Friday, March 23, 2018

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

I can’t remember which article I was reading, but I heard about this book from The Straits Times. It sounded pretty interesting, so I tracked down a copy at Jurong Library and borrowed it!

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a novel that resembles a non-fiction mystery. On Valentine’s day, 1900, three girls and one teacher at a picnic at Hanging Rock disappear. The fourth girl comes back in hysterics, unable to remember a single thing.

Although the start of the story resembles a mystery, it isn’t one. There isn’t a resolution and the book is more concerned about the effects that the disappearance have on the staff and students of the school than on solving the mystery. In fact, it’s soon clear that this disappearance has sparked a chain of endings. And although it’s never made clear, the book hints that all the events after the disappearance are connected, all threads in one tapestry. And sadly, not all endings are happy.

The characters in this book are excellent. There is Mrs. Appleyard, who appears very proper but acts stranger and stranger (and more selfishly) as her school falls apart; Mademoiselle, the kindly meant French teacher who doesn’t disappear; Sara, whose only friend is Miranda, one of the girls who disappeared. There’s also Irma, the heiress who disappeared than came back, and Michael and Albert, the men who found her. All of them were well-written, with their own motivations for their actions.

I’ve read that one reason this book has endured for so long is because no one is sure if it’s fact or fiction. This is the only ‘account’ of the case, but the foreword and the factual style of writing has made many people believe that this was based on a true story.

If you’re into atmospheric novels and are fine with unresolved endings, you should definitely read this book. It’s a bit hard to find, but totally worth it.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Say Everything by Scott Rosenberg

I decided to read this book because it was recommended in Trust Me, I’m Lying, which I thought was an excellent read. Unlike Trust Me, I’m Lying, which was about media manipulation, Say Everything focuses on the history and impact of blogs, which is definitely right up my alley.

I say ‘history’, but it’s really about the first fifteen years and focuses on key people during a certain era of blogging. The book starts with Justin Hall, who intentionally revealed his life online, continues with Dave Winter, who moved from a mailing list to a blog, and continues on. It covers the period from when blogging was new to when it became mainstream and includes the invention of Blogger, the rise of political blogging, and of course, blogging for profit.

Obviously, this is a lot to take in, so I’m glad that the book focuses on specific people, branching out from them to the larger blogging environment. That made it easier to see the rise of the ‘blogosphere’ and how the word went from weblog to blog (and now the word weblog sounds so foreign and archaic!)

The last part of the book takes a look at the effects of blogs, namely journalists vs bloggers, what happens when everyone blogs (the author is actually quite positive about it) and how blogs can develop in the age of Facebook and Twitter. He isn’t as cynical as Ryan Holliday, which makes me quite positive about my compulsive habit of starting blogs.

I now want to read a book about the history of RSS. Any recommendations?

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Alice by Christina Henry

I do not remember how this got on my TBR list but it is so good! Alice is a very dark sequel/spin on the Alice in Wonderland Tales, which is exactly up my alley!

Alice starts on in the asylum in Old City. After a terrifying attack that she can’t remember, Alice is locked up and given drugs to keep her quiet. But during a fire, her friend Hatcher breaks them out and they start on a quest to defeat the Jaberwocky that haunts Hatcher’s mind.

I should warn you up front that this is an extremely dark book. There is a lot of graphic violence, both the traditional kind and sexual violence against women. This is a world split into two, where the Old City is ruled by criminal underlords. And as Alice and Hatcher slowly regain their memories, they go closer and closer to the centre of power.

My favourite aspect of this book is definitely the world-building. Having both Alice and Hatcher lose their memories make it easier to have the world explained in a non-info dumping way. And although this is a dark and violent world that I would definitely not like to live in, it fits in with the tone of the book, and I love how the element of magic and the absurd was written in.

My second favourite were the characters. Hatcher is pretty interesting, and I like the conflicting nature in Alice. She’s essentially a good person, but she has to confront the darkness within her if she can defeat the evil that is stalking them.

I’m a bit conflicted on the ending, though. Overall, it’s satisfying, but it’s also slightly anti-climatic (though it does fit in with Alice’s development story, so I guess this isn’t really a valid complaint?) I also wish for more backstory on Alice, but I suppose that because this is a series, there are still opportunities to delve deeper.

Overall, this was a really dark and thrilling book. If you’re into dark and twisted takes on classic stories, you have to read this. Definitely in the running for one of my favourite books of this year, and I’m definitely reading the sequel.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

When I heard that Annihilation is similar to Tanis, I thought “hmm, I should read it.” When I heard that Annihilation is going to be a Netflix movie, I thought “okay, now I definitely have to read this.” While this is one of more unorthodox novels that I’ve read, it was a really good read!

The unorthodox part of the novel comes from the fact that there is no real plot (okay, maybe it just resembles some literary fiction). It’s basically the journal of the Biologist, part of the twelfth expedition, as she explores the mysterious and increasingly dangerous Area X.

The writing here is fantastic. Area X felt menacingly real and despite the lack of explanations at the end, I was left wanting more rather than feeling cheated (as is usually the case when there’s an open ending). I think the reason why this works for me is that the menacing aspect of Area X goes hand in hand with the breakdown of the biologist.

Okay, maybe I spoke too soon just now. As the story progresses, we get to find out more about why the Biologist came on this expedition. There is no big quest, but there is revealing of character, even while said character seems to slowly break down.

And by the way, I think it’s really cool that the author used their job titles instead of names. It might have reduced them to simple stereotypes, but all the characters felt three dimensional, which means that the generic titles gave it a ring of universality.

If you’re into weird worlds and dark edges, you have to pick up this book. I know that I will definitely be continuing this trilogy!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

China's Mobile Economy by Winston Ma

Heard about this book from someone on Dayre and it sounded interesting so I decided to borrow it!

China’s Mobile Economy is about the shape of China’s Internet Economy (which is very much shaped by the smartphone). Through ten chapters, the book explores:

- Stakeholders in this mobile economy
- Xiaomi
- Digital retailing
- Entertainment
- The O2O (online to offline) model in the movie business
- The effect of the internet on finance
- Trends, opportunities and challenges of internet and tech companies in China

Within each chapter are columns that explain more about certain cultural terms or norms that may not be immediately obvious to a foreigner.

You don’t have to be an expert on China to read this because the first chapter is on the mobile economy. It will, however, help if you know a little about things like “omnichannels” (which are basically multi-channels but with complete integration).

As you can imagine, this book covers a lot. It’s definitely something to be read a couple of times, because I think it would be very difficult to fully understand everything that this book is talking about on the first read.

Two things mentioned that I thought were interesting were:

- China’s Internet literature: it’s not something I hear a lot, but it seems like the barriers to self-publishing are pretty low and the appetite for serialised, mobile-friendly stories are high. The business model for sites like Shanda Literature is something that Wattpad could learn from (although whether Wattpad’s userbase is open to paying for subscriptions is another matter)

But the fact that online authors exist in great enough number that ranks can be made is very exciting!

- The way the finance industry is being affected. The book specifically mentions WeBank and that it innovates by providing microloans to the public, conducts all operations online, and creditworthiness is analysed by big data.

Personally, I wished for a bit more discussion on the third part because the big data part is very Black Mirror-ish (if you don’t believe me, Wired has a couple of good articles on the issue, including “In China, a three digit score could dictate your place in society”, which has a few not-so-positive first-hand accounts).

Overall, the book is very positive and a good introduction to how China is changing and has been changed by the mobile economy. It doesn’t cover the manufacturing side of things (although it’s arguable related since the infrastructure will play a pretty important role in the future) but I suppose the book would have been far too long if it didn’t have a focus! It’s a bit academic in tone but definitely worth reading if you want to find out what’s going on!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman by Tessa Arlen

I first heard of this series from Wendy (link to her review) and it sounded pretty interesting so I decided to give it a go!

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman is a murder mystery taking place in Edwardian England. After a successful party by Lady Montford, the corpse of her nephew is found. Afraid that the investigation might implicate her son, Lady Montford ropes in her housekeeper, Mrs Jackson and the two begin to investigate.

What I enjoyed about this book was the plot (well, the latter half) and the meticulous attention to detail. While the first fifty pages were rather slow, the book managed to pick up the pace and I couldn’t put it down for the last third of the book. There are some pretty good twists to the mystery and I was satisfied by how it ended.

The historical detail is marvelous too. It’s a time of great social change, as the suffragettes' campaign for votes and class tensions are felt more strongly than ever. Even though the mystery is set in the countryside, in a traditional household, the author still includes these tensions and details in the novel, adding a sense of realism.

I also really enjoyed the two main characters. Lady Montford and Mrs. Jackson make a good detective pair, although I think I prefer the practical Mrs. Jackson for her unflappability and ingenuity.

However, this book was let down by its overly formalised narration. There’s a sense of stiltedness and distance that, coupled with the slow start, made the book hard to get into. This got easier to ignore as the paced picked up, but it didn’t disappear entirely.

The other thing I didn’t really like about this book is that there were too many characters. Very few stood out to me and the rest were pretty much interchangeable. I think that if the author was given more room for the story, this problem would be resolved because then we wouldn’t need the constant backstory.

Overall, I think I will continue with this series. It didn’t make the best first impression, but I’ve grown used to the characters and I would assume that there would be less need to constantly explain things in the second book.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

There is something intriguing about the Romanovs. In previous history books that I read that featured them, I’ve always thought that Tsar Nicholas II, the last Tsar, was a man unsuited to ruling. But I’ve never read much about his family, which has since been remedied through this book.

Although The Romanov Sisters starts with their mother, the bulk of this book focused on the lives of the four Grand Duchesses - Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia. While they gave themselves a collective nickname, the accounts from third parties and their letters and diaries show that they each had their own distinct personality.

Through this account of their lives, I could feel the warmth of their family very strongly. While they were very sheltered and naive children, they were also remarkably unspoilt (especially compared to accounts of previous Romanov rulers!). It’s clear that though their parents weren’t suited to the positions of Tsar and Tsarina, they were extremely loving parents who were active in bringing up their five children.

Even the fact that after the revolution, quite a few of the servants and guards that knew them best stayed loyal shows that this family had a certain goodness of character that inspires loyalty. After all, if your master is a tyrant, your only thought would be to escape as far as possible.

And out of all the people in this book, I think my opinion of Tsarina Alexandra changed the most. She definitely made a huge mistake by trusting Rasputin to the extent that she did, but she clearly did everything out of her love for her son. In fact, her efforts in the war (and her daughters’ work as nurses) show that she did the best she could. It’s a pity that she was so unsuited to the Russian court.

If you’re interested in the last Romanov family, I think this would be a good book to read. But if you’re looking for a book that talks about the various people claiming to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, you’ll have to look someplace else because this book ends with the death of the family.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander

I enjoyed the first book in this series, The Book of Three, that I made sure to borrow this book from the library! Although this book shares its name with the Disney movie, it has a lot less in common with the movie than the first book. It’s still a delightful story, though.

The Black Cauldron continues some time after The Book of Three ends. Despite his heroics in The Book of Three, Taran is back to being an assistant pig-keeper. However, one day, a council gathers at Caer Dallben - Prince Gwydion has decided that it is time to take and destroy the black cauldron, to make sure no more cauldron-born can be made. To Taran’s pleasure, he’s invited to go along on this quest. To his displeasure, one of the people he’s paired with is the proud and difficult Ellidyr.

All of the characters from the first book make a re-appearance in this one. Eilonwy is as flighty but smart as ever, Gurgi has become slightly braver, and Fflewddur is still dealing with his habit of exaggeration (but with the harp to remind him).

To these are a few new characters - the difficult Ellidyr mentioned above and Adaon, a warrior as brave as he is good a hard. Adaon takes the mentor-role to Taran in this story and I really like how he grounds Taran and helps him to grow.

Taran gets to grow a bit more in this book, as he realises that being a man is not all heroics. He also learns something about the nature of mankind, which I will refrain from stating her to avoid spoilers.

If you liked the first book, I’m pretty sure that you’ll like this one. The language is the same and the book managed to balance the quest with Taran’s growth journey wonderfully. This is definitely one for fans of high-fantasy.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

I requested this book as soon as I saw it because:

1. The blurb makes it sound similar to Three Dark Crowns which was something I really loved

2. I studied King Lear in IB and heard that this was a retelling.

Anyway, this retelling of King Lear is infused with magic of both the stars and sky. King Lear is obsessed by what the stars say to him, leading him to require his daughters to publicly declare their love for him (among other things). His two older daughters, Gaelan and Reagan are one in mind, but his favourite, Elia surprises him with his answer. If you've watched or studied King Lear, you know how it goes.

Because this is a series, we don't get as far as say, the Storm Scene. Well, this book is really a set-up for the world, so it ends a little after the public declaration contest, which you may recognise as the start of the play. But I can see why this world and the new characters require so much word-space, so I don't mind waiting to see my favourite parts of this play retold.

As for characters, the three daughters of Lear definitely steal the show. Elia is my favourite because she's the kindest, but both Gaela and Reagan were very well-written and true to their inspiration. The book also introduces new characters, such as Ban the Fox and the Fool's daughter (who's also Elia's lady-in-waiting).

The only thing I wasn't too crazy about was the language. It's very deliberately lyrical, sometimes to its detriment because it distracted me from the story. Then again, if you know me, you know I put story first and feel that language should be used to enhance the story rather than placed in the limelight for its own sake.

Overall, though, this is definitely a book for fans of King Lear and those that like darker retellings. Even though I know the ending (or at least, I hope I know the ending), I cannot wait to see how the later books will interpret the rest of the play.

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

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Trust Me, I'm Lying by Ryan Holliday

I just finished this and this is definitely a must read! It’s super eye-opening, although it’s also very disheartening and will make you very cynical. So prepare yourselves for a long review because I’m really going to summarise this book.

Trust Me, I’m Lying is basically a book about exposing the dark side of online/modern media. It’s broken into two parts and to start, let’s go back in time to the history of newspapers.

First, there was the party press, which was to explain party policies to members. This is mainly editorial and based on a subscription model. After that came the yellow press, which fought for daily sales. Since they had to sell themselves anew every day, they relied on gossip and sensation. The third stage is the modern stable press, which went back to subscriptions. Since there was a fairly stable income, they had room for more nuance and discussion, and reputation started to matter more than notoriety. Of course, it wasn’t perfect, because the paper had to please its readers, but it was better than yellow journalism.

Right now, however, the internet/new media is in the yellow press stage. Blogs (the books generic term for everything on the internet) make money by generating pageviews (for the ads). Scoops lead to traffic which lead to money, which means that there’s a built in incentive for sensationalism. And with the thousands of blogs competing for your attention, there isn’t much incentive to take the time to fact-check, because that time could mean that you break the news second, not first.

These blogs get their news by something called ‘trading up the chain’. Holliday defines the chain as having three big stages: an entry point (small, local blogs), legacy media (sites like wired), and national news (New York times). Because they want to break the news, blogs will look downwards to the smaller sites for ‘scoops’, which means that if you can disseminate information at the entry level, it can reach the big leagues.

To add to that, the time-pressed nature of journalism (thanks to the CNN effect) means that journalists are dependent on self-interested sources, which can be easily manipulated (sites like HARO - Help A Reporter Out basically ask people to submit tips). And because they need to churn out articles, press releases and Wikipedia can be used to make news too.

In fact, this digital news environment is a product of the link economy, which “is designed to conform and support, not to question and correct.” If you think about the origins of PageRank (Google’s algorithm), which uses the number of links back to a page to judge relevance, then it’s easy to see how a vicious cycle of fake news is created.

I’m guessing you can see how all this can be manipulated - you can plant fake news at the lower levels and use the news cycle to ‘alter reality’ (he uses the example of how he defaced Tucker Max’s billboards to raise awareness of Tucker Max’s books). You can also bribe reporters, not only with free gifts, but the hope of future jobs and tips that help them with their current jobs.

Even in Singapore, you can see how it works. For example, sites like mothership often use Facebook posts and even Dayre posts as ‘news’ sources. And what about the time someone discovered that the same few people were forever being quoted in the articles by the Straits Times?

So the first part is on how the news is made and can be manipulated. A few other points that I thought were good included:

- Headlines tend to be ambiguous (and he also repeated something I’ve heard and believe: if the headline asks a question, the answer is probably ‘no’?)

- People tend to believe the news is what’s important, instead of realising that the news is content that made it past the filters

- There is a trend towards shorter, easier to read pieces which tend to take the nuance out of things.

The second part of the book names some of the worst media manipulators and looks at the effects of this new digital news environment.

People Holliday names as master manipulators include Irin Carmon, Breitbart, Steve Bannon, James O’Keefe, and Charles Johnson. He also talks a lot about how this news environment contributed to fake news and made three very interesting points:

First, the best way to get your message out is to make your critics angry. When they’re angry, they’ll respond and invariably spread your message. Your best bet is to stay quiet and let them embarrass themselves.

Two, there is something called narcotising dysfunction, where we “mistake the business of the media with real knowledge and confuse spending time consuming that with doing something.”

Third, that you can recognise snark when you realise that there is no way to reply to it because it doesn’t actually have any substance. It’s just an effective way to dismiss criticisms that one doesn’t like and enforce social norms.

So, where do we go from here? Holliday mentions a re-emergence of the subscription model, citing the New York Time’s new paywall model. He doesn’t talk about mention patreon, but I think it could also help with breaking the “need for page-views” cycle. If people trust you enough to pay for your stories, then you don’t have as much pressure to push out unverified stories.

For example, if you trust sgbudgetbabe and her investment analysis (and there is absolutely no reason to trust her), you could choose to support her patreon and get her analysis first. That support will help her to continue being able to give unbiased investment news and analysis.

He also mentions the need to draw a line in the sand, which is something that Singapore does (I suppose I should add that I never really found the rules here draconian since you’ll be fine if you tell the truth).

The appendix is also worth reading since it contains articles and interviews with people who admit manipulating the news (including the guy who convinced newspapers that chocolate would help you lose weight)

I already knew some of this, but I never knew it was that bad, so if you’re curious about how the news work, or even if you’re not, you need to read this. It’s probably going to dishearten you because you’ll see how easily the news can be manipulated (and has been manipulated) but knowledge is power and if we want to be informed citizens, we must know how to get to the truth.

Books mentioned in this book (which I’m going to read)

1. Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why It Matters by Scott Rosenberg

2. Being Wrong: Adventures in the margin of error by Katherine Schulz

3. So You’ve been publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (I’ve read this and it’s a fantastic read if you wanna look into the whole online shaming thing).

4. Not a book, but the article on how to be an Amazon Bestseller by someone in his company is a hoot! I read it a couple of years ago but didn’t connect the article with this book until he mentioned it.

Monday, March 5, 2018

House of the Lost by Sarah Rayne

I finished another Sarah Rayne book! Now that I’m done, I’m pretty sure it’s a reread but it’s been long enough that it feels new to me.

When Theo’s cousin is murdered, he inherits Fenn House, where he used to spend his summers. Deciding that this would be a good place for his creative muse, Theo relocates to Fenn House. But his story deviates from plan and Theo finds himself writing about Matthew and Mara, two children living in a bleak and dystopian world. The more Theo writes and investigates, the more he realised that all that he’s writing is based on reality. And more pressingly, someone seems to be after him as well.

This story is the one where the dual plot-lines connect from the start. Theo is writing Matthew’s story, though he isn’t sure where the story is coming from. That made it slightly spooky, although the reason why he knew all this is grounded in reality. That said, when it was other people relating parts of Matthew's story to Theo, the switch to Matthew/Mara's POV felt a little strange since Theo wasn't actually writing.

As usual, I was entertained and a little horrified by this story. Matthew and Mara lived in Romania and they experienced some truly horrifying things. I guess sometimes, the scariest things are those that are rooted in reality.

That said, this book is the most ‘adult’ of Rayne’s in terms of themes that it deals with. Apart from the torture, there are pretty explicit sex scenes inside (explicit for her, anyway). So if stuff like that makes you uncomfortable, you may want to skip this.

Overall, I would recommend this book to people who are interested in dark stories rooted in history. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, but it’s an absorbing read and I was not disappointed by it.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

When I started this book (recommended by Wendy from Literary Feline), I only intended to read one chapter. Instead, I ended up devouring the whole thing, finishing just before a meeting with an old friend.

Behind Closed Doors is unusual in its choice of protagonist. The blurb makes it quite clear what kind of relationship and situation Grace is in, but instead of telling the story from the perspective of a third party, the narrator is Grace herself. Grace tells us her pain directly (through a past/present dual narrative), giving extra urgency to the already tense story. Plus, Grace’s devotion to her sister Millie was admirable and I loved the relationship between them.

Although I felt like I knew how this was going (abusive husband, sister desperate to protect her sister), I was still caught by the ending. I did not expect that, although the book did a good job of making it believable.

What I liked, apart from the excellent characterisation in the book, was it’s ending. In a situation like this, the only ending I will accept is one where Grace gets away and (spoiler only for Goodreads) I’m glad that she manages to kill her husband.

And about that past/present narrative - I thought it was good choice because it not only showed us how Grace got into her current situation but also did a good job of showing me why Grace had to act when she did. I did get a bit muddled about which section was the past and present towards the end as the timelines merged, but by then it didn’t really matter.

If you’re looking for a tense and satisfying read, look no further. I was hooked by the story from the start and enjoyed it very much.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Winter of the World by Ken Follett

Once I saw this book at the popular fair, I knew I was going to get it. I had read the first book and enjoyed it, so I wanted to read this one. It took a lot of time but it was totally worth it.

Winter of the World is the sequel to The Fall of Giants, the first book in the trilogy. I read the first book in 2013, so obviously I’d forgotten a lot about it. But, I realised that because this book follows the stories of the kids from the second book, it can be read as a stand-alone. And after some time, I started to remember more about the first book and certain characters and references started to make sense to me.

Covering 1933 to 1948, Winter of the World follows a very large cast of characters. There’s Maud and Walter’s family in Germany, where their son Erik has fallen under the spell of Nazism (although their daughter Carla sees the truth), there’s Daisy, the American heiress who travels across the Atlantic and meets Boy and Lloyd, and there’s Daisy’s half-brother Greg, who stays in America with his father.

And I can’t forget Woody and Volodya, both important characters in the book. Woody has political aspirations, which take us to the seat of power in America while Volodya is a firm communist who rises through the ranks of Soviet Russia.

As you can imagine, such a huge cast of characters leads to complicated storylines. They don’t all meet, but they don’t have to because I found it easy to remember who was who since they had such distinct personalities.

This book is really about living through the fifteen years covered. And it feels like the author has done a terrific job not only bringing the characters and time periods to life, but also in giving an equal voice to all the opinions floating around. With a main cast of characters located in Germany, Russia, England, and America, he showed me how people could believe in drastically different things yet still remain as people. There is a lot of nuance in the expression of that idea.

My favourite of all the characters had to be Daisy. She starts off as a flighty and shallow girl, but it’s clear that she has a heart of gold, which makes her character arc all the more interesting and emotionally satisfying for me. I so wanted her to be able to have a happy ending and I’m glad that she did.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, you’ll definitely have to read this. Yes, it’s a huge book and yes it will consume a huge part of your life, but it’s also brilliantly written and the author does a fantastic job of making you care about the characters, which makes all the time needed worthwhile.