Book Reviews: November 2017

It’s been a busy month, so I only managed to read three books, but in my defense, two of them are pretty big, and at least they’re all good. Here goes:

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson:

This book follows the same formula as Erik Larson’s previous non-fiction book, Devil in the White City (which I love): telling two parallel stories, one of a social/historical importance, and the other a sensational murder case. In this case, it’s the invention of radio by Guglielmo Marconi and the case of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, the first murder suspect to be captured with the aid of radiotelegraphy. It’s quite good, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as Devil in the White City, because I didn’t care about Marconi at all (he was kind of a dick) and the Crippen murder is nowhere near as captivating as the murders of H.H. Holmes. The book does pick up toward the last third, when it focuses solely on Crippen, but it’s not quite enough. 3/5

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer:

I’ve read Ian Mortimer’s other “Time Traveler’s Guide” book, which is about Elizabethan England, and loved it, and this one doesn’t disappoint. I love reading about historical everyday life, and it’s rare to find one like this, full of vivid and entertaining (and sometimes straight-up disgusting, but in a good way) descriptions. It really brings the period to life, as opposed to just listing off facts and figures. Highly recommended. 5/5

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury:

I’ve just been hired to translate this, which is really exciting because after Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Bradbury is my favorite sci-fi/fantasy writer. Ironically, my favorite book of his (Dandelion Wine) is actually neither sci-fi nor non-fiction, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy his other works. This contains some pretty chilling stories, like something you’d find on Black Mirror today (“The Veldt”, “Marionettes Inc.”), some are surprisingly moving (“The Rocket”, “The Rocket Man”, “The Last Night of the World”), and some are just so cinematic I’m surprised they haven’t been adapted already (“The Fox and the Forest”, “The Visitor”). My only complaint is that the messages in some of them are a bit too on-the-nose (“The Other Foot”, “The Man”), but that’s minor. 4.5/5

What about you guys? What have you read?

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Book Reviews: October 2017

October is a very… balanced month of reading. Two fictions, by a male and a female author, and two non-fictions, also by a male and female author, but about very different subject matters. Let’s get to them, shall we?

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery:

I’ve always been kind of fascinated by octopuses – their intelligence and camouflage abilities are really remarkable, considering they are invertebrates. However, if you’re looking for a scientific book about octopuses, then this isn’t it. True, it features some fascinating facts, but nothing you wouldn’t find on a Wikipedia page. Instead, the main appeal of this book lies in the connections and relationships the author forges with the various octopuses and their caretakers that she meets along the way of her research. Though she tends to get a little gaga about the octopuses at times, which can be annoying unless you love octopuses as much as she does, I still find this an interesting and sometimes touching read. 3/5

The Song Rising by Samantha Shannon:

This is the next book in the Bone Season series, which I’m hired to translate. It’s the only reason I read it. I thought I had reviewed the first two books on the blog before, but apparently I hadn’t, so here’s a quick recap: the series is set in an alternate timeline (still our world but with slightly different history), where people with psychic abilities (called “voyants”) are deemed to be unnatural and forced to become criminals. The main character discovers that the world is actually being controlled by a race of supernatural beings (called “Rephaite”) that enslave the voyants and feed on them, and together with a renegade Rephaite, she starts a revolution to bring freedom to the other voyants.

The basic idea sounds good, but the books aren’t. The world-building is unnecessarily convoluted (I can take the psychic criminal underbelly OR the supernatural beings that enslave people, but not both), the characters are either one-dimensional or predictable, and the central romance between the main character and the Rephaite is every cliché in the YA book. It’s not as bad as Twilight, but that isn’t saying much.

I really wanted to get out of translating this book because I hated the first two so much, but the people at the publishing house said there was no one else, so I had to cave in. The only good thing I can say about it is that I didn’t hate it more than the other two. And the author plans to write SEVEN of these? Please, stop. 1/5

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett:

After the two disappointing Discworld books last month, I wanted to try another Discworld book that I would actually enjoy, so here it is (I also reread “Good Omens”, in anticipation of the TV series.) This is another book about the City Watch, which features Sam Vimes accidentally traveling 30 years back in time and ending up mentoring his younger self while the city is on the brink of a revolution. Despite that premise, the book is pretty serious – there are some heavy musings about society and democracy and what it really means to be a policeman. But the great thing about the Discworld books is that they make you think without being preachy, and besides, it’s great seeing the young versions of Nobby Nobbs and Vetinari. (I never thought I’d go “Aww” over Nobby, but I did.) 4.5/5

The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah:

This book is in the vein of A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun – the author is tired of their dreary life and decides to make a drastic move to some exotic location (Morocco, in this case) to start over. The writing is easy to read, but the story itself, which revolves around the author trying to renovate a house in Casablanca, really frustrates me. In A Year in Provence, for example, the author faces similar difficulties (slow builders, eccentric locals, annoying guests, etc.) but they all seem charming and funny, whereas here, the conditions are truly alarming and the author comes off as a stubborn idiot who refuses to accept that he’s made a terrible mistake. He fails to make me see what’s so great about Casablanca that justifies him going through all that trouble. 2/5


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?


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.