Friday, June 30, 2017

Foreign Studies by Shusaku Endo

Foreign Studies is actually a collection of two short stories and one novel, but all of them deal with the topic of studying abroad (specifically, in France). And since it's Endo, I picked it up as soon as I saw it.

The first story is 'A Summer in Roan' and is about a Japanese student in the village of Roan. Though everyone is kind, he feels like he doesn't belong and the longer he stays, the more he feels like a coward for remaining polite and in the village.

The second story, 'Araki Thomas', has a more factual tone and talks about one of the Japanese students who went abroad in the 17th century and came back to a closed country and persecution to Christians. This is the same period that Silence takes place in, but the protagonist is a Japanese rather than a foreigner. The factual tone makes me wonder if it's a mini-biography but I haven't done any research so I can't tell.

The third and longest story (probably can be classified as a novel) is 'And You, Too'. It follows the path of Tanaka, who came to Paris to study Sade. It's more complicated than the other two, since there is a Japanese community in Paris, so Tanaka must negotiate both a foreign culture and a culture that is home-but-not-quite and which will influence his standing when he returns home.

All three stories are rather bleak and they convey a sense of discontent and distance. In the introduction by Endo (which really should be read only after you've finished the stories), he mentions that this book arose out of his struggle in trying to reconcile two seemingly different cultures.

What is interesting is how his views have changed. His younger self thought that there was no way that Japanese people could understand French culture and vice versa, but twenty years later, he became "convinced that meaningful communication between East and West is possible."

I feel that the sense of alienation that Endo describes in this story is universal to anyone who has lived overseas. We are in a totally different country after all. But, I think his characters have chosen to look at the differences with bitterness, and that leads them to a state of mental anguish. Personally, I think that to see insights, to see slights and 'microagressions' and to read malicious meanings into perfectly kind actions is the road to an unhappy life.

I would recommend this book to anyone, especially those who have lived overseas for any period of time.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic by Nick Joaquin

Finally finished another book for the SEA Reading Challenge and this is probably my favourite book so far!

The Woman With Two Navels and tales of the tropical Gothic is a collection of short stories by Nick Joaquin, who is apparently very famous in Philippines but sadly unknown almost anywhere else (at least that's what I got from the introduction before I skipped it because I do not want to read literary analysis before I read the text).

These are stories that you experience rather than read. I've never been to the Philippines so I can't tell if this is an accurate picture of the country, but the stories gave me the impression of heat, of humidity that might choke you, of the chaos of life and everything I've said so far sounds universal (at least to SEA) but it also feels so specific. I would, for example, never mistake these stories for being set in Singapore or Malaysia.

Each story is a snapshot of an aspect of life, and if I'm honest I don't quite get what they're about, but they make me feel. It's intense and amazing. Even the last story, 'A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino', which is actually a play in three acts and which I was unsure if I could pay enough attention managed to pull me in and make me experience a squabbling family with a treasure that functions more like a threat.

Warning: the sentences here are really long and you will need to come up for air every now and then, but I find that the language is beautiful without being distracting. I admire it when I've closed the book but when I'm reading, it feels really immersive.

I really, really love this book. I do not understand it, probably because that requires work and I haven't analysed anything since IB (I think?) but it was such a fantastic reading experience. It's available from the NLB's ebook lending service too so as long as you have a phone you can get this too.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Death on the Air and Other Stories by Ngaio Marsh

Finally read this! Chose it because it was the only non-audiobook Book from Ngaio Marsh that the NLB had.

I skipped over the introduction (stopped when they mentioned she writes better than Agatha Christie because I do not need to have inflated expectations) and dove straight into the stories.

The first two 'stories' are Ngaio Marsh discussing two of her recurring characters - Alleyn and Troy. It was interesting but I don't know them so I wasn't emotionally engaged.

And then it was time for the short stories. On the whole, I enjoyed them, although the shorter short stories were a bit confusing. Perhaps it's because of the constraints of length (or lack of), but with the short stories, I had trouble understanding how a deduction was reached. A lot of the time, it felt like a hunch or a natural series of events rather than a deduction. But they were still enjoyable.

Two stories that I particularly liked were:

Chapter and Verse: concerning an old family Bible that hints at murders having been committed. The only problem is that the victims never existed!

The Cupid Mirror: great twist at the end, won't say anymore so I won't spoil it.

The last story is a screenplay which was actually more exciting than I thought. I'm not very fond of screenplays, but this one held my attention. It's about the trial of the murder of the dog and both the plaintiff and the defendant are unpleasant characters and the case was very ambiguous, which made for a head-scratcher.

The last entry is her advice to a young person who wants to be a writer. The parts concerning publishing companies are out of date, but the rest of the letter was really good (especially her reply to the offer to write a book together).

On the whole, I don't think that starting with a collection of short stories was a good idea, but I enjoyed the book and I definitely would read a full-length novel starring Alleyn if I had the chance.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Five Day Novel by Scott King

I heard about this book from the Rocking Self Publishing podcast (available on iTunes, Overcast and other apps, so definitely go listen to this episode/subscribe) when the author was interviewed about how he wrote Ameriguns in 5 days. This is from pre-writing (prepping for the story) to line editing.

While the podcast has the basics of the book, I decided to grab a copy because I was interested in learning more about the process.

Personally, I think first time writers/aspiring writers will benefit the most from this book. Scott King takes the reader through the entire writing process, from the preparation to the rewriting in an easy to understand and non-intimidating style. He has a list of 'assignments' for each day (each stage of writing) which can be used as stepping stones/checklists.

I found lots of gems throughout this book. From the pitch to the three act structure and how to 'fix' characters, I'm pretty sure that I'll be going back to this book as each stage of writing ends. Sure, it's not the most detailed of books, but it provides a good overview and a good starting point for authors.

And if you're wondering how useful his advice is, I checked out his book on Amazon and it has more reviews (and a good average) and a better sales rank than me so he's definitely doing something right (although to be honest it'd be pretty easy to do better than me so you have no excuse not to write and publish/submit to agents).

While I'm not going to be writing a novel in a month, it might be a fun challenge to try and squeeze his process into NaNoWriMo. It does mean that I would have to be more of a planner than I currently am, but I would have a lot of time to prepare.

If you need an encouraging, practical book to get you to start writing, I highly recommend this book. The price is reasonable too - I got it for 299 yen, which is much lower than many other writing books that I've seen. If you're unsure whether you want to get it, give the episode where he's on a listen first.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Teaser Tuesday - The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic by Nick Joaquin

Hey everyone!

I'm reading a book of short stories now which is awesome because:

- I only have short bursts of reading time (during lunch break, a few minutes before I leave for work, etc) so this is perfect for reading but not being late, and
- It's by a Filipino author and I've been wanting to read more South East Asian fiction so this is perfect!

I'm really, really enjoying it, although enjoying may be a bad word because these tales are very dark. But they are very intense and make me feel a lot more than I expected from short stories.

My teaser:
"The bells continue pealing throughout the enchanted hour and break into a really glorious uproar as St. Sylvestre rises to bestow the final benediction. But when the clocks strike one o'clock, the bells instantly fall mute, the thundering music breaks off, the heavenly companies vanish - and in the cathedral, so lately glorious with lights and banners and solemn ceremonies, there is suddenly only the silence, only the chilly darkness of the empty naves; and at the alter, the single light burning before the Body of God."
What about you? What are you reading?
How to participate in Teaser Tuesday:  
•Grab your current read 
• Open to a random page 
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page 
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) 
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers! 

Friday, June 16, 2017

At Betram's Hotel by Agatha Christie

I liked the previous Miss Marple book that I read so much I immediately borrowed another!

At Bertram's Hotel takes place in London, where Miss Marple is on holiday. The main 'mystery' for most of the book is the disappearance of a clergyman, who is later found alive (but concussed). There is a murder, but it happens towards the end.

I've gotta say, the twist in this story is a lot more incredible than it is in The Body in the Library. But, it was set up well by Chief-Inspector Davy/Father and I definitely bought it.

Speaking of Chief-Inspector Davy/Father, I found him to be a very interesting character! I hope that he'll be a recurring character, a la Hastings. He's a very solid policeman, with both good instincts and thorough work. Plus the ability to listen to Miss Marple.

Miss Marple definitely played a smaller role here, since she wasn't unofficially involved in the case. But she does overhear a lot of interesting things and her and Chief-Inspector Davy joining forces is a formidable thing to see. I didn't see as much reference to her home village, though, because she spent more time wandering through memory lane.

Which brings us to Betram's Hotel, which is as much a character as anyone else. Betram's Hotel is one of those places that manage to recreate the past perfectly, from their service to their food (I am now curious as to what 'real muffins' taste like). It was fun reading about Miss Marple's stay in Betram's Hotel, and I did want to stay there.

I'm starting to regret staying away from Miss Marple for so long. The two books that I've read so far have been really fun reads, and it is with some reluctance* that I stop the series (for a while) and continue with other books on my TBR list.

*ok, I kid. I'm really enjoying this book about the Internet I'm reading and I think I can finish it soon.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

If I'm not wrong, this is my first Miss Marple (I'm more of a Poirot fan) and I found that I really enjoyed it! The Body in the Library is a version on an old mystery trope. In this case, the owners of said library (Colonel and Mrs. Bantry) don't recognise the platinum blond lying dead on the floor. Recognising the implications of this, Mrs. Bantry asks Miss Marple to help solve the case.

The police (who have allowed Miss Marple to join them, even if they aren't enthusiastic about it) quickly find out that the body belongs to Ruby, a dancer at a hotel. And then they find a second body, that of a school girl.

The mystery was easy to read and I finished it very quickly. Miss Marple's style of connecting crimes to things she's seen in her village was pretty interesting and I found that I rather enjoyed her prattling along about the various people she's met.

The twist at the end was also one that I didn't see coming, and I thought it was very clever the way that everything was connected. You don't have the pistol that subsequently gets neglected problem (can't remember the proper name for this, sorry).

I also really liked the supporting cast of characters. In particular, I really liked Mrs. Bantry. On the surface, she seems to enjoy the murder a bit too much, like a regular gossipy housewife, but she is also very considerate towards her husband and I really liked how she did her best to protect him the way she knew how.

As someone who is a Christie fan, I am so happy that I liked reading this! I've more or less finished the Poirot series, and I don't really like Tommy and Tuppence (and there aren't many books for that series anyway) so I'm looking forward to reading more Miss Marple mysteries.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Simisola by Ruth Rendell

Like I mentioned before, that book on women crime writers made me want to read more crime and so I did. Simisola was one of the books analysed, and it sounded really interesting so I picked it up. It's an Inspector Wexford mystery (to be specific it's a police procedural) but I think it can be read as a standalone. As for the plot, that's a bit harder to describe but here goes:

The daughter of Inspector Wexford's GP, Melanie Akande, has gone missing. As Wexford investigates, the body of Annette Bystock, who was probably the last person to see her. And then another body turns up.

This is a police procedural with an intricate plot and an overarching theme. Wexford is a decent man who is struggling in a world that has changed without him knowing. The change being that England is no longer 99% white.

This investigation leads him to recognise and confront his hidden prejudices while painting a bleak picture of England right now. Life isn't easy for anyone, and a lot of people clearly aren't coping well. At times, it felt like Ruth Rendell hammered in the "England is racist" message a bit too strongly and made it very obvious, but for the most part, she let the characters and the story indict themselves. For example (possible spoilers if you didn't read the blurb) when the second body is found, Inspector Wexford immediately assumed it was Melanie because the victim was black, even going as far as to break the news to her parents. When they realise it's not her, their anger is heartbreaking and a huge moment of realisation of how unconsciously racist he is for Wexford.

The only weak point of the book (apart from veering dangerously close to preachy occasionally) is that it'a really, really complicated. Perhaps my brain isn't just working but despite reading most of the book in one sitting (woohoo for free days with no plans), when the murderer was revealed my first reaction was "who?" Wexford does do a recap, which I was grateful for, but unlike most mysteries, the reveal was more confusing than de-mystifying.

If you want a mystery that makes the problem of racism a part of the story, you'll want to pick this book up. It is a grim, bleak read, but it is a worthwhile one because we always need to be confronted with our hidden prejudices.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Story Works Guide to Writing Point of View by Alida Winterheimer

I was (and am) so excited about this book! I really liked the first one, and since I still can't afford to hire Alida a second time, this is the closest that I can get to learning more from her. Like with the previous book, this is a review copy.

Like the title says, this second guide in the story works series is all about point of view (POV). This story is a very thorough guide of the basics - what is point of view (hint: it's not just the narrator), what are the types of point of view and which point of view you should choose. It sounds short when I sum it up in one sentence, but it's actually a very hefty book because Alida goes into immense detail. And at the end, she goes through some common mistakes writers make with point of view and how they can fix it. And like the previous book, this one has lots of examples and exercises so that you can use this book as a textbook of sorts.

So I won't go into too much detail but basically, POV consists of:

1. Person (Is it "I", "He/She", "You", "They","We" - the later few are very rare though)
2. Tense (past or present)
3. Number (is it a single POV or are there multiple or perhaps even an omniscient narrator?)
4. Distance (are you close to the POV character or are you a bit more distant)

What I liked about this book is that each chapter is very focused, so you can go back and focus on things that you don't quite grasp. While I normally read everything once through, for non-fiction (and especially books that I want to use as references), having the chapters be very focused makes it easier for me to go back and find information, instead of having to go through the entire book to piece together the same thing.

I would recommend this book to all authors who are looking to improve their craft. If you're a beginning writer, this is a very good and solid introduction to point of view. If you're an experienced writer, this is a good referesher with exercises that might help you work out a story problem.

Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book from Alida in exchange for a free and honest review. I've also hired her as an editor once and was very happy with her services.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

I decided to give this a go after the book on women crime writers because I've never read Margery Allingham before. This is going to be a hard review to write because I liked it, but I was also very confused by it.

The Tiger in the Smoke starts with a potential blackmail case. Meg is about to get married, but she's getting photos featuring someone who looks suspiciously like her dead husband. Obviously this is a problem because if he's alive, she can't get married. Albert Campion is called in to solve this mystery but it quickly when people start turning up dead. And then Meg's fiancé disappears (he's got a few chapters from his POV so it's not that big a mystery).

To be honest, I was really confused for a lot of this book. I was expecting something about the return of a seemingly dead person and all these people disappearing and the wrong dead bodies turning up thing threw me for a loop.

But I have to admit that I was reading this in bits and pieces, before and after work so the confusion could just be me not processing things properly.

As things progressed, however, the fog began to clear and I started to understand how things fit. By the end, even though there's no huge denouncement a la Poirot, I knew what had happened and the mystery presented at the start was solved.

Now about the characters. I found most of the characters to be very interesting individuals and I really enjoyed reading them. That said, I wasn't really sure how this is an Albert Campion mystery when I barely felt his presence in the book. Perhaps it's because this is book 14 and the author expects the reader to know him by now, but I didn't really think of him as a good detective (or a detective, to be honest). I guess this is how people reading a Poirot book where he only appears at the end (like Cat -among the Pigeons) feel. If you don't know the main character, s/he doesn't really grab your attention.

All that being said, I would be interested in reading more from Margery Allingham. I had fun and I did enjoy reading the book, even though I was confused for most of it. Just letting the story wash over me was good enough, and I hope that if I read more, I start to root for Campion (and figure out who are the regular Hastings-like characters are)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore by Kate Moore

I managed to finish this book in one of my off days because it was absolutely gripping and once again, I'm shocked by how little I know (everyone should know about this!)

During WWI, there were radium companies that employed girls (often teenagers or just out of their teens!) to paint dials with radium. The pay was by piece, which meant that the very skilled could take home quite a lot, and the girls quickly grew to be very close. Plus, America was in the midst of a radium craze where anything radium was considered to be healthy. So the fact that this girls were in contact with so much radium they glowed in the dark was an added bonus, right?


Radium is a radioactive substance and prolonged exposure to it killed many of these girls. The deaths were slow and painful, as their bones crumbled and they developed cancer (many of the girls' jawbones broke and their wounds wouldn't heal). The radium poisoning was made worse by the fact that these women used their mouths to help shape the brushes that were dipped in radium. So not only were they covered in radium, they were ingesting it! And because radium was so new and there was so little research, the doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong with them at first. When they did, however, the company that employed them denied all responsibility and did their best not to pay them compensation.

But these women were brave and tenacious, despite all the pain they were in, and they fought the companies in the courts and basically helped change safety standards, laws, and raised awareness of the dangers of radium. Oh, and their work helped saved the lives of soldiers during the war so they were basically heroes many times over.

The radium girls is an engrossing, well-written book that focuses on the girls and their stories. The author has clearly done a lot of research, and she has managed to tell the story of the individual girls without losing sight of the broader picture. Although the book is fairly long, it felt short and I just couldn't put it down. I'd recommend this to EVERYONE because it is a story that needs to be heard.

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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie

Someone was giving this away so of course I snatched this up! Cat Among the Pigeons is Poirot mystery and although it takes place in a boarding school, the action is international.

The book opens with a middle-eastern prince getting killed. But before he dies, he passes a packet of incredibly valuable jewels to be smuggled out of the country. Over in England, a teacher has been killed at Meadowbank, a well-regarded boarding school. And since the cousin of the late prince is staying there, there are a lot of important people interested in this. Poirot doesn't really appear until late into the story, but I really enjoy the part where he appeared.

As usual, I really enjoyed this. Most of the mysteries tend to be local, but this one has international implications, which I found to be a refreshing change. The start was a bit confusing because it cut from school to the Middle East and back but I wasn't too confused.

With regards to characters, there are a whole host of interesting people in these books. In particular, I liked Miss Bulstrode, the headmistresses with a forceful personality (there was a subplot on who would succeed her), Adam, an undercover agent, and Julia, a student at the school. Julia, in particular, was lovely to read about because she's brave and sensible but didn't come across as a Mary-Sue.

The one complaint I have is that the portrayal of Middle-Eastern people is very stereotypical. Prince Ali (the prince I mentioned at the beginning) basically dies in a revolution because he's too democratic. In fact, another character basically says that what Middle Eastern people want are tyrants for rulers which was an eye-rolling moment for me. But luckily this was only at the start of the book so it's still something that could be ignored.

Overall, this is an enjoyable story. The beginning is a bit rough but the story gets into its stride once the murders start and I ended up really enjoying the book.