re saving something even when we’re not)

- Mental accounting (we categorise the ways we spend money which leads to not so prudent financial decisions

- The Pain of Paying (so we value potential loses more than potential gains)

- Anchoring (basing valuation on the first number we see)

- Ownership (if we can see it as ours, we value it higher)

- Whether we think the price is fair (to us and for the effort we see exerted)

- Whether we can restrain ourselves in the present for the sake of the future

- Overemphasising money

- Fancy language and rituals making us value a product more

- Expecting a certain experience vs the actual experience and how that affects our value of it.

After going through all these ‘bad’ thinking habits we have, the book ends on a hopeful note: by offering us strategies we can use. Of course, awareness plays a huge role in helping to avoid such behaviour, but other things we can do is to visualise the future as a concrete thing (save for a specific retirement date, e.g. Dec 1 2050, instead of a vague X years in the future), make good financial habits (like savings) opt out rather than opt in, and other strategies.

I found this book to be very educational and very entertaining! It’s actually co-written by Dan Ariely and Jeff Kreisler; since one of Kreisler’s ‘jobs’ is comedian, it explains the copious amounts of humour in this book. The chapters all focus on one, perhaps two ideas, and are explained using stories that are buffeted by studies.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to change the way they think about money. Like another one of Ariely’s books say, we humans are ‘predictably irrational’. That means that we can anticipate certain habits and change them for the better.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan

I feel like this year has been fairly good for the SEA Reading Challenge so far because I’ve read two fantastic books - Track Faults and other Glitches and Smaller and Smaller Circles. I found this while searching for SEA fiction and borrowed it the minute I saw “Pinoy detective fiction” because I love mysteries.

Smaller and Smaller Circles Stars Father Saenz, a Jesuit priest who is also a forensic anthropologist, and Father Jerome. When the mutilated bodies of young boys are found in Payatas, they decide that they have to be part of this investigation and get to the bottom of the matter. In the subplot, Father Saenz is on a crusade to get a child-molesting priest away from the charity that puts him in contact with young boys.

This is so much more than an amazing detective story. I really felt the weight of bureaucracy and corruption as Father Saenz, Father Jerome, and the Director of the NBI try to marshal their resources to achieve justice for the poor that normally get less than nothing. Add in the weight of the subplot (with a man of the Church pushing for justice) and you get a stunning indictment of corruption in both the civil service and the Church.

And this is not a spoiler, but if you read the book, pay attention to chapter 34. It’s my favourite, and in my opinion, the most powerful chapter because it humanises the people of Payatas and shows us that these boys were loved and did have worth - even if the ‘higher ups’ didn’t think they were worth devoting resources to.

The characters were also expertly written - there are the two Fathers, who want the best but also know the worst of the world, Director Lastimosa, who is merely a stop-gap for the real appointee but still tries his best, and Arcinas, the ambitious attorney. They all sprang to life on the page and I find it sad that this is not the start of a series because I would love to see how all of them and the relationships between them continue to change.

I would highly recommend this to everyone who wants a good read. It’s superbly written, with great characters and a plot that will keep you turning. I know this book came out several years ago but I’m still going to hope that a sequel is in the works.

Monday, July 16, 2018

A Bite Sized History of France by Stephane Henaut and Jeni Mitchell

I requested this book from Netgalley purely because it’s about food (even though I don’t really know or eat a lot of French Food).

A Bite Sized History of France tackles French history through its food, from the Gauls (before the Roman Empire) to modern day France. Each chapter is relatively short and focuses on one food, such as honey, wine, many types of cheeses, the croissant (a relatively new invention, it seems), salt, how the potato become popular, and much more.

Along the way, the book dispels some common legends about food and tries to put them in the proper light.

While the book is organised roughly in chronological order, the topical nature of the book means that this isn’t the right place to get an overview of French history. Certain people (like Napoleon and some of the Kings) pop up in a couple of pictures but things aren’t placed into the bigger picture.

But, this book is an enjoyable way to dip in and out of French history. I will freely admit to being an ignoramus about the subject and it was fun to learn about things like how mushrooms became popular (and how seriously they take mushroom hunting). There are also some really great chapters that explore the darker side of French history, namely French’s colonial ambitions that brought peanut oil to the nation.

Overall, this was a fun book that foodies will definitely enjoy. It not only introduced me to French history and culture (and lots of food), it also showed me the global nature of food through the development of French cuisine.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

As you know, I’m a huge sucker for fairytales, which is why I picked this book up. The name and the cover intrigued me, as did the promise of a book within a book.

The Hazel Wood stars Alice, an angry girl who has been on the road with her mom for her whole life, trying to escape their bad luck. After her grandmother, the famous author Althea Prosperine passes away, her mother falls in love and decides to settle down.

But her mother jumped to conclusions and Alice comes home from school one day to discover that her mother, stepfather, and stepsister have been stolen away by the Hinterland. While her stepfather and stepsister are returned, her mother is not and Alice embarks on a journey to rescue her mother.

Helping her is Finch, a boy from her school who’s a super fan of her grandmother and has actually read the stories she wrote. He introduces her to her grandmother’s dark works, something that proves invaluable in their journey.

I love dark fairytales so I obviously really enjoyed this work. I can’t say too much without giving away spoilers but I thought the worldbuilding was excellent and tied in with Alice’s personality very well.

And of course, I loved the retold fairytales here! They are dark and creepy and so good. I went to Goodreads and saw that the author will be publishing the tales in a standalone book and I am so excited for that!! But the estimated publishing date is 2020 which makes me a little sad (and I hope I don’t forget about it!)

Going back to Alice, I thought she was a really interesting character. She has some anger management issues, which she acknowledges and tries to manage, but her love for her mother is fierce and true (although complicated, like all relationships) and I really admired her loyalty.

I also liked Finch, the super rich super fan that immediately helped Alice. Unfortunately, he and Alice’s relationship didn’t develop the way I expected and hoped, but their relationship was still pretty sweet.

If you’re a fan of dark fairytales, you’ll want to read this. I really enjoyed this book and I cannot wait for the standalone of the stories to come out!

Monday, July 9, 2018

Autism's False Prophets by Dr. Paul Offit

I decided to read this after having enjoyed Pandora’s Lab. As you may know, my brother has autism and while it’s mild, it can be quite a challenge (especially seeing people bully him).

Autism’s False Prophets takes the reader through the journey of autism science and how all the pseudo-science ‘explanations’ and ‘cures’ came to be. After showing how vaccine and other reasons do not cause autism, Offit goes through the current understanding of autism.

I already knew that MMR vaccines and mercury don’t cause autism (even my bro knows) but what I didn’t know was how much of a vested interest Andrew Wakefield and other parties had. I mean, Wakefield received money from a lawyer seeking to prove a link between vaccines and autism and didn’t declare it! All those attacks by anti-Vaxxer’s on doctors being in the pocket of ‘big pharma’ seem more hypocritical than ever.

Another thing that the book made quite clear was that a lot of people don’t make their decisions on whether vaccines are harmful or whether alternative medicines work based on the science. Instead, they base their decisions on personal stories, which have a bigger impact emotionally but aren’t backed by science.

The only part that made me go “eh” was this short section on autism and faith. Perhaps it was because the section was so short, but it seemed like Offit was linking anti-vaxxers with Christianity, which is just about the most ridiculous thing I can think of. Christianity isn’t anti-science and to generalise that way seems contrary to the scientific nature of the book.

Overall, this was a clear and easy to understand explanation of how all the misinformation about autism and treatment of it arose. Seeing how everything developed made me feel disappointed at how people are so willing to go against science at the expense of their children. Also, labelling autistic children as “vaccine-injured” and describing them as having “soulless” eyes is cruel and demeaning to children with autism.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

One problem with having an insane TBR list is that it can make the best-laid plans can go awry. After enjoying Shades of Milk and Honey last year, I was determined to read Book 2 of the series shortly after. Unfortunately, an unmanageable TBR list and new book finds intruded on that and I only got around to reading the second book, Glamour in Glass, recently.

Glamour in Glass moves away from the sly Austen references and England to Belgium, where Jane and Vincent are having their honeymoon (and looking for new ways to use glamour). Unfortunately, Napoleon's shadow rears its ugly head and Jane and Vincent find that they aren't spared from the coming war.

I don't know if it's because there was such a long gap between Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass, but I didn't enjoy this as much as I did the first book. I felt that it took a fairly long time for the war action to start, which was weird because the blurb had me thinking that most of the story was about the coming of Napoleon.

Character-wise, I felt like Jane was a lot more insecure in this book. Sure, she was always comparing herself to her sister in the previous book, but it feels like her self-worth is tied up in glamour so much more now and she has absolutely no trust in Vincent, despite the fact that they are married and he has given her very little indication to doubt him (of course, he's hiding something but it's not very big). That said, I did like how Jane pushed against the convention that had Vincent taking all the credit for the glamours that they made together.

But don't get me wrong, even though I'm not as happy with this book as the previous one, I did enjoy it. I like that Jane is a proactive character and that she's every bit as capable as Vincent instead of being a damsel in distress. Speaking of the damsel in distress trope, it was fun to see the tables turned and have Jane be the one that needs to save Vincent.

Overall, this was a fun story, although not as good as the previous one. I suppose that in trying to establish the series as more than a riff on Jane Austen, or perhaps because this one no longer alludes to Jane Austen to obviously, the book lost a bit of its initial charm. Still, I'll probably continue the series if I come across the third book.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The SEA is Ours edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng

Found this in the library and decided to borrow it for the SEA Reading Challenge! Like the title says, this is an anthology of short stories set in Southeast Asia, largely by Southeast Asian authors (from the back it seems like at least half the authors were born and raised in Southeast Asia while the rest have Southeast Asian roots). There are twelve stories in this anthology and they are:

The collection starts with a short introduction that, to be very honest, left me with a bad impression of the book before I started reading (good thing I borrowed the book without reading the introduction). It felt so angry and I didn’t really understand why - as far as I could tell, they were angry at the tropes in steampunk (Victorian England) because of diversity. Not sure how they connect but the anger was palpable.

There are twelve stories in this anthology and they are:

1. On the Consequence of Sound: This was about flying and flying whales! Very cool and I liked how Tagalog was woven into the stories - I was asking Jo Jie Jie about the sentences. It’s a pretty haunting story about ambition and sacrifice and a strong start to the collection.

2. Chasing Volcanoes: Another story set in the Philippines and another really good one! It’s set on an airship and has two strong female characters - the captain and the rebel princess who’s trying to save a village.

3. Ordained: This seems to be a family drama but to be honest, it was too short and I couldn’t grasp the story.

4. The Last Aswang: My brother and I have been talking about aswang with Jo Jie Jie and so I was really excited for this story. Unfortunately, it was a letdown. Perhaps it was the influence of the introduction (I really don’t like activist fiction, it’s not my thing) but this felt like an “our culture is better than the colonial culture” sort of story. Which could be good if done well (the story Devil Wind from Young Warriors is a good example), but in this case, it felt like the author started with a message in mind, which totally did not appeal to me.

5. Life under Glass: This was a short story about hunting rare creatures. I kind of wish it was longer because I didn’t get a chance to connect with the main character.

6. Between Severed Souls: It took me a little while to get into this story about a Filipino Pygmalion in the midst of a civil war but when I did, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The steampunk elements fit in well and I felt like all the characters had their own motivations and hurts, which made them come to life.

7. The Unmaking of Cuadro Amoroso: This was pretty good - three genius students plan and execute their revenge after the fourth in their group dies. Again, it took me a while to understand what was going on but the ending was very satisfying.

8. Working Woman: A steampunk story set in colonial Singapore, with triad lords and half-machine Samsui women. This was definitely one of the strongest stories in the book and one of my favourites because it had plot, it had strong characters, and it was in a world that was strange yet familiar. Would definitely recommend this to people looking for a Singapore steampunk story.

9. Spider Here: Another Singaporean steampunk story but this one wasn’t as strong was Working Woman. The world was intriguing, with the idea of ‘threads’ in living creatures that can be manipulated and a protagonist in a walking chair, but I wasn’t clear about what was happening even by the end of the story.

10. The Chamber of Souls: This was Vietnamese steampunk and one of the stronger stories in the collection. It deals with a group of refugees who are accepted into what seems like paradise - until they’re under attack. Add in a robot whose main purpose is to serve tea and store souls and you’ve got a story that kept me interested until the end.

11. Petrified: Another story taking place on a steamship, this was a fairly enjoyable (but also sad) tale with automatons that can pass for human. It felt like most of the action took place off the page (told to us in a recap) but I liked the concept, start, and ending.

12. The Insects and Women Sing Together: The last story in the collection was, sadly, a weak ending. Like with Ordained and Life Under Glass, I didn’t understand what was going on, even at the end.

Overall, this was a pretty uneven collection. It’s a pity because I am always for tropes being broken in a smart manner, but some of the stories didn’t connect and/or make sense to me. There were some good stories, but I went into this collection expecting an anthology as strong as Track Faults and Other Glitches and sadly, I didn’t find it.

Monday, July 2, 2018

White Trash by Nancy Isenberg

It took me quite a few days to work through this but I’m finally finished! I’ve been intending to read this for a very long time because I heard that it’s a good companion to Hillbilly Elegy - one is a personal story while the other (this) is an academic work.

Like the subtitle says, this book is about the class of people known as “white trash” or “red necks”, from when people started coming to America in the 1600s, where they were called “waste people” to the 2000s, the era of Honey Boo Boo child. Over the course of these twelve chapters, one message is hammered home, again and again in great detail:

There is, and has always been, a group of white Americans who are looked down upon and are seen as separate from the other ‘whites’.

Just to be clear, this is not a book on marginalised society in America. The focus is on this marginalised and historically looked down upon white people, and other racial groups are only mentioned in related to them; which means that African Americans are only mentioned sometimes and Asian Americans not at all. But this may have been a good choice because the book is a huge read and to try to tell the story of everyone would have made it too much to handle.

This book was very useful in illustrating how futile identity politics can be. I’m not and probably will never be part of this white underclass, but just reading this helped me imagine their frustration when after literally hundreds of years of insults and discrimination, they are told that they have something called “white privilege”. The book illustrates how little of this ‘privilege’ they’ve had when it says that:
"Poor whites were inexpensive and expendable, and found their lot comparable to suffering African Americans when it came to the justice system. Nothing proves the point better than the fact that both black and white convicts were referred to as “niggers”. "
If anything, this book has shown me that the issues of class and racism in America (and perhaps in other parts of the world) are much more complicated than some think. As tempting as it is to simplify things into “Group A oppressor” and “Group B victim”, history and reality is often much more complex and we must be able to grasp the nuances of issues if we are to solve them.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Blah Blah Blah by Dan Roam

One of my colleagues recommended this to me because I’m more of a words person and she thought this might help me become more balanced in my thinking. Blah Blah Blah is basically a book on how to balance writing with visuals for better communication.

So disclaimer: I’m not a visual person. I like taking photos but I express myself much better in words than pictures. Even when I read books about mind maps and get really excited about them, they never really work for me. So I was a little wary of the book, despite its claims that it’s for everyone.

The basis of this book is the idea that words aren’t enough - we’ll need pictures to fully understand an issue. The land of Blah Blah Blah is a land where words are boring, foggy, or even misleading. And by checking things out against the Blah-blahmeter, we can check use ‘vivid’ to clarify things, make the message even more appealing, explore ideas, or debunk fake news.

Now what is vivid? Vivid stands for VIsual + Verbal InterDependent thinking. Basically using words to illustrate words. The idea is that by using both halves of the brain, we can see connections and communicate more clearly than we can without only words or with only images. And the way to use vivid is to use something called the vivid grammar graph:

In the vivid grammar graph, people are represented by portraits, numbers by charts, positions by maps, tense by timelines, interactions by flowcharts and reasons by multivariable plots. The third section, and the majority, of the book is on how to use vivid to improve your ideas.

The book was very nicely written and illustrated. It’s easy to understand and representing the verbal mind with a fox and the visual mind with a hummingbird was a very cute touch.

The book’s summary of The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson’s did convince me that visuals can help in understanding. But is it a method suitable for me? I have no idea. I’ve tried to use it as I read it, but I didn’t really see it expanding the way I think.

That said, I can see vivid as a useful tool for summarising and communicating. While I like words, I know that not everyone does and a picture can be a very effective way of communicating. I’ll definitely be keeping vivid checklist in the back of my mind next time I have to present something.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

I’ve been searching for this book for quite some time because I want to read the series in order for the long-running subplot.

In The Beautiful Mystery, Gamache and Jean Guy travel to a reclusive monastery to investigate the murder of its prior. Bound by a vow of silence, this monastery would be unnoticeable if not for one thing:

Their Gregorian chants

Although seemingly like other Gregorian chants, these monks have managed to sing “the words of God in the voice of God”, bringing them widespread acclaim. And among such holy men is a killer, one who is still among them.

Because this book is set solely in the monastery (and not in Three Pines), the book is able to go deep into the community within a short period of time. And it’s in this remote community that the subplot involving the leaked video of the botched raid takes some pretty big steps.

I have to say, this book was more intense than I expected. Perhaps it’s because of its setting, but it seemed to be very much imbued with musings on music and faith.

And while most of the characters were new characters, I found myself very invested in them. All the brothers are given distinct personalities and I enjoyed reading about them.

Speaking of characters, I was on an emotional rollercoaster thanks to Gamache and Jean Guy. The tension from the aftermath of the raid that was present in the other books was really ramped up here, partly because they were the only two officers on the case and partly because of the presence of Francoeur, a higher up in the force and Gamache’s enemy. In fact, Francoeur reminded me of the serpent in the garden of Eden, with his smooth words poisoning everything.

I am so glad to have finally found this book. It is intense and I’m glad that I read it in order because the subplot is intense. Hopefully, I can find the next book in the series soon.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Oishinbo: Sake by Tetsu Kariya

Every time I read Oishinbo, I wish that it was translated and published in English in chronological order like most manga. Having them published by subject means that the overarching plot becomes jumbled and impossible to follow. That said, having them published by subject means that it’s possible to quickly and easily learn about one aspect of Japanese cuisine.

Like the title says, Oishinbo: Sake is all about sake. Sake is actually a generic word for alcohol, what this book focuses on is mostly nihonshu (Japanese alcohol), with one story on champagne. There are six stories in this book and they basically focus on how a lot of sake in Japan is fake sake (diluted with alcohol and additives) which tastes completely different from real sake. And that real sake pairs wonderfully with food and can hold its own against the finest wines.

While most of the stories are short, there is one six-part story called “The Power of Sake” that goes into detail on how sake is made, how to differentiate between the different types of sake, and the sake scene in Japan (at the time it was written - this manga is really old so things probably have changed a lot by now). There is an abundance of information here and I wish that I read this earlier.

As someone who wasn’t fond of nihonshu when I lived in Japan, I wonder if my dislike of the strong alcohol taste was because I wasn’t drinking the real stuff. As a student, our class parties would take place at restaurants with all-you-can-drink options, which I guess makes it natural that they would only serve the cheaper nihonshu.

I would definitely recommend this book (and entire series) to anyone who loves Japanese food! The style of drawing is slightly different from the regular shoujo and shounen manga around today, but the stories are interesting and information-packed. I only managed to read the first few volumes in Japanese, so if I see other English translations, I’m gonna borrow them even though the big storyline won’t make sense.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Burglar Caught by a Skeleton by Jeremy Clay

I have to admit, I requested this book based on the title - you don't really hear about weird Victorian news these days (or I suppose any day since most people don't read the Victorian newspapers).

The Burglar Caught by a Skeleton is basically a collection of weird Victorian news stories that may be exaggerated or made up (or perhaps reality really is that strange). The topics covered range from animals (lots of wild animals in Britain, apparently), to health and medicine, and even wagers. Some of the weirder stories include monkeys committing suicide a large, headless turkey ghost. The latter half of the book is quite sad, though, since it covers tragic incidents rather than the ludicrous. The last section is a brief follow up on some of the stories.

While the stories are definitely strange and unbelievable, they aren't told in a very interesting way. It seems like the newspapers like to report things rather drily, so this isn't really a book that I wanted to binge. It was, however, pleasant to read it over several sittings, to take in the strangeness that managed to pass as news back then.

By the way, the titular burglar caught by a skeleton is really what it says. A burglar was in the house of a doctor, got his hand caught by a skeleton while fumbling in the dark, and then promptly fainted and was found by the doctor whose house he was in.

Looks like skeletons may be better than guard dogs.

Overall, this was an interesting collection of stories that will appeal to people who like weird and obscure history.

Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Shining Like Stars by Lindsay Brown

My sister brought this book home and recommended I read it and it is so good! Shining Like Stars is about the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) and what they do.

I’ve got to admit, I’m not familiar with the IFES. And from what I read, they’re a non-denominational movement dedicated to training and raising up Christian student leaders and missionaries. The book talks about why they do this and shares lots of stories about their students.

Reading this makes me feel a bit guilty that I didn’t do much Church things during my university days. I always thought that because there were so few Christians in my uni (and in Japan in general) that there wasn’t much I could do. But the students here put me to shame because they’ve achieved amazing things in harder situations with much less. I’ve learnt that:

- Evangelism starts with personal friendships. You can do big events, but if you have not yet laid the groundwork by showing the love of Christ, it’s not going to work.

- All of us must be able to give a defence of our faith at any time (echoing Matthew 22:37). Reason does not replace faith but it provides the basis for our faith - and if we cannot explain why we believe, there is no reason for others to listen to us.

- Students (everyone) can do great things through Christ. It was amazing to read the testimonies of how God used these students to spread the Word while helping their community and standing against things like corruption and other social ills.

- Christians should be concerned with social issues, but we must remember that they are not the end goal.

This was a really fantastic book. I would recommend it to everyone - students and non-students alike, because although it’s centered on IFES and the work it does, the principles for Christianity and evangelism hold true for everyone.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Pandora's Lab by Paul A. Offit

After reading Do You Believe in Magic by the same author, I wanted to read more from him and decided to read Pandora’s Lab, which is about stories of science gone wrong. If you know the story of Pandora, she was given a box from the Greek Gods with explicit instructions not to open it. But open it she did, and she released all sorts of evil into the world.

Likewise, this book is about the ‘evil’ that science has unleashed into the world. While most scientists work towards the betterment of mankind, the law of unintended consequences mean that some of these ‘wonderful’ discoveries end up killing tens of thousands of people. The stories in this book are:

- How the quest for a non-addictive form of opium led to the creation of heroin and OxyContin

- How a misunderstanding of saturated and unsaturated fats led to a move towards margarine and heart disease

- How the invention of creating nitrogen from air helped us feed more people, but also created deadliest weapons

- The story of eugenics. This was chilling but it was also strange how while he rightly called out people like Margaret Sanger for her support of eugenics and saying that it was time for “human weeds to be exterminated” the author glossed over Darwin’s influence on his half cousin Francis Galton, the father of eugenics.

- The story of the lobotomy and how people thought there was an easy fix for mental illness.

- How Rachel Carson rightly pointed out man’s impact on the environment, but by ignoring evidence and unfairly targeting DTT, led to its ban and as a result, many needless deaths by malaria.

- How Linus Pauling, a novel prize winner, managed to fall off the intellectual cliff and recommend excessive amounts of vitamin C, sparking the vitamin craze.

Every chapter of the book ends with a lesson we can learn from that particular example of science gone wrong, and the last chapter recaps it all while adding even more examples.

If you’ve read Do You Believe in Magic, you should also Pandora’s Lab for more information on how we can apply lessons from the past to the issues of today.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah

I had to borrow this as soon as I saw it because it’s supposed to be a new Hercule Poirot and I wanted to know if it could live up to the original (spoiler: not really, but it’s still quite fun).

Closed Casket starts when Lady Playford, a wealthy and famous author, changes her will to disinherit her children and give all to her sick secretary. As invited guests, Poirot and his friend Catchpool see all the drama, and when a murder takes place shortly after, they investigate.

I guess the main question is: is this as good as something Agatha Christie wrote?

The answer for me is: not really. There’s a layer of artifice, of trying a bit too hard, that never really leaves the book. Christie has Poirot and the interesting side characters, but it seems like everyone in this book is A Character. Their foibles are so exaggerated that it’s hard to decide who to focus on.

Even the romance, which I normally don’t understand in Christie’s novels, seem even more unfathomable. It’s almost as though the author saw one of the bickering couples that Christie wrote and decided to take it to extremes.

That said, the book is pretty fun. The plot had a lot of twists and turns and Poirot seemed decent (and a bit more humble than normal). And once the book hit its stride - or I got used to this not being Christie - I found myself enjoying it. I guess the only problem with this book is that Agatha Christie didn’t write it.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Tree and Leaf by J. R. R. Tolkien

I wanted to try challenging my mind a little so I picked up Tree and Leaf, a collection by Tolkien! It made me miss my literature days because I felt like I missed a lot. This collection consists of;

- On Fairy-Stories: I’ve actually read this essay before but I found it so hard to read the first time round! Shows you how much my mind has rusted. It was much better the second time round and I managed to appreciate it.

This essay explores the definitions and origin of fairy tales in a fairly academic but lyrical style (as odd as that description is). Personally, I prefer Chesterton’s chapter (The Ethics of Elfland) in Orthodoxy even though it looks at fairy tales in a very different (and less academic) way.

- Mythopoeia: This was a lovely poem although I didn’t completely understand it.

- Leaf by Niggle: I really enjoyed this short story about a man named Niggle, who neglects preparing for his eventual journey to paint a leaf. But his painting is always interrupted by his neighbour and though Niggle doesn’t like it, he more often than not helps him out. Apparently Niggle might have been a stand-in for Tolkien himself, which is something interesting to consider!

- The Homecoming of Beorthnoth Beorthelm’s Son: this is apparently a play inspired by a myth and I would normally be into this sort of stuff but I:

a. Tend to be very inept at understanding plays
b. Didn’t really get the three part structure of this

So it was kinda wasted on me.

Like I said at the start, this book made me wish I was still actively studying literature because I think I would have understood it a lot better if I was still using those muscles. Still, it was a good change from what I’ve been reading.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The High King by Lloyd Alexander

This is the last book in the Chronicles of Prydain and it is AMAZING! I really loved it and it’s definitely something you should read straight after Taran Wanderer because it’s tied very closely to it and the other books.

In The High King, the story comes full circle and Taran and his friends must once again face Arawn and his Cauldron-born. While the first book dealt with Arawn’s servant, the Horned King, this book deals with the evil lord directly.

In The Book of Three, Taran dreams of being a hero. Now, many adventures and wanderings later, Taran knows more about what being a hero entails and he feels the weight of the quest a lot more acutely. In many ways, this quest is similar to the one in The Book of Three, but the difference lies primarily within Taran. He’s grown from an assistant pig-keeper into a leader, although he won’t admit it out loud.

For a YA fantasy, this series really doesn’t shy away from death. While important characters have died in previous books, the body count for characters I remember and like is probably the highest here. This is where Taran fully suffers the loss that war brings, and that’s where he learns a valuable lesson:
"A grower of turnips or shaper of clay, a Commot farmer or a king - every man is a hero if he strives more for others than for himself alone."
Wise words from Taran.

I really loved this series! It is everything a fantasy series should be - filled with related characters, magical, giving us hope, but at the same time not shying away from the darker side of life. It’s a pity that I didn’t read this earlier, but I am glad that I’ve finally finished it!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

Like I mentioned in my review of The Castle of Llyr, I borrowed the remaining books of the Prydain series as soon as I could. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get The Foundling and other Tales of Prydain, but at least I got the last two books of the series!

In Taran Wanderer, Taran decides to leave Caer Dallben and search for this true parentage. Well, the truth is that he’s hoping to find out he’s of noble parentage so that he can ask Eilonwy for her hand in marriage. And so, Taran and Gurgi wander through the land, meeting people and having adventures.

Truth be told, I thought that this was the weakest book in the Chronicles of Prydain series so far. While Taran does have a quest to find out his parentage, much of the book reads like a series of loosely connected adventures rather than a story with an overarching focus.

That said, there are plenty of great moments in the book, especially in the second half of the story. Taran starts to learn about the true value of things and he starts to see that his original goal of hoping for noble blood isn’t what he thought he was. And as he wanders through the land and tries his hand at different skills, he also learns more about who he isn’t - an important lesson for everyone as they try to figure out who they are.

For me, the character that really shone in this book (even more than Taran) was Gurgi. Gurgi was introduced as an odd creature who is cowardly. And though Gurgi retains his old manner of speaking, I’ve noticed that he has really grown in courage and loyalty - it is no small feat to keep following Taran around. I find that this is the book where I really start to appreciate Gurgi as a character.

Overall, while this wasn’t as strong as the other books in the series, it still has a lot to offer. Taran’s journey of trying out different things mimics what a lot of us will do, and I think the lesson of learning to try things that may not work out is a valuable one for everyone reading it.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Efficiency Paradox by Edward Tenner

I knew I had to read this book once I saw it because the title is too good to resist. Plus everyone is generally so positive about big data I was quite interested to see some criticism of it.

First, a definition of efficiency. The author defines it as “producing goods, providing services or information, or processing transactions with a minimum of waste”. The book basically goes through the history of the idea of efficiency and then goes on to discuss specific examples: the internet and democratisation of information, teaching, GPS, and medicine.

The way I see it, the entire argument can be summed into: automating things can be inefficient because innovation requires serendipity (which algorithms cannot provide). In other words, innovation requires inefficiency, i.e. ‘wasted’ or failed ideas.

To be honest, I’m not entirely convinced by some of the arguments. I can see how innovation may require ‘waste’, but for specific examples like GPS, it may be that we don’t have enough information to for the algorithms to be useful. Same for teaching - the bigger the database, the easier it is for lessons to be customised for the student.

And for some things, like medicine, I feel that the argument took the wrong direction: the author argues that automated note-taking doesn’t make things more efficient as doctors still spend a lot of time on the computer, but the author doesn’t discuss how the shared information may make the process more efficient if the patient moves between departments. So I felt this was more of a misdirected argument (and not that relevant to the central premise).

Another example would be the argument about ‘waylosing’ (finding something unexpected when you get lost). I agree that it does have benefits, but I don’t think that ‘the inefficient wanderer, on the other hand, will be using his or her time more efficiently by discovering what is less documented, or even undocumented.’ That really depends on your aim in travelling - to learn something new or to get from point A to point B.

Overall, I thought that the book was interesting, but it didn’t really fulfil the ‘promise’ of telling me the limitations of big data. Instead, the arguments in the book talk more about how we’re misusing the platform innovations, which is interesting but not quite the point. Perhaps these are the ‘limitations’ that the subtitle was talking about, but there really should be a clearer line between the limitations and the purpose of each technology.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Lost Princess by George MacDonald

Recently, my Church did a spring clean and decided to let go of two tables full of books. As I was browsing through, I found this book and the title entranced me enough that I decided to bring it home. I am so glad I did because this book is just too lovely!

The Lost Princess is a fairytale about two spoiled little girls who were both raised to think that they were Somebody rather than themselves. And as a result, they had terrible tempers and were ungovernable. But there is also a Wise Woman, who loves the girls and takes them away that they might learn to be better.

I loved, loved, loved this book! It is so enchanting and even though it's very much about our world, George Macdonald has succeeded in making this feel like a fairytale. The language very much reminds me of G.K. Chesterton, which means that it may not be for everyone but it's definitely for me. And while the idea of not indulging every emotion and passion that arises may not be popular nowadays, The Lost Princess shows just how clearly giving in to our baser natures will twist us into an ugly human being.

The edition I read was illustrated really beautifully as well - look for the illustrations by Bernhard Oberdieck if you're curious!

I would definitely encourage everyone who loves fairytales to read this. It's a fantastic book and I want to end my review by sharing two of my favourite quotes from it:
"Whether it is a good thing or a bad thing not to be afraid depends on what the fearlessness is founded upon. Some know no fear because they have no knowledge of danger; there is nothing fine in that. Some are too stupid to be afraid; there is nothing fine in that. Some who are not easily frightened would yet turn their backs and run the moment they were frightened; such never had more courage than fear. eBut the person who will do his or her work in spite of his or her fear is a person of true courage."
and
"Nobody can be a princess, do not imagine you have yet been anything more than a mock one - until she is a princess over herself, that is, until, when she finds herself unwilling to do the thing that is right, she makes herself do it. So long as any mood she is in makes her do the thing she will be sorry for when the mood is over, she is a slave and not a princess."

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander

Finally continuing with the Chronicles of Prydain series! The Castle of Llyr is the third book in the series and continues the story of Taran.

At the start of this book, Eilonwy is sent to the Isle of Mona to learn how to be a lady. As a kindness, Dallhen allows Taran and Gurgi to accompany her to Mona before returning. However, shortly after they reach Mona, Eilonwy is kidnapped (by Achren) and Taran must go with the incompetent Prince Rhun of Mona and rescue her.

Despite the fact that this story is centered around (and ends with) Eilonwy, she doesn’t really appear because she’s kidnapped for most of the book. It’s a pity because the more I se or Eilonwy, the more I like her. She’s a feisty outspoken girl who’s the complete opposite of the “damsel in distress”.

Instead, the story is about Taran and his feelings for Eilonwy. To be honest, I (and probably all the other characters) could tell that they liked each other in the previous book (The Black Cauldron), but Taran only starts to realise it in this book. And since Taran learns that Eilonwy is supposed to be betrothed to Prince Rhun at the start of this quest, the book is really about Taran trying to come to terms with his jealousy.

What I really liked about this book is that I can see that Taran has learnt from the previous books. He’s not the noble perfect hero yet, but he has come along way from the impatient boy in The Book of Three. It’s been awesome seeing him grow and it’s good to know that this growth isn’t temporary.

With each book of the series, I regret not reading it earlier. This is classic fun fantasy and I’m really enjoying it! I’ve got a couple of other books checked out, but once I’m done with them I’m very tempted to just get the last two books plus short stories to binge read.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier

I requested this book because murders + hidden childhood secrets always interest me and luckily for me, I was not disappointed.

Jar of Hearts opens with Geo being sentenced to five years of jail for the involvement in the murder of her best friend, Angela. And to be honest, I almost gave up during the section on her years in jail because there was a lot of violence - both sexual and non-sexual.

But if you can get through the prison section to when she gets out, things start to get interesting. Because just before Geo gets out, two bodies turn up near Geo’s home - a mother and child murdered the way Angela was. Kaiser, Angela and Geo’s childhood best friend, is investigating and he quickly confirms that this case is connected to their shared past. I shan’t say anything more about the plot because I might give too much away. But it was really well-paced and I liked how the past informed the present.

Geo was a good protagonist. Even though she did a horrible horrible thing (and didn’t ‘fess up for 14 years), she clearly regrets it. And the more I read about her and Angela’s relationship, the more I saw how complicated it was and even though it doesn’t excuse what she did at all, it did help me to understand her.

On the other hand, I was a bit meh about Kaiser. I thought he had a pretty strong start, but he soon faded away and it felt like his purpose was more for plot than for character. I know him not really changing is his schtick in the book, but he felt a little two-dimensional at times, which is a pity because I thought he was an interesting foil to Geo at first (and would be the childhood friend who’d keep her accountable).

The ending was pretty good. Not something that could be deduced from hints in the book (except for the few chapters before) but everything flowed nicely and it was pretty satisfying. Overall, if you like darker thrillers, you should check this book out. Despite the slightly rough start, I got hooked and flew through the second half because I wanted to find out what happened.

Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Tea Planter's Wife by Dinah Jefferies

As part of my “falling further in love with all things tea” phase, I’ve decided to try and read tea-centered novels as well! My first read didn’t go so well so I decided to switch genres to historical fiction.

The Tea Planter’s Wife is set in 1920s Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon). Gwen, a young British girl, has arrived in Sri Lanka as the wife of the much older Lawrence. Her husband runs a tea plantation and as Gwen tries to get used to life in Sri Lanka and her over-bearing sister-in-law, she finds that there are a few more skeletons in the closet than she expected.

To be honest, I thought this was going to be a very gothic novel in terms of Lawrence’s character, but that turned out not to be the case. The book focuses more on Gwen’s struggle to adapt as the mistress of the house (not surprising since she’s only nineteen) and her insecurities in her relationship with Lawrence. And since she’s a generally likeable character, although she almost becomes a Mary Sue at times, so I was mostly rooting for her.

I really liked how the book brought in the historical tensions of that time. It was a time of unrest and there was a lot of racism and I’m glad that the author didn’t shield away or whitewash that aspect of history. Although it is a pity that none of the Sri Lankans (Sinhalese or Tamils) are given major roles - there is one character who’s quite important but he spends most of the book with his character thrown into doubt.

On the tea aspect, there wasn’t as much tea talk as I liked. One thing I enjoyed about Death by Darjeeling was that the love of tea shone through. Although the tea plantation is crucial to Gwen and Lawrence and she does see how tea is made, tea isn’t really a dominating presence in the book. It’s more of something in the background.

Overall, this was an interesting, if quiet, book. There aren’t many ‘action’ scenes even though there was a lot of tension throughout the book, but I thought the setting was well-written and the characters likeable.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Contested Will by James Shapiro

Contested Will is basically non-fiction literary mystery which looks into the question: who wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare?

If you haven’t heard, there’s some debate into the authorship of the Shakespeare plays. The first section of the book deals with how this debate even arose. To sum, by the time people grew interested in the life of Shakespeare, the people who knew him were dead. And thanks to a man name Malone, they started thinking that details of Shakespeare’s plays revealed details about Shakespeare’s life. And because people can be snobs, they started thinking that a glover’s son couldn’t possibly have written all these wonderful plays. In fact, his plays must have been written about someone worthy and two of the strongest contenders are Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Parts two and three of the book look at how the theories of Bacon and Oxford as Shakespeare came about by tracing the history of the arguments through the people who advocated for them. For Bacon, he covers Delia Bacon (very sympathetically) and Mark Twain. The Bacon theory is very much connected to ciphers. For the Oxford theory, he talks about Freud and Looney and this theory is very conspiracy-theory and based on supposed similarities in life events. Perhaps it’s because Shapiro is a Shakespearean scholar and hence skeptical of the Bacon and Oxford theory, but I didn’t find the proponents for the alternative candidates very convincing.

In the last section, Shapiro uses early Shakespearean texts and what contemporary writers said to argue (more convincingly, in my opinion) that William Shakespeare did indeed write his own plays.

The Shakespearean authorship question isn’t very well-known, but if you like literature and mysteries, I think you’ll enjoy this book. It’s not only well-written, it’s well-researched (he doesn’t have a bibliography, he has a bibliographic essay!)

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

I could have sworn that I've read this in the past few years but I have absolutely no reviews of it and that throws my memory into doubt. At any rate, I wanted to read this series and decided to start with the first book so that could (re?)familiarise myself with the characters.

The School for Good and Evil is a fairy-tale story with a twist. In a village called Gavaldon, children are being stolen, no matter the precautions taken. Only two are stolen at a time, and eventually, the village realises that these children end up as fairy tale characters. Sophie is the most beautiful girl in the village and unlike the others, actually wants to be taken away to live her life as a princess. But to outcast Agatha, Sophie is her only friend and she knows that they belong home.

Both girls get an unpleasant surprise when they're kidnapped and dropped at the schools - Sophie at the School for Evil and Agatha at the School for Good. Both are sure that a mistake has been made and Agatha is determined to get them home. Sophie, on the other hand, is determined to prove herself Good and get herself a prince.

I absolutely adored this story! Although Sophie and Agatha butt heads for a good part of the book because of their different personalities, I could really see their friendship and I loved that it took center stage. Yes, there was some romance but through it all (and especially in the ending), it was the love between friends that was the most important, not the love between a prince and a princess.

I also liked how complex these characters are. Take Tedros - Prince Arthur's son, for example. When I first saw him, I thought he was just another buffoon, kind of like Daring Charming from Ever After High (at least in the first season). But as I read further, I realised that Tedros had his own hurt that he was hiding and that motivated his actions, changing him into a more complex character in my eyes.

All in all, I would highly recommend this story to any fairy-tale fans. It's fun, charming, and has more depth to it than meets the eye.

Monday, May 28, 2018

One Dark Throne by Kendare Blake

I have finally finished this and OH MY HEART I NEED THE NEXT BOOK NOW!! One Dark Throne takes place right after Three Dark Crowns ends, so it’s a good thing I read Queens of Fennbirn recently and was still familiar with the world.

Ascension Year has started after the ending of Three Dark Crowns. And because of the ending, the futures of the three queens aren’t as assured - Mirabella, the strongest Queen, has lost a lot of standing, while her two weaker sisters are faring better. But the Queen can only be crowned after she’s killed both her sisters, which means that all three of them still have a chance...

I don’t really want to talk too much about the plot because I’ll end up giving away the ending of the previous book (and if you haven’t started the series it’s best not to know) but I was really taken for a ride in this one! I loved Three Dark Crowns but it did spend quite a lot of time laying the groundwork and as a result, the plot of One Dark Throne moved at a good pace. I really couldn’t wait to finish the book because I was desperate to find out who won.

Character-wise, Mirabella is still my favourite character because she really has the best heart. Sometimes to her detriment, but I really liked her and she was my favourite candidate. That said, Arsinoe’s development surprised me. I wasn’t really a fan or her or her best friend Jules, but by the end of the book, I was also rooting for both of them to have a happy ending. I think that the author did a good job in showing their growth and motivations which helped me sympathise with them.

Katherine, on the other hand, I disliked. She was just nasty and since she was just weak in the previous book, didn’t endear herself to me. But I did find out why she changed to become like that towards the end, so while I still don’t like her, her character motivation is real to me.

As for the supporting characters, I would end up with a way too long review if I talked about them all. So let’s just say that there were many of them and if you can keep track of who’s who, their personal motivations and feelings start to become clearer and they become people rather than filler characters.

Overall, I really, really loved this book. It definitely helped that I read the novellas before this because I would be lost without a refresher, but this book gripped me from the start and now I cannot wait for the next book because I need to see how things end!

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Mythology of Grimm by Nathan Robert Brown

You may know that I’ve been into Grimm for a long time (I think I’ve watched the series TWICE despite the fact I have 123456 shows on my to watch list). Well, I finally got my brother into the series, which means that it’s my third time watching the series (no complaints) and more importantly, that I can buy Grimm-related books!

This actually came about two weeks back but I had quite a few library books to finish so I only got around to it today. Like the title says, The Mythology of Grimm is about the myths behind the show, focusing mainly on the Wesen in seasons one and two.

The book starts with an introduction of the Grimm brothers, Charles Perrault, and Joseph Jacobs then moves on to the various Wesen. It focuses mainly on the European ones, although the last two chapters talk about the non-European Wesen (Mostly Native-American and Greco-Roman Wesen). Each chapter compares a Wesen with a modern retelling of the traditional fairytale, as well as some discussion. In between, there are loads of quotes from the show and interesting nuggets of information.

Obviously, I enjoyed this book very much. I love the show AND I love myths and while lots of it wasn’t new to me, it was fun to see the comparisons. But if you’re into mythology, please note that the retellings are very, very casual. Personally, I find them to be fun but if you’re looking for something a little more academic, you might want to steer clear (but if you’re looking for something academic, why are you reading something inspired by a TV show?)

In short, fans of the TV show who want to know more about the myths behind it will probably love this. The text is extremely easy to read and conversational, so even if you’re not familiar with mythology and fairy tales, I think you should be comfortable with this.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Thrice the Binded Cat Hath Mew'd by Alan Bradley

As part of my 'I want to read more during the week' thing, I decided to read another Flavia de Luce mystery since I really enjoy this series. Thrice the Binded Cat Hath Mew’d (a quote from Shakespeare) is the eighth book in the series and has Flavia coming home to England.

After an exciting time in Canada, Flavia’s looking forward to home and expects a somewhat warm welcome. Instead, she finds out that her father is ill and in the hospital. Trying to distract herself, Flavia offers to run an errand and ends up finding a body. Talk about finding the perfect distraction for her - obviously Flavia starts investigating.

I really felt that Flavia returned to form in this book. She was a little twee in the last book, but she was purely endearing in this one. I think it’s because she’s back in familiar surroundings. She’s also struggling to make sense of all the changes and I think it makes her growth a lot more natural. Perhaps Flavia is just so British she can’t go anywhere else.

The mystery itself was decent. There were quite a few twists and turns, but the ending made sense (even though I couldn’t manage to figure out who the killer was). I also thought it balanced pretty nicely with Flavia’s home life, although I feel like a kid (with Flavia) because I have no idea what all the adults are saying.

Got to warn you, though, the ending is pretty heartbreaking. Flavia does get her moment of triumph and I’m happy for her, but the last part is just sad. No spoilers but I really wish that things turned out differently for her and I really want to read the next book now.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Track Faults and Other Glitches by Nicholas Yong

I haven’t been reading much Singapore books (or SEAsian books for that matter) but this short story collection was really great and I'm really grateful to the person who recommended this to me.

Track Faults and Other Glitches is a collection of collection of stories set in Singapore. The stories are:

- The Ministry of Zombie Advancement: A very fun, unique tale about zombies in Singapore. The zombies in Singapore concept reminded me of Land of the Meat Munchers, and I realised that it was by the same author! No wonder I liked this.

- You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly: About seeing superheroes at work. The ending was ambiguous which makes it interesting to speculate about.

- Wake Me Up When It’s 2116: Not a good idea to read this in the train because I was tearing up by the end of it! It’s about progress and human life and reminds me of some of Bradbury’s short stories (which are also referenced here). This is one of my favourite stories in the collection.

- Track Fault: Another one of my favourite stories in this book, this deals with an MRT train that goes missing. Warning: there are no answers to this mystery but the story is so good!

- Haru & Hui Ling: These are actually two stories but they are two parts of one whole. It’s about the bond between dogs and their human families but also about love and loss.

- Three Nights in Camp: an NS ghost story. Kinda ambivalent on this one, but I think it’s because I haven’t gone through NS.

- A Dream Within A Dream: this is about a guy in a coma and I actually thought it was a little confusing but it still tugged at my heartstrings. I don’t know what’s going on, but the story made me feel.

- Polling Day: One of the weaker stories in my collection, in my opinion. It follows a reporter as he finds out that the opposition has won all contest seats. Very timely, given the recent election in Malaysia but I didn’t really get the story.

- The Uncle in the Kopitiam: The last story in the collection, this is a story within a story, reaching back to the folklore of Singapore. I really enjoyed the twist and I like this story.

Overall, I really enjoyed this collection! It was really well-written and extremely fun to read. Each story has a message, but the message doesn’t overpower the story like some local short stories do. I am totally hoping to find more stories like this!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths

I requested this book as soon as I saw it because I’m always up for a good mystery. I didn’t realise that this was part of a series, but I had no problem following along.

The Dark Angel starts in Italy when a corpse is found to have a handphone. And even weirder, Professor Angelo received a text from the corpse when he excavated it. Back in England, forensic archaeologist Ruth is struggling with her personal relationships. So when she gets an invitation from Angelo to come to Italy to consult, she brings her daughter and friend along for a holiday.

I have to admit, the mystery took a backseat to the relationships in The Dark Angel. Perhaps it’s because I’m jumping into the series midway, but I felt that the complicated relationships between the characters (particularly Ruth and Nelson) were more prominent than the mystery of the corpse. I’m not complaining since I enjoyed reading about it, but it was a bit of a surprise.

The mystery itself was pretty interesting and very much tied to the town where the corpse was found. I’ve never been to Italy (sadly) so I don’t know how accurate all the descriptions were, but I really felt the small town and it’s inhabitants very strongly.

There was only one thing that threw me off a little: the book switches between several POV characters, mostly Ruth and Nelson, although some characters get their time in the spotlight too. The switch could be a bit abrupt since it takes place within the chapter (I’m more used to having one chapter per POV) but it wasn’t a problem once I got used to the style.

Overall, I enjoyed this mystery. I enjoyed the setting and the characters in it. And perhaps because of the characters, I am interested in going back to read the first book in this series and finding out how it all started.

Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

As soon as I heard about Devoted, I knew I had to read it and that I would either love it or hate it - turns out I loved it (and it's a very intense book).

Devoted revolves around Rachel, a girl “devoted to God.” She’s a member of Calvary Christian Church, which is obviously part of the Quiverfull movement (and if you know me, you know I can’t stand them). She tries to be a Godly girl, but the rules chafe at her, and one day, she makes contact with one of the girls that ran away. And suddenly, the world looks a lot wider.

First, I should mention that although I’m a Christian, I cannot stand the groups that pervert the name of God. I don’t even think they should be allowed to call themselves Christian, and the Quiverfull movement, with its legalistic and sexist theology, is one of them.

Which is why my heart broke when I read about Rachel. Rachel is curious and loves books and I hate how all the legalism almost breaks her soul. Christianity is freeing, not a jail and the ‘Church’ she went to made me rage. I absolutely rooted for her to get away and for her to re-establish her relationship with God.

Another thing I loved about this book was its portrayal of Christianity, which I found very fair. The author doesn’t paint all Christians as people who go to Calvary Christian, and even though some who left that ‘Church’ turned away from God, that wasn’t the only way that you could leave. Most of the time, religion in YA books is shown as either totally good or totally bad, so I appreciated this level of nuance, which mimics real life.

If you’re into moving books with nuance and characters that will steal your heart, you need to read this. I found this to be a deeply moving book and while parts of it broke my heart, I am glad that I had the chance to read it.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Queens of Fennbirn by Kendare Blake

I LOVED Three Dark Crowns so when I saw this in the library today, I immediately snatched it up and devoured it. Queens of Fennbirn is a collection of two novellas and it is so good!

The first story is The Young Queens and it’s about Mirabella, Arsinoe, and Katherine, the protagonists of the Three Dark Crowns series. This is really more of a prequel that explores their lives, so it doesn’t really have a plot. But it does answer some questions that the first book raised and I was so happy to be back in the world (as strange as that sounds, given that their world is violent and bloody). And the story only cemented Mirabella as my favourite because she was the only one with any loyalty. I mean, I guess I understand why the other two are like that, but I still prefer Mirabella as Crowned Queen.

The second story is The Oracle Queen and purports to tell the true story of the last Oracle Queen: Queen Elsabet. This story was heartbreaking because of its ending, and especially if you consider what her legacy is. I know it’s not a big plot point, but I would like to see justice for Elsabet. And now I really dislike the Poisoner group (sorry, Katherine but unless you grow a spine, you’re guilty by association).

Fans of Three Dark Crowns will love these two stories. I know I did, and reading this just made me more excited for One Dark Throne: now I have to find it in the library.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Death below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

I’ve been looking for this book ever since I saw Wendy at Literary Feline mention it. Finally, the ebook version was available and I immediately borrowed it and I have absolutely no regrets.

When Kat Holloway takes a new job as cook, she doesn’t expect much to happen. But on her second day on the job, her assistant turns up dead in her cellar. Luckily (or perhaps unluckily), Kat has a friend named Daniel McAdam, and what starts as a simple investigation quickly turns into something much more high stakes.

Can I say that I absolutely loved this?

The main reason is because of the characters. Kat is a spirited woman and I enjoy how measured and quick-thinking she is. She’s a sensible person, unlike some heroines who can be as dumb as a doorbell but still solve the mystery and her backstory is fantastic. Plus, I really rooted for her relationship with the mysterious Daniel and that isn’t something I do very often.

Daniel and his son, James, were also very well-written, which contributed to my enjoyment of the book. Their father-son relationship is really adorable and they’re both memorable characters in their own right. The supporting characters were all interesting too.

Plot-wise, the book moved along at a good pace. I didn’t really expect the twists that it took, but they were believable and I couldn’t put the book down. While it stands alone, it feels like the story can continue and I am really looking forward to it!

One more thing that I also appreciated was how the characters were introduced. Maybe it’s because I just read a book where each character was given extensive backstory, but I found the amount of information given out to be just right. I still don’t know how Kat and Daniel met, but I know enough about their backgrounds that their relationship feels natural and I want to read more, and to me, that means the book has succeeded regarding backstory.

If you are a fan of historical mysteries, you’ll definitely have to read this. I’m definitely going to look for the next book, and I hope I find it a lot quicker than I did this.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Death by Darjeeling by Laura Childs

I wanted to read something lighter after the book on Austen and Social Science and a tea-themed cozy Mystery fit the bill!

Death by Darjeeling is centered around the Indigo Tea Shop, which in turn is owned by Theodosia. When a hater developer dies at her teashop and her employee’s friend loses her job over it, Theodosia starts digging into the death. But the more she learns, the more suspects she finds. And more worryingly, someone seems to be after her as well.

What I loved about this book was obviously all the tea references! The hanyu pinyin of the Chinese teas isn’t the standard one but that’s okay because there was a lot of tea talk and description of the teas. I would love to try the teas mentioned and if Indigo tea shop existed near me, I would definitely be a frequent patron.

I also liked the core group of characters. Theodosia, Drayton (the tea master), Haley (employee), and Bethany (employee’s friend turned employee) have a very nice group dynamic and I appreciated the way that Theodosia brought them into the mystery. I thought that made their friendship feel real and I really enjoyed their interactions with one another.

On the other hand, there were a few things I’m not too enthusiastic about.

One is the very long introductions of each character. Or perhaps they just felt long because I didn’t feel like I needed backstory at that moment. But since this is book one I can understand why it’s this way.

The other thing I didn’t like (and this is a bigger deal for me), was the sudden shift in one of the characters. This was done through a change in POV, which occurred a few times and always felt abrupt. More importantly, the sudden change in how one of the characters was presented felt too sudden and not very believable. Rather than a natural progression, it felt like a device used to heighten tension.

Would I read the second book? I’m not sure. I really enjoyed the tea references and I think that the long introductions should be gone by book two, but the sudden twist for one character at the end had me wary. I still have quite a number of tea-related books that I want to read (please believe that it’s work-related research) so perhaps I’ll read those first and then see if I’ll continue with the series.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Jane on the Brain by Wendy Jones

I spent the last few days slowly reading this book because it was a much harder read than I expected. I saw “exploring the science of social intelligence with Jane Austen” and thought it would be one of those easy-to-read intro book, but this is actually pretty intense.

Like the subtitle says, this is all about social science. It starts off with what the mind is and how we think (which to be honest I still don’t quite understand), and then moves on to study topics like love, empathy, and empathy disorders (Borderline Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, and Narcissistic Personality Disorder), ending with a detailed study of Anne from Persuasion, who has “the most developed sense of empathy” out of all the Austen characters.

Throughout the entire book, the author draws heavily on Austen’s characters to explain the various concepts, although they aren’t the exclusive source of examples. So this is definitely a book that gives Austen the spotlight.

For me, I enjoyed the ‘topical’ chapters on relationships and how childhood affects character a lot more than the opening stuff on how the mind works. I know the opening stuff is the foundation, but I found the latter half to be a lot easier to understand.

I really like the section on attachment, where she explains the three different types. There’s:

1. Preoccupied attachment, which is Marianne from Sense and Sensibility. Marianne is unable to self-regulate her emotions and her insecurity makes her distraught when Willoughby leaves and cuts her, sending her into depression and a near brush with death.

2. Secure attachment, which is Elinor from Sense and Sensibility. Although she feels things deeply, she can cope with her strong feelings and the news of Edward’s secret engagement shocks her but doesn’t devastate her.

3. Dismissive attachment, which is Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Darcy’s classic English stiff upper lip means that he “would have developed little tolerance for excitement and therefore would have tended to overregulate in order to control his anxiety.”

I also thought that the point on Austen’s Free Indirect Discourse narrative style and how it has a lot in common with empathy to be very interesting! It’s a pity it’s just a small section in the epilogue because I would have loved to read a chapter on it.

Basically, if you’re a fan of Austen and think you can handle the science in this book, you should totally read it. It’s pretty heavy, but it’s also a really good analysis of Austen’s characters (even though this is technically not a lit book)

Monday, May 7, 2018

The American Gun Mystery by Ellery Queen

My second Ellery Queen Mystery! I’m afraid I didn’t like this as much as The Greek Coffin Mystery.

The American Mystery takes place at a Rodeo. Ellery Queen and his father take Djuna to see the first show starting Buck Horne. And at that show, with twenty thousand people watching, Buck Horne is shot dead. Ellery and his father leap into action but despite their best efforts, the gun is never found.

I thought that plot-wise, this was a pretty good mystery. Like with The Greek Coffin Mystery, the authors purposely interrupt the narrative to give the reader time to think before they reveal the truth. While I didn’t get the clues and didn’t figure out the mystery, things certainly made sense once they were explained.

The only thing that hampered my enjoyment was... well Ellery himself. I quite liked his character in the first book, and he was likable enough at the start of this (especially when he referenced Father Brown), but along the way, he became slightly irritating. While Poirot’s eccentricities come across as charming to me, Ellery’s quirks feel annoying. I really feel for his father, for having to put up with a know-it-all son who doesn’t reveal anything until the end (Although it is explained that this is because of the events in The Greek Coffin Mystery)

And since Ellery is the protagonist of the series, I’m left undecided if I want to continue reading. I was really interested in reading more of this series at first, but now, I’m not too sure. It’s definitely something to think about, especially since my TBR list is so long.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

I can’t quite remember how I heard of this book, but it was definitely related to Do You Believe in Magic, which was a fantastic look at alternative medicine. Bad Science also looks at alternative medicine, but is much broader and looks at science as whole.

The book starts off with a look at experiments and what they mean (very important because you need to be able to understand what reliable studies are before you can decide if things are being reported correctly), before going on to homeopathy and nutritionists. The last section of the book looks at how the media misrepresents science and it might make you lose trust in medical reporting.

This book was fantastic! I really liked how the author used humour to make his points because it helped me to remember them better. For example, when he’s talking about all those expensive facial creams and how the skin absorbs things, he writes that “in general, you don’t absorb things very well through the skin, because its purpose is to be relatively impermeable. When you sit in a bath of baked beans for charity, you do not get fat, nor do you start farting.”

My sense of humour is probably on the juvenile side but the mental image of someone farting uncontrollably in a tub of baked beans made me laugh.

That said, my favourite chapter was Chapter 13, Why clever people believe stupid things, where he makes the following points (among others):

- We see patterns where there is only random noise

- We see casual relationships where there are none

- We tend to be biased towards evidence we want to believe in.

All the points are made with plenty of examples to back them up. In fact, if you want a clear and convincing explanation on why vaccinations don’t cause autism, you should read the chapter on it. It’s very clear that no one should have believe the studies and that the media had a role in playing up this ‘scare’.

Anyone who enjoys science will enjoy this. The book is well-written and easy to understand. You could probably get the same information if you search long enough on the Internet, but since it’s all gathered conveniently into one place, you should just read the book.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

I keep hearing about the invisible library series from Wendy at Literary Feline and every time I see her reviews, I put the book on my TBR list. After a pointlessly long time, I finally read the first book in the series and it is fantastic!

This series is about a Library and the Librarians are spies! They go into different alternate realities to steal, um I mean acquire, different rare books that help to refine the Language, which is a language that can be used to command people or things.

Irene is a Librarian who’s suddenly given someone (Kai) to mentor and the task to retrieve a book. It should be an easy task, since it’s Kai’s first mission, but Irene and Kai soon realise that there is far more than meets the eye and that an old nemesis of the Library may be behind everything.

I loved everything about this book! Firstly, there’s the world-building. I love the concept of the Library and the Language, which pulled everything together. The worldbuilding was also very well-done, with the information coming at a good pace that didn’t interfere with the plot.

The characters are also well-done. I really loved Irene, who loves books too and is a bit of a badass. She’s perhaps a bit too unquestioningly loyal to the Library, but she’s a fantastic mentor and I rooted for her from the first page. Kai, her mentee, was also really interesting and I sense a possible romance between them.

The plot was also good. The mystery of the book she has to steal was really engaging and I liked how she tied it to the larger plot. And while the main plot is wrapped up by the end, Cogman has left enough threads hanging that I can see that it’s the start of a series and I’m very eager to read the next book!

If you like books, kickass heroines, a mystery surrounding a book and lots of fun, I’m pretty sure that you’ll enjoy The Invisible Library. I know I’m looking forward to reading the next book.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Plain Secrets by Joe Mackall

A few years ago, I had this Amish fiction binge and I’ve remained curious about them ever since. When I heard that there was a book that wrote about them accurate and compassionately, I knew that I had to read it.

Plain Secrets is a fairly short book (only twelve chapters!) about Joe and his friendships with his Amish neighbours, the Shetlers. His neighbours are respected in their community and show no hint of dissatisfaction, but one of their nephews, Jonas, has left the Amish. By talking to Jonas and being a good neighbour and friend to the Shetlers, Joe shows us why people would stay Amish, and why people would leave.

I thought that this approach made the book very even-handed. Even though Joe cares dearly for his friends and values them, he also feels frustration at some of the things they do, such as continuing to drive in buggies (which are really no match for cars). I especially felt his frustration when he told me that many Amish don’t vaccinate their kids, which was also something that surprised me.

And occasionally, Joe also talks about the differences within the Amish. The way he adds the info always felt appropriate and I learnt a lot. I knew there was a difference between a Mennonite and the Amish, but I didn’t realise that there were so many differences between the Amish too. The degree to which they separate themselves from our world depends on the order that they belong to.

If you’re interested in reading about a group of people who live completely different lives from us, I think you’ll like this book. It’s not some shocking, scandalous expose, but it taught me more about the Amish. I’ll end my review with the last sentence of the book, which I really liked:
"And the beauty and truth of it is this: That to these plain people, in these times and in all others, the values that reign supreme are community, acceptance, and faith, which can, with prayer and a little luck, lead to peace."