Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier – A Must-Read for Passionate Gamers

As an avid video gamer, this book has been an incredible read from start to finish. It is a collection of stories behind how videos games are made. The author – also the news editor at where I visit on a daily basis – has interviewed hundreds of people. Some officially. Others unofficially. Some games are triumphant. Others not.

While each video games are created under very different circumstances, there are common themes within. It is art meets science where the scope, timeline, and cost is just as fluid. How much detail should be put into a video game? How large and how many maps should that be? How many times the storyline has to be rewritten? Is the game fun? Can the game afford another delay knowing that the extra time would help with the bug fixing but the company would miss the fiscal year financial target? And etc. Above all, I can feel the passion of the game developers within each game title. The various challenges they face.

This book features 10 games. Some are big-budget titles. One is very much a one-man show. Each has its own distinct ending. It is true blood, sweat, and pixels.

  1. Pillars of Eternity – I have recently discovered that I have a copy in my Steam account!
  2. Unchartered 4 – Heard about it. But I don’t have a next-gen console.
  3. Stardew Valley – Never heard of before reading this game. I have added this to my Steam wishlist.
  4. Diablo III – One of my favorite games of all time. I am still playing it. I have read this chapter twice.
  5. Halo Wars – Heard about it. But I don’t have a XBox.
  6. Dragon Age: Inquisition – I have played Dragon Age: Origin. Love it. But I read that Dragon Age 2 is a disappointment. So I have avoided Inquisition. Or BioWare in general.
  7. Shovel Knight – I have seen it featured in Steam often. Still not really into its concept.
  8. Destiny – Very interesting read. Mainly because I have planned to pre-purchase Destiny 2 (PC).
  9. The Witcher 3 – Also a very interesting read. I have purchased the first two installments but still yet to find the time to play. Who knows? One day I may play The Witcher 3.
  10. Star Wars 1313 – Never heard of. Because it was meant for consoles.

The Devil In The Flesh by Raymond Radiguet

French title is called Le diable au corps and I have read this several times over very recently. This book is rather thin. That helps. But mainly, because it is a good read. The book and the author has an extraordinary background. The book is an extraordinary read. If I could only bring 10 books into an island of isolation, The Devil in the Flesh would be one in my collection of solace.

Devil in the Flesh by Raymond Radiguet

In the line of creativity work, what have I done when I was 16 to 18? I did not even start writing my first song. Raymond Radiguet wrote this book inspired by his affair with a married woman when he was 16. The author died in 1923 of typhoid fever at the age of 20. The Devil in the Flesh is a work of a genius (borrowing my French friend Yvan’s exact words and I agree). I could only ponder upon the what-if.

The main character – a 16 years old boy – is having an affair with Martha Lacombe, a young woman whose husband is fighting the WW I. The emotional journey as well as its details within and the immaturity displayed is so real that I reckon for those who have been in love or have a crush with someone in the younger days should be able to relate. I can relate every bit of it.

The context is important. Back in the era of WW I, affair of such nature I would think could be frown upon. Even being condemned. The opening page sets out how the story would unfold in a lighthearted manner – which dominates the entire novel despite the tragic end.

We lived at F., on the banks of the Marne.

My parent disapproved of friendships between the sexes. But our sensuality, which is born with us, though for a time it remains dormant, was aroused rather than quelled by their disapproval.

I have never been a dreamer. What appears dream to others more credulous than I seems to me to be as real as cheese to cat – in spite of the glass that covers it. Yet the glass does exist.

If the glass breaks, the cat takes advantage, even if it is his master who breaks it and cuts his hand in the process.

One day, Marthe took the narrator for a furniture shopping trip for her future home as her fiance is still at the front line fighting a war. Naturally, Marthe would want to pick what her fiance wants. But influenced by the narrator – out of jealousy no less – Marthe begins to doubt her decisions and instead, sides with the narrator’s rationale, and picks what the narrator wants.

At the end of this exhausting day I could justifiably congratulate myself on my achievements. Item by item, I had succeeded in transforming this marriage of love, or rather of infatuation, into a marriage of reason, and a strange marriage of reason at that, since reason had no part in it, each finding in the other only the advantages provided by a marriage of love.

As she left me that evening, far from seeking to avoid further advice, she had asked me if I would help her during the next few days to choose the rest of her furniture. I said that I would, but only if she swore that she would never tell her fiance, since the only chance of his coming in the end to accept this furniture was for him to think that it was entirely her own choice. Then, if he really loved Marthe, what gave her pleasure would also please him.

Inevitably, a book with such topic, I would want to see how the author explores intimacy.  In this scene, the narrator is with Marthe, inside an apartment with only the two of them. A fireplace is set with a special fragrant from the wood pieces that are sent from Marthe’s fiance’s family. At times I wonder if the book title was born from this scene.

As she slept, her head on my arm, I leaned over to look at her face, which was surrounded with flames. I was playing with fire. One day, as I approached too close, though our faces were not touching, I was suddenly like the needle which, having once moved a fraction of an inch beyond the mark, is in the magnet’s power. Is it the fault of the magnet or the needle? I became aware that my lips were on hers. Her eyes were still closed, but she was quite obviously not asleep. I kissed her, amazed at my boldness, whereas in fact, it was she who had drawn my head towards her mouth. Her hands clung to my neck; they would not have held me so fast in a shipwreck. And I did not understand whether she wanted me to save her or to drown with her.

What I also like about this book is the playfulness of this love affair, which makes the story all the better to relate. No doubt, the author (and the narrator of the story) was mature beyond his age. But time and time again, as the narrator throws tantrums and does things out of sort, all these remind me of their young age. I have been there done that. And I am certain many readers too.

Love wishes to share its happiness. A woman who is cool by nature becomes demonstrative, kisses you in the nape of the neck and invents innumerable tricks to distract you if you happen to be writing a letter. I never wanted to kiss Marthe so much as when her attention was taken up by something else; or to touch her hair and undo it as when she was pinning it up. In the boat I would throw myself upon her and smother her with kisses to make her let go of the oars and let the boat lose its way among the herbs and the white and yellow water-lilies. She saw this as a sign of uncontrollable passion, whereas I was really in the grip of this powerful urge to disturb her. We would then moor the boat behind some tall tufts of grass. The danger of being seen or of capsizing the boat made our sport all the more pleasurable.

In one particular scene, while Marthe was away from town, the narrator took a young girl Seva into Marthe’s apartment. He gets Seva drunk, wanting her not out of lust, but out of greed. Also, the narrator is fully aware that it is rape that he is about to commit.

Soon, words get to Marthe as the landlord has made a complaint that the house is not a brothel. While our narrator manages to yet again talk himself out of the situation which is not unexpected of, it is the way he internally justifies his act that intrigues me. I would say, the author was well ahead of his age.

Just as a bee plunders in order to enrich the hive, a lover enriches his love with every passing desire that besets him in the street. It is his mistress who benefits from this accumulation. I had not yet discovered this discipline that gives fidelity to unfaithful natures. When a man, lusting after a girl, transfers this ardour to the woman he loves, his desire is the stronger for being unsatisfied, and will lead the woman to believe that no one has ever loved her so much. It is a form of infidelity, though in most people’s opinion morality has triumphed. Such duplicity leads to profligacy. One should not condemn too readily therefore men who are capable of infidelity at the very height of their love; they should not be accused of frivolity. They reject this easy subterfuge and refuse to confuse their happiness with their pleasure.

After reading this book a couple of times, I ponder upon the title. Who is the devil? And why is he or she the devil? Presented with a similar situation, I probably would have done the same. But that was 1923 when the tradition and value may be different from today’s modern standard.

If I go along with the interpretation that to lie is a sin. To seduce and to fornicate with a married woman is a sin (a mortal one no less). To have caused one’s death would also be a sin. And since Diablo is the Father of Lie and more, it would not be wrong to interpret the narrative himself as the devil in the flesh. Harsh though, I must say. Almost like a self-punishment for the narrator’s regret, for perhaps the author’s regret.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – A Fascinating Read Filled With Mysteries

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a fascinating read. In fact, this is my third read in the span of a few years. Each pass I am able to spot more linkages between the plots. And more passages highlighted for future reference.

Like many of Murakami novels, Colorless is filled with mysteries. The main character – a 36 years old Tsukuru Tazaki – recounted one moment in his college life, that he had contemplated to commit suicide. It all started with a group of five back in school. Every one with a name associated to a color except Tsukuru.

Soon, the other four friends began to use nicknames: the boys were called Aka (red) and Ao (blue); and the girls were Shiro (white) and Kuro (black). But he just remained Tsukuru. How great it would be, he often thought, if I had a color in my name too. Then everything would be perfect.

Out of nowhere, all four friends of Tsukuru have refused to talk to and to meet with him. The shock was so intense that he had lost the will to live.

“That was the first time in my life that anyone has rejected me so completely,” Tsukuru said. “And the ones who did it were the people I trusted the most, my four best friends in the world. I was so close to them that they had been like an extension of my own body. Searching for a reason, or correcting a misunderstanding, was beyond me. I was simply, and utterly, in shock. So much so that I thought I might never recover. It felt like something inside me had snapped.”

Tsukuru recounted his story because his new girlfriend Sara wanted to know more about this emotional burden that has been hindering the relationship. More so, Sara wants Tsukuru to face his past. As Sara has once said:

You can hide memories, but you can’t erase the history that produced them.

This sets off the direction of Colorless with the ultimate rewards of Sara becoming Tsukuru’s serious girlfriend and Tsukuru getting to know exactly what went on with his four best friends abandoning him at the same time.

The good news is that this book is an entertaining read from beginning to end. The not so good news is that at the end of book, you still would not know the answers to the two ultimate questions. But here lies the brilliance of this book. We could imagine what the outcomes would be. But we may never grasp what is real. Like our main character Tsukuru once experienced. There are going to be plenty open questions.

And he couldn’t grasp the boundary between dream and imagination, between what was imaginary and what was real.

What I love most about Colorless is how well planned the plot is. Sara does not appear often in this book. But she drives the entire story. She uncovers the issues and she wants a resolution. Even as Tsukuru (and the readers too) has no clue on what to do next, Sara drops hints at the crucial moment on what is to come. She is like the prophet, always one step ahead. While many including I would debate on what Sara would do with Tsukuru when all is resolved, I am leaning towards a happy ending because Sara comes across to me as someone who knows exactly what she wants. Her moves are reliability predictable. I doubt she has any agenda except to remove this emotional burden of Tsukuru so that their relationship can move forward.

Now, the story between Sara and Tsukuru is easy to summarize. How the mystery unfolds is not. Because the subplots are subtly linked through different time lines and storyline. And how the dreams affect the imagination which in turn distort the reality adds another layer of abstract to the story.

Putting all that aside, there are consistent references to having to make hard decisions, though seemingly unrelated during my first read. Let’s think of body and heart.

In this dream, though, he burned with desire for a woman. It wasn’t clear who she was. She was just there. And she had a special ability to separate her body and her heart. I will give you one of them, she told Tsukuru. My body or my heart. But you can’t have both. You need to choose one or the other, right now. I will give the other part to someone else, she said.

(This would make a good conversation. In real life though, which would you choose and why?)

In the context of corporate ‘brainwashing’ though executive training:

I have some good news for you, and some bad news. The bad news first. We’re going to have to rip off either your fingernails or your toenails with pliers. I’m sorry, but it’s already decided. It can’t be changed. Here’s the good news. You have the freedom to choose which it’s going to be – your fingernails, or your toenails. So, which will it be?

(That pretty much sums up what real world can be like at work.)

And finally, the resolution.

“And in order to do that, I had to cut you off. It was impossible to protect you and protect her at the same time. I had to accept one of you completely, and reject the other one entirely.”

To go back to my leaning towards a happy ending, let’s go back to the final conversation between Eri (Kuro) and Tsukuru.

“But it’s strange, isn’t it?” Eri said.

“What is?”

“That amazing time in our lives is gone, and will never return. All the beautiful possibilities we had then have been swallowed up in the flow of time.”

Tsukuru nodded silently. He thought he should say something, but no words came.

What was it that he wanted to say as he was pondering upon whether or not Sara would accept him in the very end of the book?

Not everything was lost in the flow of time. That’s what Tsukuru should have said to Eri when he said goodbye […]

What then survives the flow of time? I believe that it is hope.

We truly believed in something back then, and we knew we were the kind of people capable of believing in something – with all our hearts. And that kind of hope will never simply vanish.

While I am happy to be able to extract that much from the book, one side-plot still eludes me is on Haida (Grey).

Haida became Tsukuru’s best friend after Tsukuru has decided that dying was not the best option moving forward. Besides, to will his heart to stop was as he found out later an impossible task. Here are what I have gathered from the story of Haida.

  • Grey is a mix of black and white. The two colors that symbolize Shiro and Kuro – the two girls in the original group of five. It seems to me that Haida is a male replacement of the two.
  • The sexually insinuated dreams between Tsukuru, Shiro, and Kuro has been once replaced by a dream involving Tsukuru and Haida, also sexual in nature.
  • To me, the original group of five reminds me of a hand with five fingers. It was natural. Haida has come across as the sixth finger.
  • Haida once recounted a story of his father (also called Haida) to Tsukuru. At one point, Tsukuru thought the story came from Haida himself.
  • Haida (the father) has met a jazz pianist called Midorikawa (Green) who in possession of (1) a mysterious small bag, (2) a special ability to see aura, and (3) a deadly burden that temporarily granted him the special ability but would cost him his life unless he could pass this deadly burden to a willing party.
  • Haida (the father) did not accept. Midorikawa has then disappeared.
  • Haida (Tsukuru’s friend) all of a sudden disappeared from Tsukuru’s life.
  • The story of his father may have been the story of Haida himself.
  • One of Tsukuru’s side mission is to find out what happened to Haida in order to fully remove his emotional burden. The book does not seem to have a resolution on this side-story.
  • Years later, a formaldehyde jar containing two severed sixth fingers are found in one of Tsukuru’s train stations.
  • This jar, I presume, belongs to Midorikawa – the mysterious small bag. So the story is real. Could this be the resolution?

So many ways to interpret the story. Did Haida accept the deadly burden and hence explains his second disappearance? Did he have the special ability all along or only after his first disappearance? Is that why there were those surreal moments between him and Tsukuru? More importantly, how does this story branch relate to the main story, if at all?

Still, Tsukuru felt that Haida’s clear eyes had seen right though him that night, to what lay in his unconscious. Traces of Haida’s gaze still stung, like a mild burn. Haida had, at that time, observed Tsukuru’s secret fantasies and desires, examining and dissecting them one by one […]

One constant theme in this book is about death and disappearance, heartache and reconciliation, reborn and recover. That much I can be certain of.

ISBN 978-4-16-382110-8

The Lifecycle Of Software Objects by Ted Chiang – Tons of Potential, Tons of Missed Opportunities

Lifecycle of Software Object

This novella has tons of potential. Imagine being able to log onto a virtual world – very much like how massively multiplayer online games work these days – and interact with digital organisms (or digients). In addition, you get to train your digients and see how they grow. Like raising a digital baby in a digital world.

Wait a minute. Doesn’t this remind you of The Sim or many of the Facebook games?

Fundamentally, the concept is very similar. The difference is that you can interact with your digients using natural language, very much like how you would interact with another being. Each digient comes with a unique set of genome and different company approaches how the genome is implemented in a different way. We are talking about AI (artificial intelligence), which none of the games today offers.

A number of interesting topics are explored in The Lifecycle Of Software Objects. Are these merely fanciful pets in a game or can they become companions for the human trainers? Can mutual affection be developed? What is the purpose of the grown up digients? As workers such as personal assistants? To possess the right level of artificial intelligence to solve real life problems? As mere entertainers? To push the sexual frontier for those who are interested in non-human sex? What about having these digients to have fun without thinking too much about operating at one’s full potential?

One major breakthrough of this novella is to have these digients ‘logging into’ our world by taking over a robotic body. Instead of human entering the virtual world using an avatar, we have these virtual beings entering our world using a machine, experiencing the real world. The idea is breathtaking. As in, these digients are able to get in and out of our world as we like (note: I would much preferred to be as they like – more on it in the missed opportunity section of this book summary).

Another great concept is that digients could be mature and intelligent enough to form their own corporations and hence, being solely responsible for themselves legally speaking, freeing themselves from their trainers or owners.

While The Lifecycle Of Software Objects has tons of potential, the novella also has tons of missed opportunities.

First and foremost, the story telling is not very interesting. We have Ana Alvarado as the protagonist who passionately trains and protects her digient Jax. The focus is confusing. Had the story revolved around Jax with some quality character development, I would have bought into the idea of digients. That every digient matters. Having Jax out of nowhere giving Marco a blowjob (page 52) due to some bad influence is not quite my kind of character development. It is okay to explore same sex intimacy. Just stay with it throughout. Besides that one single mishap, Jax’s life is not very interesting or lively either.

The story seems to revolve around Ana. But she doesn’t seem to have an interesting life. Her potential love interest Derek Brooks whom also shares the very same interest in raising digients is a wimp. Though he makes a rather grand gesture of sacrifice in the end, nothing materializes from it, very much like everything in this book.

The entire journey is filled with down turns with nothing much that looks up. First comes more superior digients that make our Jax looks dated and not as smart or useful. Then comes the various threats like hackers and exploits that would have been the villains but the issues are resolved all too fast, almost unceremoniously so. Soon, the game or the platform is losing customers (note: business model is basically selling virtual pet food to keep the digients going, which is kind of meh to me). The company closes down and the platform goes open source (sort of). Then more threats from all sorts of uninspiring ideas. Platform merger. And finally, being the only platform that is not ported to the next big thing, poor Jax, he is void of his new friends whom have been migrated to the new platform.

The rest of the story is on how Ana and Derek raise funds to port this old platform, even considering to partner with a company that sells sex toys.

Lastly, it wouldn’t make a good story to keep forwarding time line by months and years. After a while, I have lost in time. Was it 10 years have passed since Jax was born towards the end of the book? I have no idea. I wouldn’t manually add months and years as I read a book. Certainly I wouldn’t read this book again.

Alas. What a wasted opportunity.

If I were the author, I would sell fantasy and futurism rather than shallow realism based on today’s world. A lot of the tech stuffs are neither interesting nor insightful. I would make AI digients a success rather than comparing some of them with children that have Down syndrome. I would make them able to enter our world as and when they like. Learn our strengths and weaknesses first hand. These digients should rewrite their legal status. They should have free will and make us reflect upon our humanity. They could be a threat. Or a peacemaker. Affection between human and digients should be convincing.

I would take more risk with the plot. Definitely a lot tighter with the time line as the story is told. Also, would it not be a real good twist towards the end if Ana was an AI who was trying to create AI only get to know more about her own existence eh? 

ISBN 978-1-59606-317-4

The Ocean at the End of the Lane By Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

This book starts off as an adult fiction. The narrator with no name after attended a funeral has an hour to kill. So instinctively, he drives down his memory lane and into a farm house with a duck pond next to his old home. The girl whom he has met during his childhood Lettie Hempstock has not made a return (it is complicated). He has met her mother Mrs. Hempstock instead. That is the prologue. In the epilogue, he chats with Lettie’s grandmother Old Mrs. Hempstock before I presume returning to his families. Who was the funeral for? What happens to the story of Callie Anders, the girl whom he first kissed, the one who was red-cheeked, fair-haired? Where exactly is Lettie? There are tons of open questions that are never answered. The most obscured of it all is the duck pond that Lettie has insisted it to be an ocean (hence the title of the book). What is in that ‘ocean’?

Majority of the book is devoted to narrator’s childhood, when he was seven; on how he first met the Hempstock family. There was something supernatural about Lettie the small girl, her mother, and her grandmother. This part of the book reads like a young adult fiction. Kind of like a horror story that ended bad. There is heroic sacrifice. And there is childhood innocence. While The Ocean at the End of the Lane is beautifully written, engaging from beginning to end, I wish there was a resolution on the disappearance of Lettie. Or perhaps, the idea is not to have a resolution. Whatever happened in the narrator’s childhood stays in the past. Let not reality kills off our imagination. Was it even real? And not some boy’s imagination? The extract below may shed some light. I could only guess.

Curiously I turned in my seat and looked back: a single half-moon hung over the farmhouse, peaceful and pale and perfect.

I wondered where the illusion of the second moon had come from, but I only wondered for a moment, and then I dismissed it from my thoughts. Perhaps it was an afterimage, I decided, or a ghost: something that had stirred in my mind, for a moment, so powerfully that I believed it to be real, but now was gone, and faded into the past like a memory forgotten, or a shadow into the dusk.

Geisha, A Life By Mineko Iwasaki

Geisha, A Life

Geisha, A Life is an eye opener. My understanding on geisha is very limited. Mostly come from that movie Memoirs of a Geisha, which ironically is a story inspired by the author of this book. But according to Mineko Iwasaki, the author of that memoirs has twisted her story so much so that it is only right that she publishes an autobiography to set things straight. Geisha, A Life is indeed an inspiring read.

So, set the record straight we shall, on what this book is not about.

… I accumulated many more hanadai than time units worked. Every night. I don’t have the exact figures, but I believe I was earning about $500,000 a year. This was a good deal of money in 1960s Japan, more than that earned by the presidents of most companies. (It is also the reason the notion that geiko perform sexual favors for their clients is so ridiculous. With this much income, why would we?)

At the age of five, Mineko was spotted as the successor of a house (and to carry that house’s surname). By then, her father has already sent some of her elder sisters to be maiko (young dancer or “woman of dance”) and eventually to be a geiko (“woman of art” – a specific term versus geisha as “artist”). Hence, her father was reluctant to give up Mineko – the youngest child – to be a successor.

My father introduced us.

She kept looking at me but addressed my father. “You know, Mr. Tanaka, I have been looking for an atotori (“one who comes after” or successor) for a long time and I have the oddest sensation that I may have just found her.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. I didn’t know what an atotori was or why she needed one. But I felt the energy in her body change.

It is said that a person who has the eyes to see can penetrate to the core of a person’s character, no matter how old that person might be.

In the end, Mineko has made the decision to leave her home (at the age of five) and live in the house that groomed her to be a maiko and later on a geiko. She has gone through intensive training on dance, music, comportment, calligraphy, tea ceremony, and flower arrangement as a child prior to her debuting as a maiko.

As someone who is foreign and intrigued about Japanese culture, the amount of discipline and practice one has to endure is astonishing. The author did not seem to have taken a day off during her childhood. Everyday was a training day. And as soon as she has debuted at the age of fifteen, she did not seem to have a break at all (except when she was hospitalized).

I felt compelled to work as much as humanly possible. It was the only way I was going to become Number One. I was in and out of the house so often that the family nicknamed me “the homing pigeon”. Each night I entertained at as many ozashiki as time would allow. I didn’t get home until one or two in the morning. My schedule was in total violation of the Child Labor Laws, but I wanted to work and didn’t care.

One day I was attending a kimono fashion show at a department store. I wasn’t dressed as a maiko, so was able to let down my guard that extra little bit. I was so exhausted that I feel sound asleep on my feet. But I didn’t close my eyes. They were wide open.

In fact, this career of her has gone on till she was 29, at the height of her career before her sudden retirement. During her career, she was the very essence Japanese beauty and tradition. She has met foreign royalties and delegates. She has met many renown artists and professionals. There were many struggles and there were tears and pain. But it has always been her passion and integrity that pulled her through the challenges. Kimonos. I had no idea that kimonos can be that elaborate until I have read this book.

This book Geisha, A Life is going to inspire. More importantly, it gives a glimpse of what geisha does that may not be what you thought it was.

Alena By Rachel Pastan

Alena - A novel

Time like this makes me treasure the fact that I write book summary, even when I feel lazy not to.

Some compare Alena to Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. If not for a book summary I have written last year, I would not be able to recall the connection. The commonality is striking (retrospectively speaking). Alena is dead yet her absence persists throughout the book, so is Rebecca. The narrators in both novels are female and are nameless. Nauquasset is a cutting edge art museum by the sea while Manderley is an estate – both dominate the respective stories. And then in Alena, there is Bernard who owns the museum and in Rebecca, Max.

Similarity between the two novels aside, looking at Alena alone, it is a book that engages me from beginning to end. It starts off with the narrator and Bernard running a little gallery in Russian Hill in present days. An extract taken from her dream last evening.

There I stood on the edge of the road, blue-black asphalt holding the heat. I could smell the tar melting, smell the pines and the brine of the sea, the restless, pungent, ever-present sea, primordial source of life and cause of so much death: floods and riptides, shipwrecks and suicides.

It is a rather unusual way to describe the sea. Throughout her dream, the contrast between life and death cannot be more obvious. In fact, this very first chapter sets the tone for the entire book. This very extract sums up where the entire book is heading!

As a reader, immediately I am hooked onto the narrator’s character as she traces her past starting as an assistant curator. How she traveled to Venice with a boss she disliked and in Venice, she met Bernard. There, she was offered a job as the chef curator in Nauquasset replacing Alena who has gone missing for two years, presumed dead.

I wanted to understand him – to understand Bernard. I felt connected to him by a bright thread, yet we could not have been more different. He was rick and I was poor. He knew everyone and everything, and I knew no one and nothing. What was I doing with him here in a restaurant in Padua? Why had he asked me? Was it pity? Whimsy? A game? What did he see when he looked at me? What did I look like? He could have chosen anyone. He’d had Alena. And now he had me.

Her relationship with Bernard is complex. At first, it smells romance, or a kind of strong adoration from the narrator’s perspective. Alena appears to have played big role in Bernard’s life. But what is it? Throughout the book, the narrator relentlessly trying to find out who Alena was from the people around her – even though almost everyone thinks that she is inadequate, as compares to Alena. How long until my bodily presence had half the substance her absence did? – lamented the narrator.

Storytelling aside, I enjoy reading Rachel Pastan’s writing style. Here is how she describes Nauquasset (which means ‘crown of the sea’ in Wampanoag) the first time – not a distorted version from the narrator’s dream at the beginning of the book but as it is.

The deep azure expanse was flecked and crested with white, and long streaks of gauzy pink cloud floated across the blazing sun, which just touched the rim of the water. A golden road stretched straight across the deepening blue, the near end apparently just below the bluff we were approaching, so that it seemed as though, if we hurried, we could take a quick stroll across the glittering surface toward the sun before it dropped out of sight. My heart bloomed in my chest, beating hard against the lattice of bone, as it had bloomed in the hot Uffizi as we stood before Botticelli’s Venus on her shell. And there, spread like a mantle across the shoulder of the bluff, the long silvered shape of the museum rose out of the sea of grass like the breaching back of a whale. Nauquasset.

The writer must have done much research on fine art. All the objects are described so beautifully as though I am seeing the art from the eyes of a curator. There is never a dull moment be it as she describing even the most mundane items like below or unfolding the mystery of who Alena was and what has happened to her.

I held the pan up. “Hungry?” I didn’t expect him to accept, but he did. I got out a second plate, beige with a brick-red border. The one already on the table was yellow with a design of poppies. both of them were ugly, though the yellow one seemed to be trying not to be, while the other didn’t seem to care. Which was worse?

While I may not fully recall what kind of person the narrator of Rebecca is, the narrator of this book turns out to be a smart woman with sharp eyes for details, someone who exhibits loyalty and with a kind heart. This book does not end where the book begins. So there is a part of me still wondering what has happened as the story ends.

The Silver Linings Playbook By Matthew Quick – An Engaging Read

An original story with unexpected plot

Let us begin with a quote from the book as it beautifully summarizes the theme of The Silver Linings Playbook.

“Life is not a PG feel-good movie. Real life often ends badly […]. And literature tries to document this reality, while showing us it is still possible for people to endure nobly.”

In my mind, the author does just that: telling us a story through Pat who believes that his life is a movie produced by God. With vigorous exercise and good behavior, God will eventually grant him a happy ending. One that reunites him with his wife Nikki. The story begins with Pat discharging from the mental institution – which he calls “bad place” – and slowly integrating back to his old life: his emotionally unstable father, his ever-loving mother, always-supportive brother, and best friend. No one tells him how long he has been away. He has no recollection on why he was locked up in the “bad place” and what has happens to his marriage. All he knows is that between Nikki and him, they are on “apart time”. His goal in life is to see through the end of “apart time” so that he can see his wife again.

Except, life is not as simple. There are good reasons why his mother has put away all his wedding photos, no one around him wants to mention Nikki, and Pat is having a hard time catching up what he has missed during his stay in the “bad place”.

It hurts to look at the clouds, but it also helps, like most things that cause pain. So I need to run, and as my lungs burn and my back rebels with that stabbing knife feeling and my leg muscles harden and the half inch of loose skin around my waist jiggles, I feel as though my penance for the day is being done and that maybe God will be pleased enough to lend me some help, which I think is why He has been showing me interesting clouds for the past week.

In the mist of all these confusion and necessary adaptation, Pat has met Tiffany who is recently widowed and is also mentally unstable. Since the story is narrated from Pat’s perspective, very little is known about the intention of Tiffany. She appears to be mysterious, yet another flawed character. The extract below shows an aspect of her character.

When [Tiffany] turns to face me, I think she is simply going to say good night, but she says, “Look, I haven’t dated since college, so I don’t know how this works.”

“How what works?”

“I’ve seen the way you’ve been looking at me. Don’t bullshit me, Pat. I live in the addition around back, which is completely separate from the house, so there’s no chance of my parents walking in on us. I hate the fact that you wore a football jersey to dinner, but you can fuck me as long as we turn the lights out first. Okay?”

I’m too shocked to speak, and for a long time we just stand there.

“Or not,” Tiffany adds just before she starts crying.

The Silver Linings Playbook is engaging in a few ways. First, I have always enjoyed reading books characterized with flawed characters. Second, the emotion these characters are going through is complex. It is like taking a roller coaster ride reading this book. Third, the plot is unpredictable. It is hard to guess where the author is heading although there is a particular path I may wish the book would resolve. As a bonus, this book is so well planned that it may be worthwhile to read again and everything seems to make sense – from clouds watching to Tiffany’s abrupt entry to the story.

Back to the main theme of the story, The Silver Linings Playbook is certainly not a PG feel-good read. It is a heartwarming read reminding us the importance of stay positive and look for the silver linings in life.

Suddenly Royal By Nichole Chase – How Would Kinsella Approach This?

Suddenly Royal

I thought all chick-lit are created equal. Then I realize that just because I love reading Sophie Kinsella‘s novels doesn’t mean that I enjoy reading any chick-lit. Believe it or not, I had no idea that Suddenly Royal is as such. The story line sounded like Princess Diaries, yes. The review seems ravishing. Some said they love how the author makes this story her own. Other said they love the twist within.

I don’t see any twist or whatsoever. It is a feel-good story that is predictable from beginning to end coupled with some steamy sex scenes that are neither tasteful nor artistic. When I read the followings, I knew I have picked up a chick-lit. One takeaway though, is that when you are hot and handsome, you can potentially get away with running your eyes up and down a girl’s body.

I shrugged out of my coat and that’s when I felt his eyes on me. Looking up, I realized Prince Yummy had indeed come for dinner. Jess and the undergrads had been wrong. He wasn’t yummy, he was delicious; a feast to be savored. Dark blond hair hung a smudge too long, eyes so blue it was like looking into the heart of a glacier. Built like the statue of David; the contours of his suit hugging every delicious muscle. Laugh lines around his mouth and eyes brought him into the realm of humanity, and gave him a personality. As his eyes ran over my face and down my body slowly, heat washed over my skin. When I handed the jacket to the maitre d’ i felt naked. There was something about his bright blue eyes that left me feeling exposed.

Samantha is a biology graduate specialized in raptor. She works hard for her degree and she has a father with cancer to take care of. Out of nowhere, the royal members of Lilaria (somewhere in Europe) have sought her out in America claiming that she is a royal descendant. Samantha has a decision to make. Stay in US or head to Lilaria claim her title and land. To spice up the deal, the Lilarian royalty has promised to provide good medical treatment for her father. At the same time, the crown prince of Lilarian seems to have fallen in love with her!

But here comes the dilemma. Samantha wants to finish her study and she thinks that falling in love with a prince is bad idea. Because … because she thinks the prince would need a queen who is … a royalty (and she is not?) and a born-and-breed Lilarian (since when a prince must marry someone from his countries?)

Throughout the book, I could not help but to think, how would Sophie Kinsella write this book? Here is my take.

Samantha would have a tough time integrating into the royalty circle since she is not born royal (unlike this story whereby she has no problem with the royal politics as a commoner). She would have a boyfriend but yet, intrigued by Prince Charming. Then, some evil force from within Lilaria would strip her title. Everyone including Prince Charming would despise her. And then, Samantha would do something extraordinary to save Lilaria from this evil force out of selflessness. There will be happy ever after between Samantha and her love interest.

Unfortunately, Suddenly Royal does not have this level of drama.

The Shoemaker’s Wife By Adriana Trigiani – As Emotional As Life Itself

An emotional novel

I do not recall in recent years reading a book that moves me as much as The Shoemaker’s Wife does.  It is quite possibly the saddest novel I have read, on par with Romeo & Juliet.  OK.  Not the entire book is sad.  The majority part of the story is a celebration of life and the journey of struggle and triumph.  But the sad part is really sad.  I have lost sleep reading this.  I fought hard not to cry inside a cafe reading this.  After I have finished reading the book, I felt like taking a day off from work and eating ice-cream from a tub instead.

In The Shoemaker’s Wife, Adriana Trigiani tells a story inspired by her grandparents Lucia and Carlo’s love and life story.  The setting is extraordinary.  It reads like an epic love story that only the magical hands of fate can weave.  Lucia and Carlo’s characters were born in Italy.  They met once in their homeland and parted way due to unforeseeable circumstances.  Somehow, they managed to meet again in America and then they got separated.  Each having their own relationships with someone else and yet, fate brought them back together time and time again.

This book is more than a story of love.  Set in the early nineties, Adriana’s grandfather was brought up in a convent together with his brother.  While his brother was a devout Catholic planning to be a priest, Carlo did not believe in God.  This sense of conflict between faith and non-believer is imbued deep inside and throughout the story, which is as real as life itself.  Meanwhile, Adriana’s grandmother was brought up from a poor Catholic family.  Being the eldest daughter, Lucia worked hard to help her parents to provide for the family and take care of her siblings.  Lucia must be one of the strongest female character I have come to read.  In order to give her family a chance to build a place called home, Lucia accompanied her father to come to America, a journey that almost killed her.

Once the backdrop has switched to America, the mood has changed.  It is hope and opportunity in the land of the America.  To read this part of The Shoemaker’s Wife is like reading what the American dream is all about.  Adriana Trigiani tells it through the eyes of the migrants.  Hardworking pays off.  So is innovation and the desire to dream big.  Those who made it live in luxury and richness.  New friendships are made.  Alliance are formed.  People look out for each other.  America is a dream for many and many have found a new home in America.

In as much as it is a tale of hope and dream, it is also a tale of life and death.  Going through the two world wars, relationships and what holds dear to the hearts have become ever more precious.  My heart weeps for what the characters have been through.  It is emotional because behind every closed door, behind every happy face that we see everyday are the untold stories of struggle and sorrow.  How much you can feel for the characters would depend on what you have experienced in life thus far.  Having said that, I have gained more insights on what others may have been through under their unique circumstances.

I can imagine a lot of research has done prior to this project.  All the details of the past – be it as the town and architecture, food and music, costumes and fashion, mode of transportation and the then-state of migrants – are vividly described.  There is this surreal feeling that it is as though I am seeing the nineties through Lucia and Carlo’s eyes.  I do not know how much of the story is authentic to author’s grandparents’ lives and how much of it is crafted with wild imagination. Adriana Trigiani has done something smart about the approach.  She has used characters with different names to represent her grandparents.  Therefore, she can have the artistic license to fill up the gaps without getting into the question of: Did her grandparents really do that?

All in all, The Shoemaker’s Wife is a fulfilling read.  It is as emotional as life itself.