Book Reviews: May – June 2017

Last month I replaced my usual book review posts with a TV review post, so this time there are a few more books than usual, but I’ll try to be brief:

History of the Vietnamese Civil War from 1771 t0 1802 by Ta Chi Dai Truong:

It’s one of my ambitions to write a series of epic/historical fantasy books using the history of Vietnam in the vein of A Song of Ice and Fire, so I’ve been reading up on more Vietnamese historical books. This deals with a fascinating subject matter: the war between three different factions (the Le kings in the North, the Tay Son rebels in the Midland, and the Nguyen kings in the South) before Vietnam was finally united and entered its modern history. It’s well researched, but unfortunately, the writer is not a very good storyteller. This has been my problem with historical books lately – the information is interesting, but the writer doesn’t arrange or tell them in an interesting manner, so the book becomes a chore to read. A good source for references, nothing more. 2/5

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty:

I quite enjoyed the adaptation by HBO, so I decided to check out the book. I’m happy to say that the mini-series stayed pretty close to the book (for a summary of the story, check my TV review), except Reese Whitherspoon’s character is less bitchy and more sympathetic, and the book ends on a much more finite note. The suspense is still there, even though I already knew where it was going.Overall, it’s a quick and enjoyable read. 4/5

City of Thieves by David Benioff:

I really, really dislike what David Benioff has done to Game of Thrones, but I have to admit that I quite enjoyed this book. It’s sort of a buddy tragi-comedy set during the Siege of Leningrad in World War II: a teenager arrested for looting and a deserter are given the impossible mission of finding a dozen eggs for a colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. It’s funny, but can be very visceral and tense as well. Also, this is the second book I’ve read set during the Siege of Leningrad (the other is Catherine Valente’s Deathless), and to be honest, if those are fictional accounts, then I don’t want to read about the real thing. 4/5

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu:

Usually, when I want to check out a new fantasy/sci-fi author, I would start with their short stories before moving on to their novels. With Ken Liu, I did the opposite – I enjoyed his novel The Grace of King, so I wanted to see how he is in the short form. There are some interesting stories here, but just like with The Grace of King, Liu’s writing feels very flat, almost pedantic, to me. It seems he is so concerned with getting the science/history/mythology right that he forgets to use good characters and plots to make the story stand out. 3/5

Maskerade and Jingo by Terry Pratchett:

These I read during my week-long vacation. I didn’t want to slog through some book that I hate during my vacation, so I picked something I would be sure to enjoy. Unfortunately, these are probably two of the weakest Discworld books that I’ve read. “Maskerade” is a Witches novel, which finds Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg following the potential third member of their coven into the crazy world of opera, while “Jingo” is a Watch novel revolving around Sam Vimes and his ragtag Watch trying to prevent a war between Ankh-Morpork and a neighboring country. Of course, they’re still a lot of fun, but the jokes are a bit… obvious, you know what I mean? 3.5/5

So that’s it for me. What did you guys read?


Accessory Slump

On Wednesday’s post, I talked about feeling unmotivated to put together an interesting outfit. I think part of the reason is that I’m bored with my accessories (but don’t want to buy new ones) and don’t know how else to jazz up my outfits. Scarves are out of the question; light-weight, summery shirts don’t hold up brooches well, and sometimes you have to choose between necklaces and printed shirts. Occasionally, I would bring out my bracelet/cuff, but it always feels forced and doesn’t go well with the outfit at all – like here. Actually I wasn’t planning on wearing this cuff with this outfit, but then I was going to see Wonder Woman after work, and since I don’t have a tiara or lasso or invisible jet, I decided to play homage by wearing the cuff.

As for the movie… weeeeeeeeeeell, I’m going to be the unpopular opinion here and say that I wasn’t impressed. I think I got overhyped on it – everybody is gushing about how great it is – so I ended up underwhelmed. Sure, I appreciate the fact that it’s a female superhero movie, and I’m happy that it’s directed by a woman, but it’s… kind of boring, to be honest. I think the praises come from the fact that the bar for DC movies is set so low and this is the first decent female superhero movie (like, first ever), so it is just the thing that people want right now. It may be an important first step toward more diversity and equality in the genre, but it didn’t change my mind about the DC Extended Universe. I’m going to stick with Marvel, thank you every much. (I mean in terms of superhero movies in general. I know the portrayal of female characters in Marvel films is problematic. If I want an action film with good female characters, I’ll go with Mad Max: Fury Road.)


That doesn’t stop me from doing a Wonder Woman pose though…


TV Reviews: March – May 2017

As promised last month, this month I’m going to do TV reviews instead of my usual book reviews. This isn’t going to be a regular thing, it’s just that I’ve been watching a lot of amazing shows lately and I wanted to rave about them. So here goes:

Legion:

This is a superhero show, more specifically, an X-Men show (Legion is the son of Professor X), but it’s not your typical superhero show. It’s not your typical show, period. According to the comics, Legion’s mutant power is that he can absorb other personalities into his mind, and this manifests into a severe case of schizophrenia. The show took this idea and really put us inside Legion/David Haller’s mind – sometimes literally – as he tries to come to terms with his power while figuring out what is real and what is not. Because it deals so much with the idea of mind, memories, and mentality, the show’s storytelling is quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. That, combined with slightly off, retro-looking production designs (the show looks like it takes place in some trippy 1960’s alternate universe), means that it can be difficult to get into. But the cast is tremendous – especially Dan Stevens, who has a near flawless American accent (how is it that British actors are always so much better at American accent than vice versa?) and Aubrey Plaza – and after the first couple of episodes, you’ll be hooked and won’t find it so weird anymore.

Big Little Lies:

This isn’t my type of show (it’s a murder mystery about a group of women in a wealthy neighborhood of Monterey), but it’s been getting rave reviews, so I decided to check it out, and suffice to say, I spent an entire Saturday binging it. It’s not so much a mini-series as it is a 7-hour long movie, and it does such a great job of building the tension that I spent the entire time watching with my fists clenched, waiting for it to explode. I’ve also read the book, and it’s good too (I actually prefer Reese Witherspoon’s character in the book) – book review coming next month.

American Gods:

Do I have to say anything more? Neil Gaiman, Bryan Fuller, a damn near perfect cast (this and “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” have restored my faith in casting for adaptations – the only quibble I had was Emily Browning, who I think is too young to play Laura, but after the episode two weeks ago, I was convinced), of course I would be all over this. My only complaint is that it’s not streaming, so you have to wait each week for a new episode. Therefore, I would recommend reading the book first – the plotting of the show can be really slow and a bit all over the place if you don’t know where it’s going.

The Handmaid’s Tale:

Again, this is not my kind of show – I’d never read the book, and in today’s political climate, a story about women losing all of their rights and being reduced to “two-legged wombs” sounds far too real and too depressing for me. But again, I’ve heard amazing reviews of it, and I’ve liked Elizabeth Moss since “Mad Men”, so I started watching. Well, it’s terrifying – the most believable dystopian story I’ve ever seen – but that’s also what makes it so riveting. I’m not sure if I’m invested enough to keep watching, mostly because it’s so mentally exhausting, but I’ll finish this season at least.

Anne with an E:

This may come as a shock to you guys, but I’m not a fan of Anne of Green Gables. I’ve read all of the books and watched the 1985 mini-series, and I love the world of L.M. Montgomery, but to be honest, I’ve always found Anne kind of annoying (when it comes to PE Island, I prefer the TV show “Avonlea”.) So I wasn’t particularly interested in a new adaptation of the book. But, after “The Handmaid’s Tale”, I need something light and wholesome to nurse my wrecked nerves back to health, so this fits the bill perfectly. It does a great job of making Anne more sympathetic (it shows very clearly that her imagining and daydreaming is a coping mechanism for all the horrors she’s had to endure) and of course, the scenery is gorgeous (or “divinely scrumptious” or “scrumptiously divine” or whatever Anne is wont to say.)


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