Author: aliensarewatching

weekend reads

I’ve often noticed that my reading tastes vary based on the intellectual demands of Real Life. Now that I have an adult job complete with crazy bosses and unreasonable expectations, my poor brain finds itself unable to cope with the demands of Literature. (In contrast, I read Sophie’s World– while taking notes- during the winter vacation of my first year in college)

It’s been particularly crazy of late (I notice I’ve been saying that for months. Hmm) and chick-lit is what I’ve turned to in these desperate times. SD already reviewed The Rosie Project, so I’ll review its sequel, The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion.

Unlike SD, I liked The Rosie Project enough that I picked up its sequel immediately after finishing it. And I wasn’t disappointed. It’s cartoon-y and crude, complete with stereotypes and random fistfights, but it’s entertaining enough.

At the end of The Rosie Project, clueless Don Tillman and the edgy Rosie got together. Now they’re married, and have relocated to NYC for no apparent reason. And guess what, Rosie is pregnant!

The serious themes of this series are overshadowed by silly comedy. Why does Rosie stop taking her birth control without informing her husband? Why does Don have panic attacks and descend into alcoholism when he finds out he’s going to be a father? Also, it is heavily implied that Don has Asperger’s, but this is played off for jokes.

But who cares, because this book is funny in a way that The Big Bang Theory will never be. Consider this quote (in my own words, because Google failed me): “Success! I had rebooted her relationship. Unfortunately, Rosie had rebooted in safe mode. She had some questions.”

4/5 for geeky jokes. I may need to examine why I related so much to Don.

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Hi I’m back

This is my review of Turtles All The Way Down by John Green.

Will I ever outgrow YA? It looks like I finally am. Teenaged protagonists are finally starting to sound whiny and self-obsessed, as opposed to misunderstood and mature.

This protagonist, Aza, has a legitimate reason for being self-obsessed, though. She has obsessive-compulsive disorder, an ailment that Green suffers from himself. He does an incredible job of painting a picture of this illness. Initially, Aza just seems quirky. Later, she seems anxious and neurotic. It’s only later that her OCD is revealed as the life-threatening disease it really is. Worried about germs and an infected cut? Ok. Drinking hand sanitizer to get rid of gut bacteria? Not so ok.

All this is the backdrop to a mystery of sorts (Or is the mystery the backdrop? Aza’s obsession tends to take over her life) and a realistic, kind-of-sort-of teen romance. I could definitely relate to random philosophical conversations (It’s turtles all the way down!) between almost-strangers when life gets too difficult to handle.

3.5/5 from me for a solid YA entertainer that provides some food for thought while still being very readable. It’s not particularly memorable, but worth a couple of hours.

Dark reimaginings of children’s books- fun times!

This is my review of Alice by Christina Henry. It is a dark reimagining of the Alice in Wonderland universe, in which Alice and the Hatter (here, the Hatcher) are locked up for their visions. I really enjoy this kind of fiction, (okay, yes, fanfiction) and love Alice, so decided to give this one a shot.

The reason I enjoy new takes on old stories- movies, or fanfiction, or TV series- is that I don’t usually visualize scenes while reading books. So seeing new material is literally like adding a whole new dimension to an old experience. What’s not to like?

I’m not sure whether to categorize this as fanfiction – it is published as literature, but unashamedly takes characters and themes from the original Alice in Wonderland. It is unique enough to pass for a new story if the names were changed (I’m looking at you, Fifty Shades), but keeping them the same triggers an ‘aha’ in your mind and makes you appreciate Henry’s cleverness a bit more.

Alice and the Hatcher are locked up in a prison for the mentally unstable. Alice is here because a sexual assault triggered her to violence, but the Hatcher’s shady past is not fully revealed at first. They’ve been cooped up in neighbouring cells for years now, and have begun a tentative romance (that reeks of Stockholm Syndrome). They break out, but must deal with new dangers. It’s been a while since they’ve been out in the world, and it turns out that Alice’s attack brought down a very dangerous gang leader, and he is out for revenge. Meanwhile, the Hatcher’s got his own plans for revenge…

Given that this book was basically written for me, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected. The story has too many dark themes than is necessary- rape, violence, sex trade, PTSD. Having just one of these themes explored completely would have been daring enough, and made enough content for a whole book. As it was, it was a fast paced stream of horrifying situations.

In Henry’s hurry to utilize all the characters from the source material, she has neglected to flesh out the ones she does have- this is very much an action driven story.

Despite a few hiccups, I’d give this one a solid 3.5/5 and will be reading the sequels, in the hope that the writing improves with experience.

Genre: Asian-American YA?

Because I apparently didn’t learn from last time‘s mistake, I once again succumbed to the siren song of the Bestseller. This time it was the Summer trilogy by Jenny Han.

The names of the books should have let me know what I was getting into- The Summer I Turned Pretty, It’s Not Summer Without You, We’ll Always Have Summer. (Followed by I Know What You Did Last Summer?)

The main character is Belly Conklin, a teenaged girl who has spent most summers at a holiday home belonging to her mother’s best friend. With her mother, brother, and the sons of her mother’s friends. One summer, she turns pretty. I’m not sure how exactly this happens, but it’s acknowledged by everyone that Belly is now Hot. Of course, the boys, Conrad and Jeremiah, are both immediately in love with her. Which one will she choose? It takes 3 books to find out.

Apart from the slightly worrisome fact that Belly is involved with two brothers, there were many things I disliked about these books. Firstly, the writing is very simplistic but at the same time, vaguely nostalgic and dramatic. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but it was annoying. “I decided to get a strawberry milkshake instead of vanilla. Little did I know it, but everything was about to change, irretrievably and all at once.”

All in all, a coming-of-age story set in a culture and environment that’s utterly strange to me. Vacation homes? Getting married in college? Being hot? Nope.

A very generous 1/5 from me.

Addendum:

I am incorrigible,  I also read To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. This is the first novel of another trilogy by Jenny Han. The protagonist of this one, Lara Jean Song, writes secret letters to the boys she falls out of love with- what happens when *gasp* someone sends them out? This is not a terrible beginning, but Lara Jean is all of sixteen, which makes me skeptical that she was ever really in love in the first place. Oh, and one of the boys is her sister’s boyfriend. Much like Belly, Lara Jean is childish and self-centred – I don’t recall being that immature at sixteen. Sex is a big part of it- somehow Lara Jean is young enough to be shocked by it, yet old enough to do it? Maybe it’s a cultural thing that I missed.

 

Who makes bestsellers best-selling?

Long time no review. So long, in fact, that WordPress updated its UI.

This is my review of Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. As the title of this blogpost suggests, it’s a pretty popular recent novel (released 2014). After seeing it name-dropped everywhere, I Googled it and found some excerpts. It seemed like an interesting light read, so here we are.

It is the story of a teenaged girl, Lydia Lee, who goes missing one day in her hometown in Ohio. We’re told almost immediately that she is dead, and we follow her family as they come to terms with the loss and the secrets that are revealed. In typical thriller style, the narrative has flashbacks interleaved with the current events (that is, the police investigation and her parents’ grief). Her parents have their own backstories- their inter-racial marriage triggered them both to leave their dreams by the wayside and dedicate themselves to average, small-town life. Lydia bore the burden of these failures, apparently, and this shaped her personality and brief life.

My first impression- interesting, light read- was correct.  The narrative touches on several themes- interracial relationships, “tiger parents”, peer pressure, homosexuality. It is reasonably good at keeping the reader interested, though this could be attributed to the short length and not the narrative (this took me just a couple of hours to read!).

But apart from these positives, I honestly couldn’t find the appeal of this book.

Firstly, Ng has turned the Asian Tiger Parent and inter-racial marriage stereotypes on their heads by having an Asian father and a white mother, with the mother being the pushy parent. In reality, the opposite is much more common- Asian mother, white father, and the Asian parent is the task master. Apparently the author herself is in an inter-racial marriage, so it seems odd that she chose to write about a different dynamic- is it because of her own baggage? The LGBT subplot also seemed a bit insensitive, and seemed like it was shoehorned in as a plot twist.

Secondly, every single character in this book is extremely unlikeable. Maybe I’m naive, but I like to believe that when people do wrong things, it’s because they either justify it to themselves or because they don’t really stop to consider what they’re doing. The people in this book are downright awful to each other for no particular reason, and on occasion stop being awful, again for no particular reason.

Overall, 2/5 just for its sheer readability. I read it in two sittings, and it suited my fried attention span perfectly.

a conditional recommendation

Okay, so I reviewed a recent Nobel laureate and one of the other authors in the running. It’s only fair that I review another.

Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood. Some of her other books have been reviewed here before.

This book is reminiscent of The Bell Jar, in that it is a seemingly semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story of a young artist. But it is, in fact, not a memoir, which makes it remarkable.

Elaine Risley is a middle-aged artist who travels to her home town of Toronto for a retrospective of her work. The trip triggers memories of her younger years, and she starts to reminisce. The novel is set up as a series of flashbacks in parallel with the present day. Elaine thinks about how various incidents in her life shaped her, and analyzes her present self critically- her appearance, career and parenting. The stream of consciousness style, with frequent time shifts, is not as complicated as it could be and feels natural. Elaine is brutally honest to the point of being rough.

The plot isn’t particularly eventful, but it is relatable. Elaine struggles with bullying in school, because of her unusual childhood. She has love affairs, healthy and unhealthy. She admires her brother and finds the ways women mysterious. An overarching theme is her relationship with a “frenemy” of her youth, whose rise and fall is the mirror image of her own. Atwood is adept in depicting the interactions of the playground, and I found myself remembering the odd group dynamics of my school’s social circles.

What I look for in literary fiction these days is a deliberate injection of beauty/romance into everyday life and observations. Murakami does this a lot- who else can describe a young man making a sandwich in a more meaningful way?- and that’s part of why I keep turning back to his work. Cat’s Eye was brilliant in that respect. Some gems:

(On the adulting Impostor Syndrome) “Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.”

(On being supported by her spouse) “I could live without it, I have before. But I like it all the same.”

Another thing I liked was the unintentional feminism of the book. It’s feminist simply by virtue of being a book with a female protagonist that mentions her goals and opinions apart from romance and relationships. Ironically, Elaine’s art is labelled feminist despite not being deliberately so. The second quote illustrated what I mean: Elaine can, and does, get by as a single woman and single mother. But she is also happy as a stay-at-home mother to her daughter when in a relationship.

So, as promised:

I highly recommend this book, IF (and only if):

  1. You are female
  2. You are extremely pretentious
  3. You are okay with being a little bored
  4. You appreciate ‘good prose’ (see 2&3 above)

5/5 from me, since I check off all the points on the above list.

“Don’t pointless things have a place, too, in this far-from-perfect world?”

After the failed attempt at reading a Nobel laureate, I turned to the work of another author who was in the running- Haruki Murakami. I’ve been a fan of his for a while now, for his very readable, yet insightful, urban fiction.

Sputnik Sweetheart was published over a decade after Norwegian Wood, but has a very similar feel. I read the English translation by Peter Gabriel. It did not disappoint- classic Murakami through and through.

If you’re familiar with his work, you’ll recognize the tropes- Manic Pixie Dream Girl, average but well-meaning and hard-working male protagonist, some weird sex and supernatural occurrences. Luckily no cats here. What I liked about it was the simple, straightforward storyline, and a relatively believable supernatural event that could easily be ascribed to a variety of commonplace (and not-so-commonplace) causes. It’s open-ended without being a letdown.

K is a 25-year-old Japanese schoolteacher. He is infatuated with his best friend Sumire, who is an aspiring writer. Sumire behaves and dresses eccentrically, to channel the feel of Kerouac. One day, she falls in love with an older woman called Miu. She begins to work for Miu’s business and travel with her, taking on a more adult and responsible lifestyle. Out of the blue, Sumire goes missing in Greece and K receives a panicked summons from Miu. Mysteries are solved and more are revealed.

A quote I particularly liked:  “Don’t pointless things have a place, too, in this far-from-perfect world? Remove everything pointless from an imperfect life, and it’d lose even its imperfection.”

One complaint, though, was that the English translation seemed clunky at times. As a non-American native speaker, some blatant old-fashioned Americanisms really stood out and broke my immersion. I understand that many Japanese idioms may not translate well, but using a literal translation or replacing it with plain phrasing would be a better way to convey the true spirit of the book.

It’s odd, to me, how Murakami’s male heroes are always the romantic ‘victims’: either they wallow in unconditional love, or they are loners, or they cannot impress the object of their affection. In literature written by women, men are always heartless or absent and heroines are strung along and left heartbroken. A good reason to branch out and make sure I read work by authors from all walks of life.

3.5/5, from me. Don’t hesitate to read it if you like the Murakami style, the story is tame enough for me to recommend this book unconditionally.

An allegory, shrouded in fog

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to the English writer Kazuo Ishiguro a few weeks ago. Coincidentally, I had abandoned The Buried Giant just the previous weekend after nearly a month of trying to struggle through its 300-odd pages.

Here’s a review anyway, because I made it 60% of the way through (and because I need to justify the Did Not Finish tag to myself).

Ishiguro’s other books, Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, were terrific reads and when I found a copy of The Buried Giant in the library (giant font, hardback– why America why) it went into my backpack without hesitation. Unfortunately, this book crossed the line from “introspective and subtle” to “uneventful and confusing”.

Axl and Beatrice (who he calls ‘Princess’ in every single sentence- strike one) are an elderly couple living in a medieval British village. They’re a bit isolated from their neighbours, as their advanced age is seen as a liability. Axl has also been noticing strange lapses in the collective memory of their society. A fact that he realizes repeatedly, because he keeps forgetting it. In a moment of clarity, Axl and Beatrice decide to set out on a Quest to visit their son (though they are unsure of his existence and location).

Strike two: Axl is also under the influence of the Fog, and tends to forget and rediscover things frequently. As a weekend/commute reader, I often had to flip back to reread, because I wasn’t sure whether it was my memory or Axl’s that was unreliable.

Then a couple of new characters are introduced– Gawain and Wistan. Axl doesn’t know if they are friend or foe, but seems inclined to trust them. He also finds them vaguely familiar… Argh! Strike three: everything is vague, and at 2/3rds of the way through, I expected at least a hint or two.

As expected from Ishiguro, there is a twist in the end of the story that ties things together in a neat, albeit slightly heartbreaking, way. I did not get that far into the book, but I’ll reveal what I understood of the ending from summaries: the amnesia-inducing fog is caused by the breath of Querig; this is intended to cause the Britons and Saxons to live in peace despite the British massacre of Saxons. Gawain is actually Querig’s protector, and Wistan kills him, and then the dragon, to rescue everyone from memory loss.

This is pretty thought-provoking. We are told that we need to study history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. But could deliberately avoiding history enable us to live more peacefully in the present by erasing prejudices? Were the amnesiac Britons and Saxons in the story doomed to fight once again?

I don’t regret not finishing this book- it put me in a reading rut for a month. Maybe someday I’ll have the time and energy to give it the patience it deserves. I recommend this book to Ishiguro fans who have some time on their hands. 1.5/5.

Read this read this

I don’t know who recommended this book but I definitely owe them a coffee.

This is my review of The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A Norman.

Donald Norman is a cognitive scientist and usability engineer. Despite the unusual field of study, this book is one of the most informative and eye-opening works I have ever read. You’ll never look at any man-made device the same again, promise.

Have you ever tried using a new device- a new Samsung phone after a series of Nokias, iOS after Windows, hell, even a can opener- and chastised yourself for being technology illiterate? In reality, every mis-click that causes you to lose data  is a design flaw, and not the user’s fault. By definition, all gadgets are intended to make the user’s life simpler, not more complex.

The book is perhaps intended to be a textbook, but is light enough to be casual reading for a layperson. However, several basic concepts are defined fairly rigorously- I had to read a chapter or two twice. It was first published in the 1980s, so there are several charmingly outdated examples related to landline telephones. It hasn’t aged well, but the examples aren’t completely obsolete so they put the ideas across effectively enough.

5/5 from me. Read this if you are in the mood to learn something new, and aren’t intimidated by mild technology/engineering jargon.

Here are some takeaways from the book that really stuck with me:

  • Read The Fucking Manual is excellent advice, but an ideal design should be intuitive enough for someone to use it straight out of the box. A good metric to judge how intuitive controls are is to look at the mapping between the control and the function. Do you have 3 buttons for a dozen functions? Chances are, the average dad is going to have a hard time. Are the controls at least vaguely reminiscent of the functions they’re for? An example of this would be pushing a joystick forward or up to make your virtual vehicle move faster.

 

  • Norman Doors: This is a example of poor design. It refers to those annoying doors that say PUSH and PULL on them because it’s not immediately obvious what you are supposed to do without trial and error. A better alternative is illustrated in the header image for this post. Simple and effective.

 

  • Repeat after me: The Customer is King. Usability studies are essential to make sure that a) functions are intuitive and b) basic errors in judgement do not have catastrophic consequences. For instance, Norman noticed that this book was being shelved under psychology, which was slightly misleading. Switching it to design/engineering ensured that it was accessible to the right customers. Another example was the positioning of a ‘clear all’ key on a calculator in the spot usually occupied by the Return key. Experienced typists kept mashing this key at the end of a long equation, erasing all their work.

 

Nostalgia in a book

I’ve been laid up with a recurring infection that has put me behind on my reviews. Not to mention my reading, though that has been on the back burner for years now.

This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki is an award-winning graphic novel published as recently as 2015. Rose is twelve, and is spending the summer in her family’s cottage in Awago with her parents. She is reunited with her younger friend Windy for a couple of months of swimming and midday candy.

But twelve is that awkward age when one is old enough to notice adult things happening, but still too young to understand them. Rose’s mother is behaving strangely, and her parents are arguing. She notices an older boy, and toys with the idea of ‘like liking’ him. She watches an older girl struggle with a difficult decision.

All the events are very relatable, and the illustrations are lovely. It’s just the extreme awkwardness that put me off this book. I basically walked (hopped?) around with my foot in my mouth during my teens, and it’s still a struggle to not be a self-obsessed, pretentious a**hat. But Rose is really awful at saying the right thing, or being perceptive. She accidentally insults Windy (who’s the adopted child of lesbians) multiple times, slut-shames a girl with no guilt, and has no sympathy for an upset family member. It’s a bit cringeworthy.

All in all, this is a very realistic depiction of an uneventful summer through the eyes of a girl who has just begun to grow up. It’s a short read, and I would recommend it if you are a female who likes graphic novels. 2/5 from me.