Book Reviews: September 2017

This month’s reading is almost exactly the same as August – another busy month, another double bill by the same author followed by a non-related book – except this month’s books are a bit more mediocre. But it’s actually a good thing. I’ve been so busy that a boring book would be better than a page-turner, because that means I can put it down whenever I want.

Making Money & Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett:

When it comes to my favorite Discworld characters, Moist von Lipwig is pretty far down the line (even though I quite enjoy Richard Coyle in the TV adaptation of Going Postal), but when I saw these at the used bookstore, I decided to get them to take with me on my German trip, because they would be lighter than my Kindle. Unfortunately, they’re the first Discworld books that I did not actually enjoy. They’re not as funny as the usual Discworld book, and Moist’s character arc already seems completed in Going Postal, so his “crook with a heart of gold” shtick feels kind of repetitive here.

To be fair, I did get a chuckle or two out of “Making Money”, especially from the main antagonist who’s obsessed with becoming Vetinari. “Raising Steam”, however, is just plain weird. It doesn’t even read like Terry Pratchett. It’s like a poor imitation of his writing by someone else with no understanding of the characters. For example, there is a scene in which Vetinari bangs his fist on the table in excitement, which I can’t imagine Vetinari ever doing. I understand that the book was written while Terry Pratchett was struggling with his Alzheimer’s and he wrote by dictating to his assistant, but this feels like it was written by the assistant himself.

I think another problem I had with these books is that they feature little of the usual Discworld parody. At least Going Postal has some fun with the world of postal service in the clacks (a Discworld version of telegraphy) and the invention of stamps, whereas “Making Money” (which deals with Moist taking over the world of banking and minting) and “Raising Steam” (steam train/railways) feel too close to the real world. 2.5/5 (3/5 for “Making Money” and 2/5 for “Raising Steam”).

All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka:

This is the Japanese sci-fi novel/manga that got adapted into the Tom Cruise&Emily Blunt-starring sci-fi action flick, Edge of Tomorrow. I can see why it got Hollywood’s attention – the premise is interesting: in the future, when humans are locked in a war against alien invaders called Gitai (Mimics in the movie), a rookie finds himself trapped in a mysterious time loop in which he is forced to relieve his first day of battle (and his death) over and over again. He then meets a female soldier who was once trapped in a time loop of her own, and they team up to defeat the aliens. It’s a very quick read, and despite being quite short, the characters are pretty well crafted. My only complaint is that the relationship between the two characters, which is the emotional core of the whole story, is developed too quickly, so it doesn’t leave much resonance. Still, it’s better than the movie, which completely missed the point of the ending. 3.5/5

So that’s it for this month. Hopefully next month’s books will be more enjoyable. How about you guys? What did you read?

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Quedlinburg: 9 Years Later

During my return trip to Greifswald, I had a couple of days free to travel around Germany. I guess I could have visited Berlin – this is my third time in Germany and the only place I’ve been in Berlin is the airport – but then I figured it would be more fun to revisit a place I really loved rather than trying to see something new. So that is why I decided to return to Quedlinburg. It is as close to a perfect fairy-tale town as I’ve ever seen, and I’m happy to say that after 9 years, it is still the same insanely pretty place that I remembered. If it wasn’t for the cars, you could see exactly what it was like 500 years ago. In fact, this time it’s even better, because my friends in Germany put me in touch with a local lady who gave me a personal tour, so I got to learn a lot more about the town and its history.

The one thing that struck me about Quedlinburg is that it is almost impossible to think that people actually live in those houses, so I’d always wanted to see the inside of one just to feel that it’s real. The town has a festival during which some houses would be open for tourists, but alas, I arrived a week early. However, as luck would have it, the tour guide lady actually lives right in town (her house is in the newer part of town, which means it was built in the 1700s as opposed to 1500-1600s. That in Quedlinburg counts as “new”) and she gave me a home tour! The inside is pretty much like a modern home, except there’s a plaque saying “1702” in the hall, and when you look out the window, you can see a Medieval castle. To her, it’s perfectly normal, but to me, it still feels like fantasy.

And of course, it wouldn’t be a travel post without a photo of the local cat, so I’m going to close out this one with not just a cat photo, but a dog photo as well:


Greifswald: 9 Years Later

It’s been a year of return trips. Earlier this year, I went back to Singapore, and recently, I took a 10-day trip to Germany to make a short documentary about the Vietnamese alumni at the University of Greifswald (the alma mater of my parents, sister, and brother-in-law). It was quite exciting to return to a familiar place and see it virtually unchanged – it was almost like coming home. I was too busy with shooting the documentary to do much sightseeing; luckily I did have a couple of days free at the end of the trip, and Greifswald is a small town, so I still got to visit all of my favorite places like the Marktplatz and the village of Wieck. I also got to try currywurst for the first time (eh, overrated. I’d take a normal bratwurst with mustard over that, thank you very much.)

Market day in Greifswald


Wieck is still as cute as ever

Another exciting thing is that I got a taste of fall weather in Europe, which I’d never experienced before, having only traveled there during the summer. Well, the novelty wore off fast, I can tell you, because it rained virtually every day while I was there. I basically lived in my trench coat, as you can see from the photos. But that’s northern Germany for you.

The beach at Greifswald… appealing, I know


Book Reviews: August 2017

It’s a month of non-fictions! Non-fictions by female writers, no less. Last month’s books made me so angry that I decided to for all for non-fiction books this month, hoping they would annoy me a little less. Let’s see how they did.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers & Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach:

Originally I’d only planned on reading “Packing for Mars”, but then I saw “Stiff” and thought it looks interesting, in a morbid kind of way, so I decided to check them both out. They’re both funny and quite informative (I find “Packing for Mars” more interesting, but then again because I’m more interested in space travel than dead bodies), and the humorous approach makes them quite easy to read. Some may find Roach’s writing too cutesy for such subject matters, and some of the jokes do get a little repetitive, especially in “Stiff”, but I’d say you need that kind of humor for some of the heavier topics. One thing though: I wouldn’t recommend reading “Stiff” before a meal because there are quite a lot of graphic descriptions of body decomposition.

On a side note, when I read about the amount of bone and muscle loss the astronauts suffer in space due to zero gravity in “Packing for Mars”, I’ve actually started exercising again. I figure since I’m not in zero gravity, there’s no excuse for it. 4/5

An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England by Venetia Murray:

This is my second attempt to read a historical book about the Regency.  This one is easier to read than A Gentleman’s Daughter (at least I finished it), and there are some amusing or interesting bits here and there, but as a whole it’s not very well written and edited. The chapters are divided by topics, but the topics seem to be assigned randomly because the author didn’t bother sticking with them at all. There are a lot of overlapping and repetition. For example, the chapter about beaux, dandies, and rakes are mostly about the dandies, with some paragraphs about the rakes thrown in near the end like an afterthought. Or, in another chapter about the gentleman’s clubs, about half of it is about the food at these clubs, which is fine, but then the very next chapter is about the pursuit of pleasure and gluttony, so of course we’re reading about food again. Also, I’m not very familiar with the Regency (other than the most basic fact – the Prince Regent, the Napoleonic Wars, Jane Austen) but a quick glance at some reviews shows that there are a lot of factual errors in the book as well. It’s too bad. I’m beginning to feel I don’t have any luck with books about this particular era. 2/5

What about you guys? What have you read?

 


Adventure In Sketching II

I’ve been trying to sketch every day, and the results are looking… well, I wouldn’t say “better”, but less clumsy than my first attempts.

I’m trying different styles. I can’t draw very well, so first I tried sketching very lightly with a pencil and then going straight in with the colors, but I think that this style is too loose for me. I’m not comfortable enough with watercolors yet, so I keep making mistakes and making a mess of everything.

 

Here are the more controlled, pen-and-wash sketches. I prefer this, though so far I’ve only tried it with simple drawings like houses and barns. The moment I tried to add something spontaneous – like the tree and bushes in the sketch of the houses – it ended up looking like a mistake again.

I’ve also tried a mix of the two, like with this flowering branch (it’s a crepe myrtle, in case my sketching skill isn’t up to par) and this tree. I’m more careful with the branch and the tree trunk, but I can afford to be freer with the flower and the foliage because they don’t require a lot of details.

Still a lot to learn, but so far I’m enjoying it.


Book Reviews: July 2017

I actually read 5 books this month but two of them are re-read (both by Bill Bryson) so I won’t bother with reviewing them. I re-read them mostly because two of the new books I was reading annoyed me so much. You’ll see which one.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson:

This is considered a classic now, but for those of you that don’t know it, a quick summary: a group of people stay at a house rumored to be haunted, where, naturally, supernatural incidents do occur. It sounds deceptively simple and even boring, but Shirley Jackson is a master at getting us inside the character’s head and building tension from the most normal of interactions. The supernatural incidents are not actually scary, but they are really, really disturbing, mostly because they are described from the characters’ POV. My only complaint is that the ending feels a little rushed. 4/5

Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs:

This is the third and final book in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series (or, as I call it from the movie adaptation, Tim Burton’s X-Men). I enjoyed the first book and didn’t care much for the second, but that one ends on such a cliffhanger that I decided to check out this one anyway. I’d say it’s on about the same level as the second book. The photographs, which are so creepy and cleverly used in the first book, feel forced and gimmicky here, the plot is drawn-out, and the characters boring. The ending picks up the pace a bit, but then it gets wrapped up in a really lazy way. 1.5/5

Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi:

I admit, I picked up this book because of the pretty cover of the Vietnamese edition. Plus, it’s a murder mystery set in Giverny, the village where Claude Monet spent the last 30 years of his life, so I expected some nice scenery descriptions and a fast-paced plot. Well, the scenery is there, but not as much as I would’ve liked, and as for the story… gods, this must be the most boring murder mystery I’ve ever read. The plot moves like molasses; I cannot relate to any of the characters, and it features one of the most idiotic “twists” I have ever seen. Basically the book lied to you the whole time and then called that a twist. And then there is the writing. The POV switch is all over the place – one chapter would be in first person, one chapter in third person limited, and another in third person omnipresent. Also, almost all the dialogues end in either an ellipsis or an exclamation mark, which gives the impression that these characters have the annoying habit of not finishing their sentences or yelling them out. By the end of it, I wish they were all dead already. 1/5

Here’s hoping that the books next month will be more enjoyable.

 


Adventure In Sketching

It’s been a while since I dabbled at coloring with watercolor, and I’ve missed it, but the whole thing has become so much of a hassle – finding the drawing, printing it out, and tracing it – that I didn’t feel like getting back into it. I briefly contemplated buying those adult coloring books (they’re all in the Vietnamese equivalent of the 99-cent bin now – told you guys it was just a fad) and a box of pencils, but it didn’t really appeal to me. So my art supplies just languished in my drawer for nearly two years.

Lately, though, I’ve been itching to paint again. Inspired by my blog friend, Mike, and several Instagram accounts I’ve been following, I wanted to try actual, proper watercolor painting, not just coloring. There’s another reason, too: I’ve been really busy this summer, but the work is so tedious that my mind was constantly wandering, and I found it difficult to concentrate. I knew I needed something to relax my mind. So I dusted off my brushes, dug out my watercolors (which, thankfully, are still good), and whipped up two quick sketches:

They’re pretty clumsy, but considering I haven’t touched a brush in two years and haven’t painted in even a longer time, I think they’re OK. They took me about an hour, and I felt so much freer with these quick sketches than with the coloring. I don’t have to worry about the techniques, and I can experiment more – I did watch a few Youtube tutorials, but just to get myself in the zone. Plus I had the brilliant idea (if I do say so myself) of basing the sketches on my photos (these are from my Euro trip last year) so I won’t be short of subjects. Let’s see how long I can keep up this new burst of inspiration – I get bored and distracted so easily – but for the moment, I’m enjoying it.