Wednesday, April 30, 2014

An Excuse For Company Volume 10

Hey everyone!

Here's the latest volume of An Excuse For Company, a free online magazine for writers (and of course, readers).

This issue is about Characters - why they're important, listening to them, and why I hate Mary-Sues. In the announcements section, we have information about a new short story, and the links to an excerpt for a novel called JIHADI: A LOVE STORY.

If you wish to contribute to the next issue, let me know (you don't have to contribute every issue, just whenever you have something to share)

Direct Link for Volume 10

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I got this book because it was one of the few books in BookOff below 200 yen (I had a coupon for a free book - free as long as it was below 200 yen). The name Kurt Vonnegut sounded familiar, so I thought it couldn't hurt to give the book a chance.

And I'm glad I brought it back. Since I've never read Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat's Cradle, I came not knowing what to expect. What I found was an oddly compelling book that grabbed my attention and held it. I say oddly compelling because from the summary, the subject matter seemed dark and far away from what I normally prefer.

Mother Night is the 'autobiography' of Howard W. Campbell Jr, an American who was both a notorious Nazi propagandist and an American spy. The book is set after WWII and talks about the events leading up to his trial for war crimes in Israel.

Howard W. Campbell Jr. is a complicated protagonist. He's married to a German girl named Helga, whom he obviously loves. And it seems like that love led him to become the Nazi Propagandist. Yet he hid the secret of his American spying activities from her, not from a sense of patriotism, but for no real reason. He doesn't even have a reason why he decided to help America, considering that his friends and family (with the exception of his parents) are in Germany. He doesn't even get any recognition for it, which makes his sacrifice a self-less sacrifice.

So I guess he can really be called "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" (first said by the immensely quotable Winston Churchill during a radio broadcast in October 1939), But like the book says up front, there is no attempt to understand his motives. It just serves to illustrate the moral of the story, that "we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be".

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Philology by James Turner

Philology is defined as "the multifaceted study of texts, languages, and the phenomenon of language itself". According to this book, it's also the parent of disciplines such as history, literature, and basically most of the humanities (except Philosophy).

Personally, I've never heard of Philology before this book. But after reading it, I can say that... Oxford's Philosophy, Politics and Economics course sounds absolutely fascinating. It's not covered in the book (it's only mentioned at the end), but I took a look at the course on the website and it looks good.

Now back to the book. This book is a survey of the history of philology. It doesn't try to go in-depth, which seeing as its 576 pages in total, might be a good thing. Philology has had a really long and interesting history, but it has always been a broad-ranging subject. It was only when philologists began to specialise in areas such as History and Archaeology and so on that it started to be forgotten.

But think about it, do we need a Jack or all trades or a master of one? It's not a simple question (for example, I want my doctor to be a master of the field of medicine, not a Jack of all trades), but I would say that with the internet connecting us, a broad base of knowledge is beginning to become essential. Sure, we'll need (and we should) specialise in one thing, if only because it'll give us something unique to brag about in our resumes, but it's only smart to know about a lot of other things as well. Like Philology (although that does restrict things, albeit a broader base of things).

So that means, perhaps in 20 years time, the norm for humanities students would be to have a minor in philology, as well as an area of specialisation. I mean, I think it would really help a literature student if she knew the history of the time period of the piece she's analysing, and a history student could always use literature sources as a secondary source. It's all interconnected.

The writing in this book is a bit dense, and since it's a technical subject, is a little hard to read. However, there were times where I chuckled, as the author occasionally tried to inject some light-heartedness into the book. For example, I love this description of Athanasius Kircher:

"Take Alexander Pope's dictum, "a little learning is a dangerous thing"; imagine it walking on two legs and you have Kircher in his wilder moments."

And of course, this bit of information is going to be useful to know in the future (when talking to friends about their coffee addiction):

"Oxford's Arabist, Rev. Edward Pococke, protege of John Selden, set the model for the modern scholar by downing endless cups of coffee."

So while the subject matter might be heavy, this book isn't as unreadable as you'd expect. If you have an interest in the humanities and its origins, you should definitely pick up this book.

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

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Glass of Time by Michael Cox

Do I love this book? Do I want to throw it across the room? I don't know.

The Glass of Time is the sequel to the excellent book The Meaning of Night. If I remember, I said in my review of the first book that I wanted an ending where Edward triumps and Phoebus and Emily get their comeuppance (as it stands, only Phoebus dies at the end of The Meaning of Night). Did this book achieve that?

Well, the meaning of night follows Esperanza Grost (dubbed Alice by Lady Tansor, aka Emily) as she serves her as a ladies maid while trying to fulfill some great task. In the same house as her is the (rather volatile) housekeeper Mrs Battersby, and her two sons Perseus and Randolph and of course, all the servants. If you've read the first book, you can probably predict what the mission is. If you haven't read the first book, well, you should read it beforehand, or else the reason for the mission might seem very implausible.

It's really hard to talk about the book without using spoilers, but I shall try. Basically, vengeance was achieved, although it wasn't as satisfying as I thought.

But what I was really surprised at was the development of Emily's character. I went into the book fully preparing to hate her, but as the story went on, I started to sympathise with her. She becomes a more complex character than the first book, which was both infuriating (because I wanted revenge, not to feel sympathy) and admirable (this book humanized her. I admire that).

The next strong character would be Esperanza/Alice. The narrative is told mainly through her point of view, and she's a very likable narrator and character. Because she starts her Great Task with very little information, she basically fumbles her way though everything. The relationship between her and Emily is really interesting as well.

Unfortunately, apart from these two ladies, the rest of the characters were rather disappointing. Perhaps its because my focus is on Emily and Esperanza (and finding out how the events in The Meaning of Night end), but I found Mrs Battersby, Perseus and Randolph, and the relationships they had, to be boring. I felt that they were not fully sketched out, which meant that I didn't sympathise with her.

In fact, I thought that the subplot involving Mrs Battersby and Randolph rather unbelievable. The same goes for the relationship between Esperanza and Perseus. These relationships felt unconvincing and distracting to me. Sure, they added plot-twists, but I never understood the character motivations.

Don't get me wrong, this is a good sequel. It clears up questions and frustrations that I had from the first book. I would really like to know more about the time period between the two books though, although we do get hints, I would love to know more in detail. Pity that a third book won't be coming out.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Butterfly and the Violin by Kirsty Cambron

This book's not coming out for another two months or so, but I'm giving you an early review so you know whether you should pre-order the book or not.

The Butterfly and the Violin follows Sera James, an art gallery owner obsessed with finding a painting she once saw as a child; and Adele Von Bron, a famous Viennese violinist who gets arrested by the Nazis for hiding the Jews. The two stories are connected by that one painting and yes, there is a love interest for both girls (although Sera's love story was much more prominent).

To be honest, I basically read the book for Adele's side of the story. Sera had an interesting plot, but for some reason, I wasn't drawn in. Perhaps its because the impact her past had on her didn't impact me as strongly - what happened to her was terrible, but by skipping over it (and key events), I felt distanced.

On the other hand, I was fully engaged in Adele's story. It helped that it wasn't totally a love story, well, it was, but it had familial (the kind of family that isn't bound by blood but you don't choose either) and romantic love. And of course, the music.

I would have been happier if this book focused only on Adele and fleshed out her story more. Or, if the dual-plotline was important, expanded the book by fleshing out both Sera and Adele's plots. Because while Adele's side of the story was very well-written (although a bit short for my liking), I felt that Sera's side of the story was rather rushed.

 All in all though, this is a good book. It was absorbing and moving. It's length makes it a quick read, although I think that with its subject matter, it's not a fluffy book that you'd want to take to the beach. It's more of a book that you curl up with.

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

Friday, April 18, 2014

Apologies and Updates

Hey everyone. You might have noticed my absence since Tuesday. The truth is, I got some bad news and it really affected me.

If you want to read the full story, please go over to my other blog: A Sister's Reaction to my Brother's Bullying Case.

In 2012, I moved to Japan for further studies. At that time, I left behind my family, including my little brother, who was turning 8 at that time. That same year, I received a message from my mother, telling me not to worry, but that the teachers had caught my brother attempting to jump from the fourth storey at school.

Apparently, my brother's classmates had told him that if he jumped they would be his friend. He believed them. 

My brother has been diagnosed with mild autism. To put it simply, my brother does not know how to interact with others. My brother wants to make friends, he would love to be friends, but he does not know how to go about doing it. 

Every day, my brother goes to school and tries to make friends. And every day, he has to learn to shrug off the bullying and teasing that goes on. His coping mechanism is to deny that bad things happen. 

Read More

I'll be back with regular updates from Monday. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Teaser Tuesday: The Glass of Time by Michael Cox

Woohoo, it's Tuesday again, and here's Teaser Tuesday to remind me of one of the books that I'm currently reading. Since school started, I've been reading more ebooks, but I really must get on with this awesome book (truth be told, I'm afraid of finishing it and finding out what happens).

The book in question is called The Glass of Time, and it's the sequel to The Meaning of Night. And here's the teaser:

Where is the palpable evidence to connect you to the business? There is none. Words on paper can kill in these matters, my Lady, but you have assured me many times, have you not, that there are no words on paper concerning the matter - nothing committed to that deadly medium - that might condemn you."
 What do you think?

Share the links to your teaser with me in the comments! Hope you have a good week ahead :D

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley

You know, at the rate that Flavia finds corpses, I'm surprised that no one ever suspects her of having something to do with it. Even Kogoro Mouri, the front for detective Conan gets accused of bringing death with him. Then again, Detective Conan has been running for 890 chapters (at last count), not to mention the anime series and the movies that's been produced. And I'm only at book 3 of the Flavia de Luce series, so I guess she still gets a little leeway.

In this book, we not only have the murder of what seems to be an extremely troublesome delinquent, there's a serious assault case that has an old gypsy lady in the hospital. Incidentally, the gypsy lady appears in the first chapter, when she scares Flavia while giving her her fortune (unsurprisingly, Feely and Daffy have something to do with it). And Flavia being Flavia, she ends up forming a friendship with the Porcelain, the niece of the gypsy woman.

But of course, this case isn't so straightforward as to just be about a murder and assault. There's also a secret sect called the Wobblers involved, and a missing baby.

Personally, I felt that the many strands in this book were tied together very well. Unlike the second book, where the mystery was meh to me, the case in this book was interesting and a key focus of the book. Not only do we get to find out more about Flavia and her family (which could hold enough secrets for either a TV soap or a sitcom), but there's an interesting case mixed up in it too!

If you like Flavia de Luce, you'll love this third book.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Viola Doyle by Amy Lynn Spitzley

Viola Doyle is an unconventional girl who lives in what seems to be Victorian-era England (but with a Queen Olivia). Sure, her grandad is (in)famous, but her mother seems determined to make sure that she behaves like a proper lady. Unfortunately for mom, Viola comes into possession of a mysterious pin (or rather, the pin chooses her), and in finding out the history of the pin, life is going to change for Viola.

In a way, this could have been a cliched book. I mean, unconventional protagonist, chafing at the constraints of society, finds a mysterious and possibly magical object and falls in love along the way. But, what this book did right was to have likable protagonists that could carry the story.

Of course, one of the protagonists would be the titular Viola, who doesn't want to be a lady. I enjoyed reading about her 'fights' with the stuck up Maxwell Simpson, who has a crush on her (by wanting to make her admit men are superior). Her love interest is the quiet and scholarly Mikhail, who's a good match for her in every way except socially. Thankfully, she has a supportive and unconventional grandmother.

And there's the dragon. Yes, dragons will appear in this story, although the dragon and Viola won't meet till the very end. I was hoping that they would be one of those lovable wise-cracking duos, but it was not to be. Perhaps in the next book, since the mystery of the pin and the Family has only begun.

Oh, and I found out that the author also wrote Scrapbook of My Revolution, which I read and enjoyed last year. Last year around this time as well, if I remember correctly.

All in all, this is an enjoyable book. If you like strong female protagonists, some mystery and a love story that does not become the main focus of the book, you'll probably enjoy this.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from Curiosity Quills via NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

WWW Wednesdays

Well, I did say that I didn't want to do so many meme's this year, but this seems fun and I want to try it at least once. It's from ShouldBeReading, the wonderful blog that also hosts Teaser Tuesday (one of my favourite meme's! And probably the only one I participate in semi-regularly). So without further ado:

What am I currently reading? 

I'm currently reading The Glass of Time by Michael Cox

It's the sequel to The Meaning of Night, which was so good that I ordered the sequel once I finished reading it.

On the iPad, I'm reading Philology by James Turner

It's about the history of the discipline of this area of study. It's a dense read, but rewarding so far.

And my current distraction (that I can't seem to put down) is the manga Prince of Tennis that I'm re-reading.

What Did I Just Finish Reading? 
Um, I'm not sure since I'm normally reading a few books at one time, but I think it's The Doll Maker by Majanka Verstraete

It may be a kid's book, but it's still scary.

What do I think I'll read next? 
I have no idea. I'd like to start on this book:

It's a Professor Layton novel! *fangirls* But I have a mental block when it comes to reading in Japanese. I'll probably go through my English TBR pile. Or maybe a textbook, the new school term is starting.

What about you?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Charm by Stephen Bayley

Do you think you're charming? Well, I'm not, considering that I can have an abrasive personality. Do I think that this book is charming? Well, to put it bluntly, no.

Charm is supposed to be a book on charm - what it is and what its history has been. Unfortunately, it suffers from one serious problem: a lack of focus. The author tends to skip from one thing to another and I never really knew what was going on in this long essay/mini-book. I would have much preferred more focus, for example, a clear structure that went either thematically (of looking at the possible elements of charm) or historically (charm through the ages). But perhaps the author thought that his method was more charming, I don't particularly agree, but style is subjective.

Charm for the male and female is apparently two different things. A charming man has "curiosity without being intrusively inquisitive. He has a confident, but not swaggering, bearing that's modified by a sensitive and intelligent reticence in the way he holds himself. He does not sulk, nor does he strut. It's a matter of balance and he finds a physical posture in between. He engages. He listens. He is empathetic. He has curiosity, is never short of something to say, but he knows the value of a pause." In other words, he is a Gary-Sue. I might also add that this definition makes me want to add 'he is also one stop short of being insufferable'.

What about the female? Well, a charming woman is "not an expression [the author would] readily use since to call a woman 'charming' is. in [his] view, to suggest a lack of other attractive properties". But no worries, he provides a definition in the following sentence: "First, looks. She would be gamine, pert, with a lively intelligence that settles, and then moves about her face. Her eyes are bright, but questioning, and she carries herself with relaxed elegance. Both literally and metaphorically, a charming woman would be light on her feet. ... The charming woman has more power than reserve, although that's not to say that the power's not actually kept discreetly in reserve." Part of this description actually reminds me of Elizabeth Bennet (and her 'fine eyes'). As well as Emma. So being a 'charming' woman would be a good thing.

One thing of this book struck me: when the author called Peter Mayle's book A Year in Florence charming. I whole-heartedly concur with this.

But, this book felt more flighty than charming. It had an interesting subject, but I think that the author didn't do it justice. I would be interested in reading a more detailed and focused book on this subject. Any recommendations?

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

Monday, April 7, 2014

Martin King and the Space Angels by James McGovern

Some time ago, James McGovern, the author of Martin King and the Space Angels contacted me to see if I would be interested in reviewing this book. Of course I was interested, but since I don't tend to open up the kindle app, it took me some time to start this book. Once I started this book though, I managed to finish it in about an hour.

Martin King and the Space Angels is about the titular protagonist Martin King, his love interest Darcy and his best friend and cousin Tommy as they save the world from an evil force called XO5.

The good points of this book is that it's a readable book with an interesting plot. I was genuinely interested in finding out what happens next, and of course, if the book was boring, I might not have even finished it.

However, the book suffers from some pacing issues, which do affect the plot. This book can be broken into at least two, ideally three books, in order to fully develop the adventure and the characters. Right now, I can identify two main story arcs: the save the earth arc and the showdown with XO5 arc. The save the earth arc was the longer and better developed arc. But, around the end of that arc, to the end of the book, the story gets very rushed, which make certain character developments unbelievable. Personally, I think the book would be even better if it was divided into one book about saving the earth (and expanding the last section to make the change in certain characters, like Martin's dad and Moonstone, more believable), one book about the next "mission" to save Hope and a last book about the final showdown with XO5. I believe that if the book was further developed, not only the plot and pacing would be improved, but the characters would become even more well-developed.

Overall, this book has an interesting plot and is easy to read. However, it does suffer from pacing issues and could be developed a lot further.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Ring and the Crown by Melissa de la Cruz

The name Melissa de la Cruz is really familiar to me, but looking at her wikipedia page, it seems like I've never read any of her books before. But if they're as good as The Ring and The Crown, then I've got to remedy this situation as soon as possible.

The Ring and the Crown is set in an alternate reality, where magic exists (which impeded the industrial revolution and created the great Franco-Britain empire). The two main protagonists are Marie-Victoria, the daughter of Queen Eleanor and the heir to the throne of the Franco-Britain empire and Aelwyn, the illegitimate daughter of the great mage Merlin.

In this alternate reality, Merlin has defeated the dark with Joan (aka Joan of Ark) and the existence of magic means that the modern revolution never took off. It is against this backdrop that Aelwyn returns from her place of banishment, where she was sent because of a fire she started that nearly killed the princess.

When Aelwyn comes back, she finds that her childhood friend is betrothed to Prince Leopold. Marie, on the other hand, is in love with her guard Gill. And Prince Leopord's younger brother Wolf is in love with the penniless American heiress Ronan, who's on the hunt for a rich husband.

Personally, I loved this book. Marie-Victoria and Aelwyn are interesting characters who are thrown into situations bigger than their relationships with others. It seems like they're good friends, although this book didn't really explore the friendship dynamic very much. But the discussion on personal happiness versus duty (which included Wolf, who is probably my third favourite character, after the girls) turned this book into something more than light reading. In fact, I would say that the ending is quite different from the "and they all lived with their one true loves happily ever after" I expected at first. It helped this book escape the total fluff label.

My least favourite character was probably Ronan. I'm not sure why, since she's supposed to be the feisty American, but she just rubbed me the wrong way. Plus, her story isn't really related to the main plot (except for her relationship with Wolf), which meant that I never was that interested if she managed to snag a rich husband or not.

If you like alternate history books that feature girls as the heroines (and no, their boyfriends will not be the ones to save the day), you should definitely give this book a go. It's not a deep philosophical book by any means, but it's not total fluff and it's an enjoyable read. I am really looking forward to the next book, because this is a series that has a lot of potential.

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

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain by Richard Roberts

If you had the choice, would you be a superhero or a supervillain. I'm guessing most people will say "superhero", I mean, a lot of people are raised on Marvel/DC comics (I had... Teen Titans so I think that counts). Penelope Akk, the protagonist of this book, and the one asking you not to tell her parents that she's a supervillain, wants to be a superhero as well. The problem is, she's good at being a supervillain.

In a community of superheros and their kids (think of the movie The Incredibles), Penelope is the daughter of two superheroes whose identity isn't a secret. Her dad is a genius scientist and her mom is known as The Audit (I'm sure you can guess what her power is). So when Penelope finds out that her superpower is here, she's more than a little excited.

But as she tries to master her powers with the help of her friends, they end up in a fight with a jerk sidekick and suddenly, they're supervillains, called The Inscrutable Machine. Penelope becomes Bad Penny (and she hates her name), her friend Claire, who has the power of adorableness becomes e-Claire and Ray, the human-turned-superpowered human is Reviled. Penny finds that she enjoys supervillainy, but she does want to turn to the good side.

What I liked about this book was the superhero and supervillain community. Not everyone is a superhero/supervillain, in fact, you can see that LA is totally used to them, but they have this predictable dynamic. There are truce areas and they have a code of conduct. Of course, you can even switch sides. What Penny and her friends do is to shake up the whole scene, which made for an interesting read. Of course, through the course of their destruction and daily lives, a host of interesting characters are introduced.

Penny and her friends are an interesting bunch too. There's Penny, who's clearly mad scientist material. She's totally crushing on Ray (but she doesn't know/won't admit it), which is why she's sometimes jealous of her best friend Claire, who's adorable. Claire is the daughter of The Minx, a literally charming superhero who used to be a supervillain. Ray was the least interesting of the tree, but then again, Penny and Claire are really interesting. The three of them have a dynamic that makes them a very strong team.

This book has strong characters, an interesting setting and inventions that I love. In fact, I think my little brother (age 10) would be perfect for this book, since he loves inventing stuff. Not just my brother though, this is a fun book that I think will appeal to a large age-group; after all, I enjoyed it too.

I hear that there's a sequel in progress and I'm eagerly waiting for it.

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

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Teaser Tuesday - Hey Skinny! By Miles Beller and Jerry Leibowitz

Hey everyone! Can you believe that it's already April? Where has the first quarter of the year gone? And since I'm terrible at any sort of prank (I can't even pour water over unsuspecting people), this is a straightforward teaser. 

Well, I did pick this book for people who want a laugh. Hey Skinny! Is a collection of old advertisements in all their bizarre glory. If you want a laugh, this is a book you should have on hand to leaf through.

"Amazing New Game Sensation 'Let's Go To College' 
The Newest Coast-to-Cast CRAZE" (1944 advertisement)
Use your imagination for what the advertisement looks like. I'm actually quite curious as to how you win (with the highest GPA?)

What is your teaser? And how was your April Fools?