Category Archives: Reading

An Era Ends

Tomorrow morning, one era in my life ends and a new one begins. After years of home-schooling, tomorrow I enter the Australian public school system — albeit from afar. I will do Year 11 (my “Preliminary year” if you’re an Aussie, or “Junior year” if you’re American) through Karabar High School’s distance education department. No longer will I be fully home-schooled.

All my 11 years of study — from when I was four up till the present — have been home-school with Mum and Dad as my teachers. I have never studied at a school — or through a school — in my life until now. I’ve been to school, sure — every Sunday in Australia, because our church meets in one. And once when I went on a youth camp we slept in sleeping bags in a classroom. But I’ve never been in a classroom at classroom hours. Rather, I’m the bloke who makes sure that your desk is not in the same place on Monday morning as it was when you left it on Friday afternoon. Tomorrow, while I still won’t be in class at class hours, I’ll be enrolled.

The style of my curriculum is about to change dramatically. For the first few years of my schooling we used an Australian home-school curriculum, but for the past six years we have used an American curriculum called Sonlight. Sonlight is a heavily literature-focussed curriculum. It is tremendously fun opening the school boxes each year because they are always bursting (underneath the copious paper padding) with delicious new books. Opening the school box this year was fun too, because I had no idea what would be in there, but in the whole thing (school for the several weeks of the year) there was only one non-textbook — which I will have to return when I’m done with it. It seems English this year will be more about analysing a few books in depth than about reading a great deal.

Looking through the notes for each subject was quite different too, to what I’m used to. While Sonlight notes are written to be interesting to read, and the passive voice is almost non-existent (though I know I use plenty of passive voice myself, even though I studied Sonlight…), the Year 11 notes seem to be written for the sole purpose of conveying information — and the passive voice is abundant. It is also chock-full of “course outcomes”, which are quite formal to read: “a student will learn to communicate a knowledge and understanding of historical features and issues using appropriate and well-structured oral and written forms”. I don’t remember seeing any “course outcomes” listed in the Sonlight notes.

While public school work will clearly be very different to what I’m used to, I still expect to enjoy it and I’m keen to begin. I chose subjects I like, so I have no compunction about studying them. Neither have I any compunction about studying from an Australian perspective: Australia is, after all, where I am from, where I hope to go to uni (“college” in American english), and where I might even spend the rest of my life after I leave Cambodia. The lack of a Christian perspective will seem less of a boon, but after studying from a Christian perspective for 11 years it will be good to get exposure to secular education so that secular uni won’t be a complete shock.

In the Australian system, we have what we call “units” for Year 11 and Year 12. Most subjects are two units, for some you can do three units. I am doing three unit English, three unit Maths, and regular two unit Geography, Economics and Modern History. All of these look like they are going to be interesting. English and Maths look tough (they are three units after all). The others seem like they’ll be easier, but all very interesting. For Geography I get to do a year-long research project. Economics will be interesting because it is a completely new subject for me. And History is always interesting. So really I can hardly wait.

The book deficit I can fill on my own: this year I want to read some more Percy Jackson books (Rick Riordan); The Street Lawyer (John Grisham); St. Mallory’s Forever! (Miriam Joy, Charley Robson and Saffina Desforges);  Great Expectations (Charles Dickens); and The Silmarillion (JRR Tolkien) — just to name a few. I also want to reread Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Lynn Truss); The Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien); and the Deltora Quests (Emily Rodda) — again, just to name a few. In fact, there are so many books I want to read and reread that I am almost pleased that I have no school books this year.

So really, while I greatly enjoyed my six years of Sonlight, I learned a lot, and I would not have minded doing it all the way to year 12 — I have no regrets about switching to distance education this year. Tomorrow a new era dawns, and I’m looking forward to it. Wish me luck.

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Am I Wasting My Time?

Recently, I have spent a decent chunk of time reading various online blogs. These blogs are not about any specific subject, but they are all the work of teens who love writing and excel at it: so I find them highly entertaining, and spend too much time reading them. At times I have wondered whether this habit of mine is becoming a more refined substitute for a computer-game or television addiction (albeit a mild one). Should I unsubscribe from these blogs and break the habit?

But today, when I was thinking about this, I realised that I have learnt a lot of useful things in my time subscribing to blogs. And I have never thought that learning useful things was a waste of time. As long as I am efficient with my blog-reading then, I have decided, it is actually quite a good thing to do. It is not time wasted – it is time in which I learn, and I think. As long as I don’t read posts while I am trying to concentrate on Science, or think out long-winded comments (which never eventuate) while I’m trying to read a book, time spent reading well-written and thought-provoking blogs is time well spent. From taking in all this knowledge, I will eventually gain wisdom; and wisdom is awesome.

I have learnt so many things from the blogs I have read: I have learnt about writing in third person omniscient; I have learnt that it is better not to “info-load” your readers with description, but to work description into the flow of the story; I have learnt that it is good to tighten sentences where possible; I have learnt the difference between an introduction, a prologue, and a first chapter; I am learning how better to review and analyse books (though I still suck at it) by watching the experts do it. In these and so many other topics I have gained knowledge from my fellow teens. Do I still think I am wasting time? So long as I keep things efficient — and don’t follow every blog that exists — the answer is definitely no.

And since mere head-knowledge never did anyone any good, I will continue to write my own blog — to put some of this stuff into practice.

The Smart Fool

I don’t know whether this is a quote from somewhere, or whether it has come to me with relative originality, but there is a line that has been going through my mind quite a bit lately: “There is no one quite so dangerous as a smart fool.”

“This is self-contradictory!” You might be thinking. But really, nearly all super-villains fall into this category. They are smart: they can hatch cunning plans and command armies, dictate nations — but they fail to realise what is truly important.

Smart fools are sprawled all over The Lord of the Rings: Sauron, Saruman, even Denethor…. They were all greatly learned people, and yet they gradually became deluded: they failed to realise what was right — and ultimately, what would prevail. They remained smart, even after their morals melted away; even after they tricked themselves into believing what was untrue. Indeed, in the case of Sauron and Saruman they could never have built up so much power had they not retained their cleverness. And yet, ultimately, they were fools.

Take the Harry Potter series. Tom Riddle was a very smart person: he was the Hermione of his day. He was prefect and then Head-Boy; he was able to delude all his teachers into liking him (except Dumbledore); he could perform very high level magic — magic powerful enough to terrorise the entire wizarding world in Britain. But he was a cold-hearted fool; he never understood the most important things in life: “Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.”

Smart fools can be contrasted with stupid fools. Stupid fools can get into drunken brawls; they can bully – they can cause a great deal of harm and suffering. But they won’t achieve it on the same scale of the smart fool. The thug down the street may have killed one man before he was carted off to jail. Adolf Hitler, a cleverer man, killed six million Jews before he realised his empire was crumbling, and killed himself too.

Of course, the wise have the potential to be dangerous too. Gandalf cleared this up for Gimli:

Gimli said, “But you speak of him as if he were a friend. I thought Fangorn was dangerous.”
“Dangerous!” cried Gandalf. “And so am I, very dangerous … And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers … for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion. Certainly the forest of Fangorn is perilous – not least to those that are too ready with their axes; and Fangorn himself, he is perilous too; yet he is wise and kindly nonetheless.”

But the wise do not go around being dangerous for no reason. Gandalf — and Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli — while they are not ones to cross, are not a threat to the peace and well-being of society: rather they used their very dangerousness to enforce peace. Aragorn spent a great deal of time in the vicinity of the Shire — not to exploit the jolly, simple hobbits, but to protect them.

The reason smart fools are so dangerous is because they have the brains to conquer the world, coupled with the mindset that conquering the world is the best thing for them to do. They do not mind what they do to people, so long as they get what they want. So they are a terrible danger to all in their way.

Thus, beware the smart fool. (except when you’re trying to think up a worthy villain).

A Few Quick Words on The Lightning Thief

For a little while now, I have been wanting to read the Percy Jackson series and see if it is what it’s made out to be. Now that I’ve read The Lightning Thief, I should probably say a word about what I thought of it. I don’t feel like writing a full-blown review at the moment, but a few thoughts mightn’t go astray.

In some respects, the book actually reminded me of Harry Potter. Percy, like Harry, is not normal: one is a demigod, the other a wizard — but both spent their early years thinking they were normal and wondering why supernatural things always happened to them accidentally. Both were bullied in the normal world and were never really happy there. Both of them, while brave and kind-hearted, have a slight rebellious flair. Both of them are good fighters and seem to have good luck.

The book has other similarities to Harry Potter. There is another trio of friends: Harry, Ron and Hermione is replaced with Percy, Annabeth and Grover. The world of the gods is very much a modern world of the gods — it mirrors today’s society — in very much the same way as the wizarding world of Harry Potter. A major difference is that Harry Potter stays at Hogwarts (like Camp Half-Blood?) while Percy treks across America. The climax is also different to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in make up, but there are characters which remind me, in some ways, of Snape, Quirrel, and Voldemort. And then, of course, there is the ubiquitous element of the villain telling the protagonist all his secrets before he kills him…

I don’t know think I liked The Lightning Thief quite as much as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone though. The world of the Greek gods, while still brilliantly put together, doesn’t captivate me as much as the wizarding world, with Quidditch, interesting school subjects, and a Ministry for Magic. I think it is a very good idea, and reasonably well executed, but perhaps not as tremendous idea and as tremendously well executed as Harry Potter. There are a few little things that put me off very slightly as well. For example Percy’s mother works at a sweetshop: I am not a big fan of most candy (with the exception of chocolate) so to me doesn’t really seem to fit her personality (I mean such a lovely lady always comes home with a bag of sticky, tooth-rotting stuff for Percy?). Now if she worked in a bakery and came home with all manner of lovely baked goods, that would be different…

So, I liked The Lightning Thief; I liked the way humorous way Rick Riordan deals with Greek gods in modern times; I liked the exciting adventure — but it’s not quite my new favourite book. I’m definitely glad I read it though, and hopefully I’ll get to read a few more in the series in the next couple of months. It probably wasn’t helpful to compare it so much to Harry Potter because they are different series by different authors, but there were a few elements I thought I’d compare and as I wrote I kept thinking of more.

Spoilers

We all hate spoilers. They are my pet peeve. Once I was at a dinner and an eight year old kid was trying to tell me about major events in Harry Potters 6 and 7 (I was reading 6 at the time). I try not to be rude, but I ended up muttering songs with my fingers in my ears until my sister could get him to be quiet (I feel sorry for her though — she’s only read the first 3, and now she probably knows the whole series).

Well the point is, I will be writing reviews on this blog, and reviews often contain minor spoilers. If you’re not sure if you want to read a post for fear of spoilers — don’t. Or you could comment on the post without actually reading it, to ask whether or not you should. Generally I will keep major spoilers out, but my reviews contain more spoilers than I would want to read myself. I’m the kind of guy who often doesn’t read the back of a book in case it gives away something (I know, it’s a bad habit… and I’m slowly changing), but I don’t expect that everyone else is like this. (otherwise why would they have stuff on the back of the book?) Which is why I write reviews.

And I realise I have been a bit quiet for the past week or so. I’ve been busy. A review should appear tomorrow.

Book Review: Kon-Tiki

I don’t know about you, but for the last couple of weeks I have been eagerly following the Teens Can Write, Too blog chain about the importance of book covers. Some posts in the chain were terrific; others slightly less so. In general, however, they have made me fairly proud to be a teenager – and they have also caused me to consider the all-important role of book covers. I don’t think much about book covers, so without being prompted otherwise I probably would have said that I hold to the expression “don’t judge a book by its cover”. But that would not be true: I often may not realise it, but the fact that I was not jumping up and down to read Kon-Tiki (not that I’m very excitable at the best of times…) attests to the fact that covers do influence me. The title certainly didn’t help: I had no clue what (or who) a Kon-Tiki was. But even besides the title, the physique of the copy wasn’t endearing: it was a fairly cheap-looking book, and while the cover art was passable, it wasn’t fantastic. In the centre of the book, in sharp contrast to the other beige coloured pages, was a section of stark-white, cheap-looking photo-copy paper (it contained photos, reviews, and notes). To top it all off, under the title and the author’s name (Thor Heyerdahl) – which were, incidentally, in a boring font – was “Complete and Unabridged” and “Includes detailed explanatory notes, an overview of key themes, and more”. Not that I like abridged books – or dislike explanatory notes – but often books with such advertisements are difficult, boring classics (admittedly I have enjoyed plenty of classics – like Oliver Twist and especially Pride and Prejudice).

But I changed my mind about Kon-Tiki, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this review (people say it’s fun to write bad reviews, but I’ve never tried it). In fact, I was hooked by the foreword. This is kind of strange, because the foreword was about Thor Heyerdahl’s theory that Polynesians came from South America, not from South-East Asia or any other of the numerous countries that have been suggested as their origin. This might make me sound nerdy (not that I’d be insulted), but it’s true. Even though I know very little about Polynesians, much less their origin, the fact that strongly held beliefs about them were being proven wrong by a solitary young Norwegian was compelling. Thor Heyerdahl had so much interesting evidence from so many areas to back up his claim, but nobody would even read his manuscript. The fact that he took evidence from lots of areas, in fact, was part of the problem: scientists were very specialised and they did not meddle in the fields of other scientists. In the words of the author “…to solve the problems of the Pacific without throwing light on them from all sides was, it seemed to me, like doing a puzzle and only using the pieces of one colo[u]r.” But that’s exactly what everyone else tried to do.

I got so caught up in Heyerdahl’s theory, to tell the truth, that I was almost disappointed when he finished with the background and started to get into the story. This was foolishness of course: to read 230 pages of theory, even a theory like Heyerdahl’s, would have to be pretty boring. And the story turned out to be quite an adventure! A major objection that people voiced in response to Heyerdahl’s theory (or what little of his theory they suffered to hear) was how the Polynesians got there. Heyerdahl claimed that they sailed on balsa-wood rafts: everybody laughed at this, but he determined to prove it. A Norwegian visiting America, with very little money, no influence, and no one to read his theory, he decided that he would build a raft and sail across the Pacific himself. He found partners and companions for his journey; he found sponsors; he was assisted by ambassadors and diplomats; he was given provisions and accessories by the army; he was helped vastly by Peruvians to build his raft… all in all he was a very bold and fortunate guy. And then he and his five companions were on their way across the mighty Pacific in a balsa-wood raft – which all the world predicted would sink.

At this point, I determined, the story had the potential to become either very dull or very exciting – and of course by rights Heyerdahl would soon be very dead (but of course he couldn’t die, he was the author). It turned out, that in the short term at least, the raft was doing quite well: so the story should, at that point, have become very boring. But although I am sure it was better to experience it than to read about it, there was something fantastic about reading the true story of 20th century men sailing on a prehistoric raft under the stars.

I confess that I often think of the Pacific Ocean as a body of water (shock! horror!). But I soon realised that it is much more than that – it is a rich ecosystem: you could call it a marine rain-forest. I once read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and I remember getting quite bored as I read the long lists of creatures that they observed from the Nautilus. The lists of species observed from the Kon-Tiki are similar (the Kon-Tiki was the name of their raft, named after the legendary Tiki who first sailed for Polynesia), but I found them much more entertaining. Perhaps because they were real fantastic creatures encountered by real people – not merely the figments of Jules Verne’s imagination.

So in general, while the publishers really should have come up with a better cover for it,  Kon-Tiki was quite a good book (but perhaps it isn’t “proper” for “classics” to have interesting covers). It is true that it wasn’t the sort of book I could read all in a day: some books I can just read and read, with others I need to be more temperate; but that isn’t a great indicator of quality (I love The Lord of the Rings but I can’t read heaps of it at once; I’m not a huge fan of Enid Blyton, but when I was younger I read her books in big chunks). I would probably rate Kon-Tiki 4/5, but out of 10, probably 7. So if you like anthropology, you should read this book. If you like maritime adventures, you should read this book. If you like anthropology, and you like maritime adventures: score!


Libraries Rock

I am soon leaving the land of libraries and inter-library loans, and now I realise how I have scorned this fantastic privilege. I have had every opportunity to read almost any book I could wish, free of charge, and I have taken up the offer so rarely! The problem is that the land of libraries is also the land of countless distractions which keep one from reading. Especially slow and easily distractible readers like myself, who are already reading 30 (good) books a year for school.

Before I leave the land of abundant books and travel to the land (ironically) of abundant time for reading, I want to properly use the library service. I can’t read any and every book I want in just a couple of months, though: I’ll have to prioritise. So I thought I’d compile a list of books I would like to read, and then, with your help, narrow it down.

The Ranger’s Apprentice by John Flanagan. I have, actually, borrowed and read the first three books of this series, but I stopped there. The books were light and enjoyable, and I liked aspects of Flanagan’s writing, but the series seemed slightly structureless (not totally a bad thing, I suppose) and some of the characters seemed to change too quickly. I have seen a lot of praise for the book on forums et cetera, and it is endorsed on This Page Intentionally Left Blank, so the series is unlikely to degenerate after book 3. Furthermore, the author is fellow Australian and it gives me certain national pride to read good books by Aussies. On the other hand, there are a lot of books in the series, and time is running down.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer. So many people love this book, and I don’t think I have heard anyone say that they don’t like it (admittedly, I haven’t asked most people). It is not quite as popular as Harry Potter or even The Hunger Games, but I think it is more widely approved. As a result, this series would probably be top priority except that, strange to say, I read the first Artemis Fowl book (and indeed I own it in the land of time-for-reading) and I didn’t find it that amazing. It is possible, however, that I was merely uncultured when I read it and next time I pick it up I will very much enjoy it. I think I may have friends who own certain titles in this series.

Inkworld by Cornelia Flunke. I have seen this trilogy recommended by various readers/writers, but I don’t know much about it. It doesn’t top my list, but I would like to read it some time.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan. This is another series which has been very popular, but which I haven’t read. I asked somebody about the series recently and she described it as “better than Harry Potter“. Rick Riordan is a very popular writer, and to not read anything of his without good reason would be plain illiterate. Furthermore, the original series is only 5 books, so I think it would be realistic to read it before I leave. On the other hand, if it is very good, I could conceivably buy it on my kindle.

The Kane Chronicles by Rick Riordan. By the same author as the Percy Jackson series, this one seems slightly less fantastically popular. I got the free sample for the first book on my kindle, but I haven’t decided from that how much I like it. It is certainly very readable, but I haven’t decided whether I think it is high quality or not. There are (I think) only three books in this series, so this would be more affordable to buy on my kindle if they are good.

The Castaways of the Flying Dutchman Series by Brian Jacques. Amazingly, I have read 21 of the 23 Redwall books – and the only one I own was given to me by the friend who lent most of the other 20. While the Redwall books were great entertainment, all of them were pretty similar, and The Castaways of the Flying Dutchman was fairly similar to the Redwall books. I’m sure they would be good entertainment, but I probably won’t go out of my way to read other titles in the Flying Dutchman series.

After thinking through all of these, I reckon the first priority is probably Percy JacksonArtemis Fowl would be major, of course, but since I didn’t fall in love with the series instantly, and I might be able to borrow them from people, I think I’ll wait with that one. My decision isn’t iron-clad, of course, so if you have a different opinion (or really think I should read a book that isn’t even on the list) then don’t hesitate to say so. On the other hand, if you would go for Percy Jackson too, in my circumstance, tell me so that I can be surer of my choice.