Friday, November 24, 2017

A Curious Guide to London by Simon Leyland

I've been reading a few guidebook recently, but none as curious as A Curious Guide to London. Unlike most guidebooks, this one is full of tales about the weirder side of London history. For example:

- Under the statue of George Washington in Trafalgar Square is American soil, because Washinton swore that he would never step foot in England

- The smallest police station was an ornamental stone lamppost in Trafalgar Square (it's now a broom cupboard).

- The saying "When the lions drink, London will sink" refers to the Thames Lions which are used as a flood warning system (the book also mentions that there is a Metropolitan Standing Order that if the water reaches the top of the lion's heads, all London underground stations are to be closed immediately", but I couldn't find any other citations for that).

- Apparently, the embassy of the United States at Grosvenor square was the only embassy built on land not owned by the Americans. They had tried to buy the land, but the Duke of Westminister refused to sell unless the Americans would return the land the Grosvenor lost after the war of independence. The Americans decided to lease it instead.

The places are covered in topics, and quite a few are located near spots that even a first time visitor will go to. If you're into obscure history and fun facts, this would be a good book to read before going to London or while wandering around London.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Sovereign by C. J. Sansom

Finally, I've read another book in the Matthew Shardlake series! I decided to continue reading in chronological order (having come to the series from one of the latest books) and decided to read Sovereign, the third book in the series.

Sovereign takes place during the reign of Henry VII, during his marriage to Catherine Howard. Matthew is given an assignment to watch a political prisoner under the guise of being a lawyer for the Progress, a political tour. Together with Barak, Matthew journeys to York. But the 'old religion' (Catholicism) is still strong in the North and when someone dies, raving about the King, Matthew and Barak start to investigate.

This book introduces Tamasin, (SPOILER ALERT) who I first knew as Barak's wife. So it was pretty interesting for me to get to know her a little better and to see her relationship with Barak.

What I really like about this book (and the series) is how it has a strong plot, great characters, and a lot of historical details. I really felt that the research in this book helped to bring England to life. Perhaps it's because this book takes place out of London, but the details of daily life (of which there were plenty) stood out more than in the previous books. Despite the amount of information, I never felt like I was in a history lecture because the information was conveyed naturally.

Speaking of history, I also found the deeper dive into the Protestant/Catholic divide particularly interesting. The religious divide is present throughout all the books, but there are more characters with Catholic beliefs in this book and I felt that the book was able to go into more depth about why there was such religious opposition in this book. And if you're interested in history, you may also enjoy the author's note at the back, which clarifies just how much was based on research and which minor characters were not historical figures.

The characters are also a lot more like how I first met them (in Book 6), and I suppose a lot more settled. Matthew is no longer the idealistic lawyer that surprised me in the first book, and unlike the previous book, he and Barak are now friends. Personally, I like how the characterisation is becoming settled as that leaves me more mental energy for plot and setting. Plus I still remember the shock I had when I read the first book!

In conclusion, if you're a fan of historical novels and/or mysteries, you really need to be reading this series. Sovereign manages to balance a solid mystery plot with great characters and attention to historical detail, resulting in a captivating novel.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

Although I'm not participating in NaNoWriMo this year, I read this book as part of a NaNoWriMo activity (even if I'm not challenging myself to write 50k words, I should be trying to use the time to improve my writing) and found it one of the most helpful writing books that I've read so far.

This book was impressive from the content page. It's not often you find a content page that doubles as a summary for the book and just reading it made me realise that I would enjoy this. Wired for Story starts with hooks (the beginning) and goes on to various specific aspects of writing and ends with a chapter on the revision process.

Every chapter was filled with concrete advice and I bookmarked so many pages. I liked that the author uses lots of examples, and the checkpoints at the end of each chapter do a good job of providing specific tips as well. Examples of things I thought were good reminders/enlightening are:

- conflict doesn't add drama to a story unless it's something that a protagonist must address to overcome his/her issue.

- showing isn't about showing an action, it's about showing the reader the why behind the action. For example, don't just write copious description about how a protagonist cries, show the reader how the event that led to the crying unfolds

- how and when to reveal information (too long to summarise, sadly)

- pacing is the length of time between moments of conflict (this is from Nathan Bransford)

There is only one part in the book where the author and I don't agree. The author says that: "the narrative voice is almost always neutral, meaning that as an omniscient narrator, you're invisible and just reporting the facts."

While an omniscient narrator has to be reliable because they know everything, they can have a personality and their own opinions. Death in The Book Thief is an omniscient narrator and he has an extremely strong personality. The trick is not to overdo it.

To me, this book would be useful before writing and as a guide during revision, to find out why the story isn't working. The writing is clear and there is a lot of good advice in it. I would love to get my own copy because I can see myself reading this again and again as a reminder.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Llyod Parry

This is another NetGalley book, one that I wished for and was granted to me. I'm thankful that I got to read this because it's a heartbreaking account of the effect of the March 11th tsunami. Instead of trying to show all the destruction, Ghosts of the Tsunami focuses on Okawa Elementary School, where a series of heartbreakingly wrong decisions led to the deaths of 74 out 78 students and 10 out of 11 teachers.

Desperate for some answers and frustrated by the actions of the school and the principal, a group of parents took the brave step of bringing things to court. But this is not a legal drama. The book takes an intimate look at the lives of all those involved by talking to survivors and relatives of victims to build an account of what happened and what happened after, including the court case.

There are many heartbreaking moments in this book, such as a grandfather unable to recognise the body of his granddaughter, whom he lifted out of the mid, because of the state she was in.

Or the words of this mother:
"We used to think that we were bringing up our children," said Sayomi Shinto. "But then we discovered that it was we, the parents, who were brought up by them. We thought that the children were the weakest among us, and that we protected them. But they were the keystone. All the other pieces depended on them. When they were taken away, we realised this for the first time. We thought that we were looking after them. But it was the children who supported us."
And by making sure the book isn't too narrowly focused on the court case, instead following the lives of the parents and one of the surviving children, Richard Lloyd Parry managed to convey how the community of Tohoku reacted. For example, the way the community divided into two regarding what to do with the school - preserve it or not - reflected how they chose to deal with grief; whether they wanted to face it and talk about it or to hide it away.

There was only one moment in the book that made me double take. Someone was talking about the size of the tsunami and the words "twenty feet" was quoted. I suppose that this is to make things easier for Americans to understand, despite the fact that all but three countries in the world use the metric system, but I didn't like it. If you're quoting someone, I would prefer that the translation be as accurate as possible, and yes, meters to feet is a small change but if I doubt the small things, then I might end up doubting the important things too.

Overall, though, this was a fantastic book and one of the most powerful things that I've read this year. If you're going to read one book on the 3/11 Tsunami, this is it. By the way, if you want a sneak pic, the Guardian has a good excerpt that you should read.

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