It’s apparently been my weekend for entertainment that can best be described as ‘sweet’.

Last night I went to bed on time but stayed up way too late reading Debra Newton’s A Modern Witch. It’s a bit unique; I suppose it falls into the category of urban fantasy, but there are no vampires, no werewolves, and none of the dangerous vibe you get from Harry Dresden or Kate Daniels. There’s romance in it and it’s important to the book, but it happens to a secondary character, not the protagonist. There’s no real conflict in the book, except in the everyday sense of conflict with yourself about making the best decisions of what to do with your life. I suppose you could call it a bildungsroman in a sense, except that the protag is a fully competent and capable adult from the beginning of the book; she learns about a new dimension of herself and has to come to terms with it. The book has a couple of flaws: for one thing there’s actually a bit too little conflict in it; I can’t quite believe in a family that has no squabbling even among the kids, and no hurt feelings even when the youngest has far more talent than his siblings in an area (witchcraft) that’s important to the family. Second, the worldbuilding falls a little flat; it only works if everyone knows there are witches in the world, though they’re rare, but it’s never mentioned. Lauren has trouble believing that she herself is a witch but there’s no disbelief in the idea of witches in general; in a few cases where the witches’ magic would have been obvious to non-witches, there are no repercussions. Also there’s a slight paucity of word choice; it seems odd when parents, aunts and uncles continually refer to the junior members of their family as witchlings, even when not specifically talking about their magic, and it just feels overdone to me when every female in the story calls a certain charming four-year-old “sweet boy” whenever they talk to him. (Every adult in the story is hopelessly in love with him, but that’s believable because he really is that charming, and because, as someone whose logic skills and knowledge of the world are not quite up to the power of his magic, he needs their loving protection.) But those things are disregardable when you’re reading; it’s a waffles-with-syrup book: warm sweet, a little mushy, and delicious.

This afternoon we went to see the movie Cars 2. I liked it a lot – in fact, I think it’s better than the first movie. It is completely outrageously, hilariously over the top. It’s silly and fun and heartwarming, and there’s a sneaky joke or reference to another movie about every ten seconds. There’s James Bond and (I think) Mission Impossible and pretty much the same Grand Prix racetrack used in Iron Man (I think that’s not so much a ref to Iron Man as just a really famous racecourse, though). This one centers around the tow-truck Tow Mater more than around Lightning McQueen, and it worked for me: the slapstick stupid sidekick got to be the hero, and actually got to be the smart one (it surprised him, too). There are car chases and explosions and cool gadgets – it’s got the adrenaline level of XXX, but it’s funnier. (Not a movie to see if you dislike violence, but then again since it’s all about cartoon cars there is no blood, gore, or pain.) There’s also a really really funny scene with a Japanese toilet seat / carwash that I’d have laughed a lot less at before going to Taiwan, where the human-scaled version is common. Also, while it doesn’t even come close to passing the Bechdel test, the British agent Holly Shiftwell is not only beautiful but brilliant, brave and powerful, and the male agent she works with, who she’s only just met (she was just supposed to be a messenger, being a tech-type in MI rather than a field agent) trusts and relies on her with no condescension.

Today I read Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing – Alan Paul’s story of being a ‘trailing spouse’ expat in Beijing for 3.5 years while his wife was the head of the Wall Street Journal’s China bureau. This one was not so much sweet as bittersweet for me; there were a lot of differences between Paul’s life in China and ours in Taiwan, but there’s a lot to recognize too. I suspect our lives there were more like his wife’s than Paul’s own, tied to her job; as a freelance writer and (eventually) musician Paul has a lot more time and freedom to pay attention to all around him. Also, Paul’s description of Beijing is probably more like Taipei 20 years ago than Taipei today; we didn’t live in an expat compound, have any household help (except cleaning people once every other week), or live on the edge of the city near fields and dirt roads. Still, even though most of us don’t surprise ourselves by leading one of the hottest bands in China, this is a better picture of what it feels like to be an expat than I’d seen anywhere else, and I recognized a lot of similarities between China and Taiwan: the vast variety between urban and rural parts of the country; the range from a bowl of noodle soup for a ridiculously low cost at a local stand and an expensive top-end Western restaurant downtown (though Taipei does that better than Beijing does, by his description); squat toilets;the pollution (Taipei gets its imported from China, blown across the Strait); and the general sense of having no idea what’s going on but trusting that it will all be OK. And anyway, it’s fun to watch Paul surprise himself and become more confident as a musician.