March 23, 2005

The Da Vinci Code/ Dan Brown

I figured so many bloggers have written so much about this book that I just need to post something here, just for the heck of it. I found The Da Vinci Code very readable, a page-turner, and basically enjoyed it as a piece of fiction. Found the ending an anti-climax though.
coverNLB Call No.: BRO (under Adult Fiction section)
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Here are some other books by Dan Brown, available in NLB libraries (at this time of posting):

Deception point - c2001
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Angels & demons - c2001/ 2000
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Digital fortress - c1998
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Chances are, these books are also on loan. Our NLB members are so hungry for Dan Brown these days. So try these "Read Alikes" and search to see if they are available in our libraries. Here's a website featuring Da Vinci Code "Read Alikes" (picked from the web in random).

March 22, 2005

Firebirds: An Anthology of Original Fantasy and Science Fiction

Edited by Sharyn November. Total of 16 stories. Writers are: Delia Sherman, Megan Whalen Turner, Sherwood Smith, Nancy Springer, Lloyd Alexander, Meredith Ann Pierce, Micheal Cadnum, Emma Bull (with Charles Vess), Patricia A. McKillip, Kara Dalkey, Garth Nix, Elizabeth E. Wein, Diana Wynne Jones, Nancy Farmer, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, and Laurel Winter.

coverNLB Call No.: Y 808.838762 FIR (Go to the YP section, under the 800s collection)
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This is a YP book, i.e. for Young People (15 to 19 year olds). It reminded me of why I love to read when I was younger -- the stories are, well, sophisticated in an uncomplicated way. They just get to the point. And more important, I get a sense of escaping to another place, of being in the story. It's strange but come to think of it, whenever I read YP Fantasy and SciFi literature, I get the same -- for lack of a better word -- "buzz" when I watch films like The Neverending Story, or even The Dark Crystal.

Easy to read, cos the stories are pretty short. But definitely not kiddish. I also like that they provide brief information about the authors (including website) and also the Author's Note (i.e. the author's comments about how and why they wrote the story).

My favourite stories from the book, some of which would be great for discussions:
  • The baby in the night deposit box/ Megan Whalen Turner - Tells of this baby who was deposited at the bank for safekeeping. She turns out to be some fairy princess. I love the part where her method of overcoming her fear of shadows was to point her rattle at the shadows and say "You're a bunny". This quote has great significance in the ending.
  • Max Mondrosch/ Lloyd Alexander - About this man who just never seems to be able to succeed in getting a job. Quite weird.
  • Medusa/ Michael Cadnum - The tale of Medusa (of Greek Mythology) told from the view point of Medusa herself. But in this story, Medusa isn't evil as what we are familiar with. She turns out to be a victim. Makes one wonder about perspectives.
  • The black fox/ Emma Bull & Charles Vess (illustrator) - This was cool. An adaptation of a traditional ballad presented in comic form. Beautiful illustrations.
  • Byndley/ Patricia A. McKillip - About a wizard who stole something from the fairies and was running away. He thought he'd escape them but turned out to be trapped all along. Again, it made me wonder about perspectives.
  • Hope chest/ Garth Nix - This one is really cool, but has sort of a tragic ending. Tells of a young girl (in the wild west setting) who turns out to be the babe version of Rambo, killing the evil "Master".
  • Remember me/ Nancy Farmer - Ooh, this one gave me goosebumps. I interpreted the story as one about loss and rememberance.
  • Flotsam/ Nina Kiriki Hoffman - Really liked this one. A girl finds this scruffy kid, who turns out to be from Fairyland or something. The kid can speak the language of water and other stuff, i.e. control water and make things move. Touching ending, particularly the bit about the girl's mother finding herself again.

March 21, 2005

Getting Results: Five absolutes for high performance

University of Michigan Business School (UMBS) management series. Written by Clinton O. Longenecker (boy, what a surname!) and Jack L. Simonetti.

Preface - p.xiv. "This book is for managers of all levels who are looking for ways to improve the performance not only of themselves but also of the people they are directly responsible for."
cover NLB Call No.: 658.314 LON - [Biz] (under "Business" section)
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The authors posits that there are 5 "absolutes" (defined as "something that possesses the characteristic of being complete in nature") for high performance. Extracted from p.6 (comments in [ ] are my own):
Absolute 1 - Get everyone on the same page: Focus on the purpose of your organisation.
[Manager to create & maintain focus on desired results for him/ herself, staff, and operations. Also to create a means to measure performance.]

Absolute 2 - Prepare for battle: Equip your operations with tools, talent, and technology
[Hire good people, develop effective planning practices, have ongoing training, ensure staff gets the tools they need to do their jobs.]

Absolute 3 - Stoke the fire of performance: Create a climate for results
[Create the climate to continually and systematically measure performance, solicit feedback, a climate that motivates people, and removes barriers to performance.]

Absolute 4 - Build bridges on the road to results: Nurture relationships with people
[This chapter talks about building trust and communicating with staff in meaningful ways. Suggests there are 4 key practices: forge effective 360-degree work relationships, demonstrate trustworthy leadership, practice all facets of effective communication, and fostering teamwork and cooperation.]

Absolute 5 - Keep the piano in tune: Practice continuous renewal
[Basically advocating the need to continually review and improve. Also talks about maintaining worklife balance. Being willing to develop others, and to develop a balanced worklife for ourselves.]
Observation -- the "Absolutes" are progressively harder to achieve. E.g. building in performance measurement on continual basis is relatively easier than nurturing relationships with staff.

The book contains worksheets for self-assessment and practice. Each chapter has a summary. Easy to read, and fairly practical as far as management books go. Writing style is kinda conversational. Pretty useful book. I'd recommend it.

March 20, 2005

Insider's Singapore/ David Brazil

My wife recommended this book to me. Wish I had this as a textbook when I was in school. Singapore History lessons would've been much more interesting. Well OK, maybe not as the only textbook, but it would have served as an excellent alternative to the texts where it's just facts and dates.

Insider's Singapore - NLB Call No.: SING 959.57 BRA - [HIS]
The "SING" prefix means it's located at the Singapore Collection (i.e. books with the Red Lion Head logo).

See book cover from Select Books (no, I don't have a share in the company).

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There are 30 stories, most about little known facts about Singapore's landmarks. The first story got me hooked -- I didn't know there was an "Early Founders Memorial Stone" at Collyer Quay.

Here's a listing of the content page (this was the 1999 edition published by Times Books International). Remarks in [ ] are my own:
The City and Chinatown
  • - A sadly unfinished monument [The Early Founders Memorial Stone. Picture on p11.]
  • - The benign face of empire [About William Pickering and the setting up of the Chinese Protectorate. p15 - 17: how Pickering dealt with the issue of prostitution]

The Padang and Fort Canning
  • - A present from a king [How the black brass elephant outside Parliament House came to be. Also about the visit by King of Siam to Singapore in 1871]
  • - That man Raffles [About the Raffles statue. Side stories titled "Was Raffles a Playboy?" and "Indian National Army", and Napoleon's penis (yeah! now you interested, right?) ]
  • - A true war hero [Concise story of Lim Bo Seng's life. Side story about Elizabeth Choy, Singapore's war heroine]
  • - They will not be forgotten [The Memorial to the Civiliam Victims of the Japanese Occupation. Summary of the Japanese invasion in 1941, the Sook Ching operation, account of the civilian massacre, side story about the issue of Japan's wartime guilt]
  • - Mutinous Daze [The 1915 Sepoy Mutiny]
  • - Five kings of ancient Singapura [Discussion about the tomb at Fort Canning Hill]
  • - Drama under the stars [The ex-National Theatre that was demolished in Aug '86. Picture on p.73. How it was built , its history]
  • - Forgotten founder [Major-General William Farquhar. Discussion on whether he's been unfairly sacked by Raffles (now why didn't they tell me that during History lessons?). Overiew of his life and times. Side story of how he dealt with the issue of rats , giant centipedes, and of his dog who was eaten by a crocodile]

The Orchard Road Area
  • - The door gods of Orchard Road [How the two statues at Orchard Road came to be. Side story of the 1974 Hilton Hotel murder of Mrs Linda Culley by her husband, Michael Charles Culley]
  • - Geomancy lives on [About Feng Shui and its association with several Singapore landmarks like Hyatt Regency Hotel, Pinetree Town and Country Club, American Club, OUB Centre]
  • - Grand old hotel tales [Interesting story of the painting of a barebreasted woman of the Goodwood Park Hotel. Also a story of Goodwood Park Hotel and its rivalry with Raffles Hotel. Side story of Anna Pavlova (the world famous ballerina) and her apparently not so pleasant experience in Singapore]
  • - The worse fire disaster [The 1972 fire at Robinsons Raffles Place Department Store and its history]
  • - A neighbour declares war [The 1965 Konfrontasi and bombing of MacDonald House and other places in Singapore. Side story "Who was MacDonald?"]
  • - The first skyscraper in town [The 1939 Cathay Building and basically the film and cinema industry in Singapore from 1930s to 1950s. Side story "Mountbatten: The Man, The Controversy"]
  • - The curry murder [The still unsolved 1984 murder that took place in the Penang Road Presbyterian Church caretaker's house]
  • - The tiger of France [About Clemenceau Avenue, and about George Clemenceau]

Eastwards Towards Geylang
  • - Not just a playing field [Farrer Park, and it's history as a horse-racing course, Singapore's first airplane flight in 1911, Indonesian POWs of the Japanese. Mentions the Indian National Army (INA), Subhas Chandra Bose., and the Malay Regiment's final stand at Pasir Panjang]
  • - When this was Sin-Galore... [The 1930s - 1960s sex-trade in Singapore, Comfort Women, Bugis Street transvestites, measures to curb sexually transmitted diseases]
  • - Informal royal palace [Istana Kampong Glam, Raffles and his dealings with Sultan Hussein and his heirs, controversy for the Istana Kampong Glam and issue of compensation. Side stories on Munshi Abdullah, "Hussein's Sex Slaves". P.163 shows picture of the Istana Kampong Glam circa 1999]
  • - Singapore's airports [History of the various airports in Singapore from 1930s. Cites the crash of Qantas BOAC Constellation jet, killing 31 passengers in 1954. Zhou Enlai "cheats death" in 1955. Side story of Beatles landing at Paya Lebar airport in 1964; Mick Jagger and wife Jerry Hall being turned away from the then Black Velvet disco in 1979; the Concord landing that was not to be]
  • - The end of the worlds [The beginnings and demise of early Entertainment Parks of Singapore -- Gay World, Great World, and New World. Cites striptease acts (including Rose Chan), cabaret girls, boxing matches]
  • - Singapore goes berserk [An account and short discussion of the 21 July 1964 race riots that lasted for 6 days. Side panel "The Maria Hertogh Riots" in 1950; "Ahmad Mattar's Narrow Escape" (ex-PM of Malaysia). Last part cites the background of the Geylang Serai Malay Village]

The Rest of the Island
  • - For whom the bell toll [The life of Joseph Balestier (1820s - 1840s), Singapore's first American Consul. Side panel "Great Bells!" -- the only Paul Revere Bell outside the US; "Crime of Passion" -- 1880 murder at Balestier Road]
  • - A hospital is born [Tan Tock Seng's life and the history of TTS Hospital]
  • - The sultans from Telok Blangah [The rise and fall of the Malay Kings of early Singapore. Side panels - "The tragic tale of Radin Mas", "Johor Bahru - A city for the future", "Let there be light - and fire" (Sultan was one of the first to have home lit up by electricity]
  • - A waxwork model [General Tomoyuki Yamashita - his conquest of Singapore, his political gaffe that led to his exile to Manchuria, and his last days when put on trial for war crimes. Side panels -- "Kranji Beach Horror" (defence of Kranji River); "The Surrender Room"; "Where's the Surrender Document?"; "Tojo Okays Brothels"; "Tojo's Teeth" (his teeth were engraved, unknown to him, the words "Remember Pearl Harbour"; "Yamashita's Treasure"]
  • - Good as gold [The beginnings and development of local brewery Tiger Beer, including brief mention of its marketing strategy]
  • - The end of a movement [Life and times of Tan Chay Wa, his role in the Communist Party of Malay, his arrest and trial. Mentions Chin Peng and Chia Thye Poh]

March 07, 2005

Marching to Valhalla/ Michael Blake

When I was younger, I learnt that General George Amstrong Custer was an American who was killed by Chief Sitting Bull. I didn't think very much of Custer then. In fact I rooted for the American Indians cos they were the underdogs. Years later, I learnt that Custer distinguished himself during the American Civil War of 1860s. At 23 (I think) he was the youngest to be made a General. But he was still a name to me.

Then came this book -- Marching to Valhalla by Michael Blake. If like me, you like war stories and the like, then you'll probably like this one too.
cover Call No.: BLA (found under Adult Fiction section)
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Valhalla is a Warrior's Heaven, stemming from Nordic mythology. The Vikings believed that warriors who died bravely in battle would be carried by Valkyries to the halls of Valhalla, where they would enjoy unlimited food and company in their afterlife. And according to this book, Custer saw himself as a warrior and little else (apart from being devoted this his wife).

This is a work of fiction but based on historical facts. It is written in the form of journal entries written by Custer. It's interesting bec through the first-person narrative, I learnt more about Custer the man, than Custer the name -- which I think was the whole point of the book.

It delves into what Custer might have thought or felt, about his courtship and marriage to his wife, his subsequent endearing relationship with his wife, and also a brief affair with a Cheyenne captive. It also gave insights to Custer the Soldier and Warrior -- what drives him to win. Certain chapters could serve as case studies for Leadership (how he treated deserters), the dilemma between duty and human emotions. There were also insights to how Custer might have felt during his role in the Civil War, and the political games that he was naively drawn in later. And it suggests that Custer's defeat at little Bighorn had something to do with the low-point in his career at that point, having been made a political fool.

After reading this book, George Armstrong Custer was no longer just a name but someone who's human - who lived, loved, worried, rejoiced, felt sad.

This book not only tells a story but also makes Custer's voice just speaks to you. Not necessarily directly. It was more like how Custer spoke to himself and I'm a voyeur to his thoughts and slowly immersed myself into the story.

If you like historical fiction about the America Civil War, I recommend these two other books:
cover The Killer Angels/ Michael Shaara
cover Gods and Generals/ Jeff Shaara

I would not have wanted to read a history book about the American Civil War but these two books made history come alive, just like Marching to Valhalla. It's not history per se but the lives of the men who fought in it, from their individual point of view. That's what made the (his)story more powerful.