Friday, July 31, 2015

How the Girl Guides Won the War by Janie Hampton

When I was in Primary school, I used to borrow my friend's Brownie's handbook and read it, because for some reason, I found it fascinating. Even when I was older, I always thought the Girl Guides looked like fun. Yet despite all that, I was never in any of the uniform groups. This book, however, makes me wish I was.

I first heard about How the Girl Guides Won the War when the author was interviewed on This American Life (Gotta listen to the people who gave us Serial occasionally). I was intrigued by the notion of guides all the way in China, and by the fact that they played a part in the war. So luckily for me, Scribd had a copy, and I managed to read it.

How the Girl Guides Won the War was supposed to be a satirical look at the Guides, but when the author started researching, she found out just how much the Guides contributed to the war effort, the book changed direction.

This book starts off with Pax Ting, an international Girl Scouts camp. Unfortunately, the happy atmosphere is threatened by the threat of war. With this prologue, the book delves into its subject matter. It starts off with a brief history of how the Girl Scouts came to be, and then explored the various ways Guides helped in the war. From helping refugee children find a sense of belonging, to sending classified messages, or helping take care of the wounded, the guides were everywhere. Even in China, Guides helped one camp of POW children find a sense of normalcy.

What all these guides did was incredibly heroic. I'm amazed that none of this has popped up before, in history books, or my favourite Good Night Mr. Tom (Maybe it did and I just didn't notice it? I'll have to go grab some tissues and re-read the book).

This was a wonderful book, and it made me wish I had joined the Guides/Brownies. What they did made them heroes, and I wish more people knew that.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Goebbels: A Biography by Peter Longerich

I'm guessing everyone knows about WWII and Hitler and Nazi Germany, but how many people here have heard of Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda? I found his name familiar, but whether he was in my history textbook or not is something that I'd completely forgotten. So it's safe to say I went into this book not knowing anything except that this guy was supposed to be a pretty high ranking Nazi member.

Like the title says, this is a biography. Using Goebbel's diaries as a starting point, Peter Longerich carefully goes through his life, from his failed attempt at being a writer, to meeting Hitler, to becoming Minister of Propaganda, and to his death. The diaries aren't the only source though - Longerich refers to many, many other sources (about 20%, or close to 220 pages out of 990 of the e-ARC I received would be the bibliography) and does a comprehensive job of showing how Goebbels diaries are not a good source of accurate information.

Goebbels was basically a narcissist who was used by Hitler. He keeps boasting about how close he was, but odds are, if he didn't have a pretty wife that Hitler liked, he wouldn't have progressed as far. He wasn't even as successful as he liked to think he was either. He was basically used to the very end. Seriously, once you get past halfway through the book (or maybe even earlier), you can see the pattern of Hitler using him over and over again.

If you're looking for a detailed look into the life of Joseph Goebbels, this is probably the book for you. I can think of several history-buff friends of mine that would probably life this book. It's not a light read, but if you read to the end, you'll probably have learnt more than you wanted to know about Goebbels (unless you're doing a paper on him, then I suppose you'll be referring to this book a lot).

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

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Gifted by J.A. George

I finished the book, and then I realised what it reminded me of - The Incredibles and Sky High. Maybe more Sky High than incredibles. Anyway, as the two movies should have clued you in, Gifted is about a bunch of kids with superpowers who have to save their world.

Ava was perfectly ordinary until she came across a dying woman. Before the lady died though, she gave Ava a cryptic message and passed a Gift to her. And just like that, Ava becomes gifted. With her new abilities (and she's not too sure what it is either), she meets Theo, a handsome guy who introduces her to Hayven, a magical city only for gifted. As Ava comes to terms with her gift, she makes new friends.

There was a lot I liked about this, and a bit that I didn't quite like. So, let's start with the good:

Hayven and the gifted people sound incredible. They all have different powers (though some can be similar), and I loved reading about how things work in that world. In general, the world building and the back-story of this book was solid.

Character-wise, my favourite character had to be Baleigh. She's this no-nonsense girl from Hayven, and I want her to be my new friend, even if she spends the first few weeks acting like I'm annoying. She's incredibly direct, but she's also kind. There's no "mean girl" exterior, just someone who's really blunt.

Now for the stuff that I didn't quite like.

First, is the romance. That shouldn't be much of a surprise to regular readers, because I'm not a big romance fan. I could have accepted the insta-love because it wasn't too strong, but what annoyed me was how immature Theo was the whole time. I get it, he's supposed to be a nice guy with a mean girlfriend, but I was just sighing the whole time. [Slight spoilers] Guy, if you like another girl, it's unfair to your current girlfriend if you stay with her. And it's unfair to the girl to lead her on.

The second is a slightly bigger issue for me: it's the pacing. After the really exciting start, the first two thirds of the book has nothing going on. Sure, Ava is learning and all that, but the stakes set in the opening chapters quickly fizzle out. Ava's life becomes all about Hayven, and her former "best friend" and good friends are nothing more than an afterthought. There is some attempt at explaining why the friendship died, but I wasn't very convinced.

Basically, the first two thirds was a bit boring to me. I wanted more action. However, things picked up in the last third, as I found out important details about what Ava is supposed to do, and the threat level increases. I'm definitely interested in finding out what happens next.

Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book from the author via Enchanted Blog Tours in exchange for a free and honest review.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Princesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

Despite the fact that the author says she wants to debunk the myths Disney princesses, not all of them made it into this collection of Princess Stories. Mulan isn't inside (and ok, she's a myth, but so was the first princess in the book!) and neither was Pocahontus. It's a pity, because I think their true stories are interesting.

Princesses Behaving Badly is a collection of very, very short biographies of a variety of notable princesses, loosely grouped in categories like "Warriors, "Madwomen", "Survivors" and "Floozies". A few of them, like Roxolana, achieve happy endings of a sort, but most of them have tragic lives and tragic endings. I suppose she did, sort of, break the myth that all princesses have happily ever after.

While I appreciated learning about the many, many princesses that I didn't know about, I was surprised at some of the princesses who was left out. Princess Diana, who is probably one of the most famous "modern" princesses is one. Empress Dowager Cixi is another. Wu Zetian was included, but I should add a warning for the audiobook people: the pronunciation of Wu Zetian was mangled in the audiobook version I heard. It made me suspicious of the pronunciations of all other names.

A third "princess" I can think of is Wang Zhaojun. I read about her a long time ago, but she is fascinating, and I want to share a bit of her story. Wang Zhaojun is considered to be one of the Four Great Beauties in Ancient China, and according to legend, made birds fall from the sky. While she wasn't born a princess, she was born to be a prominent family, and by all accounts, was beautiful and intelligent. She entered the emperor's harem, but because she refused to bribe the court photographer, he painted ugly moles on her, meaning that she never ever met the emperor. Years later, the Emperor was trying to choose an ugly girl to present as his daughter, because he didn't want to give some guy a real princess (but he had to). So he chose Wang Zhaojun, although he regretted it when he met her in person. But, a choice is a choice, and Wang Zhaojun was sent away, although it's hard to say whether she lived happily ever after. She did seem to be loved by her husband though (although she had to remarry after he died).

Back to the book. All in all, the book is an interesting compilation of various little-known princesses. There is a pretty diverse range of princesses, although I have the impression that there are more Western princesses than other countries.