Saturday, June 30, 2012

Longform Reads #4

Sorry for the really late post. I just came back from a kendo nomikai (it was to celebrate the last practice of the term). It was so fun even though I didn't drink :D

Ok, so this week, I focused on "Sleep" (thanks to the Byliner Spotlight). So, here are the articles I read:

Deep Into Sleep by Craig Lambert: Probably my favourite article of the bunch. It gave me enough arguments to convince me that more sleep is a good thing. Now, I can say with absolutely no guilt that I need to prepare for my exams by sleeping more :D

Can a Lack of Sleep Set Back Your Child's Cognitive Abilities? by Po Bronson: In a similar vein to Deep Into Sleep, well, I suppose that when you really don't want to study, you'll try other methods (like sleeping more and hoping your brain is awake during class).

In the Dreamscape of Nightmares, Clues to Why We Dream at All by Natalie Angier: A fairly interesting article, it looked at the types of nightmares, (and briefly, in one paragraph, how cultural norms can affect the most common type of nightmares).

On Insomnia by Elizabeth Gumport: Very, I don't know how to say, lyrical? It was the article that resembled the kind of (^_^)/~~~~ dreamy kind of feeling associated with deep books and books trying to sound deep. It almost makes insomnia appealing, only that as someone who used to wake up at 3 a.m. on the dot, I'd take as much sleep as possible.

The Stubborn Scientist Who Unraveled A Mystery of the Night by Chip Brown: This is about REM and how it's discovery came about. I'm not sure who the stubborn scientist is though, seeing as there were two of them. I felt like out of the bunch of articles, this was the least interesting of the lot (I'd rather read about REM than it's history).

The "miscellaneous" articles are:

The Sugar Mama of Anti-Muslim Hate by Max Blumenthal: Looking at a heiress who is bankrolling all the anti-Muslim causes. What I want to know though, is why? Are there any reasons why she supports this? Is she mistaken or did she have a bad experience of something? The article would have been so much better if it addressed this as well, instead of merely telling me her actions.

French Women Worry About Getting Fat, Too by Susan Dominus: A very interesting article, covering weight-loss in France. Apparently, there's a perception that French women are all thin (I remember a book with the title French Women Don't Get Fat so there you go) and this article shows the challenges of working around this perception (and how the French feel towards food) to introduce weight-loss methods.

Don't by Jonah Lehrer: Since this was looking at how/whether people can delay their responses (like not eating a treat in front of them), I found this really interesting. Apparently, there's a link between people who can wait and successful people. Hmm.... I think I'm not very patient. Oh dear...

What did you read this week?

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (Translated and Edited by Ivan Morris)

I think I've already established some time back that I loved Essays in Idleness (beginning with the title, which should appeal to any student). So, when I heard of a similar book, I decided to go and read it. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon is similar to Essays in Idleness, seeing as it is a series of disconected writings of varying lengths. The main difference is that the Pillow Book is more focused on royal court life.

The book was interesting. It provided a glimsp into Heian court life through the eyes of Sei Shonagon, who was a Court Lady. She obviously loves the Emperor and Empress, as seen by the way she constantly praises them and the way she describes them.

Heian court sounds very witty and indulgent. Maybe too indulgent. Ok, positives first. I think the whole poem quoting thing is way cool. The way that they respond the poems with poems (and are puns), I just wish I could do that (although I highly doubt I can memorise/create so many clever poems).

Negatives: they sound so mean. Or rather, Sei Shonagon sounds like a mean person. One episode that I remember very clearly relates to poetry. Sei Shonagon was very impressed with the way she heard someone recite a poem, but disparagingly remarked that she was disappointed that it was a commoner. Ouch.

Sei Shonagon also sounds like a romantist. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or bad thing. I suppose you could refer to Sense and Sensibility and think: Do I prefer Sense or do I prefer Sensibility? Sometimes, her love of the romantic leads to really beautiful descriptions, but sometimes, it goes over the top and just annoys me. But it may be that I just can't appretiate her sense of beauty/romanticism.

If you're going to read this book, I will tell you now that you should get a copy with extensive footnotes. Not only are you going to want to know more about the people mentioned, you'll need explanations on the poems and some events, not to mention court protocol. The copy that I read had a really nice thick footnote and appendix section (almost 200 pages!) that was very illuminating, but the problem was that all the footnotes were placed at the back. This made the constant flipping back and forth necessary and annoying. So maybe you'll want to look out for a copy where the footnotes are at the bottom of the page.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You by Ally Carter

I remember reading this series a few years ago. But like my re-reading habits, I had the urge to read it, and couldn't stop until I finished the whole book. To sum everything up, this is a really fun read, for when you want to escape to a whole different world.

Here, the focus is on teen spies. You might think "Alex Rider", but there's none of the danger in the Alex Rider books here. Instead, it's focused on the training of these (very smart) teen girls. In short, it's more fun than action.

Cammie, the protagonist, happens to be the headmistress's daughter. And through a series of events, she meets -gasp- a normal boy. But seeing as she doesn't know how to deal with boys (having lived in an all-girls school from young), she and her friends (with some help from the new girl Macey), apply their spy skills to helping develope their relationship.

To me, it's pretty ingenious how the spy concept was used to amplify and parody the actions of girls when they have a crush. To Cammie and her friends, going through his trash (after learning about it in Covert Operations class) to find out more about him is normal. As the reader, we're inclined to think this is over-the-top. But it not only shows how clueless they are, it reminds me of how girls will use anything as evidence to analyse a guy (something which I've been helping my friends do since I came here :D ). The actions might be exagerated, but the feelings aren't (I am, however, keeping this book away from my friend in case she gets inspired by their actions).

Characterwise, they have a bunch of predictable but entertaining characters. I especially love Liz, the genius girl (who is sometimes a bit blur). The dynamics in the group work really well. (As a side note, I realise most books have the same type of characters, but it's this that makes the book entertaining. It'd be boring for books to contain the same types of characters).

Plot-wise, it's ok. Not exciting, more of the teenage drama stuff (with a twist). I can't say that the romance felt very believable (Cammie is inclined to gush too much), but it was, at the very least, cute. I preferred to read about the world of a secret spy school more than the developing romance between Cammie and Josh.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Beyond The Wall by James Lowder (and other contributors)

Beyond The Wall is one of those books that explores the world behind the books. In this case, it explores the world in the A Song of Fire and Ice series by George R.R. Martin. You may be surprised to see this because I haven't talked about A Song of Fire and Ice before and you're right. Before I picked up this book, I had absolutely no knowledge of this amazing world.

It seems counterintuitive, not to mention spoiler-ish, but I actually became interested in this series because of this book. I'm the otaku kind of fan, so when I become a fan, I like to know as much as possible about the world (you should see how often I'm at the Detective Conan wiki!). I don't mind spoilers because honestly, I like to read for the writing.

And wow, I'm still not even half-way through A Game of Thrones and it's such a great book. It's also a very long book though, so a review will come later. Maybe much later :p

Ok, now back to Beyond The Wall. Beyond The Wall is very easy to read because each chapter is a stand-alone chapter, discussing one particular issue about the series. This means you can jump around chapter sequences and what not, and it wouldn't make much difference.

And well, the topics themselves were interesting (and prepared me, in a good way, for what to expect from the series). They cover things like topics from feminism, sexual violence to things like the challenges of adapting it as a graphic novel and a brief guide to collecting the series (incidentally my favourite chapter, since I like to collect books. And stuff in general). Each essay is written in an interesting (and distinctive) style. The length is just right too, enough to inform me but not long enough to bore me.

With such diverse topics, it's interesting to see that one common feature would be a comparison of A Song of Fire and Ice with Lord Of The Rings. And the comparison is not favourable. Adjectives like "simple" are used often to describe LOTR so if you're a fan, just take note. For the record, I believe that Lord of The Rings is much much deeper than they make it appear to be. And if you have a problem with the moral absolutism in LOTR, then why are you imposing an absolute judgement on the book?

From this, I have a rough idea of the series so far, and it makes me want to read all the books. I'm not sure how I'll deal with some aspects (like the whole sexual violence thing), but at least I'm prepared for it.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Bellfield Hall by Anna Dean

I actually finished this book quite a long time ago, but for some reason, I forgot to review it (._.)" But anyway, here it is~

Bellfield hall (subtitle: Or, The Deductions of Miss Dido Kent) reminds me of Jane Austen. Or at least, Miss Dido reminds me of Jane Austen - an "old" intelligent spinster. The world the novel inhabits is very much like a Jane Austen novel, which means it's "gentle".

Well, except for the murder. The murder sounds gruesome, although there isn't any violence. Even the descriptions are fairly muted, including the time when they examined the corpse. Still, I think that Dido has what they call a "strong constitution", seeing that she dares to examine the body and whatnot.

The narrative style is also really interesting. Apart from using the conventional first person narrative, the novel also uses letters from Dido to her sister. I suspect that this is used to shorten the narrative, since the letter compresses the time frame a fair bit. And it works. The letters are gossipy and interesting, and manage to recap the important points and developements for the reader. I think that was partly the reason why my interest was sustained - the novel never felt draggy.

As for characters, Dido is really interesting. Her niece Catherine is also another engaging character (although there were a few moments when she was a bit brattish. But by the end of the book, she proves to be a very likable character) and I enjoyed reading about the both of them. They don't have very similar personalities, but they get along well, and it's fun to read about how dissimilar they are. There are quite a few moments when the book tethers into a "what a sweet child" mode, but nothing overly saccharine is actually written.

The other characters are average, and didn't really stand out. In a way, they felt like stock characters. One exception might be Catherine's fiancee Richard, but I didn't see enough of him to make an accurate judgement.

All in all, this is a very enjoyable book. Especially if you like Jane Austen :D

Monday, June 25, 2012

To Hell in a Handbasket by Beth Groundwater (ARC)

I'm getting to be a mystery addict (well, a cozy mystery addict anyway). After reading a lot of Lillian Jackson Braun (The Cat Who... mysteries), I saw this book relating to gift baskets. A gift basket mysetry. Makes me think of The Cat Who and Debbie Macomber already~

Although, giftbaskets don't make a very prominent appearance in the book.

This story follows Claire, who's on a family vacation at a ski hotel. But, at the start of their vacation, her daughter Judy's boyfriend's sister Stephanie dies. Or was killed. And it's to solve this question that Claire starts investigating. And the further she goes, the more dead bodies turn up. It looks like the danger is much greater than first expected.

Plot-wise, this story was decent. It's a very linear plot, so there's not much opportunity to figure out what's going on before Claire does. I think it's because the whole book is told through her perspective, the reader can only figure out things the same thing as her (which means we end up making the same mistakes in deduction too).

What really drew the book together would be the characters. Claire isn't a young attractive citizen-detective. She's a self-described "mama bear" who will do anything to protect her daugther. But yet, she has some really interesting friends, like the Leon crime lord (who may be my favourite character in the book. I'd like to read more about him) who help her gather information (even though she's somewhat of a pest to the local detective). In some way, it's not clear if her investigation helps or hinders the official one, seeing as she makes judgements based on what's best for her family rather than to find out the killer.

And like most stories, there were characters that annoyed me. Most notably, the daughter Judy. She's repeatedly described as stubborn/headstrong and while I'm like that, she just makes this virtue seem like a vice. Maybe it's because I'm not convinced of the love between her and her boyfriend, but she just seems like a disrespectful child to me. Maybe (ok, not maybe, I am) I'm conservative, but I don't think you should talk back to your mom like that and so often. But then again, most children do stuff like that, so I could understand (very little though...)

Altogether a pleasant read. If I see the first book in the series, I'd probably be tempted to buy it, since the few references to the first book make it seem interesting.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Longform Reads #3

This week, I focused on Ray Bradbury and when I finished, some other articles. If you didn't know, Ray Bradbury passed away recently, and after I saw the "spotlight" on him by Byliner, I decided to read as many longform essays by/about him as possible. So here they are:

The Machine Tooled Happyland by Ray Bradbury - here, Ray Bradbury talks about the importance of Disneyland. To put it simply, Disneyland is what happens when technology is used correctly. It inspires the mind. I kinda had a reflex at a slight mention about evolution, but it's not like the whole article was about it. Makes me want to go to Tokyo Disneyland soon (thereby visiting every single Disneyland park :D)

Take Me Home by Ray Bradbury - Ray Bradbury on his childhood, and here, I got to see what inspired him so much. It's not very long, but it's good way to see the source of his inspiration (and especially The Fire Balloons). Plus, the writing style is really fabulous.

Ray Bradbury, Pulp God by Bryan Curtis - Here, Bryan Curtis argues that Ray Bradbury has been taken over by the literary establishment, something that should be reversed if possible. He makes an interesting case about why Ray Bradbury doesn't write literary fiction, although I don't understand why Science Fiction cannot be Literary Fiction at the same time. If anything, doesn't Fahrenheit 451 fit those two molds?

A Man Who Won't Forget Ray Bradbury by Neil Gaiman - One of my favourite writers talking about another one of my favourite writers. It's a touching tribute and it should convince you to read both writers (more so if you've read and like one of them). The article isn't very long, but you get to see Neil Gaiman's writing style, as well as get an introduction to Ray Bradbury (^_^)v

Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 203 Interviewed by Sam Weller - This is the longest article about Ray Bradbury I read, mostly because it's an interview. You can to hear (from the horse's mouth no less), the inspiration behind the books as well as various other things about Ray Bradbury.

And now, on to the non-Ray Bradbury related articles, and oddly, two out of three of them are related to crime:

Bath Salts: Deep in the Heart of America's New Drug Nightmare by Natasha Vargas-Cooper - Before I read this article, I heard a few things about Bath Salts, but I always assumed they were talking about the normal type that you put in the bath. Now, I know better and this sounds like a scary drug (especially if it's possible that it induced a man to cannibalism)

Prep-School Predators by Amos Kamil - Showing that even elite schools are full of paedophiles, and how they groom these children to become victims. I'm thankful to say that none of my schools have this problem, and I wonder just how wide-spread it really was/is. It made me really scared with regard to the education system in America if it allows such abuses.

My Father's Fashion Tips by Tom Junod - I'm not sure why I picked up this to read, but it was quite interesting if completely irrelevant to me. It reads more like a tribute to the dad, something very appropriate considering Father's Day was just over. But, there were (completely unnecessary) swearwords in the article so if you're sensitive to these kind of things, you were warned.

So, what have you read this week?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Japanese Farm Food by Nancy Singleton Hachisu

Now that I have to find my own meals, I realised that cooking isn't as easy as it seems. But it's also quite fun. So, when I saw this book on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to find a way to cook more Japanese food.

And wow, I would really buy this book. Next year. When I have a better kitchen (maybe with an oven?) and the ability to get a part-time job because ingredients are expensive (ever since I started buying meat to cook, my grocery bills have shot up).

But nonetheless, I took a lot of notes. I can't afford a lot of the ingredients (I can't even afford good quality basics!), but I'll probably try substituting my own (cheaper) ingredients inside.

This is a very comprehensive book. I'll actually say that with regards  to Japanese farm food, this is probably the only book you'll need for a while if you're a beginner. There is a glossary, and introduction (a very helpful introduction to the ingredients) and lots and lots of recipes. The book is divided into ten chapters, with the first chapter about the Japanese Farmhouse Kitchen and nine chapters about the different foods (like "Pickles and Soups", "Fish and Seafood", "Desserts and Sweets" etc). Each section contains quite a fair bit of recipes.

Even if you're not planning to cook many of the recipes, it's still a lot of fun reading this book. She adds in a lot of her personal experience between the chapters, and before each recipe. It sounds as though she's just sharing her experiences instead of writing a cookbook.

But this book does tend to be starry-eyed about organic farm food. And tradition. This is really good, but not very applicable to a student with only one stove (and only an electric stove at that!). I do all my shopping at the local supermarket and I have only seen one "specialty store" (the tofu shop, although I haven't bought from there yet). Basically, there aren't many recipes that I can carry out from the book. I think this book is more applicable to someone with a well-equipped kitchen and the money (and time) to buy good quality ingredients.

In conclusion, if you want to start cooking seriously, this is the book for you. But if you're looking for food on a budget, you'll still want to read this book, but the recipes may be out of your price range... (unless you live very near a farm).

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

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

I love love love C. S. Lewis. And not just for the Narnia Chronicles, I love almost all his books, especially The Great Divorce and Mere Christianity. So when I first heard of this book on IntoTheBook, I knew that I had to read it. And when I saw this at the Christian Bookstore at Ochanomizu, the price tag wasn't even a consideration (but for the record, it's the most expensive book I've bought, and the only one I paid full price for, since coming to Japan).

Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth. In the original story, the two sisters of Psyche are evil and jealous. But like Wicked, C. S. Lewis shines a different light on one of the oldest sisters - Orual (or so he calls her).

Orual grew up ugly and unloved. But when Psyche is born (and her mother dies as a result), Orual transfers all her love to the beautiful Psyche. Eventually, this love is twisted into hate after Psyche's "sacrifice" to the Shadowbrute.

Bred on a mixture of Glom (the country where Till We Have Faces is set) superstition and Greek logic (courtesy of the Greek Slave The Fox/Grandfather), Orual is conflicted inside. Indeed, after she becomes Queen of Glom (a very capable queen I might add), she's still tormented by what she did to Psyche by convincing her to betray her husband. So what she does is to push Orual inside her and let the Queen take her place. In this way, she becomes numb.

It is only after she hears the twisted version of Cupid and Psyche (or to the reader, the conventional version), is she inspired to pen her version (or the 'true' version) of the story as a complaint to the gods. But when she is truly heard, she sees that her complaint was very different from the tale she told. Her complaint is one of bitterness, that she could not wholly possess the love of her sister.

The writing in this book is marvellous. I really do wonder why it's not more popular. C. S. Lewis has spun a marvellous story and got me to look at the original myth in a whole new light. It felt as though it was an ancient myth, but it also felt modern at the same time. The language is easy to understand and very absorbing.

In short, this is an excellent book (I love how I've been finding a lot of excellent books since coming to Japan). It's not only an entertaining tale, it's also a story about love, what it is, and what it is not.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Teaser Tuesdays - The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

This is the last unread book that I own :/ But I shall be getting more (from the library! I don't plan to go to BookOff anytime soon. "plan" anyway). So, without further ado, here's my teaser:

" 'Well', he said at last, 'as I see it, there are two possibilities. Either you're daft, in which case I have to stick with you and get you back home safely, or you're not daft, in which case you're headed for a lot of trouble and I have to stick with you anyway.' " (page 252)

I just started this book (and I have quite a lot of ebooks to read), so I imagine a review will be only a week or so later. But what are you teasers?

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

I almost read this book last year. Almost. I saw it in the ACS(I) library and started reading it, but then decided to wait to borrow it (and clearly, forgot to do so). So when I saw it going for 300yen at BookOff, I really had to buy it. And I'm glad I did.

The Last Lecture is based off the viral hit "Last Lecture" video that I've never watched. I would say that I want to watch the video, but seeing as how I can barely make time to watch the dramas I want to watch, and that the book covers what's in the lecture and more, I can't think of any compelling reason as to why I should go and search it out.

But the book itself is excellent. It introduces the book (why it even exists), and then divides into five sections of "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams" (The title of his speech), "Adventures... and Lessons Learned", "Enabling the Dreams of Others", "It's about How to Live Your Life" and "Final Remarks". Each section is divided into small chapters, each covering one episode of his life and what he learnt from it.

And what I liked about the book is the narrative voice. If the book was really written by Randy (it says "with Jeffrey Zaslow" so I'm not sure), then I'd really have liked to be able to meet him. He sounds like a great teacher, and a nice person (and anyone who can admit he's a jerk has my respect).

In the book, he talks about, well, his whole life really. And I felt as though that his life was very eventful. He got to work for Disney (a childhood dream), married the woman he loved (and very honestly dealt with how she copes with him), did something called The Alice Project that sounds absolutely fun, experience weightlessness, etc. Individually, they seem like small experiences, but when put together, they make his life seem eventful and meaningful.

If you're going to get this book, I would recommend buying it rather than borrowing it. It's the kind of book that after the first reading, you'll pick up again and again and read your favourite chapters. Or when you're in a slump, you'll read something about achieving your dreams and get the energy to carry on ( for me, these books tend to be non-fiction, although they're mostly about books rather than self-help).

I have no regrets about buying this book.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Longform Reads #2

I'm back for another review of longform essays! This week, apart for one essay on Japan, I seemed to have focused on crime. Hmmm.....

Until Proven Innocent by Andrew McLemore:  This is a three part essay(s) about the Michael Morton case, where Mr Morton was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. What I thought was interesting was that during the essay called "the trial", most of the jury members still stand by their verdict. Does that mean that they just don't want to admit they made a mistake about something so huge, or was the prosecution really that persuasive?

Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things by Alix Spiegel. This essay looks at why people (who believe themselves to be decent people), can commit crimes. There's an argument that the tendency of people is to rationalise their actions (especially if doing so 'helps' someone, and the harm is to an abstract entity like the economy). Or, we could just say that ever since The Fall, it's human tendency to sin.

The Killer Cadets by Skip Hollandsworth: This is a crime case about how a brutal murder was committed. And when looking at this case, it becomes a look into how love can become obsessive and unhealthy. It's kinda creepy and for some reason, reminds me of Twilight (I don't need to read the book to know what it's about :p).

Watching the Murder of an Innocent Man by Barry Bearak: This sad essay is about mob violence. To be specific, it's about mob 'justice' can be so horribly wrong. Sometimes, when you watch criminals walk free, there's a collective urge to do something about it. Something that when not examined closely passes for justice. But how do we know who is guilty and who is innocent? And who gives us the right to judge?

Made Better in Japan by Tom Downey: The 'unrelated' article of the bunch, this is about how Japan not only faithfully adapts, but also improves on things from the outside. There are a bunch of case studies, and really, just makes me want to specialise in the "production" aspect of business management because it seems like Japan is really good at this.

Have you read any good longform reads lately? If you do, please recommend some! And see you next week(:

Friday, June 15, 2012

Life on the Refrigerator Door by Alice Kuipers

I love this book! I almost didn't buy it when I saw it by BookOff, so I'm glad that Simone recommended it and convinced me to get it (and it was only 300 yen!). Basically, this book is a "novel in notes" and covers the topic of breast cancer.

You see, both Claire and her mom are very busy, and their primary means of communication are through notes on the refrigerator door (they do talk and such, but we don't get to read any of it). But one day, Claire comes home to a note that her mom has gone to the doctor, about a suspicious lump. From then on, their lives change, and you can see it through the notes.

The notes were a mix of the mundane and their feelings. Some are essentially shopping lists (although I suppose you could claim that even shopping lists can be analysed), some are one-liners, and some a more personal. Towards the end, there are one or two letters, but mostly, the notes dominate.

And can I say I love this form of narrative fiction? Like really. It's quite different, but it works so well! (although I suppose if everyone wrote like that, I'll get bored quite quickly). As it is, this narrative form means that there's very little chance of over telling. Rather, we have to learn to infer what's going on from the notes. And I really love doing that.

There are only two perspectives in the book, and although there are many other characters mentioned, they almost don't exist. We don't know anything about them except what's mentioned, and there are no long conversations about them. What results is that the focus is on their relationship and how they deal with her mom's breast cancer. The book isn't very long, but the length is just right for such a narrow topic.

At the end of the book (for my copy anyway), there are three notes. Notes on 'writing', 'kitchens' and 'notes'. They're all about one page long each, but quite interesting to read. The "note on writing" was the whole "love to write" one, but it was interesting as to how she started writing. To me (who's terrible at writing!) it's quite an encouraging, especially as she talks about how her sentences were awkward at first. The other two notes discuss the background behind the book and are quite interesting.

Bottom line: Read this book. The cover is pink and looks girly (and young), but it's a fairly deep book that deals with a sensitive subject.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Plain Scandal by Amanda Flower (ARC)

I don't know why, but in the last few months, I've gotten quite a few Amish-centered books from NetGalley. Or perhaps that's just my perception. But I'm still very intrigued by this genre, and when I saw this title on NetGalley, I couldn't resist. What would an Amish mystery be like, I wondered.

Well, entertaining. And good clean fun (I happily admit to being a prude). There are no swear words or explicit scenes in this book. There is some violence (this is a mystery book after all), but it's not gore and well, I wasn't frightened.

The protagonist - Chloe, was endearing. I started siding with her almost from the start which meant I had quite an emotional investment in the book. Looking back, I can see times where I should have gotten annoyed at her seeming cluelessness, but then, I was equally clueless. I would have probably behaved that way too. And the fact that she (a non-Amish and a citizen, not police), could investigate was quite plausibly explained.

And now, to her ties with the Amish. That would be the brother-and-sister pair Timothy and Becky. They were Amish but left to become English during their running-around years. I think out of all the Amish communities that I've read about, Appleseed has to be one of the most liberal. They aren't shunned and still maintain cordial ties with their family.

Oh yeah, the portrayal of the Amish community. Having read Temptation recently, I'm so glad to read about a positive portrayal of the Amish community. They aren't saints, but they aren't demons either. They're simply people who have chosen to live a different lifestyle.

Since I'm talking about the Amish, I have to mention the faith aspect of the book. In this respect, I think this book is like Debbie Macomber's books. The faith here is muted or real. In this sense, it's not an overtly Christian novel, but rather, a novel with Christian underpinnings.

The murder itself was quite interesting. I wasn't sure what to make of it, but it was believably resolved. It may be that for me, I was more interested in reading about the interactions between the various characters than the murder (I liked to other related mystery about the hair-cutting better).

So yes, if you get the chance, you should read this book. It's suitable for all ages(:

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Sir Terry Pratchett Reading Challenge - The Last Hero

After so long, I've finally read about that involves Cohen the Barbarian. I know about him because of my lovely book of Discworld Quotes, but this is the first time that I've read a book involving him. Now, I really have to go and look for more Cohen-related books, he and the Silver Horde sound interesting!

The Last Hero revolves around Cohen and the Silver Horde as they undertake one last quest to return fire to the gods (i.e. blow up the place). Racing against time to try and stop them is Ankh-Morpork (Lord Vetinari was asked to help), which means we get to see the Watch (or rather, Captain Carrot and a cameo from Sir Vimes) and the Unseen University (with Rincewind) work together. The only thing that's missing would be Granny Weatherwax and company, although adding them would be rather implausible.

I'm sure that there are a bunch of themes in the story (there usually is), but what stood out for me was the parody of the quest. There were some interesting questions raised, such as "how does someone make an accurate map to a place where no one has come back alive from?". Which just suggests that quests were made up so someone could have fun. Suddenly, I see 'trolls' in the epics.

Plus, in the book, we get to see Carrot, Leonard of Quirm and Rincewind team up (as usual, Rincewind was forced into it). It's a very amusing combination because of their vastly different perspectives - Leonard is the dreamy genius, Rincewind is focused only on survival and Carrot is the idealist. So when they encounter something, you can be sure that you get three different perspectives.

In fact, my favourite character for this book is Leonard. He usually has a rather small role, but he's actually really suited to be a main character (Does anyone know if there is such a book?). My favourite scene comes from the end. You see, for building a spaceship, Leonard is "punished" by the gods to paint some really huge chapel with a detailed picture of the world in 20 years - a task that is thought to be impossible. So, as soon as they reach home,

"Leonard began the penance for his hubris. This was much approved of by the Ankh-Morpork Priesthood. It was definitely the sort of thing to encourage piety.
Lord Vetinari was therefore surprised when he received an urgent message three weeks after the events recounted, and forced his way through the mob to the Temple of Small Gods.

'What's going on?' he demanded of the priests peering around the door.

'This is... blasphemy!' said Hughnon Ridcully.

'Why? What has he painted?'

'It's not what he's painted, my lord. What he's painted is... is amazing. And he's finished it!' "

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Teaser Tuesday - Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

I found this book at a Christian bookshop in Ochanomizu. It's quite expensive (compared to the other books I've bought since I've came here anyway), but I can't resist C.S. Lewis! Especially since I haven't read this before. So, here's today's teaser:

"And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more if it. Everything seemed to be saying, Pysche come! But I couldn't (not yet) come and I didn't know where I was to come to. It almost hurt me." (page 74)

I know it's more than 2 sentences, but I couldn't stop at two! (plus, it wouldn't have made sense).

What are your teasers?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

The subtitle of this book reads "The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady". But really, it's like one of those non-fiction historical crime novels - it dissects what actually happened using not only her diary but also the letters, newspapers, etc. What all this leads to is a very interesting narrative on what happened.

Because it's almost impossible to know exactly what happened (even the diary is not explicit), quite a lot of guesswork has to be made. But it all sounds very plausible,

Now that I've got the whole "reliability" thing out of the way, on to the narrative of the book. While it's not a first person narrative, it reads like a crime novel (without the crime). There is (naturally), a lot of emphasis on the titular Mrs Robinson, who is caught between for her feelings for another man, and her husband, who by all accounts sounds like a deeply unpleasant fellow.

The book is split into two parts - what happened before, and the divorce trial. Apparently, the trial was a great sensation because of the diary. It also caused a lot of scandal/trouble among those she knew, because she didn't believe in God but in the powers of science (and at time, one of her teachers was endeavouring the show that they two weren't incompatible).

Well, I guess there's not much to say. It's a biography (on a very specific part of her life, even though there is an quick summary of her life before and after) after all, and it's hard to summarise without giving away the plot. But it's a really interesting book, and it provides a look at a very interesting lady.

In fact, I think you should read this book along with "The Women Reader" by Belinda Jack. The Women Reader looks at the history of women reading (and writing), and Mrs Robinson is by all accounts a well-read and talented women writer. So, it makes sense to read her and learn about the history of women reading at the same time (plus, this if you read Mrs Robinson's Disgrace second, you get the benefit of knowing the attitudes towards reading and writing at that time).

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Longform Reads #1

I don't know why, but this picture (that my baby brother
created) reminds me of a cosy reading corner.
This week, I woke up to the existence of longform essays. I knew about them before, but I never wanted to read an essay on the computer (I'm not good with reading on computers). But then, after a failed attempt to use Instapaper, I finally started using Readability, and so, started reading longform essays.
Be they fiction or non-fiction, I've realised that they're really addictive reading. I actually have a lot of ebooks to get through (like The Eustace Diamonds), but every now and then (or more often), I have the need to read something that coincidentally has the length of a longform essay.

Plus, my English is rapidly going down the drain, so I wanted something that could help me at least slow down this decline and longform, with it's largely non-fiction content, seems like an ideal way for me to keep up my levels of English comprehension.

So, now, I'll be doing a round-up of all longform essays that I've read every Saturday. And without further ado, here's what I've read this week:

Luv and War at 30,000 Feet by S.C. Gywnne. It's an essay that looks at the history and company culture of Southwest. While I've never ridden on that airline, it seems like their customer service is pretty good. And their company culture sounds like the type that all the textbooks say one should have (so as to inculcate loyalty). Plus, I liked how the essay also talked about how now that they're bigger (and in a post-9/11 world), they have a different set of challengers.

The Truth is Out There by Patrick Hruby. An essay on conspiracy theories and whether the entire sports industry is rigged, this essay is also one of the funniest I've read this week. This is mainly through the writing style and copious use of footnotes (I firmly believe that footnotes can make the text more entertaining). I'm not sure if I think everything is rigged, but this essay does (at the very least) make you wonder if the Sports Industry is as straightforward as it appears.

The Appostate by Lawrence Wright looks at Paul Haggis, an "apostate" from the Church of Scientology. By tracing his journey through Scientology, a glimpse of the inner workings of this organisation is provided. I don't think this essay takes an explicit stand about Scientology (although it might be leaning towards Paul Haggis, if only because his viewpoint appeared the most), but tries to provide both sides of the picture (although the no-comment stuff doesn't help whoever says it).I think this is also one of the longest essays of the lot.

How Yahoo Killed Flickr And Lost The Internet by Mat Honan. It's part-business, part-social media and really quite interesting. I didn't know that Flickr was owned by Yahoo (I don't use Flickr) and so I quite liked reading about how they missed a key opportunity. It kinda alerted me to the fact that the dominance of Facebook could have...not.

Are Japanese Moe Otaku Right Wing? by Neojaponisme. By looking at a popular site called Alfafa Mosaic, it tries to determine if the Moe Otaku are right wing in terms of political ideology. Considering that one of the books I'm reading for fun now is called An Introduction to Japanese Society, this was a very interesting article to me.

We Are All Teenage Werewolves by Alex Pappademas. I'm not sure why I read this article, since I don't watch MTV (come to think of it, I haven't watched much TV since I came to Japan). So for me, this was only so-so in terms of interest. But I suppose if you're a fan of the TV show Teenage Werewolf, you'll be interested in this.

A Dog Named Humphrey by Sloane Crosley. This is also about a TV Show (Gossip Girls) that I don't watch, but it was written in a really entertaining way. It is apparently about identity confusion (that comes from playing yourself on a TV show), but I felt it was more of a very entertaining narrative about the author's experience on the scene of Gossip Girl. The dog name Humphrey appears only briefly, but I think because of the way there was identity confusion about who the dog was name after, the dog was used as the title.

I got all these articles from three sources: Longreads, Longform and Byliner. If you want the links to the individual articles, just email me or leave a comment and I'll send them to you(:

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Women Reader by Belinda Jack

This is an interesting book. Obviously I have a bias, since I'm female and obviously a reader (let's not quibble over the quality of what I read). But apart from all that, it's a interesting look at the history of the Western Women Reader.

I say Western because while the book does (briefly) discuss the Easter Women Reader, it only appeared about 2 or 3 times, and was limited to China, Japan and India. The book overwhelming focuses on the Western Women, especially from the second chapter onwards, titled "Reading in the Not-So-Dark Ages".

But even taken primarily as a treatise about the history of women reading in Western civilisation, it's still fascinating. Each chapter uses the biography of several notable women to explain the conditions of that time. So what happens is that apart from general history stuff, I also got to read about several notable women readers that I wouldn't have heard of otherwise and how they managed to change/influence their society.

In fact, from reading this book, I found two books that sound interesting. And since both of them were written quite some time ago, I imagine they're are in public domain. So here they are:

"An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting (1753)" a book that "brillantly satirises the conduct book by offering advice on how to be a totally infuriating wife and intolerable employer."


"Advice To My Daugther" by the Marquis de Condorcet.

Have you read either of them? If you have, what did you think of them?

And well, I don't think that there's much I can say. It's a well-written and interesting book, so like normal, I will just share quotes that I found interesting from the book. This time, there are two! (well, there were more but I'm limiting my self) Ironically, both of them are quotes from other books:

"The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something underferring about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonsealth; letters a republic." (from The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett)

and if you don't think you have time to read:

"Time is a gift, but it can be a suspect one, especially in a culture that values frenzy. When I began this book, almost everyone I knew seemed to be busier than I was. I supported myself, contributed my share to the upkeep of the household, and engaged in all the useful wifely and motherly duties and pleasures. But I still had time left to read... I had constructed a life in which I could be energetic but also lazy; I could rush, but I would never be rushed. It was a perfect situation for someone who loved to read." (from Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering by Wendy Lesser)

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Rest in Peace: Ray Bradbury

I've never met Ray Bradbury. I don't know if that's a good thing or a loss, but now I will never have the chance to meet him. You see, Ray Bradbury died on Tuesday, June 5. When I found out today, it really threw me for a loops. And while Neil Gaiman has posted/re-posted this really fantastic piece about him, I really wanted to write about how his books has impacted me.

You see, I studied Fahrenheit 451 for my O levels, roughly four years ago. While I've always liked literature and enjoyed reading this book, I think it's safe to say that this was the book we loved as a cohort. I believe even the girls who didn't study literature knew the story and could quote it's famous first line:

"It was a pleasure to burn."

Even now, just mentioning Fahrenheit 451 will be enough to get two MG girls who studied it into a discussion on the book and how marvellous it was. It's a book about censorship, and even though it was written so long ago, it's as relevant today as it was. Plus, I like to say that he predicted the ATM (the automated tellers that were "open all night every night.").

In fact, I think it's way better than 1984. I read that book a bit later (during my IB years) and it didn't have the same impact as Fahreheit 451 did for me. I simply wasn't as captivated with it as I was with Fahrenheit 451.

One of the saddest news I got after graduating was when I found out that MG was changing the syllabus. I think my sister/friends and I all complained for some time. Sad times. Well, the book has changed several cohorts of MG girls so while I'm happy for that, I wish the other girls get a chance to study it too.

Stella is here now and she wants me to add about Beatty's death. To her, that was the most memorable thing in the book. So you see, we all have our own particular memories of the book.

Rest in Peace Ray Bradbury, you will be missed by many MG girls. And all your readers.

And if you're looking for things to read about/by Ray Bradbury, I found this Remembering Ray Bradbury Collection on Byliner :D

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Merely Mystery Reading Challenge - Five Go Off in a Caravan

It's official. At heart, I am a big fan of the cozy mystery. While deciding what books I should read for this challenge, I quickly decided on a trip down memory lane, reading what was my favourite childhood mystery series (and my favourite childhood author) - Five Go Off in a Caravan.

The Famous Five (Julian, Dick, Anne, George and faithful Timmy) are on yet another summer holiday (They're always having holidays). This time, they decide to go on a caravan trip and follow the Circus. Of course, it wouldn't be them if they didn't have an adventure along the way.

I think it's quite admirable how independent children were back then. If the Famous Five was supposed to be like the typical English child, then there's no wonder the British Empire was so strong. These children are encouraged to be independent and self-sufficient (really, going on a trip by themselves? And they're not even teenagers!). All this is so different from now, what with the "helicopter moms" and "tiger moms" and "eagle dads".

And interestingly, this book dealt briefly with class issues. The Famous Five are clearly middle-class, but here, they meet Noddy, a circus boy who belongs to the lower class. While the book doesn't go into any details, there is some class differences (which can be seen by how uncomfortable Noddy was with them. And constant references to the Five being "posh"). Of course, this being a more-or-less ideal England (except for the amazing amount of criminals), this uncomfortable feeling quickly disappears due to lack of class consciousness of the Five and they become good friends.

Frankly, the mystery isn't very mysterious. Well, I guess since this is technically an 'adventure' I can't say anything. But I think for those like me (going back down memory lane), I read it more for the characters and the ideal-England (sunny, friendly, etc) than for the plot.

Personally, I love Enid Blyton because she reminds me of my childhood. This is definitely a book for all those homesick for the distant time where we were small(er). If you're much younger, like say, 8, you should definitely read this series. It's not as fast-paced as most YA/Children's fiction nowadays, but it's endearing.

This book was read for the Merely Mystery Reading Challenge and clearly, it is a Cozy mystery.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Among Malay Pirates by G. A. Henty

I know I said I wanted to challenge myself by reading all of G. A. Henty's books, but I promptly forgot about it. Or rather, I had so many other books I wanted to read and I'm not good at e-books. All excuses I know, but well, I've finally finished another book(:

I started reading Among Malay Pirates for two reasons - the word Malay (which means it might be close to Singapore) and the fact that it began with an A. But unlike the other Henty Books I've read, this isn't a novel but a collection of 3/4 stories set in Asia.

The first story is the only one that's set around Malaysia/Indonesia. And, I'm very glad to see that Singapore gets a brief mention (although I also wish a story was set there). And I found the description of Durians very amusing:

"... and those who could overcome their repugnance to the disgusting odor of the durians found them delicious eating."

Strangely, I've always thought durians smelt nice. Then again, I love durians so the their smell means that a treat is coming.

And of course, rice gets a mention, although it's called "beastly". Again, I don't get it.

The stories themselves? Well, the plots are all pretty much the same. The brave soldier gets captured and then finds a way to escape. I believe there was only one of the stories where the plot differed (It was set on the ocean and about storms).

Personally, I think the stories were too short for the characters to develope fully. After reading this book, I realised that the strength of G.A. Henty would be the world-building and the characters. The plots feel the same (somehow), and although the characters are, to be frank, two-dimensional, they're somehow very endearing. It's a paradox I can't fully explain myself.

I liked the first story the best, and I think I would have liked the book a lot better if it focused on developing this story fully.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen

Yup, another Sarah Dessen re-read (but I don't think I reviewed it before). But sadly, that means after this, I only have one more of her books to re-read - Someone like You. Maybe I should ask my family to bring over my other books from Singapore when they come? (This is really unlikely though...) I guess it's time for another trip to a BookOff! -my wallet is crying at the injunction now-

I think after The Truth About Forever, Lock and Key may be my next favourite Sarah Dessen novel. Something about it just appeals to me I guess. I suppose it may be because (this is from the blurb), the book is about "sometimes, in order to save yourself, you've got to reach out to someone else."

I don't know about you, but I think I'm an introvert. I can function perfectly well with large crowds (thanks to MG and MUN), but if I was given the choice, I'd probably choose to stay in my room after class every day. I don't really like the whole tired-and-cranky feeling that follows after a trip out/being surrounded with large numbers of people. But paradoxically, when I spend too much time by myself, I get to a sort of depressed-homesick mood; and the only 'cure' I know so far is to make myself go out. That's why joining Kendo has been good for me, it makes me go out and interact with people at least four times a week. (Now, I'm working on making sure Kendo doesn't become my whole life)

So in the same way, I can relate to Ruby. It might be easier for both of us (in the short-term anyway), to be by ourselves and not burden/latch onto others, but in the end, we do need others to survive. I think John Donne summed it up very well in his famous quote "no man's an island".

This book is quite thick (well, compared to Keeping the Moon anyway), but it's filled with so many well-crafted characters. Apart from Ruby, I thought Cora was very well-portrayed. She's someone who had to get out of her situation, but due to her mom, couldn't help Ruby much. And now, she's reacting in a very believable way when she finally meets Ruby again (and I like how she and Jamie have their own subplot). And Jamie, I want a relative like him! He sounds fun but kind and strict when you need it.

The book takes quite a long path to get to the end (where Ruby realises what family is), and I think it's all the better for it. It could've just focused on making opportunities for Ruby to interact with Cora and Jamie and realise what nice people they are, but I like how it expanded the concept of family to include people like Harriet, Olivia, etc. I think it makes the journey Ruby goes through much more natural.

Another must-read by Sarah Dessen. (Although if I were to do this at every review, I might was well get it out of the way now and tell you to read every book she's ever written.)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

This is one of those "incidental" books. I didn't intend to borrow it, but it caught my eye when I was wandering around the TUFS library. Since this book inspired Neil Humphrey's "Notes from an Even Small Island" (which covers Singapore), I figured that it couldn't hurt to try reading this book.

And wow, I can really see the similarities in the way the two books are written. They're both travelogues of a sort, and they do criticise the respective islands (which, in this case is Britain - not that I would call it an island) but at the core, you feel like the author really does love the place.

Basically, Bill Bryson is about to leave Britain to go back to America and he decides to say farewell by taking a trip around the place. It gives him a chance to compare the Britain he knew and the one that he's saying goodbye to, complain a bit, praise the British transport system and teach you the interesting parts of British history. It manages to be funny and educational at the same times. While it does veer towards condescension at times, it stays on the right side of funny most of the time.

Of course, I checked the published date and it was published in 1995, so you really shouldn't use this as a travel guide in any way. But I find it really cool that it was published while I was living in Britain (my family also has fond memories of the place). So in a way, this is now a history book within a history book. Britain in 1995 and the Britain of the "past" in the book that Bryson compares the Britain he leaves to.

There was only one time where I disagreed with him, and of course, it's over the English language. He says something to the effect that the English language has been enriched by American English. Really? What I remember about American English affecting us (in Singapore) took place when I was 16. For our O levels Chemistry, we were told all of the sudden that due to America, we were to change the spelling of sulphur to "sulfur". I like to think it says a lot of good things about my school that we didn't rejoice at being able to save the effort of writing a letter but instead, started complaining to the teacher that the new spelling made the word look ugly (it does!). Of course, we were only marginally comforted when the teacher agreed with us, but sadly, that ugly spelling is here to stay.

All in all, this is a really funny book that is really different from most "travel" books that I've seen. But naturally, I prefer Neil Humphrey's Notes from an Even Small Island, since I actually know the places talked about in the book there.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Temptation by Karen Ann Hopkins

I don't know how to feel about this book. I don't know whether to say it's really great because it elicited really strong reactions from me and made me want to continue reading, or say it's terrible because most of my reactions were negative.

Temptation deals with Rose, an 'English' girl and Noah, an Amish boy. They fall in love, and well, the road to true love is never smooth (at least not in books). They fall in love at such an amazing speed, that most of the book deals with them sneaking around and making their plans for the future.

What this book could have been was amazing. It could have explored the cultural differences while telling a deeply moving story. But, I felt that compared to other books (like Reckless Heart, which I read recently), the Amish culture isn't portrayed positively in this book. In fact, it's portrayed as an over-controlling, anti-feminist culture for most of the book.

Of course, the characters are also infuriating. Even looking past the unnatural speed at which they fall in love, it seems to me that Rose and Noah's relationship is deeply deeply unbalanced. They're either in some kind of power-play relationship or they're doing the "I-can't-live-without-you" routine. Plus, Noah comes off as very controlling, and I thought he started thinking of Rose as his possession rather than a person towards the end of the book. I think it was meant to show deep devotion but it's also slightly creepy. Oh, I checked and I actually bookmarked this quote (and similar ones exist all over the book):

"How was I going to convince her [Rose] to do what I wanted when she was behaving like a child?"

Rose, on the other hand, was a brat. While there's nothing wrong with it (I'm a brat too!), it's unsettling how quickly she falls into what I can only call "Bella-mode". And it's even sadder because she started off as such a feisty girl. Here's a quote that sums up what she becomes at the end:

"How could I be ruining my life, when Noah was my whole life?"

Really? Your entire self-worth is based on a guy whom you just met?

Another thing that bugged me was the absence of God in the novel. In an Amish novel. There are references to the Church and stuff, but really, I didn't feel that any of the characters had a personal relationship with God.

Despite all this "ranting" (and the fact that I realised that this is probably the Amish version of Twilight), I'm actually looking forward to the next book, I want to see where this relationship is heading. That's why I'm confused about the book.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.