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.

Friday, August 10, 2018

A Moment on the Edge edited by Elizabeth George

I’ve been reading this over the past few days and finally finished it! The nice thing about anthologies is that it’s easy to read it in bits and pieces, which makes it really good for commute reading.

A Moment on the Edge is a collection of crime stories over the past 100 years. This book doesn’t just feature noted crime writers, but stories from a wider range of authors. All stories “share in common a desire to explore mankind in a moment on the edge”.

Each story is introduced with a brief biography of the author, but to be honest, I skipped those. My interest is solely in the stories, which were:

- A Jury of Her Peers by Susan Glaspell: Martha Hale is called to the scene of her crime. While she and the Sheriff’s wife are taken lightly by the men, the two women get to the heart of the matter and must decide - do they tell what they know? A very interesting story and a good start to the anthology.

- The Man Who Knew How by Dorothy L. Sayers: this makes me want to read more Sayers. A clever story with a twist, about a man who claims to have discovered the perfect way to kill.

- I Can Find my Way Out by Ngaio Marsh: A murder mystery set in a theatre, I found this to be a bit confusing. I think it’s because of the number of characters in the story.

- The Summer People by Shirley Jackson: This was a creepy story about whether a location is trying to kill the two main characters or if they’re just paranoid.

- St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning by Charlotte Armstrong: I thought that this was confusing at the start but it had such an excellent twist that I ended up liking it very much.

- The Purple is Everything by Dorothy Salisbury Davis: This wasn’t a murder mystery but about art theft. It’s a pretty good character study type of story.

- Money to Burn by Margery Allingham: I’ve heard of this author but I don’t remember if I’ve read her stuff! I thought this was a very tightly written story, although I had to read the ending twice to understand it. I definitely need to look for books by her!

- Nice Place to Stay by Nedra Tyre: This turned the crime story on its head by looking at things from the perspective of the criminal. I really enjoyed this one!

- Clever and Quick by Christianna Brand: There are murders in this and it’s not till the end that you get to see who comes up on top in this. Would highly recommend this too.

- Country Lovers by Nadine Gordimer: To be honest, I didn’t quite get why this was a crime story. Sounded like love gone wrong.

- The Irony of Hate by Ruth Rendell: This story is the confession of a killer and I have to say, I did not expect it. I should probably pick up another Ruth Rendell novel soon.

- Sweet Baby Jenny by Joyce Harrington: I don’t know if it’s the dialect style of this, but I found this a little hard to read. I managed to understand what was going on, but only towards the end.

- Wild Mustard by Marcia Miller: A tragic story, though like with Country Lovers, I don’t quite understand how this is a crime story.

- Jemima Shore at the Sunny Grave by Antonia Fraser: Set in the Caribbean, this story has its protagonist investigate the death of the women she came to interview. The story started off well but I did not see the denouement coming or enough clues to guess at it.

- The Case of Pietro Andromache by Sara Paterson: I really liked this one! It involves a statue during WWII, duelling doctors, an a private investigator determined to help her friend. I need to go find more from this author too!

- Afraid All the Time by Nancy Pickard: A leading up to, but stopping just before, a tragic event. I feel like although the ending stopped at the climax, it didn’t feel that way because I never did find out what happened.

- The Young Shall See Visions, and the Old Dream Dreams by Kristine Kathryn Rush: This wasn’t my cup of tea, mostly because parts of the story seemed irrelevant to the crime. (Maybe because it’s a short story?)

- A Predatory Woman by Sharyn McCrumb: You have a reporter doing anything to get her story and a murderess who’s served her time. I wonder who the predatory woman in the title is?

- Jack be Quick by Barbara Paul: I really enjoyed this historical mystery, which imagines a solution to the Jack the Ripper serial killings (and why they stopped)

- Ghost Station by Carolyn Wheat: I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this story, but it turns out I did. It looks at women in the police force, alcoholism, and family.

- New Moon and Rattlesnakes by Wendy Hornsby: Lise is both on the run and looking for revenge. I didn’t know what was happening at first, but once I did, the story grabbed me and didn’t let go.

- Death of a Snowbird by J. A. Lance: Didn’t quite get this one, to be honest.

- The River Mouth by Lia Matera: Didn’t get this one either - and it felt like the protagonist navel-gazed a fair bit.

- A Scandal in Winter by Gillian Linscott: This is a tale involving an elderly Sherlock Holmes and it’s great fun! Really enjoyed reading this.

- Murder-Two by Joyce Carol Oates: I’ve heard of Joyce Carol Oates and had high expectations of this, but the stream of consciousness style of narration just confused me.

- English Autumn - American Fall by Minette Walters: The last story in the anthology, it was unfortunately rather weak. I think this is in part because of its lack of length because I didn’t connect to the characters and had absolutely no idea what was going on (and no memory of what it was about less than an hour after I read it).

Overall, this anthology was a good one. While I felt like it faltered a little towards the end, most of the stories were varied and excellent. While I knew of some of the authors, I haven’t heard of others and I got so many author recommendations from this!

Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Thirst for Empire by Erika Rappaport

I first heard about this book from NPR's article "From Raucous To Ritzy: A Brief History Of Christmas Tea" (would recommend this if you want to know about more about how Christmas tea came about!). The book sounded interesting and since the NLB had it, I decided to borrow it.

Unfortunately, I didn't realise how thick and academic this would be. It took me quite a few days just to read through the whole thing once, and then I had to go through it a second time to make sure I roughly understood what it said. Or perhaps this is just an indication of how rusty my brain has gotten.

Although this book is subtitled "how tea shaped the modern world", it really is very much focused on the British empire. America, China, and India are fairly extensively discussed, but my impression is that this is only in relation to Britain and the British tea industry.

As you're probably aware, tea is from China but for some reason, it's also seen as a very British drink (in particular, black tea). This book traces the journey of tea as its status changes from foreign import to a symbol of Britishness, going into things like how the taste for tea was created, how this influenced Imperial Britain, and even the role of tea in the Great Depression and World War II.

I talked about parts of the book in more detail in my previous posts on Tea and Temperance and the history of Fake Tea, but another thing I learned from this book was how the British moved from Chinese to Indian teas. I had always thought that Robert Fortune's discovery of tea adulteration was the main cause of the shift to black, Indian teas, but this book showed me that there was also a concerted effort to promote 'Imperial' (Indian) teas. In fact, most consumers didn't like the taste of Indian teas at first, and some tea shops ended up blending Chinese and Indian teas to make them more palatable!

One more thing that I found interesting was the subtle shift in the image of tea. During the heyday of the British empire, Indian teas were sold as 'Imperial' products and that consumers would be helping the empire by buying them. However, "by the late 1930s, it was no longer clear that empire added value. Instead, health and bodily renewal became watchwords of the day, shaping advertising and many other facets of European culture." What this means is that tea was introduced as a healthy Chinese drink, and then through a series of marketing campaigns marketed as a British product, and then when that failed, went back to being a healthy drink that would revive you. In a way, it's come full circle (but then again, really not since the British public didn't go back to drinking Chinese teas).

If you're interested in the history of tea and how it relates to Britan and the British empire, I think you'd really enjoy this book. It's fairly dry in tone but it has so much information crammed into it that after reading it a couple of times, I think you'll find that your view of tea has been changed.

P.s. This review was first posted at my other blog, Eustea.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Princess by Jane Dismore

I was intrigued as soon as I saw this book on NetGalley because I don't know anything about Queen Elizabeth before she became queen (I didn't even know how she looked like when she was young!). So when I heard that this book also contained unpublished material from letters and interviews, I decided to request for it.

Princess is a sensitively written account of Queen Elizabeth's early life. It starts off with the moment she became queen (very sadly, she was one of the last people to know) and then backtracks to when she was born before going forward from there. It covers her childhood, marriage, and life as a newlywed.

I was actually pretty surprised at how normally her parents raised her. You always hear of extravagant lifestyles but it seems like Queen Elizabeth and her sister were raised to be as down to earth as possible. Part of it may have been the times where they grew up, but it seems like a part of it is also due to her parents and their personality. I felt that they had a very genuine and loving relationship, which was very touching.

Also touching was her relationship with Prince Phillip. Because she eventually marries him, the book does touch on key moments of his life before they met. There isn't anything scandalous in their love story, but it's a very sweet account.

The one thing that surprised me while reading was the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. I didn't really have any views about them because I knew nothing about them except that the King abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, so it was a shock to find out that both of them had pro-Nazi views. I’m definitely going to side-eye anyone who praises Wallis Simpson now.

Overall, this was an interesting and informative account of Queen Elizabeth’s early life. The only thing I wish it added were photos of key moments - while they are probably just one google search away, it would be nice to be able to flip to them in the book. Hopefully it’s just my advance copy that doesn’t have pictures because I think it would add a lot to have them.

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

Friday, August 3, 2018

Educated by Tara Westover

I heard so many good things about this book that as soon as I saw that the NLB had an ecopy, I placed a hold on it. And all the rave reviews were true - this did not disappoint.

Educated is the memoir of Tara Westover. She was raised by a paranoid father who saw government conspiracies and a mother who drifted into alternative healing (oddly enough, her mother never indicated that chakras and essential oils were incompatible with Mormonism).

Due to this unusual family dynamic, Tara never went to school or even socialised much with people her age. Luckily, she had an amazing voice and brothers who managed to go to university, which gave her a longing for the wider world. So although she was afraid that her actions would betray her family, she started teaching herself to read.

This book was simply absorbing and I couldn’t put it down. Tara and her brother Tyler are amazing for the way they managed to gain an education. But the ways that her family stayed trapped was heartbreaking, especially the way they let her older brother Shawn rule the family with his temper. Their emotional manipulation was really off the charts and my heart broke whenever I saw Tara doubt herself.

This book was also a hopeful one because I saw how people would come to Tara’s aid when she needed it most. People that stood out were her bishop in her ward, who gave her a space to talk it out and got her monetary support, as well as the various professors who recognised her academic talent and encouraged her.

Oh yeah, and even though Tara and her community are all Mormon, this book isn’t about really about religion. While Tara does struggle with some tenets of her faith, she never explicitly casts it off, instead impartially talking about the Mormons and non-Mormons who helped her. It’s clear that religion wasn’t the sole or even main reason for her childhood (though it did play a big part) - her dad’s mental illness probably was.

I would highly, highly recommend this book. It is an amazingly well-written read about how one woman managed to overcome her childhood with the support of people in her life. And do you know what I want to read next? Her PhD thesis. It sounds fascinating.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

A Tale of Two Murders by Heather Redmond

I requested this from NetGalley because the cover was pretty and it’s a Dicken’s inspired novel! I like (and know enough) about his work that fanfic like this is interesting and something that I would like to try reading.

In A Tale of Two Murders, Charles Dickens is drawn into the role of a detective when the girl living next to his editor is murdered. Because another girl in the neighbourhood died the same way a year ago, and stricken by the lovely Kate Hogarth, his editor’s daughter, Dickens decides to find the truth of what happened.

Though he isn’t part of the upper class, the mother of the dead girl, Lady Lugoson, also suspects murder and she helps to open doors. However, Dickens soon comes across family secrets and he must decide which of the many suspects is the actual culprit.

To be honest, this book started off a little slowly for me. For some reason, I found the language a little clunky, which made immersing myself in the story and the time period harder. It was only after a few chapters that I managed to get into the rhythm of the story and start to wonder about who killed poor Miss Lugoson.

Apart from the language, one thing that made it harder for me to get into the story was that the murder plot wasn’t the most dominant. I felt that the start of the book was preoccupied with Dicken’s budding relationship with Kate Hogarth and that influenced his actions more than getting to the truth. While their romance is very sweet and I admire Kate for knowing what she wants and sticking to it, it felt like half or more the story was a romance, which wasn’t what I wanted to read.

Speaking of Kate, I really liked her character! She’s a sensible young lady, and it was refreshing to see the female lead portrayed as equally capable as the male lead. Although she couldn’t be there when Dickens made some important discoveries because they weren’t married, I like how she spoke her mind and wasn’t afraid to contradict Dickens.

I’m not too sure about how accurate the portrayal of Dickens was, though. He seems like a idealist romantic here, but I have read that his marriage didn’t go very smoothly, so I do wonder how accurately the book portrayed him.

Overall, this was a pretty enjoyable book. It took some time for me to get into the story, but I enjoyed it once I was caught up. If you’re a fan of Charles Dickens, you’ll probably want to give it a try.

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

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Pound Foolish by Helaine Olen

After reading Dollars and Cents, I decided to pick up another book about money. But unlike Dollars and Cents, Pound Foolish isn't about the wrong ways we think about money, it's an expose of the personal finance and financial industry.

Pound Foolish starts by taking a look at the history of personal finance, starting with S.F. Porter, a personal finance guru who rose to dizzying heights before falling into obscurity. The next chapter continues the examination of personal finance gurus by looking at the controversial Suze Orman and how she changes personalities and advice to suit her audience. Chapter three shifts from people to ideas as the author debunks the latte myth - that our small little luxury spends are what's keeping us from being millionaires. Instead, the book argues that the changes to the economy are so huge and the financial difficulties most Americans face so huge that such small changes will not help.

And that really is the central idea of the book - that personal finance is not personal and that Americans have to change the system of things before they can be financially secure.

Which is why as we read through Chapter four and the rest of the book, the focus slowly shifts from the personal finance gurus to the larger financial industry. Chapter four talks about retirement and criticises the American 401(k) as being inadequate. This chapter also introduces the 'most dangerous woman in America', Teresa Ghilarducci, and her hope to "create a pension plan for all of us by having workers and their employers contribute a minimum of 5 percent of pay into a guaranteed account via mandatory automatic deduction. The government, in turn, would contribute a $600 annual tax credit [...] All this money would be placed in United States bonds which would promise an annual minimum return of 3 percent above the rate of inflation."

That sounded a lot like the Singapore CPF system, in that employees and employers must contribute a certain percentage to a savings account (well actually there are three accounts for different purposes), which have interests rates that range from 3.5% to 5%. Not identical, but similar.

After talking about retirement (and whether Americans can afford it), the book goes on to talk about the culture of commissions in the financial service sector. This was actually pretty disturbing because it's clear that there are people preying on the elderly and not much is being done about it. When the chapter is done, the book continues on the idea of making money through investments (although not necessarily for retirement) by talking about the quest for the perfect investment.

The last three chapters bring the topic back to the topic of personal finance, as they discuss women and money (I know a few people who would have a lot to say about it), how real estate may not actually make you money, and the myth of financial literacy (the author doesn't believe it's possible to be financial literate).

Like I mentioned above, the central idea of this book is that personal finance is not financial and that Americans have been tricked into thinking that it is. To be honest, while a lot of the things here are eye-opening, I'm not entirely convinced by the argument. While it's true that sudden accidents or events can knock you off a financially secure position, advice such as getting rid of debt and cutting down on needless spending isn't bad (that said, some of the debt advice wasn't the best). It almost feels as though the author has no trust in the average American and wants to absolve them of any financial mistakes they might have made because it's the big bad financial industry and personal finance gurus to blame.

I'm not so sure if that's true. I do think that if you teach people how to think about money and to recognise the blind spots in their thinking, it's possible for them to make good decisions. While we probably shouldn't be asking financial institutions to teach people how to be financially responsible, given the conflict of interest, I think trying to make people financially literate is a good goal.

Overall, this was a pretty good book about how the financial environment affects personal finance. Perhaps its because I'm not in America, but I do follow quite a few responsible financial bloggers (although I will admit that there are many irresponsible ones) and I think that they are doing a good job educating people, which is probably why I'm not as pessimistic about the whole thing as the author.

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault

I borrowed this book because tea was mentioned. Unfortunately, despite the fact that tea leaf reading is central to the story, tea didn’t play a huge part.

The Leaf Reader starts with the disappearance of Andrea Quinley. Though Marnie doesn’t know her, the news affects the whole town. That said, Marnie didn’t think it would affect her personally. Not until she started tea leaf reading for Matt and found out that it was about Andrea’s disappearance. Although a bit scared of the fact that the things she sees are sometimes accurate, she is convinced to help investigate Andrea’s disappearance.

I quite liked the set-up for this book and I was curious to know how it ended, but I felt that the middle part dragged. (MILD SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because that the ‘reveal’ about Marnie having actual powers came so late, but a good part of the book felt like it was just Marnie and Matt guessing their way through the whole thing rather than being guided by what she saw in the teacups. It was only at the end that things came together.

That said, one thing I liked about the somewhat slow middle section were Marnie’s remembrances of Jimmy, the bad boy who may have had a connection to Andrea. It helped to humanise Jimmy, who never appeared directly in the story and who might have remained a bogey figure if not for the memories.

Marnie was also a pretty interesting character. I think part of the story is about her learning to accept herself, but like I mentioned before, because the ‘truth’ about herself came so late, I felt like the issue wasn’t dealt with fully. Instead, I had this wrong impression of her background and the issues she needed to deal with, which felt like a red-herring. Not to say that being in a ‘weird’ family isn’t a proper issue, but I thought the ‘family powers’ part needed more attention.

Overall, this is a pretty interesting story. While the middle felt like it dragged on a bit, I have to admit that I continued reading because I was sufficiently hooked and had to find out the truth about Andrea’s disappearance. So the book did do it’s job in getting me to pick it up and finish it. I just feel like it could have been stronger.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

To be honest, I was a little hesitant when I picked this up because I wasn’t sure if I would like it. The blurb sounded good but the cover was kind of creepy and I don’t even know if I like Gothic fiction. But when I started this, I quickly found myself hooked and finished the book in no time.

Warning: this book is pretty short so there will be mild spoilers in the review

Mary Katherine (Merricat) is an eighteen year old girl who lives with her uncle Julian and her sister Constance, to whom she is fiercely devoted to. The three of them are outcasts because six years ago, someone put arsenic in the sugar and killed most of the family. While Constance was eventually acquitted of the murders, suspicion still hangs over them, leaving Merricat as the only member of the family who ventures into the village.

Despite that, the three of them are happy. Until cousin Charles comes and Merricat finds that her sister and their household is rapidly changing.

This was a very creepy story, partly because Merricat is the main character and protagonist. If you read on, it’s pretty obvious that Constance is the normal one, full of love of her sister and while scared of the outside world, also longing to rejoin society.

Merricat, on the other hand, is contented with the way things are because she has her loving sister all to herself (and uncle Julian). To her, the outside world is nothing more than an intrusion on what could be a happy life. Which is why although she’s eighteen, Merricat feels like she’s much younger - almost childlike - mentally.

The family dynamics alone would be creepy, but when you add in the village, things go up a notch. There is so much unmasked hostility in the villagers that it’s scary. In the first chapter alone, a grown man corners Merricat and insinuates (almost saying it point blank) that he wants her and her family gone. That interaction was so uncomfortable that I almost stopped reading.

Overall, this was a great book. It’s definitely not something comfortable to read - the tension in this book can be really high at times - but it is addictive and fascinating in its own way. If this is Gothic fiction, I should try reading more of it.

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."
"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