Book Series that we love: Our (current) favourite Chapter Book series!

J, who is now 7 years old, has become rather a prolific reader and there are a few book series for young readers that have been responsible for encouraging him on his reading journey. Currently, my aim for J to get him to progress towards chapter books that not only increase his vocabulary and reading fluency, but also widen his imagination or scope of interests. Choosing books that appeal to little boys has been quite a challenge for me! I was brought up on a steady diet of Laura Ingalls and Anne of Green Gables, both of which are wonderful book series but do nothing to engage J’s attention. I have since discovered that in order to encourage J to stay with a book for more than a few pages, the book had to contain some or all of the following aspects:

  1. Text as well as illustrations – a great black and white wall of text was just too intimidating for a young reader.
  2. Fictional subject matter that involves intelligent young male heroes, fast-paced action and a little bit of cheeky humour.
  3. Factual subject matter of the slightly yucky kind.

So, here are…

J’s current Top Three Favourite Chapter Book Series

1. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket lemony-snicket-unfortunate-events This is a series of 13 books, each with 13 chapters, following the melancholy adventures of the three Baudelaire orphans, Violet, Klaus and Sunny. The books trace the lives of the Baudelaire orphans as they pass through various foster homes before going on the run from the police, whilst being pursued by a self-proclaimed ‘distant relative’, Count Olaf, who is bent on acquiring the Baudelaire’s considerable inheritance. Along the way, they uncover the mystery surrounding their parents’ deaths and encounter all manner of exciting things like secret organisations, venomous snakes and delicious pasta. The author, Lemony Snicket, is as much a character in the books as well as their narrator and commentator – and his satirical humour is evident throughout the novels, often warning the reader that very few positive events take place in each book and even suggesting that the books be discarded in favour of more cheerful pursuits. The stories are accompanied by beautifully detailed black and white illustrations by Brett Helquist which are Victorian in style and add to the gothic nature of the books. The pictures often hold clues as to the true nature of people and events in the story that are not fully described in the text, and this adds an extra dimension to the books as the reader has a chance to play detective (which J thoroughly enjoyed).

Mummy Guide: These books are extremely well-written but the subject matter is a little bit on the morbid side, so if you have a particularly sensitive or anxious young reader then proceed with caution. Additionally, binge-reading these books is not recommended as you will feel miserable at the unfairness of it all. However, the underlying theme of maintaining a courageous and positive outlook in the face of adversity as well as the concept that moral decision-making is not always straight-forward are both great learning points!

2. Horrible Science by Nick Arnold  Horrible-science-books-fact-kids The Horrible Science books are basically little encyclopaedias covering a variety of science-related topics from physics, chemistry and biology, often in gruesome and disgusting detail. Every page is peppered with silly jokes and hilarious cartoons by Tony De Saulles which make each book a fun and engaging read – so it’s absolutely perfect for kids who are still entertained by toilet humour (which is all kids, really). J loves these books because they help to answer all his questions about the world and provide him with plenty of subject matter for creeping out his classmates.

Mummy Guide: These books are not afraid to be yucky and gross (because science is often messy) but there are no sexual themes or gratuitously written descriptions of gore.

3. How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell cressida-cowell-train-dragon-books This is definitely our current TOP favourite chapter book series not only because the books are such an entertaining read and have dragons in them, but also because the main protagonist is one of the best role-models we have ever come across. (Did I forget to mention that there are dragons in these books?) At the moment, there are 11 books in the series, with the twelfth (and final) instalment due to be released in September of this year. The books are set in a fictional Viking world and record the experiences of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third and his tribe of Hairy Hooligans. The books generally deal with various aspects of the Viking Instructional Programme which also involves the capture and training of both small hunting dragons as well as larger riding dragons. This inevitably leads to Hiccup, his puny hunting dragon, Toothless, and his asthmatic best friend, Fishlegs, getting into some awful (and life-threatening) misadventure. As the books are meant to be the memoirs of an elderly Hiccup looking back over his young life, they are full of funny annotations, notes about dragons and crudely drawn sketches of various characters.

Mummy Guide: The books do involve quite a bit of violence (eg. sword fighting, hunting animals, people getting eaten by dragons etc.) but there are no graphic or gory descriptions. There’s also plenty of ridiculous potty humour of the sort that tends to appeal to little boys (eg. burping, farting, characters going through Advanced Name Calling training). However, Hiccup is a very well-written hero and his journey traces the struggles of his character as he grows into a good leader. One of the main themes of the series involves him having to make tough choices between what is right and what is easy, and through his actions, we can see the power of forgiveness, humility, compassion and loyalty.

Update: MPH Bookstores Singapore has kindly offered to sponsor a copy of How to train your Dragon: How to Ride a Dragon’s Storm by Cressida Cowell to TWO lucky Owls Well readers! Hooray!!

 To take part in this giveaway, just complete the following:

1. Be a fan of the Owls Well Facebook Page

2. Share this Facebook post (set to public) and tag a friend

3. Leave a comment below telling me about a chapter book or book series that you or your children have enjoyed. Don’t forget to leave your Facebook name and your email address so that I can contact you if you win – or if you’re really shy, you can email your details to me separately at 4owlswell@gmail.com

(This giveaway is open to people with a Singapore mailing address and ends on 7 April 2015. Winners will be picked via Random.org – just make sure you complete the 3 required steps!)

Lee Kuan Yew’s Memoirs – A Review (or, How to Build a Country When All You’ve Got is a Bunch of Really Ornery Immigrants)

lee-kuan-yew-memoirsIt seems inconceivable that the World should lose not one, but two of its geniuses in the span of a week. Yet, here we are mourning the death of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father and the last of the PAP’s first generation.

Mr Lee is not known for his literary genius. He was a visionary, strategic thinker and politician. Still, he did publish his memoirs in two thick volumes – The Singapore Story and From Third World to First, so in the spirit of the Owls Well book month, I have decided to write a little bit about them.

As I read both books in 2000, my memory of the books might be a little hazy, but I’m pretty confident that I may well be one of the very few people who have read them cover to cover.

The first book, A Singapore Story, covers Mr Lee’s childhood growing up in rural Singapore, his young adult years as a University student in London and his early political career.

Rather than a book about heavy politics, it’s more of a recollection of childhood and growing up, with a little bit of romance thrown in.

It’s hard to imagine Lee Kuan Yew as a young man picking mushrooms at a golf course and making omelettes with them while courting his wife-to-be, yet the memories are still there, pinned to the page like so many butterflies in a collection. It’s equally difficult to imagine him as a glue manufacturer and salesman, but apparently, Mr Lee supported himself during the Japanese occupation by making Stikfas glue (he even provides his readers with the recipe for it!). It’s not a poetic book by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s informative, giving a glance at the man who would later become Singapore’s driving force.

“The task of the leaders must be to provide or create for them a strong framework within which they can learn, work hard, be productive and be rewarded accordingly. And this is not easy to achieve.” – Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew only really gets to the meat of the politics of Asia with his second set of memoirs, From Third World to First, (or as I like to call it: “Country Building 101: What to do with a bunch of really ornery immigrants who don’t have much direction and would really like the British to come back, kkthx”).

The answer to this question is, of course, “Get Machiavellian” (e.g. Make serving in the army compulsory on pain of jail and also pain) and if that doesn’t work, “Make Stuff Up” (e.g. Ask Israeli army trainers to grow moustaches and call them codename them ‘Mexicans’ so that things stay totally top secret).

“I have never been over concerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader. Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.” – Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore story: The Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew

One of the things I enjoyed the most about Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs is simply seeing what his thought processes were in making his political decisions.  There is no denying that the man was a political genius, and some of the things that he actually got away with were, frankly, inventive and funny.  No matter how many of Lee Kuan Yew’s decisions boil down to getting Machiavellian or making stuff up, we cannot deny the results.  Singaporeans currently enjoy a high standard of living and a the highest trade to GDP ratio in the world.

“I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.” – Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story

Lee Kuan Yew gave everything he had to Singapore and the story he tells about the building process is fascinating, not just because of what happened, but also because of what may still happen in the future.

Goodbye, Sir, and thank you.

Sir PTerry is Dead. Long Live the Discworld.

On the morning of Friday, 13th of March, the following messages appeared on Terry Pratchett’s twitter feed.

All Good Things Must Come to an End

All Good Things Must Come to an End

…and I cried, because this meant that Sir PTerry, author of over 70 books, including the famous Discworld series, was dead.  The literary world is all the poorer for his leaving this Earth so young.

Terry Pratchett’s books have a special place in the hearts of his readers and in the hearts of the Owls Well crew.  My personal favourites are Reaper Man and the books in the Tiffany Aching series.  Debs favours The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents and Men at Arms.  The Boobook’s favourite books are Hogfather and Thief of Time.  Even the Barn Owl has his favourites, The Colour of Magic and The Bromeliad Trilogy.

It is difficult to put into words how much the Discworld series, and Terry Pratchett’s other work mean to me.  Even now, as I type these words, I cannot help but feel tears streaming down my face as I recall how very alive he was as an author.  His books always brimmed with energy.  In his work, we could see our own world through a fantasy lens, realising the beauty in it while still recognising the terrible and awful things that needed changing. FullSizeRender(8)Back in University, I was able to attend a talk that he held in a small meeting room just off Darling Harbour.

Though the room was packed, he still somehow managed to make his speech feel intimate and friendly.  He spoke about having open heart surgery, about cosplayers at Discworld conventions and even chatted to a few of the cosplayers at the talk.  After the talk, he sat down to sign everyone’s books and I remember asking him if he had any books about Chinese people.  He said he did and handed me a copy of Interesting Times, which he signed with a flourish.  A present from him to me, he said.  I still treasure that book.

Three days later, the announcement came that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and yet he kept writing.  Even after he could no longer read, he continued to write through dictation.  Even now, after his death, there are still a number of books that will be published posthumously. Even though Sir Pratchett has gone, his books and characters will live on.  And for that, we are grateful.

Cheap as Free Online Novels for the Broke

I like reading, but reading can get pretty expensive.  Good books cost upwards of $30 out here in Sydney and eBooks readers can get quite pricey – not to mention all that headache with eBook compatibility and such.

There’s only one way to solve this conundrum… TO THE INTERNET!

Many web novels on the Internet are free, or at least extremely cheap.  I’m proud to say that over the many years that I’ve lived on the Internet, I’ve been able to amass a fairly impressive library of online novels and am happy to share them with you.

Thalia's Musings1. Thalia’s Musings by Amethyst Marie

I’ve got a real soft spot for Greek Mythology.  Some of the earliest media I consumed were about Greek Myths and I’ve even won prizes for memorising and retelling the stories of Grecian heroes when I was a little tyke in school.  So, I was drawn to Thalia’s Musings by Amethyst Marie, a well-written insider account of the various quarrels, love affairs and dramatic deaths of the Grecian pantheon, as seen through the eyes of the not-so-innocent bystander, Thalia, the Muse of Comedy.

Although the series loosely follows the stories of many Grecian myths, it diverges slightly from what is expected and doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the raunchy behaviour of the Grecian gods (and goddesses too)!  All in all, a great read.  Amethyst Marie has written three books of the series so far and is currently writing the fourth.  I’m at the edge of my seat to find out what happens next!

The books are available free online, but if you’re willing to shell out a little money and support Amethyst, you can buy eBook versions of Thalia’s Musings in her shop.

Stefan Gagne2. Stefan Gagne’s Fiction Factory by Stefan Gagne

All right, I’ll admit that Stefan Gagne (aka Twoflower) is one of my favourite online novelists – I’ve even tagged him on the writing process blog tour!

Unlike other online authors, Stefan really makes good use of the capabilities of html, working with different fonts, colours, images and even little flash programs to flavour the stories that he tells.  His latest work, cyberpunk web novel series, Floating Point, is very topical; but I’m a little more fond of his earlier cyberpunk work – A Future We’d Like to See (FWLS).  FWLS is a little 90s era zeerusty, but it still contains an underlying layer of unbridled optimism that came with the early Internet before the Eternal September of 1993, before all the trolling and the nastiness and the doxxing and stuff.

Of his works, my favourites would have to be Unreal Estate, a sweet sci-fi romantic comedy deconstruction of harem anime of the 90s that spans across the multiverse; and Anachronauts, a post-apocalyptic fantasy novel about fairies, aliens and working together for the common good.  Both of these novels are now available for purchase in book or eBook form on Stefan’s store.  As a bonus, Stefan has included an extra short-story in each book that is not available online.

Velveteen vs3. Velveteen vs. by Seanan McGuire

I’ve written about one of Seanan McGuire’s books before, so I was pleased to note that she also releases free short stories on her Livejournal.  Velveteen vs. is a realistically modern take on superheroes in a corporate world, exploring how the very nature of superheroes can be corrupted by the ever persistent bottom line.  The series follows the story of Velveteen, a retired superheroine on the run from her former employers and her attempts to eke out a living as a civilian.  It’s a compelling and emotional read, certainly worth the wait between chapters.

The Velveteen vs. stories are still ongoing, but Seanan has collated most of them into two books – Velveteen vs the Junior Super Patriots and Velveteen vs The Multiverse.  Both are available at most bookstores, though you may have to order them in.

4. Tapestry: a Tale of Empire by Wysteria Climbing

Asian fantasy novels are fairly common these days, but very few capture that Tale of Genji spirit quite like Tapestry does.  With its unique diary-style format, Tapestry follows the tale of Lady Uru, her husband Seichi, children Pen and Pang and house slave Heiye as they navigate the treacherous politics, pomp and ceremony of the Elite class in a fantasy empire.  Wysteria Climbing does an expert job of painting Lady Uru’s personality through her conservative attitudes, reserved language and clever use of wordplay and inflection.  Don’t let the 2008 dates on the Livejournal fool you, Wysteria is still very active on her blog and updates her story sporadically.  The series is currently on its second book.

While Tapestry doesn’t have a dead tree format just yet, but you can still support Wysteria on her Patreon.  Doing so will increase the speed of her updates.

While these series represent what I feel are the best web novels on the Internet, you can still find plenty more to sate your reading appetites at the Web Fiction Guide.  However, if your tastes are more classical, you might want to give Project Gutenberg a try.

As a bonus, I’ll leave you with two more stories that didn’t quite make the A-list, because they’re not quite books…

Blue Sky by Waffleguppies:  If you like the Portal game series, you might want to check this excellent piece of fanfiction out.  It will seriously give you a case of the feels.  (Don’t worry, they’ve started a support group for that).

Digger by Ursula Vernon:  This Hugo Award winning graphic novel follows the story of a very lost wombat and her adventures in a strange world full of cults, religions and talking hyenas.  It is beautifully illustrated and cleverly written.