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!)