Monday, October 22, 2018

New Blog!

Hey guys! Just FYI, I've decided to consolidate all my blogposts into one place! I'm still going to leave this blog here, because there are a lot of old posts, but going forward, my new book reviews will be on eustaciatan.com 

I'll still post the remaining NetGalley reviews here because I requested using this blog, but other than that, everything will be at the new blog. It won't be just book reviews too - it'll be book and tea reviews. For a start, I've copied some of my more recent posts over.

Hope to see you around(:

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

This book was a large reason why I finally read Jane Eyre - a serial killer satire of Jane Eyre sounded amazing. The peek that Wendy at Literary Feline gave into the book intrigued me and I decided that I had to read it.

Jane Steele is a big fan of Jane Eyre. However, she and Jane Eyre are vastly different - starting with the fact that she’s a serial murderess. But inspired by the book, Jane Steele decides to pen her memoirs.

This book is basically what happens when you take Jane Eyre and ask “what if I made her a feisty girl?” When faced with danger, this Jane repeatedly chooses the “fight” response, rather than flight or to bear the whole thing.

I found that many of my objections to Jane Eyre were addressed in this book. For example, this Jane is openly affectionate to her ward, Sahjara, who is an enchanting character in her own right. In general, I thought the non-Jane female characters here were a lot more sympathetically written and showed Jane’s generosity of spirit (no matter how evil she thinks herself).

I also found Charles Thornfield, the Mr. Rochester of the book, to be a decent human being. He has his demons, same as Rochester, but he managed to hold on to his sense of decency and never locked anyone (first wife or not) in an attic.

Speaking of the characters in this book, I absolutely loved how they came to life and participated in the story. Jane Eyre was very much about Jane and her experiences and feelings. Jane Steele has Jane become involved in the lives of the people around her, which lead to both mystery and adventure. Needless to say, I found the plot (and characters) of this book to be much more entertaining.

It’s pretty rare that I say this, but I like this satirical look at Jane Eyre much more than the original story. If all the Jane Eyre adaptions are this good, then I definitely will not regret reading the original anymore.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Imagining Shakespeare's Wife by Katherine West Scheil

I've had a slight increase in interest in Shakespeare ever since last year when we visited Stratford-upon-Avon and the Globe in London. So when I saw this book on Anne Hathaway, I decided to request a copy.

As with Shakespeare, we know very few details about Anne Hathaway's life, which makes it very easy for historians to reimagine her the way they want. Imagining Shakespeare's Wife first takes us through the known facts of Anne Hathaway and her legacy, and then goes through the ways that she has been represented in great detail.

The sad fact is that Anne has always been used to illuminate aspects of her husband. As his wife, she would have known (and could have said) a lot about his character. And since she was about seven years older than him, speculation about their marriage has been rife. If people want to portray Shakespeare as a libertine man about town, they tend to view Anne and her marriage to Shakespeare very negatively. If people want to view Shakespeare as a great moral character, they tend to view Anne as someone embodying feminine virtues. And in recent years, Anne has been re-interpreted (sometimes drastically in novels) to fit certain feminist messages.

Obviously, this was a fascinating read. I've always felt a certain sympathy for the way Anne has been portrayed because it has been really unflattering at times. To see how people have interpreted her silence is really astounding. And like James Shapiro said in Contested Will, there is very little we know about Shakespeare's personal life, which means that the temptation to read into his marriage through his works is very great.

If you're interested in Shakespeare, I think you'd enjoy this. It's fairly easy to read and contains a lot of great analysis about the ways Anne Hathaway has been interpreted throughout history. It's probably not related to any of Shakespeare's plays (except for the part where people use his plays to pass judgment on her) but if you want to know more about the Bard and his Wife, this is a book to read.

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

Friday, October 12, 2018

Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin

I don’t know why this is a classy thriller (or what a classy thriller even is) but this was good!

Black Eyed Susan follows Tessa, the only survivor of a serial killer. Dubbed ‘black eyed susan’ because she was found in a field of those flowers, Tessa does her best to give her and her daughter a normal life. But, she suspects that the man she helped put in prison is actually innocent, and as she helps his defence team, things happen. Things that suggest that maybe, just maybe, the killer is still out there.

The book follows Tessa in the present day and Tessa in 1995, just before the trial. Since it’s the same person, it was pretty easy to follow the narrative.

So Tessa is actually working through a lot of trauma, both then and now, and she’s trying to recover her lost memories. I thought having the chapters alternate between her past and present self was a good way to show how similar but different she has become.

While most of the book got me riveted, I’ve got to admit that the first chapter was confusing. I actually thought that present day Tessa was still very young, despite what it said on the blurb because she referred to herself as a ‘waif’ and that’s normally used for young women.

And while I like most of the story, I wasn’t really a fan of Tessa’s romance. It didn’t feel very necessary but I am not really a fan of most romance subplots so there’s that.

Overall, I really enjoyed this. The black eyed Susans were present throughout the story and made it slightly creepy. And while the ending wasn’t as explosive as I thought, it was still satisfying.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

One of my favourite memories from when I was younger would be the smell of the library. While we never haunted it as frequently as the author of this book, going there was always a treat and now, I make it a point to visit the library regularly (although this is more for sanity and cost-saving reasons). And so, with a title like this, how could I resist requesting it from NetGalley? I barely needed to read that it was about the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library before I was hooked.

The Library Book has two stories: the first is the history of the Los Angeles Public Library - how it started and how it grew, and the second is, as mentioned before, on the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library.

Obviously, I found this fascinating. Of the two stories, I thought the story of the Los Angeles library to be more interesting. While I've never been to that particular library, I can definitely see the beauty of it and I love how all the people working there are so passionate about the library. The book definitely brings the library to life.

On the other hand, I thought the story about the 1986 fire was a bit of a let down. Perhaps its because I thought this was a solved mystery (the way the book opens definitely implies that Harry Peak is the culpirt) and so the sudden open end was a bit of a shock. Or maybe it's because the book alternates between the history and workings of the library and the 1986 fire, which means that the case never really has time to build up steam. In any case, I found that I would have much preferred to read about about the library with this case being just a small component of it, rather than half the book.

Overall, I thought that this was a beautiful tribute to libraries, and to the Los Angeles Public Library in particular. While I'm not sure if the libraries in Singapore work the same way, I found it very eye-opening to read about how libraries in America work, how they used to work, and how they are changing for the future.

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

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Chopping Block by John Passarella

Since I quite enjoyed the first Grimm novel, despite some complaints, I decided to read the second book in the series - The Chopping Block. Set between "The Waking Dead" and "Goodnight Sweet Grimm", this book features a secret Wesen society.

It all starts when bones are found. Portland may be weird, but cooked bones are disturbing, even to Nick and Hank. As more cooked bones are found, Nick, Hank, and Monroe find themselves on the trail of a secret, cannibalistic Wesen society.

The subplot has Juliette trying to find out the cause of a dog's sickness. I don't like Juliette and it's got nothing to do with the main plot, but it was pretty cute. She didn't really intefere with the main plot too, which is a bonus.

I found that I enjoyed this more than the first book. This is mostly because Hank was much less annoying. In The Icy Touch, Hank was all about revealing the Wesen world to outsiders, which is obviously something that Should Not Be Done. Here, Hank didn't do anything like that; I suspect it's more to do with his injuries than anything else, but it was refreshing.

Like with The Icy Touch, I really enjoyed how Monroe is such a big part of the book. We get to see a bit more about Monroe's journey to becoming a Wieder Blutbad and how hard it is. It was a pretty good way to know more about the Wesen world, and it worked very well as part of the main plot.

If you liked The Icy Touch, or even if you didn't really like it but still like Grimm, you might want to check this out. I think this is a bit truer to the series than the first book and it was fun to read.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Village Diary by Miss Read

After the extremely enjoyable Village School, I made sure to pick up the second book in the series - Village Diaries - the next time I went to the library. Much like the first book, Village Diaries is another year-round account of Miss Read's life as the headmistress of the school at Fairacre. While much of the year is the same, a reunion with an old friend and a newcomer to the village provide plenty of drama.

Many familiar characters appear in this book, such as Joseph Coggs, Mr Willet, and Mrs Pringle, with a few new characters appearing. Most of the book is told from Miss Read's point of view, as she is the one chronicling everything in her new journal. Luckily for us, someone told her about Jim Waites' trap for Arthur Coggs (Joseph's father) because that account of an unsuccessful theft was hilarious. I did miss hearing from Mrs Coggs, Joseph, and the other characters, though. I thought they added a nice amount of variety, since Miss Read can't possibly be everywhere.

I mentioned in my previous review that the book doesn't shy away from mentions about difficult situations. While this book still remains light, there is considerably more discussion about less happy topics, such as funding issues for rural schools, sexism, and even domestic abuse. In the first few pages, there's even talk about how "civility... was a vital necessity to a wage-earner". Sadly, these things seem to be taken as normal by most people.

Overall, Village Diaries manages to keep the same charming and cozy tone as the first book, while managing to introduce a bit more about the hardships of life in that particular period of time. I am definitely looking forward to reading more from this series.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Book of Lost Books by Stuart Kelly

I pretty much knew that I had to read this book when I saw this because... it’s a book about books!

Like the title says, this book introduces you to various lost books that you definitely can’t find in bookstores. The book defines a lost book as:

1. A book that existed at one point in time but is now lost

2. Books that never got written because the author died before he could start/finish them

Since none of these books exist, the chapters are almost mini author biographies, since information about these books are found in the author’s lives and correspondence. Sometimes the biography part overshadows the part about what the book probably was, especially in the middle chapters.

I am not familiar with all the authors here, but from looking at the topics that I do know a little about, it seems like the author can sometimes present a one-sided picture. A nuanced, debatable issue becomes over-simplified. This is probably because each chapter is only a couple of pages long, but it might be useful to use the information here as a starting point for more investigation rather than as the ending conclusion.

Overall, I thought this was a fun book. I don’t know if the world is worse-off because all these books are lost (there is almost one case where it’s better the book remained lost), but there are so many books to read that I probably won’t lose sleep over the books mentioned here.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Griffin's Feather by Cornelia Funke

After finishing Dragon Rider, I quite eagerly continued on to The Griffin’s Feather, which takes place a few years later.

In The Griffin’s Feather, Ben is now a happy part of the Greenblooms, living in a sanctuary for marvelous creatures and helping to save those in danger. One day, word arrives that the mare of one of the last pegasi has passed away. Without her, her eggs can’t hatch and the Pegasus fowls will die. Their only chance of survival is with a sun-feather from a Griffin, the mortal enemy of dragons...

Like The Dragon Rider, this was a fun read. We alternate between Ben’s chapters, where he and Barnabas Greenbloom search for a Griffin with Guinevere’s chapters, which emphasises the short deadline that Barnabas has. I enjoyed seeing both Greenbloom children, especially since Guinevere didn’t have as much page-time in The Dragon Rider. It was touching to see how much care they had for others.

And poor Ben, struggling with his feelings! He loves his new family, but he so clearly misses Firedrake. And with Firedrake’s children about to hatch, which means fewer visits from the dragon, Ben has to make a choice about where he wants to live.

Firedrake was great, as usual. A bit wiser than the first book, which is to be expected. Sorrel, on the other hand, seemed a bit meaner (rather than just grumpy) compared to the first book, especially at the start. But that might be due to the narration rather than a change in character.

Speaking of the narrator, it isn’t Brendan Fraser this time. It’s a bit of a pity, because I really enjoyed his narration and the voices he used in The Dragon Rider. But once I got used to everyone’s new voice, I found that I quite enjoyed this version. Plus the background music and effects were very well-done.

Overall, The Griffin’s Feather is a great sequel to The Dragon Rider. There is a much greater sense of “you must care for the earth” in this book, and luckily that message never becomes preachy. I think younger fantasy fans will really enjoy this.

Disclaimer: I received a free audiobook from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I’ve finally finished Jane Eyre! I am, as usual, embarrassingly behind the times.

So a little history about my experience with this book. By the time my two youngest siblings were born, my parents had twigged onto the fact that I liked books and got me one new book for each new sibling (to help the transition, I think?). The books I received were Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and unfortunately, I did not like them. I couldn’t even finish them. For some strange reason, the language made my head hurt. So I put them aside.

When I grew up, I had even less reason to read Jane Eyre. I heard that Bronte spoke disparaging of my favourite Jane Austen (and I reread her books all the time) and was like ‘clearly she doesn’t have good judgement'.

Then, I found out about Jane Steele, the rewriting of Jane Eyre where Jane becomes a murderess. That sounded fun, and since I’m the type that would like to read the original before reading the rewrite, I decided that if I could read Dickens and Braddon, I could probably handle Bronte.

Well, I just finished the book and while I liked it well-enough, I didn’t love it.

If you haven’t heard of the plot of Jane Eyre, basically Jane Eyre is this despised child who becomes a governess who falls in love with a pompous guy who has his mad wife locked in an attic.

My biggest impediment to enjoying the book wasn’t the language (surprisingly), but Jane herself. There were parts where I was like “you go girl” (mostly the parts where she stands up for herself) but she came off as someone who thought herself superior which made it hard to like her.

In fact, while Jane acts like she has low self-esteem, the way the book is written makes it sound like she delights in how she thinks lowly about herself. And more than that, the way she thinks of girls and women who are not like her is off-putting. There are two bright, vivacious girls in the novel - Adele, the girl she teaches, and Miss Oliver.

Adele is somewhat spoilt but charming child and while Jane professes to have an affection for her, you never really see or feel it. And despite her horrible childhood, she’s happy when Adele becomes a “pleasing and obliging companion: docile, good-tempered, and well-principled.” Her Aunt Reed was definitely horrible, but didn’t she want Jane to basically be what Adele became (okay she had some family issues but her charges against Jane were her attitude and behaviour)

Not to mention that she doesn’t seem to mind the fact that Adele’s dad is determined not to acknowledge her. Even though Jane grew up an orphan and probably knows what Adele feels.

As for Miss Oliver, she’s this slightly flighty but essentially good-natured heiress who makes friends with Jane. After acknowledging her charms, Jane just has to add “she was not profoundly interesting or thoroughly impressive.”

All this, plus the fact that Jane the narrator doesn’t give Adele and Miss Oliver the space to develop into well-rounded characters made Jane come off as the self-superior kind which I found to be fairly irritating.

And let’s not get me started on Mr Rochester; who is only superficially similar to another pompous character: Darcy from P&P. Darcy was pompous and socially awkward but he had a good heart. Mr Rochester basically promised himself to someone (think of what happened in Sense and Sensibility) and got her to break it off. Not to mention locking his wife in the attic and trying to force Jane into bigamy.

Overall, I’m glad I’ve finally read Jane Eyre because she’s an important part of Western literature. The language is a little heavy but there were points in the novel where I was genuinely rooting for, and admiring, Jane and her principles. That said, I don’t see this book as something that I will return to over and over again.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke

When I was younger, I absolutely loved Inkheart and The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke. So when I received an invitation to review The Griffin's Feather, the second book in the Dragon Rider series, I decided that I had to start with book one.

Dragon Rider follows the adventures of Firedrake, a dragon searching for the mythical place called the Rim of Heaven, where dragons can live in safety. It's not that he wants to leave his home, but the humans are coming and the dragons in his valley must either leave or die.

Yes, humans are coming. I went into The Dragon Rider not knowing what to expect and was surprised to find out that this was set in the present day. And Ben, the lonely boy that Firedrake meets and who accompanies him on his journey is equally surprised by the existence of dragons. But Ben quickly adapts and along with Sorrel, the bad-tempered brownie, and Twigleg, the homunculus, the four begin their quest. Unfortunately, their quest attracts the vicious Nettlebrand, hunter of dragons.

To be honest, I was a bit confused at the beginning, but that is definitely because I am not used to audiobooks but borrowed the audiobook of this. Once I got the hang of it (and skimmed the Wikipedia page for a summary of what was going on), I really enjoyed this story. It's broken into several segments, as the team visits different places in an attempt to figure out exactly where the rim of heaven is.

Even though this is called The Dragon Rider, I feel like the book really is about Firedrake and his quest. True, Ben gets a bit more airtime in the latter half of the book, but the beginning of the book almost always sets the tone for me and the tone was: this is Firedrake's story. Ben was a nice character, although a bit too oblivious at times, but my favourite character was definitely Firedrake, the kind dragon.

The supporting characters, Sorrel and Twigleg, were interesting too. Sorrel basically played the role of the grumpy character with the heart of gold. Twigleg was a bit more interesting and probably had the most character development in the book - he starts of serving Nettlebrand but traveling with Ben and the others help him to change.

The audiobook I read was narrated by Brendan Fraser, who was brilliant. He did a whole range of voices for the characters, which helped me to distinguish them from each other and made them more endearing to me. I wish I found out about this book earlier because I can imagine younger me enjoying this even more than present me.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata

The Rainbow Troops is not only a fantastically written book, it also showed me that I can handle non-traditional narrative styles as long as they’re well written (for a time, I thought I could only read the ‘traditional’ style).

The Rainbow Troops follows the students at Muhammadiyah elementary school on Belitung, Indonesia. The school is at risk of closing down and the students and their two teachers must do their best to keep the school open.

That’s the main goal of the book, but the book is actually broken into three main arcs: the two trophies the students win (one for creativity and one for academics) and the fight to save the school. That said, the front few chapters are spent introducing the characters and the island they live in, as well as a few of their escapades, before they start on their quest for the first trophy.

The book is an autobiographical novel, which I’m pretty sure means “based on true events”. It’s also written a lot like a memoir, from the perspective of someone looking back on the past and telling you what happened. Ordinarily, that would be quite hard for me to read, since it’s full of opinions of the older narrator, but I found myself so entranced by the world created and the people in it that I didn’t even mind the narrative style. Just goes to show that good writing is what counts.

I do want to talk about the ending so BEWARE SPOILERS AHEAD. The book could have ended on an easy high, with them saving the school. Instead, it took a different route and showed how most of them didn’t succeed. Only Ikal, the narrator, and Kucai, their self-serving class president ever ‘made it good’.

The two geniuses in their group ended up living in poverty, their minds wasted. Another one of their friends, the decent but otherwise unimpressive Trapani, ended up in a mental hospital. Seeing how their country failed them despite the best efforts of them and their teachers was heartbreaking. While the book does go on from that crushing reveal to end on a slightly more hopeful note, I was still crushed by the ending.

END OF SPOILERS

Overall, this was a really good read. It’s not your typical feel-good story, but it’s not total pessimism either. Rather, it’s a story about how far determination and effort can go (and how far it cannot). Would totally recommend.

Monday, September 17, 2018

My Real Name is Hanna by Tara Lynn Mash

This was such an emotionally intense read, although thankfully, I knew what I was getting into when I started the book.

My Real Name is Hanna is the story of Hanna Slivka, a fourteen-year old Jewish girl living in Ukraine. Her childhood is happy, until Hitler comes. And with the Gestapo comes persecution, as their food runs low and once-friendly neighbours turn their backs. And then one day, Hanna and her family hear that Hitler plans to make their town Judenfrei - “free of Jews” - and know that they must leave their home in order to survive.

This book isn’t an adventure story. It is the story of one girl and her family trying to survive with dignity. As Hanna’s father says, “This is what those Nazis make us do, huh? Live like barbarians. But the best revenge, my Eva, is just that - to live...”

And live they do. It is not an easy experience, especially for a girl on the cusp of womanhood, but Hanna and her family do their best to hold on to their faith and culture even in the worst of times. While they are sometimes forced to break certain rules, such as eating non-kosher meat, they try their best to live in a way that gives them dignity, and that means honouring their religion and culture.

I really appreciated how this book brought out the strength of the human spirit and of friendships. Next to Hanna lives Alla, a non-Jewish person who sells pysanka, eggs decorated with traditional folk designs. These eggs hold deep meaning and even though they are not Hanna’s culture, they represent the friendship she has with Alla and the strength that Hanna gets from it.

If you want to read about a World War II story set in a less traditional location, you’ll want to pick this up. It’s got heart and it’s got character, and though it is dark, it is also uplifting.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Mrs McGinty's Dead by Agatha Christie

Some time ago, I was browsing a thread on Unresolved Mysteries when this book was mentioned. Someone said that Christie was inspired by Hawley Harvey Crippen’s case for this book and I decided to check it out. Turns out I can’t find any corroborating evidence for the Christie-inspiration claim, but there is definitely a resemblance.

In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Inspector Spence comes to Poirot to ask for his help. An apparently guilty man (whose case Inspector Spence helped build) is about to hang but the good Inspector has his doubts. Since Poirot has nothing better to do, he decides to investigate the death of Mrs. McGinty.

If you’re wondering, the Crippen’s case (or a case remarkably like it) is one of the several sensational crimes that serve as a possible motive for the murder. There are differences, but the whole “husband murders wife, leaves behind corpse and flees with governess-mistress” part is the same (although Christie probably didn’t know that the ‘corpse’ found in Crippen’s house has been identified as male).

Despite the grim inspiration, I found this to be a classic Poirot mystery and lots of fun. The writer Ariadne Oliver appears here and between her muses on authorship and Poirot’s suffering stomach, there is a fair amount of wry humour. The plot also moves along at a good pace and I found that I reached the end of the story in no time at all.

Fans of Christie (like me!) or Golden Age mysteries will definitely enjoy this book! While it isn’t set in Poirot’s usual setting, seeing him try to navigate a small village that doesn’t know him added a new layer of humour to this book.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Village School by Miss Read

It's been a bit stressful at work lately, since we're working towards our launch. And when I'm stressed, I tend to want comfort reads. And while I'm not sure how I heard of Village School, but this is definitely a comfort read!

Village School follows the only school of the village of Fairacre as it goes about the school year. While this is supposed to be a novel, it reads very much like a biography of the school and its headmistress. New students enter, a teacher leaves, they go through various village events, and so on. Life is placid (although there is some small drama) and on the whole, very cozy.

While there isn't any actual plot, I love this book. The entire village came to life, not just Miss Read and her students. While not everyone is pleasant (I would not like to meet the Mrs Pringle) and some are have disconcertingly dark problems (Joseph's alcoholic father for example), the book does manage to remain rather light. Although Miss Read talks about the challenges of teaching in a rural village, with its lack of resources and primitive plumbing, she also talks about the children growing up among nature, of games played in a field with a cow, and how trips to the beach is an adventure for everyone.

I don't think a village like this exists anymore. For better or for worse, there is the internet, television, and modern plumbing (the last thing is definitely for the best). But I really enjoyed this book and I am so glad that this is a series because I will definitely be reading more.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

I’ve heard so many good things about Elena Ferrante (and followed the ‘uproar’ when her true identity was revealed) so I knew I had to try at least one of her books. I don’t quite remember why I chose this, but it was in my TBR list.

On one level, The Lost Daughter is a very simple story. Leda, a middle-aged woman takes a holiday at a beach after her daughter’s leave the country. She sort of makes friends with a large family there and ends up stealing the little girl’s doll and agonises over whether to return it.

On another level, The Lost Daughter is supposed to be about what can be an ambivalent relationship between mother and daughter. I have to say ‘what can be’ because although the book tries to make it sound universal, you never know when it comes to these sorts of things. The small events in plot provide an opportunity for the protagonist to reflect upon her past as a mother.

I am really of two minds about this book. On one hand, I see and appreciate the way that Ferrante brings out a deeper message in the story. Considering that I’ve been having a hard time getting past the first chapter of ebooks recently (I think I gave up on three books before this and one after), the fact that I finished what can be considered ‘literary fiction’ says a lot.

On the other hand, the story requires a lot of navel-gazing and that made Leda pretty unbearable because she just seemed so self-centered. I don’t expect her to be a martyr, but there were times where I just rolled my eyes at her.

Overall, I think I like this book. It’s not normally the type of book I read, especially in my “I read for fun and maybe education” days, but I appreciate what this story tries to do and I would be interested in reading more of Ferrante’s books. I guess the question is: what next?

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Holy Disorders by Edmund Crispin

I heard that Edmund Crispin was one of the Golden Age mystery writers and knew that I had to try at least one of his books. The only one the NLB has (that wasn’t an audiobook) was Holy Disorders. After reading it, I have to say it was fun, but a little confusing.

Holy Disorders starts when Geoffry Vinter (a composer) is summoned by his friend and amateur detective Gervase Fen to bring a butterfly net to Tolnbridge. On the way, he gets attacked three times and rescued by Henry Fielding (not the author) and the two make their way to Tolnbridge. What starts out as a case of bodily injury turns into one murder, then two, and Geoffry finds himself the reluctant assistant to an enthusiast Gervase.

This was definitely a fun book - all the characters are delightfully zany and the plot is over the top in a good way. There’s plenty to chuckle at, with the author even breaking the fourth wall in one joke.

The main two characters (Geoffrey and Gervase) are also endearing and I thought they made a good detective-assistant duo. Gervase is far too eccentric to stand on his own as a character, and Geoffrey provided a good counterbalance to him.

However, the book was also confusing. I suppose the jokes and many characters and plot twists all happened too quickly, and I lost track of what was going on a few times. To be more accurate, I forgot who a few of the minor characters were. This proved to be a problem because a couple of them were suspects in the case. But, I found that going back and rereading helped a lot and I did eventually get the plot.

Overall, I thought this was an entertaining book. Once I got all the characters in order, I really enjoyed the plot with all its twists and turns. Hopefully I can find another book of his to read (or perhaps I should give the audiobook a shot)

Monday, September 3, 2018

In the Shadow of Agatha Christie edited by Leslie Klinger

I was intrigued by this book the minute I saw the title because I love Agatha Christie. In The Shadow of Agatha Christie is a collection of crime fiction by women writers who came before Christie. I’m not sure why it cuts off at 1917, but it does.

There are sixteen stories in this anthology and it starts with The Advocate’s Wedding Day. As a first story, I wasn’t too fond of it because it was all narration and not much story. In fact, it felt a bit like a story synopsis than a story. But we traveled towards the near past, I started to enjoy them more. Some of my favourites were:

- Mrs. Todhetley’s Earrings: This stars a young man named Johnny as the main character/narrator, although he isn’t so much a detective as a participant in the story. I liked this mainly because of the twist ending.

- The Statement of Jared Johnson: A confession, this one stars a reporter as a detective. The solution is really clever and the story is very enjoyable.

- The Blood Red Cross: I would love to read more from the authors of this story! The story is very Holmesian, with a detective and his archenemy. There’s a mysterious young lady and alchemical solutions, which makes for a fascinating case.

- The Winning Sequence: I don’t think this is a mystery story per se, although I guess it can fall under crime fiction. But it is a very poignant story and can probably serve as an anti-gambling ad.

The last story was Jury of Her Peers, which happens to be the first story of A Moment on the Edge, another anthology of women crime writers. I would highly recommend both books!

Friday, August 31, 2018

The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

Fairies are always interesting. The fairies at Cottingley especially so, since the photos were taken in this world, and not a fictional one. And while most of the photos have been admitted to be a hoax, The Cottingley Secret asks the question 'what if fairies were real?'

When the book starts, Frances has arrived from South Africa to England. The weather is dreary and she misses her father, but when she finds a kindred spirit in her older cousin Elsie and the beck near their house, things start to look up. Many years in the future, in our present time, a grieving Olivia finds a memoir written by Frances. Intrigued (and definitely dreading her future marriage), Olivia decides to stay in the country, read Frances' story, and try to save her late grandfather's bookshop.

I found this book to be enchanting. Although I was initially worried that Olivia's story was nothing more than a framing device, the two narratives came together rather touchingly at the end. I even found myself invested in how Olivia's life turned out, something I didn't think would happen in the beginning, given that Frances' story had the stronger start.

Another thing that made this book magical was the slight inclusion of magic. While the four of the photos were admittedly faked, the author leaves just enough magic and wiggle room in the story to keep the question "do fairies actually exist?" alive.

And while I normally skip over these sections, I would highly recommend you read the author's notes and the bonus materials at the back. It turns out that the author consulted with Frances' daughter, Christine, and the book reflects what Christine and Frances believed. Given that this is a novelisation of the story of two real people, I thought that this was a very thoughtful and respectful move.

If you're interested in fairies and the Cottingley photographs, you should definitely pick up this book.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Icy Touch by John Shirley

I don't think I've really mentioned it here, since this blog is for books and not shows, but I really love Grimm. Enough that I've watched it twice and I introduced my brother to it. So when I (very belatedly) realised that there were novels to accompany the TV series, I decided to pick it up.

The Icy Touch is set sometime after season two of Grimm - after the Coins, after Juliette has recovered her memories and Hank is aware of the Wesen world. Captain Renard notices that the victim of the latest 'weird' murder is a Drang Zorn and gets Nick and Hank to investigate. But obviously, this is no ordinary Wesen murder and Nick and Hank quickly get pulled into a centuries-old feud and a Wesen criminal ring.

Now, I read this after finishing the whole series so I'm probably a bit biased, but this is what I liked:

First, being able to find out more about Monroe. Monroe is one of my favourite characters and I appreciated the chance to learn more of his backstory and why he's a reformed Blutbad.

Second, knowing more about the history of the Grimms. There are short interludes which take place in the past and it was cool seeing the Grimms of history.

Third, the relative absence of Juliette. Sorry, but I'm not a Juliette fan.

That said, some things were weird. Hank was actually quite irritating in the book, with his inability to understand how the Wesen world works. I mean, Renard was actually more helpful and reasonable compared to him and that's saying a lot. He's still got Nick's back, though, and I guess that's what's important.

Overall, I quite enjoyed this book. It was a short and easy read, and there was enough of a cliffhanger (or perhaps it was a reference to Diana? But that would be quite off the mark) that I'm interested in reading Book 2 of the series.

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Way Home by Julian Barr

I'm not familiar with the Aeneid, although I have heard of Odysseus and the Trojan war. So when I read the synopsis of The Way Home, a retelling of the Aeneid, I was intrigued and thought it would be a good way to introduce myself to this aspect of the myth.

The Way Home follows the journey of Aeneas, a Trojan prince. It starts when the Greeks are ransacking the city, having been smuggled in by the giant horse (although I don't think Aeneas ever realised this is how they got in). Unfortunately, he didn't manage to save the royal family or his wife and ends up leading a band of refugees. And thus, their journey to find their new home begins.

At the same time, we see that this is part of a fight between Hera and Zeus. Hera wants to make her preferred city dominant, while Zeus has other plans (which involve Aeneas). The other gods are pulled in as they side with one or the other, or even switch allegiances.

I absolutely enjoyed this story. Although I didn't really know of Aeneas before, I have a translation of The Odessy before so I knew the other side of the myth. It was very interesting to see how Virgil retold the story from a relatively 'minor' character's viewpoint, and how that was, in turn, retold as The Way Home. I actually paused the story quite a lot to google certain characters or events and read more about it.

By the way, is anyone else shocked at how young Aeneas was when the story began? The book introduces his son, Julos, first and I thought he was in his twenties or something but then a few paragraphs later, I find that he's only nineteen! I know that was a product of the times but wow, the kid is extremely mature for his age. And I guess the book making his age clear at the beginning was a good move because I found myself giving him a lot of latitude after that.

Since this is a YA retelling, the language is simple and direct, which makes it a good introduction to the myth. I found it easy to empathise with Aeneas and his people, even though they lived thousands of years ago and thousands of kilometers away.

However, since this is the first in a trilogy, the book ends on a sort-of cliffhanger. It's not a very big one, but it did make me impatient for the second book. Perhaps I'll find one of the accessible translations of The Aeneid and read that while waiting.

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

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld

When Lectus reviewed The Enchanted, I was intrigued. But, my library only had The Child Finder, which she also highly recommended, so I decided to borrow that.

The Child Finder is a unique take on the story of a missing child. It's told from two perspectives - the Child Finder, Naomi, and the Snow Girl, the missing child. Despite her intuitive style of investigating (she basically takes cues from the environment and the people and goes on hunches), Naomi has a very high success rate of finding missing children, something that makes sense given that she was one herself. Tasked to find Naomi, she starts investigating and finds herself drawn back into her past.

At the same time, the Snow Girl awakens in a cabin with no memory of herself. She lives with Mr. B, who can't read, can't write, and can't speak. Her side of the story is her journey through time and was pretty haunting.

That said, I found Snow Girl unconvincing at times, despite the cold and harsh nature of her story. I get that trauma can affect people differently, but Snow Girl is oddly mature in some aspects and lyrical that she didn't seem like a five year old (or eight year old) at all. If she was a little older (say ten or so), her thinking would have sounded more natural but her being five felt like it was pushing the bounds of believability.

Naomi's half of the story was interesting, although it wandered at times. I was expecting a deeper connection between Madison's disappearance and Naomi's past, which meant that I was somewhat disappointed when that wasn't the case. Yes, Naomi remembers something, but the two cases aren't linked and they don't really feel that similar. But, I did enjoy reading about Naomi and how she investigated so this isn't a huge gripe.

Overall, I thought this was a pretty interesting story. The two halves of the story came together very well and despite some minor issues, I found myself enjoying it very much.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Anne of the Island by L. M. Montgomery

I had to read something light after The Zenith so I decided to read Anne of the Island! This is the third book in the series and follow’s Anne as she moved away from her home to go to university.

I’m going to be very upfront and say that a big part of why I read this was to find out how Anne and Gilbert’s relationship would develop. And if you’re like me, well, the first half of the book doesn’t really touch on that but the second half does.

(My heart broke a bit before I read the end though)

Something I thought interesting about the book was it’s description of university life! Well, there weren’t much details but it seems somewhat similar (if less rowdy) than university today. I almost forgot that Anne was living about a hundred years ago when I read about her house hunting, living with housemates, etc.

There are also quite a few new interesting characters. The most memorable one was Phil - this seemingly scatter-brain and indecisive girl. I actually thought she was going to be annoying when I first met her in the book, but like Anne, I realised that she has her charms and all you need to do is treat her normally.

That said, I felt the lack of Diana, Marilla, Davy, and even Mrs Lynde quite a bit. While Anne does go home for the holidays and Diana even gets married (how time flies in the books), the bulk of the action still takes place away from Avonlea. Oh, and I must say that Dora, Davy’s twin became more entertaining in this book. In the previous book, she was basically a doll but here she gets a bit more space to be herself.

To be honest, given this book’s happy ending, I’m really scared of picking up the next one. The characters are simply growing up to fast and there are so many new ones in each book! What if some of the older characters get replaced or worse, die? Two characters in book one have already passed away and I’m not sure if I want to read more. But, I have been assured that it's worth it so I'll return to this series soon.

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Zenith by Duong Thu Huong

After enjoying the first two Anne of Green Gables books, I decided to try something harder - one of the books that I’ve been thinking of reading for the SEA Reading Challenge. And now that I’ve finished it, I can confidently say that if not for this challenged, I would not have picked up this book or finished it.

The Zenith is a confusing story. As far as I can make out, there are two plot lines. One follows the aging president of Vietnam as he slowly dies in isolation, supposedly loved and respected but really under house arrest, and his relationship with one of his subordinates (who has his own relationship issues). The other follows a family in the Woodcutter’s Hamlet, as the father remarries and brings strife (and lots of gossip to the village).

As it turns out, the patriarch of the family in the woodcutter’s hamlet is the guy who died in the opening of the book. I’m sure that they referenced it somewhere at the start, but I didn’t make the connection until much later.

Looking back, I guess there was some action in the story, but it just felt so long. Everyone seemed inclined to make a speech about politics or sex or sex and politics/marital relationships which dragged the story out. I think that if all the speeches were cut out, the book would be half it’s length and at least twice as interesting.

Although I’m not sure if that would help because the story about the president bored me. The characters were unsympathetic and not very interesting, and it felt like the message of “all ideals will be corrupted by power and politics” was hammered into every speech. In fact, the times where I considered giving up on this book happened mostly during the section about the president and his party officials.

I suppose that if this book was only about the family in the Woodcutter’s Hamlet and without speeches, I would have enjoyed it a lot more. There is, after all, some romance and lots of family drama inside. But as it is, this book felt like a thinly veiled political essay and that isn’t really what I wanted to read

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Anne of Avonlea by L. M. Montgomery

I have finished the next book in the Anne of Green Gables series! This is also a really charming book, although it probably won’t make much sense if you haven’t read the first one.

Warning: Spoilers for Book 1

Anne of Avonlea picks up directly where Anne of Green Gables ended, with Anne starting her new job as the schoolmistress of the local school. Between the challenges of getting her students to like her and the arrival of twin children to the farm, Anne definitely has her hands full.

I’ve gotta say, I really miss the presence of Matthew here. He might have been quiet, but he was a huge presence in the first book and the first person who openly showed affection towards Anne. Marilla is definitely getting better at showing her love, but I do miss seeing Matthew do this best to spoil Anne.

But then again, the Anne in this book isn’t the lonely orphan of the first book. While she still loves to use her imagination and occasionally lets her feelings get the better of her, she is, on the whole, a more level-headed and mature individual. Which follows the theme of her growing up, but I do miss child Anne (although she’s between 16 to 18 here, which I feel is super young).

Oh yeah, and if you’re a Gilbert/Anne person like me (she finally buried the hatchet with him at the end of the first book), you should know that there isn’t much relationship development here. The book even explicitly says that while Anne is maturing, she’s very much still a child in the ways of love. And I guess it’s a strong reason for me to read the third book.

Overall, this is a very charming sequel to book 1. I was actually a bit worried that I wasn’t going to like all the new characters because I tend to enjoy having the same characters go on new adventures, but I found them all growing on me and I look forward to reading more about the people Anne befriends. I’ll just end my review with a quote that I thought was lovely:
"Living so that you beautify your name, even if it wasn't beautiful to begin with . . . making it stand in people's thoughts for something so lovely and pleasant that they never think of it by itself."
There are lots of quotable lines in the book (and the first one, come to think of it), but this was the one that stood out.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

For some strange reason, I never read Anne of Green Gables as a kid. Loads of Enid Blyton, yes, and even Caddie Woodlawn, but no Anne. When the Netflix series came out, I watched the first two episodes and was interested enough to pick up the book.

Now I regret not reading it sooner!

If you’re like me and haven’t read the book OR watched the Netflix show (anyone else living under a rock too?), Anne of Green Gables is the story of a little orphan girl with red hair who gets adopted by an elderly pair of siblings.

To be honest, the story doesn’t sound like much, since it’s just episodes in Anne’s life. But L. M. Montgomery has such a talent for writing that I was pulled in from the very start! Everything Anne did was charming, even though she made a lot of mistakes.

(I am basically Miss Barry)

I suppose the reason that I like Anne is that she likes reading and writing and she has a hot temper, which I also have. The difference is that I don’t have half her imagination or her skill (or red hair). Seeing Anne grow up gradually made me so happy! Like Anne mentioned, she doesn’t really change who she is, she’s just “pruned down and branches out”. All the good in Anne is still there, but her weaknesses aren’t as obvious.

By the way, the dialogue here is fantastic. I think a good majority of the book is dialogue - Anne relaying what happened and how she feels. Normally, that would make me put the book down because I like reading about things happening rather than people telling me about them, but Anne’s way of speaking is so charming and vivid that I loved all her little speeches.

And it’s not just Anne, the dialogue for all characters was marvellous and made me feel like I really got to know them - especially Marilla and Matthew.

The book ends with Anne coming to the end of her childhood and looking forward to her new life. I really hope that the second book is as good as the first because I am going to read it straight away.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu

The first time I saw this book, a stranger was reading it in Japanese. I thought it looked interesting, but didn't give it a second thought. But after enjoying The Three Body Problem (which he translated) and having loved The Grace of Kings (which he wrote), I decided to pick this up. As you can probably guess, I had high expectations for this collection.

The stories in this collection are:

- The Book Making Habits or Select Species: This is just an exploration/worldbuilding piece on how other alien species might read. There isn’t any plot but it’s still a cute piece.

- State Change: I loved this one! It’s about Rina, this girl who’s soul is an ice-cube. Her life revolves around making sure her soul doesn’t melt, until she meets an interesting guy in the office. I felt that this was such a great story because it had a good plot with twist, great characters, and a unique setting.

- The Perfect Match: Think of Google’s ledger, if it came to life. But, the story questions of the huge company running the internet is good or bad, which adds another layer of nuance to this story about preferences, algorithms, and free will. Another story that I loved.

- Good Hunting: A story about hunting hulijing and what happens when Western ‘magic’ invades. An East vs West clash kinda story but very captivating.

- Literomancer: Another East meets West story, but this time of an American girl who moves to Taiwan and meets a Literomancer, a man who divines meanings from words. It adds in politics to turn the charming story into a sad one.

- Simulacrum: Another very strong story that I really enjoyed, centered around a father and daughter, about how holograms, recording memories, and what it means to betray another.

- The Regular: Someone is killing high class prostitutes. Ruth Law is asked to find out why. I almost skipped this because the first section is pretty graphic but it turned out to be a good crime story.

- The Paper Menagerie: About a half-Chinese boy who tries to reject his Chinese half, and his mother who makes living, moving paper animals for him. It’s a good story, but somehow, it didn’t touch me.

- An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition: I did not understand this one.

- The Waves: A story about people on the space ship and the choice between immortality and letting your kid grow up. I felt that it started strong but I lost interest halfway, probably because the ending wasn’t really related to the beginning.

- Mono no Aware: It’s the story of this sole Japanese guy on an American spaceship that managed to escape the destruction of earth. Despite the fact that parts of this took place in Kitakyushu and Kagoshima, I didn’t feel like the characters were there at all (I know this is alternate reality but on some level, it should at least feel like the Kyushu I lived in). Which means that I don’t know why he picked a Japanese main character when any other would do.

- All the Flavours, A Tale of Guan Yu, the Chinese God of War, in America: I didn’t think I would like this but I did! It’s about someone who probably is Guan Yu, moving to America to pan for gold, and the little girl he makes friends with. A good story about how different cultures can meld together.

- A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel: An alternate history story where Japan became a world power peacefully and there wasn’t WWII. This story didn’t really engage me for some reason. And I was quite puzzled by these lines:

“ “Hoka no okyakusan ga imasu yo. Nani wo chuumon shimasu ka?” Her Japanese is quite good [...] though she is not using the honorific.”

I didn’t quite understand the “she is not using the honorific” line. The Japanese was in standard Japanese, the kind that is fine for strangers and that I’ve heard in many restaurants. So I don’t get why it’s singled out. If the author is referring to “keigo”, then yeah I get it but I would think that if they were going the five-star service way, there’s no way that she would have said “hoka no okyakusan ga imasu yo”, even in the ultra-polite form.

I feel like if I said that at my former workplace, the managers would have told me off for making the customer uncomfortable because we are not to rush them.

- The Litigation Master and the Monkey King: I loved this historical fiction story. It’s based on the Yangzhou Massacre and asks the question: “is it more important to do what’s right, or to keep yourself alive?”

- The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary: The last story in this anthology, it’s about a Chinese-American and Japanese-American couple that claim they can get people to literally experience history. I’m not sure if it’s because of the narrative form, but I did not get this story and ended up tuning out halfway.

Overall, I thought this was a pretty good collection! There were a few stories that I just didn’t get, but that’s more on my part than the story’s (I can see that the story is well-written, but it just did not resonate with me emotionally). I would definitely recommend it to fans of science fiction and fantasy.

Friday, August 10, 2018

A Moment on the Edge edited by Elizabeth George

I’ve been reading this over the past few days and finally finished it! The nice thing about anthologies is that it’s easy to read it in bits and pieces, which makes it really good for commute reading.

A Moment on the Edge is a collection of crime stories over the past 100 years. This book doesn’t just feature noted crime writers, but stories from a wider range of authors. All stories “share in common a desire to explore mankind in a moment on the edge”.

Each story is introduced with a brief biography of the author, but to be honest, I skipped those. My interest is solely in the stories, which were:

- A Jury of Her Peers by Susan Glaspell: Martha Hale is called to the scene of her crime. While she and the Sheriff’s wife are taken lightly by the men, the two women get to the heart of the matter and must decide - do they tell what they know? A very interesting story and a good start to the anthology.

- The Man Who Knew How by Dorothy L. Sayers: this makes me want to read more Sayers. A clever story with a twist, about a man who claims to have discovered the perfect way to kill.

- I Can Find my Way Out by Ngaio Marsh: A murder mystery set in a theatre, I found this to be a bit confusing. I think it’s because of the number of characters in the story.

- The Summer People by Shirley Jackson: This was a creepy story about whether a location is trying to kill the two main characters or if they’re just paranoid.

- St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning by Charlotte Armstrong: I thought that this was confusing at the start but it had such an excellent twist that I ended up liking it very much.

- The Purple is Everything by Dorothy Salisbury Davis: This wasn’t a murder mystery but about art theft. It’s a pretty good character study type of story.

- Money to Burn by Margery Allingham: I’ve heard of this author but I don’t remember if I’ve read her stuff! I thought this was a very tightly written story, although I had to read the ending twice to understand it. I definitely need to look for books by her!

- Nice Place to Stay by Nedra Tyre: This turned the crime story on its head by looking at things from the perspective of the criminal. I really enjoyed this one!

- Clever and Quick by Christianna Brand: There are murders in this and it’s not till the end that you get to see who comes up on top in this. Would highly recommend this too.

- Country Lovers by Nadine Gordimer: To be honest, I didn’t quite get why this was a crime story. Sounded like love gone wrong.

- The Irony of Hate by Ruth Rendell: This story is the confession of a killer and I have to say, I did not expect it. I should probably pick up another Ruth Rendell novel soon.

- Sweet Baby Jenny by Joyce Harrington: I don’t know if it’s the dialect style of this, but I found this a little hard to read. I managed to understand what was going on, but only towards the end.

- Wild Mustard by Marcia Miller: A tragic story, though like with Country Lovers, I don’t quite understand how this is a crime story.

- Jemima Shore at the Sunny Grave by Antonia Fraser: Set in the Caribbean, this story has its protagonist investigate the death of the women she came to interview. The story started off well but I did not see the denouement coming or enough clues to guess at it.

- The Case of Pietro Andromache by Sara Paterson: I really liked this one! It involves a statue during WWII, duelling doctors, an a private investigator determined to help her friend. I need to go find more from this author too!

- Afraid All the Time by Nancy Pickard: A leading up to, but stopping just before, a tragic event. I feel like although the ending stopped at the climax, it didn’t feel that way because I never did find out what happened.

- The Young Shall See Visions, and the Old Dream Dreams by Kristine Kathryn Rush: This wasn’t my cup of tea, mostly because parts of the story seemed irrelevant to the crime. (Maybe because it’s a short story?)

- A Predatory Woman by Sharyn McCrumb: You have a reporter doing anything to get her story and a murderess who’s served her time. I wonder who the predatory woman in the title is?

- Jack be Quick by Barbara Paul: I really enjoyed this historical mystery, which imagines a solution to the Jack the Ripper serial killings (and why they stopped)

- Ghost Station by Carolyn Wheat: I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this story, but it turns out I did. It looks at women in the police force, alcoholism, and family.

- New Moon and Rattlesnakes by Wendy Hornsby: Lise is both on the run and looking for revenge. I didn’t know what was happening at first, but once I did, the story grabbed me and didn’t let go.

- Death of a Snowbird by J. A. Lance: Didn’t quite get this one, to be honest.

- The River Mouth by Lia Matera: Didn’t get this one either - and it felt like the protagonist navel-gazed a fair bit.

- A Scandal in Winter by Gillian Linscott: This is a tale involving an elderly Sherlock Holmes and it’s great fun! Really enjoyed reading this.

- Murder-Two by Joyce Carol Oates: I’ve heard of Joyce Carol Oates and had high expectations of this, but the stream of consciousness style of narration just confused me.

- English Autumn - American Fall by Minette Walters: The last story in the anthology, it was unfortunately rather weak. I think this is in part because of its lack of length because I didn’t connect to the characters and had absolutely no idea what was going on (and no memory of what it was about less than an hour after I read it).

Overall, this anthology was a good one. While I felt like it faltered a little towards the end, most of the stories were varied and excellent. While I knew of some of the authors, I haven’t heard of others and I got so many author recommendations from this!

Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Thirst for Empire by Erika Rappaport

I first heard about this book from NPR's article "From Raucous To Ritzy: A Brief History Of Christmas Tea" (would recommend this if you want to know about more about how Christmas tea came about!). The book sounded interesting and since the NLB had it, I decided to borrow it.

Unfortunately, I didn't realise how thick and academic this would be. It took me quite a few days just to read through the whole thing once, and then I had to go through it a second time to make sure I roughly understood what it said. Or perhaps this is just an indication of how rusty my brain has gotten.

Although this book is subtitled "how tea shaped the modern world", it really is very much focused on the British empire. America, China, and India are fairly extensively discussed, but my impression is that this is only in relation to Britain and the British tea industry.

As you're probably aware, tea is from China but for some reason, it's also seen as a very British drink (in particular, black tea). This book traces the journey of tea as its status changes from foreign import to a symbol of Britishness, going into things like how the taste for tea was created, how this influenced Imperial Britain, and even the role of tea in the Great Depression and World War II.

I talked about parts of the book in more detail in my previous posts on Tea and Temperance and the history of Fake Tea, but another thing I learned from this book was how the British moved from Chinese to Indian teas. I had always thought that Robert Fortune's discovery of tea adulteration was the main cause of the shift to black, Indian teas, but this book showed me that there was also a concerted effort to promote 'Imperial' (Indian) teas. In fact, most consumers didn't like the taste of Indian teas at first, and some tea shops ended up blending Chinese and Indian teas to make them more palatable!

One more thing that I found interesting was the subtle shift in the image of tea. During the heyday of the British empire, Indian teas were sold as 'Imperial' products and that consumers would be helping the empire by buying them. However, "by the late 1930s, it was no longer clear that empire added value. Instead, health and bodily renewal became watchwords of the day, shaping advertising and many other facets of European culture." What this means is that tea was introduced as a healthy Chinese drink, and then through a series of marketing campaigns marketed as a British product, and then when that failed, went back to being a healthy drink that would revive you. In a way, it's come full circle (but then again, really not since the British public didn't go back to drinking Chinese teas).

If you're interested in the history of tea and how it relates to Britan and the British empire, I think you'd really enjoy this book. It's fairly dry in tone but it has so much information crammed into it that after reading it a couple of times, I think you'll find that your view of tea has been changed.

P.s. This review was first posted at my other blog, Eustea.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Princess by Jane Dismore

I was intrigued as soon as I saw this book on NetGalley because I don't know anything about Queen Elizabeth before she became queen (I didn't even know how she looked like when she was young!). So when I heard that this book also contained unpublished material from letters and interviews, I decided to request for it.

Princess is a sensitively written account of Queen Elizabeth's early life. It starts off with the moment she became queen (very sadly, she was one of the last people to know) and then backtracks to when she was born before going forward from there. It covers her childhood, marriage, and life as a newlywed.

I was actually pretty surprised at how normally her parents raised her. You always hear of extravagant lifestyles but it seems like Queen Elizabeth and her sister were raised to be as down to earth as possible. Part of it may have been the times where they grew up, but it seems like a part of it is also due to her parents and their personality. I felt that they had a very genuine and loving relationship, which was very touching.

Also touching was her relationship with Prince Phillip. Because she eventually marries him, the book does touch on key moments of his life before they met. There isn't anything scandalous in their love story, but it's a very sweet account.

The one thing that surprised me while reading was the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. I didn't really have any views about them because I knew nothing about them except that the King abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, so it was a shock to find out that both of them had pro-Nazi views. I’m definitely going to side-eye anyone who praises Wallis Simpson now.

Overall, this was an interesting and informative account of Queen Elizabeth’s early life. The only thing I wish it added were photos of key moments - while they are probably just one google search away, it would be nice to be able to flip to them in the book. Hopefully it’s just my advance copy that doesn’t have pictures because I think it would add a lot to have them.

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

Friday, August 3, 2018

Educated by Tara Westover

I heard so many good things about this book that as soon as I saw that the NLB had an ecopy, I placed a hold on it. And all the rave reviews were true - this did not disappoint.

Educated is the memoir of Tara Westover. She was raised by a paranoid father who saw government conspiracies and a mother who drifted into alternative healing (oddly enough, her mother never indicated that chakras and essential oils were incompatible with Mormonism).

Due to this unusual family dynamic, Tara never went to school or even socialised much with people her age. Luckily, she had an amazing voice and brothers who managed to go to university, which gave her a longing for the wider world. So although she was afraid that her actions would betray her family, she started teaching herself to read.

This book was simply absorbing and I couldn’t put it down. Tara and her brother Tyler are amazing for the way they managed to gain an education. But the ways that her family stayed trapped was heartbreaking, especially the way they let her older brother Shawn rule the family with his temper. Their emotional manipulation was really off the charts and my heart broke whenever I saw Tara doubt herself.

This book was also a hopeful one because I saw how people would come to Tara’s aid when she needed it most. People that stood out were her bishop in her ward, who gave her a space to talk it out and got her monetary support, as well as the various professors who recognised her academic talent and encouraged her.

Oh yeah, and even though Tara and her community are all Mormon, this book isn’t about really about religion. While Tara does struggle with some tenets of her faith, she never explicitly casts it off, instead impartially talking about the Mormons and non-Mormons who helped her. It’s clear that religion wasn’t the sole or even main reason for her childhood (though it did play a big part) - her dad’s mental illness probably was.

I would highly, highly recommend this book. It is an amazingly well-written read about how one woman managed to overcome her childhood with the support of people in her life. And do you know what I want to read next? Her PhD thesis. It sounds fascinating.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

A Tale of Two Murders by Heather Redmond

I requested this from NetGalley because the cover was pretty and it’s a Dicken’s inspired novel! I like (and know enough) about his work that fanfic like this is interesting and something that I would like to try reading.

In A Tale of Two Murders, Charles Dickens is drawn into the role of a detective when the girl living next to his editor is murdered. Because another girl in the neighbourhood died the same way a year ago, and stricken by the lovely Kate Hogarth, his editor’s daughter, Dickens decides to find the truth of what happened.

Though he isn’t part of the upper class, the mother of the dead girl, Lady Lugoson, also suspects murder and she helps to open doors. However, Dickens soon comes across family secrets and he must decide which of the many suspects is the actual culprit.

To be honest, this book started off a little slowly for me. For some reason, I found the language a little clunky, which made immersing myself in the story and the time period harder. It was only after a few chapters that I managed to get into the rhythm of the story and start to wonder about who killed poor Miss Lugoson.

Apart from the language, one thing that made it harder for me to get into the story was that the murder plot wasn’t the most dominant. I felt that the start of the book was preoccupied with Dicken’s budding relationship with Kate Hogarth and that influenced his actions more than getting to the truth. While their romance is very sweet and I admire Kate for knowing what she wants and sticking to it, it felt like half or more the story was a romance, which wasn’t what I wanted to read.

Speaking of Kate, I really liked her character! She’s a sensible young lady, and it was refreshing to see the female lead portrayed as equally capable as the male lead. Although she couldn’t be there when Dickens made some important discoveries because they weren’t married, I like how she spoke her mind and wasn’t afraid to contradict Dickens.

I’m not too sure about how accurate the portrayal of Dickens was, though. He seems like a idealist romantic here, but I have read that his marriage didn’t go very smoothly, so I do wonder how accurately the book portrayed him.

Overall, this was a pretty enjoyable book. It took some time for me to get into the story, but I enjoyed it once I was caught up. If you’re a fan of Charles Dickens, you’ll probably want to give it a try.

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

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Pound Foolish by Helaine Olen

After reading Dollars and Cents, I decided to pick up another book about money. But unlike Dollars and Cents, Pound Foolish isn't about the wrong ways we think about money, it's an expose of the personal finance and financial industry.

Pound Foolish starts by taking a look at the history of personal finance, starting with S.F. Porter, a personal finance guru who rose to dizzying heights before falling into obscurity. The next chapter continues the examination of personal finance gurus by looking at the controversial Suze Orman and how she changes personalities and advice to suit her audience. Chapter three shifts from people to ideas as the author debunks the latte myth - that our small little luxury spends are what's keeping us from being millionaires. Instead, the book argues that the changes to the economy are so huge and the financial difficulties most Americans face so huge that such small changes will not help.

And that really is the central idea of the book - that personal finance is not personal and that Americans have to change the system of things before they can be financially secure.

Which is why as we read through Chapter four and the rest of the book, the focus slowly shifts from the personal finance gurus to the larger financial industry. Chapter four talks about retirement and criticises the American 401(k) as being inadequate. This chapter also introduces the 'most dangerous woman in America', Teresa Ghilarducci, and her hope to "create a pension plan for all of us by having workers and their employers contribute a minimum of 5 percent of pay into a guaranteed account via mandatory automatic deduction. The government, in turn, would contribute a $600 annual tax credit [...] All this money would be placed in United States bonds which would promise an annual minimum return of 3 percent above the rate of inflation."

That sounded a lot like the Singapore CPF system, in that employees and employers must contribute a certain percentage to a savings account (well actually there are three accounts for different purposes), which have interests rates that range from 3.5% to 5%. Not identical, but similar.

After talking about retirement (and whether Americans can afford it), the book goes on to talk about the culture of commissions in the financial service sector. This was actually pretty disturbing because it's clear that there are people preying on the elderly and not much is being done about it. When the chapter is done, the book continues on the idea of making money through investments (although not necessarily for retirement) by talking about the quest for the perfect investment.

The last three chapters bring the topic back to the topic of personal finance, as they discuss women and money (I know a few people who would have a lot to say about it), how real estate may not actually make you money, and the myth of financial literacy (the author doesn't believe it's possible to be financial literate).

Like I mentioned above, the central idea of this book is that personal finance is not financial and that Americans have been tricked into thinking that it is. To be honest, while a lot of the things here are eye-opening, I'm not entirely convinced by the argument. While it's true that sudden accidents or events can knock you off a financially secure position, advice such as getting rid of debt and cutting down on needless spending isn't bad (that said, some of the debt advice wasn't the best). It almost feels as though the author has no trust in the average American and wants to absolve them of any financial mistakes they might have made because it's the big bad financial industry and personal finance gurus to blame.

I'm not so sure if that's true. I do think that if you teach people how to think about money and to recognise the blind spots in their thinking, it's possible for them to make good decisions. While we probably shouldn't be asking financial institutions to teach people how to be financially responsible, given the conflict of interest, I think trying to make people financially literate is a good goal.

Overall, this was a pretty good book about how the financial environment affects personal finance. Perhaps its because I'm not in America, but I do follow quite a few responsible financial bloggers (although I will admit that there are many irresponsible ones) and I think that they are doing a good job educating people, which is probably why I'm not as pessimistic about the whole thing as the author.

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault

I borrowed this book because tea was mentioned. Unfortunately, despite the fact that tea leaf reading is central to the story, tea didn’t play a huge part.

The Leaf Reader starts with the disappearance of Andrea Quinley. Though Marnie doesn’t know her, the news affects the whole town. That said, Marnie didn’t think it would affect her personally. Not until she started tea leaf reading for Matt and found out that it was about Andrea’s disappearance. Although a bit scared of the fact that the things she sees are sometimes accurate, she is convinced to help investigate Andrea’s disappearance.

I quite liked the set-up for this book and I was curious to know how it ended, but I felt that the middle part dragged. (MILD SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because that the ‘reveal’ about Marnie having actual powers came so late, but a good part of the book felt like it was just Marnie and Matt guessing their way through the whole thing rather than being guided by what she saw in the teacups. It was only at the end that things came together.

That said, one thing I liked about the somewhat slow middle section were Marnie’s remembrances of Jimmy, the bad boy who may have had a connection to Andrea. It helped to humanise Jimmy, who never appeared directly in the story and who might have remained a bogey figure if not for the memories.

Marnie was also a pretty interesting character. I think part of the story is about her learning to accept herself, but like I mentioned before, because the ‘truth’ about herself came so late, I felt like the issue wasn’t dealt with fully. Instead, I had this wrong impression of her background and the issues she needed to deal with, which felt like a red-herring. Not to say that being in a ‘weird’ family isn’t a proper issue, but I thought the ‘family powers’ part needed more attention.

Overall, this is a pretty interesting story. While the middle felt like it dragged on a bit, I have to admit that I continued reading because I was sufficiently hooked and had to find out the truth about Andrea’s disappearance. So the book did do it’s job in getting me to pick it up and finish it. I just feel like it could have been stronger.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

To be honest, I was a little hesitant when I picked this up because I wasn’t sure if I would like it. The blurb sounded good but the cover was kind of creepy and I don’t even know if I like Gothic fiction. But when I started this, I quickly found myself hooked and finished the book in no time.

Warning: this book is pretty short so there will be mild spoilers in the review

Mary Katherine (Merricat) is an eighteen year old girl who lives with her uncle Julian and her sister Constance, to whom she is fiercely devoted to. The three of them are outcasts because six years ago, someone put arsenic in the sugar and killed most of the family. While Constance was eventually acquitted of the murders, suspicion still hangs over them, leaving Merricat as the only member of the family who ventures into the village.

Despite that, the three of them are happy. Until cousin Charles comes and Merricat finds that her sister and their household is rapidly changing.

This was a very creepy story, partly because Merricat is the main character and protagonist. If you read on, it’s pretty obvious that Constance is the normal one, full of love of her sister and while scared of the outside world, also longing to rejoin society.

Merricat, on the other hand, is contented with the way things are because she has her loving sister all to herself (and uncle Julian). To her, the outside world is nothing more than an intrusion on what could be a happy life. Which is why although she’s eighteen, Merricat feels like she’s much younger - almost childlike - mentally.

The family dynamics alone would be creepy, but when you add in the village, things go up a notch. There is so much unmasked hostility in the villagers that it’s scary. In the first chapter alone, a grown man corners Merricat and insinuates (almost saying it point blank) that he wants her and her family gone. That interaction was so uncomfortable that I almost stopped reading.

Overall, this was a great book. It’s definitely not something comfortable to read - the tension in this book can be really high at times - but it is addictive and fascinating in its own way. If this is Gothic fiction, I should try reading more of it.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 by Naoki Higashida

Someone from Church lent me this and it is so good! Written by the same author of The Reason I Jump (which I haven’t read but really want to now), this book contains the thoughts of a young man who happens to be severely autistic.

Naoki Higashida writes using an alphabet grid, without anyone else’s hand touching his, so you can be sure that the words in this book really did come out of his mind. And when you look at the subjects he muses about, his poetry, and his short story, it’s clear that he has an extra-ordinary mind.

In this books, he talks about his struggles to learn and communicate, as well as encourage all neurotypical people not to give up on people with autism, because they do want to live their best life and they can pick up our emotions. If this wasn’t a library book, I would have highlighted so many quotes, such as:
"On the surface, a sheltered life spent on your favourite activities might look like paradise but I believe that unless you come into contact with some of the hardships other people endure, your own personal development will be impaired."
And I probably would have bookmarked all his poetry. I’m normally not a poetry type of person, but I find that his poems inspire and uplift, even when they look on the slightly more unpleasant side of life. Two that I particularly liked are Rumours and Words - look out for them if you're reading the book!

I would totally recommend this book! It’s a moving and uplifting insight into a person that we might not even think we can communicate with. The beauty of his words show that there is deep potential within everyone, and that we should not be so quick to write off people as unable to contribute to society.

Definitely read this if you have the chance!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Dollars and Sense by Dan Ariely

Found this book through another Dayrean's review and since I enjoyed Dan Ariely’s other books, I thought I’d give it a go!

Dollars and Sense is a personal finance book, only instead of telling you what to do, the book shows you the financial mistakes you’ve been making and explains why. The first part of the book covers what money is (foundation) and the second, longest, part covers the not-so-rational ways we think about money, such as:

- Relative prices (we’re tempted to buy when we think that we’re saving something even when we’re not)

- Mental accounting (we categorise the ways we spend money which leads to not so prudent financial decisions

- The Pain of Paying (so we value potential loses more than potential gains)

- Anchoring (basing valuation on the first number we see)

- Ownership (if we can see it as ours, we value it higher)

- Whether we think the price is fair (to us and for the effort we see exerted)

- Whether we can restrain ourselves in the present for the sake of the future

- Overemphasising money

- Fancy language and rituals making us value a product more

- Expecting a certain experience vs the actual experience and how that affects our value of it.

After going through all these ‘bad’ thinking habits we have, the book ends on a hopeful note: by offering us strategies we can use. Of course, awareness plays a huge role in helping to avoid such behaviour, but other things we can do is to visualise the future as a concrete thing (save for a specific retirement date, e.g. Dec 1 2050, instead of a vague X years in the future), make good financial habits (like savings) opt out rather than opt in, and other strategies.

I found this book to be very educational and very entertaining! It’s actually co-written by Dan Ariely and Jeff Kreisler; since one of Kreisler’s ‘jobs’ is comedian, it explains the copious amounts of humour in this book. The chapters all focus on one, perhaps two ideas, and are explained using stories that are buffeted by studies.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to change the way they think about money. Like another one of Ariely’s books say, we humans are ‘predictably irrational’. That means that we can anticipate certain habits and change them for the better.