Book Reviews

Deep breath.

Hello world!

I know it has been over six months since I’ve updated, and it’s terrible. Every so often I would open up my blog and stare determinedly at the “new post” button, but I never managed to muster up the willpower to write an entry. I think the problem was that there was just so much going on in my life, that the task of condensing it into bite-sized paragraphs seemed insurmountable. For most of the past half-year, I’ve been playing catch-up, week to week, with all the things I’m supposed to be and do. I think now, at least, I’m glad to say I’ve reached a point where I’m able to take a deep breath and refocus.

In February of this grand year, I started my training in psychiatry. Working in an inpatient psychiatric ward at a busy public hospital has been hectic and challenging, at many points. But it has also been immensely eye-opening, memorable and rewarding. But more reflections on psychiatry training to come later.

I also did not finish my book. I hate admitting failure: it gives me a cold shudder in the pit of my gut. But it’s true—sadly, I didn’t achieve what I set out to do in my six months off from work. I wrote up to chapter 23 of a planned 30, and then—bam!—life got in the way. And then I lost faith in the story, and I haven’t yet picked it up again. I haven’t written anything for a few months, struggling to find inspiration amidst the busy-ness of fulltime work and study.

A Time article reminded me recently:

Failing is OK. Not failing is not OK. If you don’t flop every so often, you’re not trying hard enough.

I’ll keep trying.

In the vein of cheesy, motivational quotes, I’ve embarked on a bit of a personal mission to be less cynical and more positive. About two months ago, rather uncharacteristically, I browsed “inspirational quotes” on Pinterest and felt immensely uplifted by the words. I’ve even become one of those people with an inspirational quote on my phone wallpaper. I know, I can’t believe it. But being more positive to people around me on a day to day basis has had such a tangible effect. As soon as I shifted my mindset and behaviour, I noticed changes. My day became less stressful. People responded to me more warmly. I was able to be a soothing presence when others were stressed, and to give more to help out. When a coworker was short to me and others, I understood that she was probably stressed out and used to being spoken to in a grumpy manner. So instead of shutting her out, I decided to do her a favour. I think I’ve just realised the magic of returning coldness with warmth.

Anyway, onto some book recommendations!

Non-Fiction

Stuff Matters – Mark Miodownik 

stuff matters

This is an informative, interesting and fun read. Miodownik is a materials scientist with a flair for words. There are ten chapters in this book; each chapter discusses a different material in our daily lives—glass, charcoal, steel, concrete, etc—from a historical and scientific perspective. It’s pretty eye-opening and you really learn to marvel at the extra-ordinariness of the ordinary substances around us. Highly recommended.

China in Ten Words – Yu Hua

china-ten-words

Ever since reading the graphic novel A Chinese Life and visiting China at the end of 2013 (and oh yeah, maybe because I’m ethnically Chinese too…ha ha), I’ve been somewhat interested in 20th century Chinese history and the shaping of modern Chinese culture. That’s why I was quick to snap up this book by Yu Hua when I found it in Green Apple Books in San Francisco. It’s a collection of ten essays, each one reflecting on an aspect of Chinese culture from a personal and analytical perspective. For someone living outside China, it’s fascinating. Another highly recommended read.

Fiction

Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Promise & The Search – Gene Luen Yang

Avatar_The_Last_Airbender_The_Promise_Part_1_coverAvatar_The_Last_Airbender_The_Search_Part_1_cover

These spin-off comics are set after the events of the original series. The Promise and the Search are each an instalment of three, and there’s a third trilogy, The Rift, as well. I had my doubts, but Gene Luen Yang’s artwork is wonderfully lively and the story stays true to the spirit of the series. These comics are very fun reads, and The Search is especially compelling. Worth reading if you’re a fan of the series!

*

More next time,

Grace

Advertisements

Before Watchmen: Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair

Before Watchmen - Ozymandias

After reading and reviewing  Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr Manhattan a couple of weeks ago, I was left with mixed feelings. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist trying a second book in DC’s spin-off series. And of course, it had to be Ozymandias.

The books themselves are hardcover volumes with lovely, glossy pages and vivid colours. The title and contents pages are done in classic Watchmen yellow. At the back of the book are several pages of extra artwork, mostly character sketches—a joy to browse.

Before Watchmen - Ozymandias 2

Ozymandias #1-6 Collected – Writer: Len Wein; Artist: Jae Lee

As soon as I read the first few pages of Ozymandias’ story arc, I was hooked. Firstly, Len Wein’s writing style was much more lavish, rich, and just delightful than J. Michael Straczynski’s in Nite Owl. I relished his command and confidence with language. As the story is an autobiographical account, this works well: Wein gives Veidt a grand, egotistical voice that adds to the almost-deification of mortal into god, as Veidt attempts to change the fate of humanity.

Jae Lee’s also provides stunning line work to complement the story. The best parts of Lee’s art included daring side-profiles and powerful illustrations of movement and combat. A visually marvellous work.

The Ozymandias arc provides backstory into Veidt’s early life and then his choices in the lead up to the events of Watchmen. It’s a thought-provoking character study of a man whose lofty ideals justify personal atrocities. Overall, a great read. Liked how it tied into 20th century events. Loved that the Comedian got some screen time, too. 4 out of 5 stars.

The Curse of the Crimson Corsair – Writer: Len Wein & John Higgins; Artist: John Higgins

Reads a lot like Pirates of the Caribbean. Young Scotsman Gordon McClachlan survives a shipwreck and is scooped up by the undead crew of the Flying Dutchmen, captained by the Crimson Corsair, a tough guy in a bandanna who says creepy things. McClachlan must then embark on a quest to regain his soul. I’m still not too sure where this story fits in to the whole Watchmen universe. It stands alone; perhaps a sister story to Tales of the Black Freighter, the serial pirate-horror comic that was interspersed throughout the story of Watchmen. Maybe I missed something? Altogether entirely average: entertaining but only moderately satisfying. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Dollar Bill – Writer: Len Wein; Artist: Steve Rude

Bonus story! Gotta love that. A short snippet of Dollar Bill’s life—from athletic but academically-stunted high school student, to struggling actor, and eventually to caped mascot. Because he draws heaps of publicity, Dollar Bill is accepted into Minutemen, but almost as soon as his adventures begin, he meets his tragic end. 3 out of 5 stars, I guess. It was a little funny.

Redeemed the series for me! I may pick up yet another volume. Stay tuned :)

Before Watchmen - Ozymandias 3

Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr Manhattan/Moloch

311px-Before_Watchmen_Nite_Owl_Doctor_Manhattan

Before Watchmen: DC’s spinoff prequel series to the 1986 genre-defying graphic novel that was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. This is the first of the prequels I’ve read. I’ve been pretty reluctant to pick it up, because I’ve always seen Watchmen as being a standalone masterpiece, especially impressive as a closed-off, non-continuous work. I like books that are complete, elegant, finished, structured, polished. But the nature of comics universes is to expand and expand upon storylines…even if the original creators aren’t involved and don’t approve.

The lovely hardcover copy that I got my hands on (Thanks, local library! I have loved you since I was three years old!) collects several issues together in one lightweight book. The stories are all written by J. Michael Straczynski and illustrated by various artists. There are some pleasing elements here and there, but overall, nothing astounded me.

I’ll review each character’s arc separately.

nite owl 2

Nite Owl #1-4 collected – Writer: J. Michael Straczynski; Penciller: Andy Kubert

Interesting glimpse into Dan Drieberg’s childhood life, his idolation of the original Nite Owl and eventual assumption of the superhero mask. Followed up by a rather trite and predictable homicide mystery where prostitutes are being murdered and the Nite Owl gets to boink a sexually liberated vice-queen with lots of gratuitous boobs and butt perspectives. The fragments of Rorshach’s past were exponentially more intriguing. 2 out of 5 stars.

Dr Manhattan #1-4 collected – Writer: J. Michael Straczynski; Artist- Adam Hughes

Marginally more compelling. Straczynski takes Dr. Manhattan’s omniscient, omnipresent abilities and uses that to tell a story that breaks down linear time and unfolds into multiple possible narratives. Basically expands on the events and potential of Dr. Manhattan as told in Watchmen. We get to meet Dr. Manhattan when he was little Jon Osterman, and also his German father and Jewish mother. 3 out of 5 stars.

Moloch #1-2 collected – Writer: J. Michael Straczynski; Artist – Eduardo Risso

Entire life story of Moloch the Mystic. Fairly cliche but reasonably entertaining. Not sure if the change of heart towards the end of his career was entirely believable, but I found myself feeling extremely sympathetic towards the poor, sad, pointy-eared chap. I liked this story arc particularly because it showed how Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (one of my favourite characters in the Watchmen universe for his fascinating personality) manipulated ol’ Moloch and many others. 3 out of 5 stars.

dr manhattan before watchmen

Overall, Before Watchmen seems to be a step backward into a more traditional form of superhero storytelling. There were elements that strongly repulsed me, and other elements that I enjoyed. Despite my mixed feelings, I’ll probably try another in the series. I would probably recommend this to Watchmen fans because you do get more fleshed out back-stories to some of the major events of the original graphic novel.

Day Three (or really, day two), + Book Review: Ender’s Game – The Graphic Novel

Reading: Before Watchmen – Nite Owl/Dr Manhattan
Listening: CMA – Caught In Our Thoughts
Watching: BBC’s Wonders of the Universe; waiting for the other half to have free time so we can catch up on Korra and Elementary
Playing: Nothing over the past few days

Day Three of my six month journey of writing! Or technically, day two…because yesterday I had a job interview and didn’t achieve much in between that and physiotherapy and outdoor soccer training. So yesterday will be one of my “weekend” days and I’ll work a full day on Saturday or Sunday to make up for it.

What difficulties have I encountered so far?

1. Waking up

I always have difficulty with this. Especially in winter. I suspect my body is somewhat related to a polar bear, because I tend to adopt hibernation behaviours in cold weather. I’m pretty sure, if you left me to it, I could sleep three-quarters of the day away. Unfortunately I’m not one of those lucky people who are able to thrive on a few hours of sleep (and now it seems there’s a genetic association for it!) though I really wish I was. Imagine the productivity! In fact, my utter inability to function without adequate sleep has definitely been a factor, amongst other things, in pushing me away from specialties such as Emergency Medicine and surgery.

Despite my love of the bed, I am actually a morning person and achieve the most before 12 noon. So, the alarm has been going off at 7.30am.

2. The Melbourne cold

I haven’t yet got so sick of my house that I have had to relocate to a cafe or library. But the downside is that my house is freezing. My weapons of defense? Fluffy pink socks and a trusty beanie.

IMG_20140806_115729 IMG_20140806_115646

3. The afternoon slump

Hits around 2pm. I yawn and can think of nothing but a pillow against my cheek. My techniques for handling the slump so far have included switching activities—for example, switch from story-outlining to blogging; doing 10 push-ups (the most I can achieve); going for a short walk.

4. Facebook

Hasn’t been as much of a problem yet as I’d feared. Will update if this changes.

On to the book review!

ender's game

Yesterday I finished the graphic novel adaptation of Ender’s Game, scripted by Christopher Yost and artwork by Pasqual Ferry. It’s a collection of Ender’s Game: Battle School #1-5 and Command School #1-5, which basically covers the events of the original novel by Orson Scott Card: An impending second war looms between humans and their enemies, the bug-like alien Formics. To prepare for this, the army is seeking the most gifted child to mould into a deadly commander. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is taken to Battle School in the hope that he can become this commander.

The graphic novel is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the book, covering all the main events in a condensed way. It’s a great introduction to the story if you’re new to Ender’s Game, and also an enjoyable alternative medium if you’re already a fan. There isn’t anything new or surprising.

The art style is clean and futuristic. Ferry’s linework conveys movement fluidly. The colours are sombre and evocative of the gloomy interiors of the spaceships. The Battle Room scenes are well illustrated and fun to flick through.

Overall, the graphic novel conveys the main emotions of the book fairly well, though the resolution seemed rushed and only offered a superficial skimming-over of Ender’s reaction to the final battle. I also feel as though they left out a major part of the ending.

A quick and easy graphic novel read that can be a great introduction to a controversial science fiction classic.

Happy hump day, everyone!

Book Review: A Chinese Life – Li Kunwu, Philippe Otie

chineselifecover

I found this book in my local library last week and the blurb convinced me to take it home:

An autobiography in graphic-novel form, A Chinese Life traces a remarkable personal journey through modern history, from the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 to the present day…this stylish masterpiece of design chronicles the rise and legacy of Chairman Mao Zedong and his sweeping, often cataclysmic vision for the most populous country on the planet. Li Kunwu witnessed this extraordinary period at first hand, and here intertwines the experiences of his family and neighbours, his friends and rivals, his colleagues and compatriots, in a visionary account of “interesting times”.

Although I am of Chinese ethnicity, I actually know shamefully little about Chinese culture and history. The closest person of my extended family to be born in China was my maternal grandfather, who passed away when I was a child. My great-grandparents lived in China, but I never met them.

I think, therefore, this book was quite perfect for me. The target audience seems to be Western, or non-Chinese, readers. It is the personal memoir of Li Kunwu, a Chinese artist who was born just following the Communist Revolution and during the height of Mao Zedong’s influence. His experience of the Great Leap Forward, the tragic effects of the severe famine on his family and hometown, the fervour of the Cultural Revolution, and ultimately the opening up of China to foreign interchange and subsequent power, are particularly memorable because we see it through the eyes of a Chinese man.

The first half of the book is definitely more engaging than the second half. The relationship with his father is especially poignant to observe. Li depicts events and reactions with little commentary, leaving conclusion and opinion up to the reader. Only towards the end does he share his opinion of the events of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Overall, this graphic novel certainly gave me a compelling insight into the mind of a man growing up in twentieth century China. It was also a great introduction for me into China’s recent history. Although it’s a hefty-looking book at 700 pages, it didn’t take me too long to finish. The pacing was commendable. The black and white artwork is lively and generally easy to follow, except for a few jumps here and there and difficulty telling characters apart. Worth its while if you’re looking for a unique form of autobiography and are keen to learn a bit about Chinese history from an insider’s point of view!

Book Review: All You Need is Kill – Hiroshi Sakurazaka

all_you_need_is_kill_book_cover_01

Speedy book review time!

All You Need is Kill is a Japanese military sci-fi novel published in 2004. A manga adaptation was released in the first half of this year, and the recent blockbuster Edge of Tomorrow is based on this book. It follows the experiences of Keiji Kiriya, a junior soldier in the United Defense Force, an army fighting against alien creatures called Mimics. Keiji is violently slaughtered during his first real battle—and that’s where the story really begins. Keiji finds himself trapped in a time-loop, Groundhog Day-style, where he relives the battle again and again, dying dozens of times over.

At 60,000 words (probably around 150-200 pages?—not sure, I read this in e-book format), this book is, in theory, a breeze. But it dragged on and on for me. Not sure if this was because of the translation from Japanese to English. I found the translated prose clunky and awkward, and rather unpleasant to read.

Although this is a prose novel, the entire time I felt like I was reading a manga. The voice of Keiji wasn’t particularly convincing, and I felt that his and Rita’s characters lacked depth and reality. The supporting characters were caricatured. I didn’t develop a connection with any of them. There is generous use of profanity and violence, which I didn’t find too gratuitous, but again, it was done in such a mundane way that there was no shock or emotion connected to it.

What did I like? In the book we get a brief but intriguing back story about the Mimics. We also find out a bit more about the robotic suits called “Jackets” which the UDF soldiers wear to enhance their fighting prowess. Generally, there are some major differences between the book and the movie, and perhaps because I watched the movie first, I kept comparing the book to the movie.

In his afterword, Sakurazaka tells us that the plot to All You Need is Kill was inspired by video games—the fact that you can die, reset and repeat, and are subsequently perceived as a warrior of great skills. It’s a fascinating concept, but unfortunately I was somewhat disappointed by the source material. I’ve seen other reviewers give it five stars though, so I’m sure people disagree!

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

 

WIN_20140607_145510WARNING: Mild, non-specific spoilers

I’m a bit late getting onto Neil Gaiman’s latest offering. A slim 178-page novel published in June 2013, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a melancholy tale of a man who returns to his childhood neighbourhood and becomes swallowed in memories of eerie events that took place forty years ago. The book has been well-received by critics and readers alike.

Is Ocean a fantasy novel? It certainly has fantasy elements, but I’d probably describe it as a work of magical realism. Is it an adult’s book or a children’s book? I believe the target audience was adult, but the way it reads certainly puts me in mind of two of Gaiman’s works aimed at younger audiences, Coraline and The Graveyard Book. According to Gaiman, Ocean grew out of a short story into a deeper and more complex tale.

The protagonist reflects on events that are haunting and sinister, and the line between fact and fantasy is persistently blurry. That everything is seen through the eyes of a child adds a layer of poignancy and powerlessness. There is a villain, who is villainous in both real-world and fantastical ways. There are the three remarkable women who live at the end of the lane, who are practical and yet powerful in indescribable ways.

Gaiman’s voice is that of a child; the prose is unembellished and he writes with simplicity, creating an air of spookiness and letting the events drive the story. He fills the reader with a curious blend of horror and beauty.

I think what made this book were the small touches: the details that remind you of being a child. The loss of a comic book; the pure joy of a delicious meal; the dread of shadows in the night. What I didn’t like about it was the ambiguity and the lack of resolution. Now, don’t get me wrong. Most of the time I relish the beauty of ambiguity, but this time, there wasn’t enough resolution to satisfy me. What of the conflict between the narrator and his father? What of his absent mother and annoying sister? Is it implied that everyone just sort of fades away into adulthood and later life? And maybe I’m missing something, but whose funeral is he attending?!?

Better to approach this book as a short story, I think. No character really changes all that much. It is a chilling and elegant tale, a slice of the past, an unsettling blend of fantasy and reality.