Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

I wonder if you’ve watched the move The Black Cauldron? It’s not one of the more famous Disney movies, but I like it quite a bit. So when I found out that it was based on the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, I decided to try the first book - The Book of Three.

At the start of this book, Taran is an assistant pig-keeper to Hen Wen, Prydain’s ordinary pig. He dreams of heroic quests and adventures away from what he thinks is his humdrum and boring life. But when Hen Wen runs away, Taran leaves his life and comes into the sphere of the dreaded Horn King.

The start and the setting are both fairly traditional in terms of high-fantasy but what makes this book different are the characters. Taran may dream of being a great hero, but his companions are quick to remind him that he’s not. There’s Eilonwy, an enchantress in training who has a quick tongue and a kind heart, Fflewddur, the ex-king who can’t make it as a hard (and who has a harp who refuses to let him lie), and poor, self-pitying Gurgi.

These aren’t very noble companions, especially compared to Prince Gwydion (who’s actually a very practical person), but they are who Taran travels with for the bulk of the book and they help him to grow.

I enjoyed this a lot. It reminds me a little of The Lord of the Rings, although the humour introduced by the characters make this a much lighter read. A lot of the book is spent on introducing the characters, but the plot moved along at a good pace.

I will definitely be continuing this series and now, I really want to rewatch The Black Cauldron! Obviously the movie takes liberties with the book, but both are fun and should appeal to fans of fantasies.

Monday, February 19, 2018

A Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare

I enjoyed An English Murder so much that I borrowed another one of Cyril Hare’s mysteries! A Tragedy at Law is supposed to be his most famous work so I was really excited to begin it.

Drawing on his legal experience (or so I’m assuming), A Tragedy at Law is a mystery that deals with the finer points of the law. Mr Justice Barber is a self-important judge who’s making his rounds on the ‘circuit’, which basically means he’s moving from town to town judging cases. It should be uneventful, but then he gets a threatening letter. That shouldn’t be a cause of worry, but a box of poisoned chocolates comes. And the threats just keep escalating from there.

Thrown into this mix are Derek Marshall, the Marshal, and Francis Pettigrew, a lawyer who is unsuccessful in profession and love (the love of his life having married Justice Barber). Can they find out what is happening?

The book uses a variety of POVs, but the dominant one is Derek. I suppose that as the ‘newbie’, he’s in a good position to wonder at (and try to understand) what’s going on, plus he’s easily convinced to help by Hilda, Justice Barber’s incredibly smart and charming wife.

Hilda, by the way, is an amazing person. You don’t normally see such strong personalities in fiction. Here’s a woman who was called to the bar and is clearly more intelligent and charming than her husband. She’s also got some fears of her own which she’s hiding and deserves all the page time she has (I would love to read about her earlier years). Sheila, the woman Derek falls in love with and the only other woman with a significant amount of attention devoted to her, seems almost dull in comparison. She seems to be more plot device than character.

That said, there is one other female character with a pretty strong presence, but she never directly appears or speaks. She’s very closely tied to Hilda, so I didn’t consider her a primary/lead character.

What I really liked about this book was its tone. There’s a wry humour that’s present throughout the book, and I enjoyed it very much. Clearly, Cyril Hare isn’t above poking fun at the pompousness his profession is sometimes filled with. The humour also fits in with the cynicism of Pettigrew, which works because Pettigrew’s the ‘detective’ of the novel.

That said, the ending of the book was a little hard to understand. There isn’t a grand denouncement like in the Christie novels, but instead, there’s a not-really-clear explanation by Pettigrew towards the end. I had to read that last chapter a couple of times before I understood it.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel, although I personally prefer An English Murder. I liked the humour present in the book and the use of Derek as the main POV character, although the ending does detract from the story a little.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Feathered by Rachel Wollaston

I am a huge fan of fairytales, as you all know by now, and when I heard about Feathered, I had to read it. A retelling of The Swan Princess? Yes, please!

Feathered is a bit complicated, but let me try to sum it up. The book opens with Marion being executed for being a witch. But since she had a deal made with an evil wizard to save her father, Elward, he takes her soul and puts it into the body of a swan. She has only one hour a day where she can return to her original form. However, Marion has also managed to create a double - Ida. Ida was created out of the darker parts of personality and when Elward discovers her, he demands that Marion take over Ida's body to pose as a princess and get close to the royal family. But Ida has a mind of her own, as Marion and Elward will soon see.

I found Marion's struggle to be fascinating. This book takes the idea of a "darker half" literally and turns it into the plot (sort of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but with swans and princess). Ida and Marion's struggle for power was fascinating, although it seems a bit unfair that [possible spoiler alert] that Ida seems to be able to "see" through Marion's eyes a lot more than Marion does through Ida's.

Another thing I enjoyed was the ambiguity of Elward, the wizard. At the start, he's the evil wizard, but by refusing to let him reveal his true plans plus his occasional 'rescue' of Marion has her doubting if he's as evil as he seems. Plus, a 'Healer' wizard as a bad guy was an interesting and unusual decision.

That said, I wasn't really convinced by the romance aspect of the book. Having two personalities split between two human and one swan bodies makes it difficult for me to believe that Marion can spend enough time to fall in love with anyone. Add in the fact that this takes place over a few days and Marion being upset that "he doesn't realise that's Ida and not me" sounds a bit odd to me. I mean, Ida is a part her and they just met after all. (Trying to be vague so not as to spoilt the book. Sorry if it doesn't make much sense).

Overall, I thought this was an interesting take on the Swan Princess. I think that you'll enjoy this if you're into fairytale retellings.

Disclaimer: I got a copy of this book from the author in exchange for a review as part of a blog tour. I also knew the author from WriteOn (I thought her name sounded familiar and her afterword confirmed it!)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett

I have finally finished this book, which was recommended to me by my counsellor. It was a pretty heavy read, so I read it in bits and pieces. Also, I just saw the subtitle and I realised that I’m reading about a lot of secret lives lately, starting with cows.

Anyway, How Emotions are Made basically does what the title says. It tries to explain what emotions are. According to the author, her new theory goes against classical thinking and is completely revolutionary and true. I don’t have any knowledge of neuroscience, and even though about 100 of the 400 page (on my iPad) book consists of citations, I am not even remotely qualified (and didn’t put in the time and effort needed) to talk about whether her idea stands up to scientific scrutiny. Instead, I want to talk about the ideas in the book, which I found thought-provoking.

Ok, so the book says is that there is a classical view of emotions, which says that emotions are in-built from birth and are universal. But, the book asserts that this view is false and that emotions are concepts that we interpret. These concepts are created by our experiences and our environment. In other words:
"Emotions are not reactions to the world; they are your constructions of the world."
This means that emotions aren’t universal. The way you experience stress, for instance, may be different from the way I experience stress. And because emotions are basically concepts that we build from experiences, it’s possible to modify and/or widen them. The book says that

New emotion concepts from a second language can modify those of your primary language

This makes a lot of sense to me. How do I explain the emotion “natsukashii”, which is something like “nostalgia” but not really? It’s something I learnt while learning Japanese, and if you can learn new emotion concepts via new languages, it makes sense that I added this ‘emotion’ through my Japanese study.

Moving on to more practical things, the book says that emotions have three functions:

1. They make meaning. For example, if I’m breathing heavily, am I scared or tired or what?

2. They prescribe action. If I’m panting, what is the appropriate response? That depends on what emotion I’m feeling (constructed based on past response)

3. They help regulate the body budget, which in turn affects health.

The body budget concept and link with emotions is interesting because it says that when your body budget is thrown out of balance, your brain mispredicts the amount of energy you need over and over and that eventually affects your physical health and can trap you in a vicious cycle.

Is that true? I don’t know but from personal experience, following on the tendency to not want to go out makes me feel lonelier and decreases motivation and further reduces my want to go out and there’s the cycle.

The book holds the view that depression “may be a disorder of misbudgeting and prediction” and that autism may be related to an inability to predict emotion concepts. These sound pretty revolutionary to me and I have no idea how I feel about them (the book also says that animals probably don’t experience emotions the way humans do which is a sad thing to hear after The Secret Lives of Cows).

Another thing the book talks about is that it emotions are concepts, and concepts are tools of culture, then emotions can be “specific to a culture”, creating rules that about “when it’s acceptable to construct a given emotion in a given situation.” This is another thing I find intriguing, because it would explain cross-cultural difficulties. If we perceive the world and hence reaction to situations differently, of course, there’ll be times we don’t understand one another.

In that case, persistent cross-cultural communication difficulties might be because the person in question has not managed to learn the emotion concepts of a particular culture. Oh, and in the book, the process of adjusting your emotions to a new cultural context is called “emotion acculturation”, so if anyone/I want to research this more in the future, here’s a possible keyword.

And to end, I’ll just talk about the two suggestions the book has for mastering your emotions.

The first is to move your body and/or change your location and situation.

The second is to try recategorising how you feel. This requires you to be able to differentiate between similar emotion concepts (like grief and despair) and “perhaps the easiest way to gain concepts is to learn new words.”

Which, I suppose, is one good thing that can come out of all my reading (assuming I don’t just read and forge). The book continues the previous quote by saying that:
Words seed your concepts, concepts drive your predictions, predictions regulate your body budget, and your body budget determines how you feel. Therefore, the more finely grained your vocabulary, the more precisely your predicting brain can calibrate your budget to your body’s needs.
The advice in the book is basically what my counsellor advised: do more exercise, drink more water, and go out with positive people (ok the last one isn’t in the book). And I suppose that through the counselling sessions, I’m learning to recast my emotions.

This was an extremely heavy but interesting book. Like I mentioned before, I don’t know how much of it will hold up to further scientific scrutiny since it purports to be revolutionary, but it definitely gave me a lot of think about. If you’re interested in neuroscience and your emotions, you may want to read this.