Monday, January 15, 2018

You May Also Like by Tom Vanderbilt

I borrowed this book thinking it was going to be about the algorithms that recommend things to us (like YouTube videos and Amazon products). While that was mentioned, the book is actually about taste - why do we like what we do?

You May Also Like looks at the idea of taste and like by looking at specific areas. There are 6 chapters and each focuses on a different area, namely food, online reviews and recommendations, music playlists, art, beer and cats. There is some overlap between the chapters, but I managed to find different takeaways from each chapter.

From chapter 1 on food, the ideas that we think we want more choice than we do, and that the act of choosing something inclines us to liking it.

Chapter 2 on feedback in the internet age (aka algorithms) that fake reviews has less details about things like room size and location and more superlatives, not to mention more personal pronouns.

Also, the difference between a professional and amateur review is that the professional talks about reasons to like or dislike something while amateurs talk about why they like or dislike something (obviously my reviews fall into the amateur category)

Going on to chapter 3, I found the idea that as we get used to something difficult, we mistake perceptual fluency for liking something. In other words, the more you're exposed to something, the more you learn to like it.

Chapter 4 is on art and it suggests that we tend to see what we expect to see, rather than what is there.

In Chapter 5, one of the ideas introduced is that we don't expect our tastes to change as much as they do.

Finally, in chapter 6, the book considers the conundrum that a good beer (or cat or any other thing) is one that best represents the standard. But the standard is made out of criteria that people think make a beer good. So what makes a good beer? And the cycle goes on and on.

Even though this book wasn't quite what I expected, I found that I enjoyed it very much. I've never really thought about why I like the things I do, although looking back, I can see that my tastes have changed, especially when it comes to food. It was pretty interesting to read and think about why and how taste is defined.

If you're interested in non-fiction and the study of human behaviour, you may find this interesting. Through a wide variety of subjects, the book manages to explore different aspects of taste and likability, both personal and general.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

A friend recommended me this book and when I saw that it was a murder mystery by Anthony Horowitz, I had to pick it up. I really enjoyed the Alex Rider series and so I had really high hopes for this! (There aren’t any teenage spies in this though)

Magpie Murders is a murder mystery about a murder mystery. Susan Ryeland is the editor of Alan Conway, who writes the Atticus Pünd mysteries. She (and the reader) starts reading the book, but then she finds that the last chapter, the most important one where the murderer is revealed, is missing. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem but Alan Conway dies. Everyone thinks it’s a suicide by Susan disagrees and starts investigating (supposedly to find the missing chapters but really for the murder)

The Alan Pünd mystery, which is also titled Magpie Murders, hearkens back to the golden age of detective fiction with a foreign detective (who is German, not Belgium) investigating a mystery in an English town not far from Bath. The mystery starts with the death of the housekeeper and then ramps it up with the death of the unpopular rich guy of the place.

What I loved about this book is how much it celebrated the mystery. It sounds weird for a mystery to talk about the genre, but the meta mystery-within-a-mystery thing gave the book the perfect vehicle to celebrate all that is good about the genre. There are tons of references to various classics, and Agatha Christie’s grandson even has a cameo in the book!

Personally, I preferred the Atticus Pünd mystery compared to the Alan Conway mystery, but that’s because I have a soft spot for Agatha Christie and her contemporaries. I also appreciate how the first third of the book was the Atticus Pünd mystery followed by the Alan Conway mystery rather than alternating between the two. By putting most of the chapters together, I was able to lose myself in the story within the story rather than see it as a plot device.

In short, if you’re a mystery fan (and especially if you’re a golden age of mystery fan), you need to read this. The double mystery and all the references make this to be a really fun book.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Field Guide for Immersion Writing by Robin Hemley

As I was preparing for last year's trip to England, I started looking for travel-related books. One of the books that caught my eye was A Field Guide for Immersion Writing and even though it wasn't a travel guide/memoir, I decided to read it.

The book is divided into five chapters (six sections, if you count the introduction). The introduction introduces the concept of immersion writing, chapter one talks about the immersion memoir, chapter two is about immersion journalism, chapter three about travel writing, chapter four about ethics and legal considerations, and chapter five about story (book and magazine) proposals. Each chapter ends with exercises for the reader.

Personally, the introduction felt a little scatter-shot and I briefly considered abandoning the book, but I was hooked in the first chapter. The definition of the immersion memoir, which I really liked, is that “the immersion memoirist is interested in self-revelation or evaluation while using the outside world as his/her vehicle.” Basically, you’re looking at yourself by looking at outside events.

The first three chapters basically go through the different types of immersion writing in these similar but not identical genres. No matter if you’re a memoirist, travel writer, or journalist, if you’re doing immersion writing, you can divide immersion writing into five categories:

1. Re-enactment
2. Experiment
3. Infiltration
4. Investigation (for memoirs, this is more for biographies than autobiographies)
5. Quest

Through this book, I’ve realised that a lot of books that I’ve read are immersion writing, and I enjoy most of it. Of course, there are a lot more books that I haven’t read and I could see my TBR list growing as I read (hopefully I can get to them soon).

If you’re interested in what this genre of writing is about and you’re looking for books to read (or you want to write a book yourself), you should definitely read this.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I’ve heard of it. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is an exploration of a (not so) modern phenomenon - public shaming. By talking to many people who have been shamed one way or the other and how they’ve adapted to it, Jon Ronson tries to understand the issue.

People interviewed in this book included Justine Stacco (of the misguided tweet), Mike Daisy (of This American Life’s Apple factory episode infamy), Lindsey Stone (of the disrespectful photo) and many more. Along the way, Jon Ronson also explores the idea of the mob mentality, the radical honesty movement, and if our google search results are forever.

By the end of the book, Jon Ronson reaches the conclusion that “we see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age [...] We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside it.”

I agree with this observations, but I’m in two minds about whether it’s good or bad. On one hand, we should allow people to have a diverse range of opinions. On the other hand, we shouldn’t condone hate speech against other races, religions, or people advising others to do unethical or illegal things. So where do we draw the line? Can we draw a line?

What I liked about this book was the portrayal of the various people interviewed. Some of them were exposed for things I would personally find repugnant, but I found empathy for all of them. The only one I didn’t like was Adria Richards, because she was an unrepentant hypocrite (although no one should ever have to go through what she has). On the other hand, the man she (wrongly) shamed was a lot more likeable and sympathetic.

In conclusion, if you’re interested in exploring the issue of modern public shaming and how people react to it, you should give this book a go. Just a word of caution: some of the chapters involve a discussion of things like BDSM so I wouldn’t recommend this to younger teens.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Mansions of Murder by Paul Doherty

I requested this from NetGalley because I really like the Shardlake series and the blurb for this historical mystery reminded me of it.

The Mansions of Murder follows Brother Athelstan as he investigates a most perplexing mystery. First, there's a locked room (locked Church) murder of two strong men. And then two preserved bodies are found in the house of a recently deceased, upstanding member of his parish. The mysteries seem unconnected at first, but as Brother Athelstan and coroner, Sir John Cranston investigate, the signs point towards a gang leader nicknamed 'the Flesher', who also happens to be someone Cranston hates due to their history.

What I liked about this book was its descriptive language. I could picture the grimness of medieval England through the prose and it is definitely not a place that I would like to visit.

However, the language can sometimes work against the story. It was so descriptive that it took me a very long time to be able to form an impression of Brother Athelstan and Sir John Cranston characters. I even got lost in the text a few times. Plus, there was a very long conversation (almost a monologue) to reveal the backstory which I thought was a bit heavy-handed.

I admit that while I understood the ending, I still don't understand how they got to the ending. Perhaps it's because I got overwhelmed by the language, and while I have a very good sense of how England was in the 14th century, I don't have a good sense of how the story flowed. This is probably suited for fans of historical fiction who value setting. And I suppose I should have started from the first book, rather than the jumping in midway.

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

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

I picked this up because it sounded fun (and it's always good to know about the language I grew up speaking) and I found this to be a fun, topical look at the English language.

The Mother Tongue starts off with an introduction of English, moves on to the topic of language in general and the history of English, and then goes on to explore various aspects of the language, such as spelling, dialects, and why Americans speak different English.

The prose is readable and the topics are engaging. And from what I can find, what he says about the English language is supported by other researchers.

But, I would advise everyone to take what he says about foreign languages with a large grain of salt. In the introduction, he says that “In Japanese, the word for foreigner means ‘stinking of foreign hair.’” Obviously, I was surprised by this because I’ve never heard this, not even as a slang word. After some googling, the closest word I could find that resembles what he says is バタ臭い (bata kusai), which translates to “stinks of butter.” It’s a Showa-era term that is now obsolete. However, the online dictionaries have it defined as referring to something or someone that looks Western, sort of like the term “Banana”.

He also says that in China, the telephone is “te le fung”, which surprised me because I always thought it was 电话 (dianhua). But I’ll admit that my Chinese isn’t the best, not to mention that Singaporean Chinese is slightly different from Mainland Chinese, and it might be another obsolete/regional word.

If you’re a fan of the English language and would like to know more about its history and peculiarities, you’ll want to read it. Just be suspicious about claims regarding foreign languages.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus

I heard about this book when Lectus reviewed it and since she gave it four stars, I was pretty sure that I was going to like it. So I immediately placed a hold on it and once it came, I ended up devouring the entire book in one sitting.

One of Us is Lying is basically a mystery. Four students, who basically represent the jock, the pretty girl, the studious nerd, and the bad boy are framed for detention. Along with them is Simon, the guy who publishes gossip about the students, gossip which is always true. When Simon dies from an allergic reaction, suspicion falls on the four students. Things do not get better when blogposts from the 'killer' start turning up and secrets start to be revealed.

Since the book is told from the four viewpoints, I was a little afraid that I was going to get confused (this happens more often than I'd like to admit because sometimes all characters sound the same). But all four characters turned out to have distinct personalities and their own character arcs, and I not only had no problems following the story, I got so curious about the ending that I went to spoil it for myself.

The four characters are:

- Addy, the pretty girl dating one of the most popular guys in school. I actually like her the best, probably because the relationship she was in infuriated me so much that I cheered the moment she started to grow. Plus Addy is a good friend to the other characters and that was something that I appreciated.

- Bronwyn, the studious nerd. I thought her romance was pretty predictable, but I liked her well-enough and she was basically the driving force for them to find out what was going on.

- Cooper, the jock. He was a really sympathetic character and one of the few people who stuck with Addy when she became an outcast.

- Nate, the bad boy who has a past with Bronwyn. He has perhaps the most stereotypical role but it never felt cliched when I was reading the story.

Writing this out, I realise that this book could have been extremely cliched. But the story manages to rise above the stereotypes and is an engrossing mystery. I like that all four characters had their own character arc and all of them were equally fleshed out and carried their share of the story well. I would definitely recommend this.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Real Artists Don't Starve by Jeff Goins

I first heard about Jeff Goins on The Creative Penn podcast, and with me in a writing rut, I decided to try and read this to try and motivate me. And after reading this, I really wish that I've read the book sooner (and that I own a copy) because it is incredibly inspiring.

Real Artists Don't Starve tries to debunk the myth of the starving artist, that if you're in the creative field, you shouldn't expect to make money. To do that, the book is organised into three parts:

Part 1: Mind-set talks about the myths related to what it means to be an artist and what it means to be a creative person

Part 2: Market talks about the myths related to art and what it means to be a professional

Part 3: Money talks about the myths related to art and making money of it (it's actually very similar to part 2 and they could probably be combined into one section).

These three parts cover the 12 principles, and each principle is explored in detail. The ones that struck me during this reading were:

- "Most significant change begins with a simple step, not a giant leap": People don't magically wake up and become artists. I didn't wake up with a finished book. Art is completed by taking one small step at a time - writing a couple of pages a day, taking lessons, etc. It reminded me that the daily writing habit that I've lost is invaluable.

- "Great artists do not try to be original. They copy of the work of both masters and peers": this does not mean that we should be plagiarists (the book is very clear on that). This principle says that we should learn the rules of our art so thoroughly that when we break them, we know what we're doing. And we learn the rules by watching and modelling ourselves after masters and other peers in our field.

- the big break is a myth: people get lucky at some time, but a lot of 'breakout stars' have a lot of hard work behind them which means that we need to put in the work instead of hoping that someone looks at us and recognises our 'genius'

- you must surround yourself with fellow artists: not only to learn from, but because a network is how you get discovered. With the internet, we can find a community no matter where we are.

- "Promotion isn't something an artist avoids; it's an essential part of the job": Art needs and audience and as an artist, we have to find an audience. I am always reluctant to self-promote/do marketing, but it's true that no one will find me if I don't make myself easy to find, so this is something that I need to work on.

- "Charging brings dignity to our work": a lot of people expect free stuff, but it's part of human nature to value what we paid for more highly than something we got for free. As an artist, we should be comfortable asking people to pay for our art (of course, the other side of the argument is that for fields like books, we might need to give something for free so that people don't have a barrier to try our work. And ideally after they read it, they buy the rest)

- we must learn how to take appropriate risks: it might be romantic to think of art in all or nothing terms, but you cannot make good art if you aren't fulfilling your basic needs. Ways you can support your art includes:

a. Selling it to the market (what I'm trying to do)

b. Finding patrons (and patrons aren't just one or two wealthy people, they are everyone who helps support you)

c. Find a way to support your work yourself: this can be via a part-time job or by teaching your art, etc.

- "Own your work": this is more for fields where copyright is important (like characters or books), but it's important not to sell the copyright to your works too early and to take a careful look at the terms first, because your rights are what will help bring long-term financial security.

This book was definitely inspiring. The next step will be to try and convince my brain to act on all the inspiration that I've gotten. I'll probably be rereading this when I'm more settled in Singapore and I'll definitely be checking out other books by Jeff Goins.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Captivate by Vanessa Van Edwards

I just started a job doing customer service and since my people skills are not the best, I borrowed this book to see if there was anything I could do to improve it. Turns out that this isn't really about customer service, so there's not much that I may be able to use, but I found it interesting.

Captivate is divided into three sections: the first five minutes, the first five hours, and the first five days. It takes you from how to make a good first impression, to how to read people (and here I thought microexpressions were basically used in that one TV show), and how to interact with people of different personalities. Tips in the book include:

- Be memorable by highlighting people's highpoints
- Build a sense of connection by emphasising on your commonalities
- Get people to do assigned work but delegating the work by skills and assigning people to tasks that they're good at.
- Don't be afraid to ask for advice or show yourself to be less than perfect.

There's a personality test on the site linked to the book, and I took it took. Unfortunately, neither the book nor the guide gave an interpretation key, but if I'm not wrong, I'm high neuroticism and extraversion and slightly low openness, agreeability and low conscientious. In other words, I'm a worrier, very talkative, not very good at working in groups and can be seen as sloppy and unreliable. How accurate that is, I have no idea. I have found that the results I get from a personality test changes depending on my mood when I take the test and I have no idea if this is different from the rest.

Overall, I think this is an interesting book. I'm not sure how true it is, given that some have called the accuracy of studies in the field of social psychology into question, but it's definitely food for thought. Perhaps I will reread this in the future and see if there's anything more I can glean from it.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale is one of my top reads for 2017 and I was super excited when I was invited to review the sequel! And then my heart broke when the NetGalley page said that my email wasn't included. But luckily, I managed to contact the person who invited me to review and get the ecopy!

The Girl in the Tower picks up where The Bear and the Nightingale leaves off. Vasya has managed to subdue the Bear, but the villagers still think that she's a witch. Desperate not to be sent to a convent or married off, Vasya runs away with her horse, Solovey. Disguising herself as a boy, she runs into her beloved brother Sasha and ends up in the middle of fight between the Grand Prince of Moscow and the bandits burning down the city.

A lot of sequels fail to live up to the first book but The Girl in the Tower is just as fascinating and absorbing. Most of the key characters from the first book - Vasya, Solovey who is the best horse ever, and Morozko the frost demon - are here and minor characters like Sasha get their day in the sun. I love the fact that I recognised Sasha and the other characters because they were in the first book, so their appearance and expanded role felt natural.

Oh and by the way, Konstantin (the priest) appears too. He doesn't have as big a role as he did in The Bear and the Nightingale, but he is still as misguidedly evil and irredeemable as ever.

Another thing: I'm not a big fan of romance so I liked that there were no forced romances or love triangles in this. Vasya makes the choice to leave to avoid getting married and I'm glad the book doesn't sabotage that decision by having her fall in love. There is something between her and Morozko, but it's a doomed romance and I like that they didn't force it. Plus it sort of carried over from the previous book (though it wasn't as obvious so I didn't talk about it in my review) so I didn't find it weird.

If you loved (or even just liked - although I don't believe that's possible) The Bear and the Nightingale, you need to pick up The Girl in the Tower. The series continues to enchant and although you can read both as standalone novels, many elements of the first book were so naturally carried over and developed in the second in a way that made The Girl in the Tower even more of a delight to read.

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