Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Teaser Tuesday - Dare to Remember by Susanna Beard

Good Tuesday everyone! I hope you're having a good start to the week. I'm almost done with my driving classes, I've hired a moving company for next month, and I've submitted my final paper (although I have a presentation to go) so things are rapidly moving forward.

Right now, I'm reading Dare to Remember by Susanna Beard, but I'm considering stopping it. Even about 50 pages in, I'm not feeling the draw of the book. I think it may be because it's in present third person. I'm alright with third person most of the time, but for some reason, I'm very conscious of the present tense in the story, and instead of a sense of immediacy, I'm just feeling detached from the story.

My teaser:
"In the end, she decides to call the police and delay going to the house until at least the next day. Knowing there's no way she'd want to go with her, Lisa urges her to make the call straight away." 
Would you continue reading? Has anyone read this? What did you think about it?
How to participate in Teaser Tuesday: 
•Grab your current read 
• Open to a random page 
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page 
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) 
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers! Everyone loves Teaser Tuesday.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Happiness Effect by Donna Freitas

With a subtitle like "How Social Media is Driving a Generation To Appear Perfect At Any Cost", how could I not request this book from NetGalley?

Based on interviews with many students across campuses in America, The Happiness Effect looks at social media and topics like:

- The importance of being 'Liked'

- The Professionalisation of Facebook

- Selfies

- Religion on (and Off) social media

- Anonymity (like Yik Yak)

- Bullying

- Facebook official

- Smartphones

- Taking a Timeout

and so on. It's mostly a collection of interviews, so the voices of the students really shine through.

For me, I really loved this book. A lot of what it says rings true. It is, however, very country-specific. For example, most of my Singaporean friends on 'Facebook' don't seem to do the 'Professionalism' thing, while it's the total opposite in Japan. In Japan, Facebook is like LinkedIn. It seems to be the same in America, where Facebook and Twitter are considered 'Professional'. On the other hand, it seems like Twitter is to Japan what Snapchat is to America.

So the book may not be very relevant once you're out of America. Still, it is fairly relevant, because we are getting more and more dependent on smartphones. And the chapter of anonymity and how people start refraining from giving the unpopular opinion reminded me why some people use apps Dayre - because it provides a greater level of anonymity than Facebook (though of course, it is not totally anonymous. But that is probably related to a discussion of Networked Privacy).
"Our devices and our compulsive posting and checking are helping us flee ourselves."
I actually agree a lot with this quote. I've been very restless lately, and I realise that I pick up my smartphone whenever my brain doesn't want to engage. While I don't post much, I do lurk a lot, and that's not a good thing. It is time for me to add a bit more of intentional stillness into my life.

Ok, this is a rather disjointed review, but I wanted to end with this quote:
"What I have called the happiness effect throughout his book - the requirement to appear happy on social media regardless of what a person actually feels - is an effect of our own making. We are the ones who have created this problem. Young adults have internalised the lesson that if you want say anything happy, you shouldn't say anything at all, even if you feel despair, dismay, anger, or any number of other emotions common to human experience, from us."
This book isn't out yet, but I think that if you're at all interested in thinking about social media, you should definitely get it once it's published.

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

Sunday, January 22, 2017

What (Nonfiction) Do Singaporeans Read?

Singapore's Nonfiction Bestseller List

Last Saturday, an article titled "Can Singaporeans Read?" appeared in The Straits Times. I have loads of things to say about it, but these two passages caught my eye:
"One clue to what Singaporeans read is provided by The Sunday Times' bestseller list. The list of non-fiction books should be seen as a national wall of shame. Instead of looking at the world and trying to understand how it is changing, Singaporeans indulge in self-help books. 
Even the titles are embarrassing. They include Money: Master The Game And Jumpstart Your Priorities. Week after week, Singaporeans drown themselves in self-help books. The underlying assumption of many Singaporeans seems to be that if I take care of my individual self, I will be fine."
There are basically two claims here:

1. Singaporeans indulge in self-help books.

2. Singaporeans read embarrassing self-help books.

I don't know why, but I was intrigued by the statement, so I went to verify it. Basically, I decided to take about one year and one week's worth (so 2016 and the first week of 2017) best selling titles and see how many weeks they spent on the chart, and what their genre was.

I determined genre by going to Goodreads and reading the book description and seeing which "shelves" the book has been assigned. Normally, there's one that stands out and I took that as the genre (ignoring the "nonfiction" shelves). In certain cases, like Elon Musk, a book could be shelved as Technology or Biography, so I put the main genre as whatever was more and listed the second "genre" in a separate column

By the way, something is off with the Strait's Times site so I only ended up with 50 weeks worth of bestsellers, but I think 500 data points should be enough.

First up, let's look at the most popular books. In this case, I defined popular books in terms of staying power (i.e. How many weeks they stayed on the Best Seller list). These are books that have been in high demand for a long time.

The complete list:

The image may be a little hard to read, but the top 10 books are:

1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (46 weeks)

2. Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance (45 weeks)

3. Connectography by Parag Khanna (36 weeks)

4. A Hakka Woman's Singapore Stories by Lee Wei Ling (35 weeks)

5. Never Give Up: Jack Ma In His Own Words by Suk Lee and Bob Song (23 weeks)

6. Winning With Honour by Lim Siong Guan and Joanne Lim (21 weeks)

7. Warren Buffett's Ground Rules by Jeremy C Miller (20 weeks)

8. The 21 Most Powerful Minutes In A Leader's Day by John C Maxwell (20 weeks)

9. Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change The World by Pagan Kennedy (18 weeks)

10. Primary Greatness by Stephen R Covey (17 weeks)

Out of these 10 books, 4 are biographies/autobiographies, 3 are on business/economics and only 3 are on self-help. Self-help doesn't even make the top 5.

Clearly, Singaporeans are not drowning themselves in self-help books. But I was on a roll at this stage, so here's the breakdown of books by genre (I included both the main and secondary genre because you never know why someone reads a book):

Business/economics related books are the largest genre at 33%. Self-help is the second at 17%, but it wins only by 1 percentage point to biography/autobiography which is 16% of the list. And as the top 10 books showed, biography/autobiography has a lot more staying power.

Looking at this and the rankings, I am reasonable confident in saying that no, Singaporeans do not indulge in self-help books. In fact, they have an interest learning from others (as seen by the biographies) and learning about the outside world (as seen by books like Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilisation, which spent 36 weeks on the bestseller list).

Incidentally, the books mentioned in the article - Jumpstart your Priorities (the author seems pretty popular too) and The Money: Master Your Game - spent 10 and 4 weeks respectively on the best seller list. Jumpstart your Priorities is number 20, and The Money is much lower.

Limitations of the data

The bestsellers list is a "compilation of lists from Books Kinokuniya, MPH, Times and Popular Bookstores". In order words, it doesn't factor in library loans or the ebook market. I don't know how big each of these left-out segments are, but it's possible that adding them in could switch the top books quite drastically.

Still, if the purchasing trends offline are the same online, and are similar to books being borrowed, then I'm reasonable confident that the conclusions I made will hold.

Thoughts on 'Can Singaporeans Read by Kishore Mahbubani'

My criticisms start with the title, which may not be very fair if the author didn't choose it. But it's one of the rare question-style questions where answering "no" would be a mistake.

Can Singaporeans read?

Obviously. I think our education has given us at least rudimentary reading and writing skills.

The title might be better phrased as 'Do Singaporeans read?' but since the author is accusing us of reading too much of one genre, that isn't really appropriate either.

Perhaps the most accurate (but spoiler-y) title would be "Do Singaporeans read too much self-help books?"

The first section of the article is on the changes in the world. Not much to comment on here. It then segues into 'some people were surprised about these changes but not me' sort of thing, plus a mention of the author's book. Personally, I don't think surprise = did not know. They could have read the predictions and just didn't believe it but whatever.

And then it goes into the section that raised my eyebrows, the 'Wall of shame' that is our nonfiction bestseller list (although it seems that he and I are looking at two very different lists).

To be honest, what is the problem with reading self-help? If self-help is what gets someone to start something new, to face a problem, to move to a better place, then bravo for self-help books.

Sometimes, you need to help yourself before you can help the world.

And besides, what is the definition of self-help? There are corny titles, but what about books like Grit by Angela Duckworth (also on the list) and Peak by Anders Ericsson (didn't see it on the list but you should read it). Both books could be classified as self-help, but they are based on research and could be used to create programmes that help others.

The author also says that
"(As an aside, I'd like to point out that the New York Times has created a sensible precedent of separating self-help books from the serious books, and I think other papers, including The Sunday Times, should emulate this practice.)"
Personally, I think that the New York Times Bestseller list, while famous, has its own problems and it's a bit disingenuous to invoke it without acknowledging that. After all, this is the list that created the Children's section in response to Harry Potter, the list that at one time could be bought, the list whose controversies include the specific exclusion of books it doesn't like (like Ted Cruz). The rules are constantly changed (no more multi-author box sets, and too bad for you if most of your fans like to buy from Amazon) and it's not an unreasonable conclusion that the NYT bestsellers list is not as impartial as one might think.

I mean sure, we could separate the list into thousands of sub genres, but then what's the point? Like I said before, what's so bad about self-help?

People read books for different purposes, and maybe people read self-help because they find something valuable in it that 'serious' books don't have. Besides, how do we know that these people aren't reading the latest articles instead of books? Books, especially those published by traditional publishers, have a fairly long lead time.

For example, a book on Industry 4.0 may become obsolete one month after it comes out because of how rapidly the industry is changing. At least in my personal experience, articles and conversations at trade fairs were far more relevant and easier to get my hands on.

In summary, I have three problems with this article:

1. Casting self-help books as a problem

2. Ignoring the possibility that Singaporeans are getting their information about the outside world from sources other than books.

3. Inaccurately describing the reading habits of Singaporeans.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

I know we're still in January but this is definitely going to be one of my favourite books of the year. I mean, it's gonna be pretty hard for any other fairytale-inspired book (or any book, really) to top this.

The Bear and the Nightingale is inspired by a host of Russian fairytales and stars Vasya (I hope I'm spelling her name right because everyone seems to have 12345 different nicknames). Vasya is special not just because her mother died after giving birth to her, but because the enchantment that was in her grandmother and mother seems to be passed down to her. She can see the magical creatures living around the house/estate and they, in turn, teach her.

Unfortunately, Vasya's idyllic childhood ends after her father brings back her stepmother, Anna. Anna is actually her mother's niece (so her cousin?!), but since her father is the Grand Prince of Rus', her father couldn't exactly say no to the marriage.

Where Vasya sees magic, Anna sees demons.

Soon after, a haughty priest named Konstantin is assigned to their village, and everything goes downhill.

What I loved about this book: EVERYTHING.

First up, world building. I'm not familiar with Russia, but I seriously felt drawn into the world (and the world of the magical creatures too). There's an author's note in front that indicates that she's done a lot of research for this, so I'm guessing that those familiar with Russian culture and history would like this too.

Second, the characters. Apart from Vasya, there are also her siblings (Sasha, the brother that became a warrior monk stands out) and Dunya, their nurse. All were very well-written and I would happily read books about them.

The villains too, were much better than I had expected. Anna is the 'evil stepmother', and certainly played the part well, but I never expected to sympathise with her that much. She was a victim of her gift and character and could have had a peaceful life if not for chance. Konstantin, too, started off as a proud but devout man. His gradual obsession with Vasya and him being duped by the main 'villain' of the book was well-written and I kept hoping he could be redeemed till he was past the point. Other notable characters: the frost king, the horses, and the various magical creatures. I loved them all (especially the horses!).

Finally, the plot. The book is split into three parts: her childhood, the threat and the battle. Not gonna give any spoilers, but I thought it was very well-paced and couldn't put the book down.

If you're into fairytales, you have to read this book. It's magical and amazing and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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