Book Reviews: April 2017

I briefly considered doing a TV review instead of book reviews for April because I’ve watched some amazing shows (Legion and Big Little Lies), but more amazing shows are coming out at the end of the month (The Handmaid’s Tale, American Gods) so maybe I’ll wait until May. In the meantime, here are the books that I read this month:

The Magicians by Lev Grossman:

This has been hailed as Harry Potter for adults, though I’d say it’s more Harry Potter meets Narnia meets Catcher in the Rye – a young man gets accepted into a magical college in upstate New York and together with his friends, explores a magical kingdom while musing about the big questions of life, universe, and everything. If you think it sounds derivative and pretentious, then you’re absolutely right. The worldbuilding is nothing new, the characters are some of the worst I have ever seen – whiny, entitled, and self-absorbed – and the story feels both rushed and dragging. I was mildly curious about the TV adaptation, of which I’ve heard good things, but after reading this, I don’t think I want to check it out anymore. 1/5

The Spring Tone by Kazumi Yumoto: (“Spring Organ” in the Vietnamese edition)

I’ve loved the first two book by Kazumi Yumoto, Summer Garden (“The Friend” in English) and Autumn of the Poplar (“The Letters” in English), so I decided to check this out as well. Unfortunately, I was disappointed with this. It explores the same coming-of-age theme as the other two books, but the characters are not as memorable and the conflict feels weak. 1/5

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo:

I’m putting these two together because they’re really one story split into two books. Out of all the YA series I’ve read over the years, the Grisha trilogy by Leigh Bardugo is one of my favorites, so I was quite excited to check out these books. They’re set in the same world as the Grisha trilogy, but while the trilogy is kind of standard YA fare – a “chosen one”, a grand good vs. evil battle, that sort of thing – these two books are on a refreshingly smaller scale.

They’re about a group of young criminals in a city (clearly based on Amsterdam) with the impossible task of breaking into a maximum security prison and rescue a scientist with an important secret (“Six of Crows”) and what happens after that (I can’t reveal the plot of “Crooked Kingdom” without spoiling the first one, so you just have to bear with me.) Basically, it’s a crime thriller/heist story with magical elements. It’s what The Bone Season series could have been. I really enjoyed these. They’re fast-paced, the world is well crafted, and the characters are colorful and sympathetic. I like Six of Crows a bit more, but then again the first one is always better, isn’t it? 4.5/5


As Old As Time

I’ve made a habit of dressing in themes whenever I go to see a movie – nothing overt, it’s not like I’m cosplaying or anything, but I would often wear an outfit in the main color scheme of the movie I’m seeing (see: red + blue for The Amazing Spiderman and Captain America, black + red or white + blue for Star Wars, black + gray for Rogue One, etc.) So, in keeping with this grand traditional, which I totally just made up, I dressed in blue, yellow, and brown when I went to see Beauty and the Beast yesterday.

The truth is that I had no interest in seeing it, but I’ve promised my niece I would take her, and a promise is a promise. The movie is OK, I guess. I enjoyed it more than Cinderella, but that’s only because I like Emma Watson as an actress, Belle as a character is slightly more active than Cinderella, and Dan Stevens is hot (I’ve been watching Legion.) Other than that, the movie is an overly glossy, almost shot-for-shot remake of the cartoon, without the heart and the charm. Tale as old as time, indeed. But it made a shitload of money, so it doesn’t look like these pointless Disney live-action remakes are going anywhere soon.

Dress: tailor, Boots: Topshop, Brooch: vintage


A Weekend Trip To Mai Chau

As I mentioned before, during the student exchange program between my school and the Singaporean school, it was my job to accompany the students on excursions to teach them more about the Vietnamese culture. Most of those excursions took place around Hanoi, but during one weekend, we went out of the city to Mai Chau, a small town set in a valley northwest of Hanoi. It’s small and therefore not as well-known as other destinations in the north, such as Sapa or Ha Giang, but it’s quiet and relaxing, and the landscape is very pretty, if not as grand as those of the mountainous towns.

A typical panorama of Mai Chau

Because the drive took so long (the distance is 150 km, but the road is winding and dangerous, so it took us over 4 hours to get there), we opted to leave on Friday evening, so that we could get some rest and an early start the next day. We stayed at a traditional stilt house, surrounded by verdant rice fields and rolling blue hills. For the Singaporean students, who have lived in a city their whole lives, it was quite impressive.

Our hostel

The view from the village

On Saturday morning, we were picked up by electric cars that took us around town to visit some of the surrounding villages and take in the local life.

Colorful woven cloths for sale along the village road

A newly constructed stilt house

Then, in the afternoon, we rented some bikes to go exploring on our own. We went deeper into the hills, through bamboo forests straight out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and beautiful green fields. It rained a bit, but that didn’t stop us, and we were rewarded with a rainbow later!

We also met a family of cows going to the river for a drink

That night, we were treated to a performance of traditional songs and dances at the hostel, which was fun.

On Sunday morning, I left the students to their own devices (they must complete a short film during the course of the program, so a lot of them went off to shoot) while I walked into town to check out the weekly market. It’s not that different from our normal markets in Hanoi, though you don’t often see live frogs or beetles being sold in Hanoi 😉

These ladies are selling betel leaves and tree barks for paan

After lunch, it was time to head back to Hanoi. On the way, we also stopped at a rock quarry so that some of the students could finish their shooting – the quarry is covered in pure white rocks, so it makes for a very striking background for their film.

Iceland in the winter? Nope, Vietnam in spring!

All in all, it was a fun trip, for me as much as for the students. I’m glad I got the chance to check out a part of Vietnam I haven’t been to and discover some new beauties.


Book Reviews: March 2017

It was kind of a mediocre month of reading, but I was so busy that I didn’t really care. Anyway, here goes:

Charlotte by Kathryn Shevelow:

I always saw this languishing on the shelf at my favorite used bookstore, so when it went on sale, I finally picked it up. The subject matter is certainly interesting – it’s a biography of Charlotte Charke, an 18th-century actress famous for her cross-dressing on and off the stage. Well, after reading it, I have to say I can understand why it was on the shelf for so long. It contains some interesting descriptions of the theatrical world of England in that time, but Charlotte herself is not a very engaging protagonist. I find it very hard to sympathize with her – she seems fickle, feckless, and lacking in common sense. Her circumstances are unfortunate, but they don’t justify some of her questionable choices in life. 2/5

The Gentleman’s Daughter by Amanda Vickery:

I’m going to start this review with a disclaimer – I never quit a book in the middle. I may skim, but I always read a book cover to cover. Heck, I read Twilight cover-to-cover! But this, this I had to give up. It was recommended by a Jane Austen fansite as a good source for information about genteel women’s lives during Austen’s time. Since I’ve read a book on women’s lives in the 17th century, I thought I would enjoy a book on the same subject but focusing on the next century. But gods, this is possibly the driest book I have ever read. It reads like a thesis. I tried and tried, but after 17%, I had to give up. I’m sure it’s very well-researched and would be a good source if you want some authentic information about the era, but it doesn’t make for very good reading. 0.5/5

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman:

After giving up on a difficult book, I turned to something easier to read and I knew I would be more likely to enjoy – Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the stories from the Norse mythology. Now, I only have the most basic knowledge of Norse mythology (Odin, Thor, Loki, etc.) and a fair bit of that comes from Marvel, so I was quite excited to read this. In the end, though, I was a bit disappointed. Sure, it’s a very quick read and Gaiman did a good job of humanizing these mythological figures, but he didn’t rewrite the story enough to make them more interesting. Basically, after reading it, I had to wonder, what’s the point of this book at all? Not the response you would want. 3/5

A Street Cat Named Bob by James Bowen:

Now this is a truly easy read. It’s the true story of James Bowen, a recovering drug addict and former homeless man who turned his life around after he befriended a stray cat. Bowen himself wrote this with the help of a ghost writer, so don’t expect a literary masterpiece, but it’s a very sweet and touching story, and a must-read for any cat person. I also recommend the movie adaptation, in which Bob plays himself 🙂 3/5


Singapore Diary #5: Food

Saving the best for last.

With 3 weeks in Singapore, I was determined to be a little more adventurous with my eating and try more local fares. Even though I cooked most days (we stayed in an apartment complex, so there is a kitchen), I did manage to get a taste of Singapore. During our excursions into the city, we often ate at hawker centers – they’re open buildings with tables in the middle and stalls along the sides selling all kinds of food. These are sometimes combined with a market, but often they just serve as food courts. The food is cheap (well, compared to a restaurant meal) and authentic, and there are a lot of choices.

Maxwell Food Center near Chinatown

There are so many dishes that I didn’t get to try them all. Others I didn’t try because they’re too expensive (chilli crab, hello) or sound weird (like carrot cake, which is not a cake and doesn’t contain carrot). But below are some of my favorite:

A literal ice-cream sandwich – yeah, it pretty much tastes like ice cream and bread, but the bread helps to soak up the drips, which are unavoidable in the Singaporean heat

Roti prata – think an Indian crepe dipped in curry sauce. They can be plain or stuffed with egg, mushrooms, cheese, etc. There is also a sweet version

Laksa – noodle soup with prawns and spicy coconut-milk broth


Chendol – shaved ice smothered in palm sugar syrup, coconut milk, sweetened red beans, and green “worms” (rice flour jelly)

Waffle with kaya (coconut jam) – locals have it on their toast, but I took it one step further

The one dish I had but never enjoyed was chicken rice. I don’t understand how it can be considered the national dish of Singapore – it’s just steamed or roasted chicken on top of rice cooked in chicken broth. That’s it! Sure, it’s cheap, but I’d like something with a little more taste (not to mention vegetables), thank you very much.

Finally, this is unrelated to food, but I think it would be appropriate to close out my Singapore posts with a mention of the Merlion. If you’ve read my account of my previous trip to Singapore, then you’ll remember that I didn’t see the Merlion last time. This time, during our city tour at the beginning of our trip, we did go to the Merlion but it was all covered up because, according to the sign, the Merlion was taking a shower! Luckily he was done before we left, so I came back on the last day and finally got a super touristy photo.

And that was it for my Singapore trip! Until next time…


Singapore Diary #4: Nature And Street Scenes

Singapore is known as the “Garden City”, so I thought it would be fun to have a post on the contrast between the modern, even futuristic-looking architecture and the pockets of nature in the city (no wonder they shot a sci-fi film there.) During my 3 weeks there, I revisited the Botanic Garden (and the National Orchid Gallery, of course) and did some short hikes/walks around Mount Faber Park and Sungei Buloh, a wetland reserve near the Malaysian border. As fun as the city is, it’s great to get out once in a while and just lose yourself in nature.

The Helix bridge

The Henderson Waves bridge

It was raining heavily while I was at Mount Faber, but it was super relaxing to simply sit (there is always a covered rest area along the way) and listening to the rain or enjoying the incredibly sweet and refreshing smell of the trees. If my shoes weren’t soaked through, I would’ve stayed longer.

View of the Singapore River toward downtown

Mangrove forest at Sungei Buloh

Some of the flora and fauna of Sungei Buloh

We didn’t see any crocs though – just these signs

The ION Orchard, one of the most famous shopping malls along Orchard Road

Orchid arches at the Botanic Garden

Colorful houses along Clarke Quay

Colorful orchids at the National Orchid Gallery


The national flower of Singapore (the Vanda “Miss Joaquim” orchid) and a crazy-looking (but sweet-smelling) flower at the Botanic Garden

A mother hen and her chick at the Botanic Garden

There is still one more Singapore post left, so stay tuned!


Singapore Diary #3: Museums And More

One of the things I didn’t get to do during my previous stay in Singapore was to visit some museums, which I love to do whenever I travel. This time around, I rectified it by going to the National Gallery and the ArtScience Museum. The National Gallery was newly opened in the former City Hall and Supreme Court – it actually looks a lot like the National Gallery in London. It houses a large collection of Singaporean and South East Asian art, and I was excited to find some Vietnamese artists amongst them. While I was there, it also had a special exhibition on the relationship between Britain and its colonies (Singapore being one of them) and how this relationship influences art, so there were quite a few pieces borrowed from the Tates Museum as well – which is great, since I didn’t get to visit the Tates while I was in London!

This is not a giant sculpture, but rather the column inside the building

A fun installation – the strings move, so the light bulbs make a tingling sound as they hit the mirrors

ArtScience Museum is the funky building (supposed to be in the shape of a lotus or a hand) in front of the Marina Bay Sands. As the name suggests, it contains exhibitions on art & science with a focus on technology and media. I saw exhibitions on NASA and Escher, and had a great time in the interactive Future World (it’s mostly for kids, but there are fun/beautiful things to look at as well.) The admission is a little steep though (35 SGD, 40 on Fridays and weekends).

One of the most famous exhibitions of ArtScience Museum – Crystal Universe

Also, as a part of the exchange program, we were given a tour of two interesting places – a water treatment center (water treatment is a big deal in Singapore since they have no natural reservoirs) and a studio on the nearby Indonesian island of Batam. The water plan was very informative and has some trippy-looking exhibitions, and it was pretty fun to see the sets of some HBO Asia shows at the studio, plus Batam itself is beautiful. I wish we could’ve stayed longer.

The water treatment center also has a lot of koi carps in their pond

The set for “Serangoon Road

A part of the “Half-worlds” set

A Mediterranean seaside resort? Nope, it’s Batam!

Also, I think it’s a rule to always have at least one cat shot amongst my travel photos, so here’s one we met in Batam:

I may have gotten my museum fix, but there are still others I wish I had time to check out – like the Singapore National Museum or the Museum of Asian Civilizations. Maybe next time 😉