Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

As you know, I’m a huge sucker for fairytales, which is why I picked this book up. The name and the cover intrigued me, as did the promise of a book within a book.

The Hazel Wood stars Alice, an angry girl who has been on the road with her mom for her whole life, trying to escape their bad luck. After her grandmother, the famous author Althea Prosperine passes away, her mother falls in love and decides to settle down.

But her mother jumped to conclusions and Alice comes home from school one day to discover that her mother, stepfather, and stepsister have been stolen away by the Hinterland. While her stepfather and stepsister are returned, her mother is not and Alice embarks on a journey to rescue her mother.

Helping her is Finch, a boy from her school who’s a super fan of her grandmother and has actually read the stories she wrote. He introduces her to her grandmother’s dark works, something that proves invaluable in their journey.

I love dark fairytales so I obviously really enjoyed this work. I can’t say too much without giving away spoilers but I thought the worldbuilding was excellent and tied in with Alice’s personality very well.

And of course, I loved the retold fairytales here! They are dark and creepy and so good. I went to Goodreads and saw that the author will be publishing the tales in a standalone book and I am so excited for that!! But the estimated publishing date is 2020 which makes me a little sad (and I hope I don’t forget about it!)

Going back to Alice, I thought she was a really interesting character. She has some anger management issues, which she acknowledges and tries to manage, but her love for her mother is fierce and true (although complicated, like all relationships) and I really admired her loyalty.

I also liked Finch, the super rich super fan that immediately helped Alice. Unfortunately, he and Alice’s relationship didn’t develop the way I expected and hoped, but their relationship was still pretty sweet.

If you’re a fan of dark fairytales, you’ll want to read this. I really enjoyed this book and I cannot wait for the standalone of the stories to come out!

Monday, July 9, 2018

Autism's False Prophets by Dr. Paul Offit

I decided to read this after having enjoyed Pandora’s Lab. As you may know, my brother has autism and while it’s mild, it can be quite a challenge (especially seeing people bully him).

Autism’s False Prophets takes the reader through the journey of autism science and how all the pseudo-science ‘explanations’ and ‘cures’ came to be. After showing how vaccine and other reasons do not cause autism, Offit goes through the current understanding of autism.

I already knew that MMR vaccines and mercury don’t cause autism (even my bro knows) but what I didn’t know was how much of a vested interest Andrew Wakefield and other parties had. I mean, Wakefield received money from a lawyer seeking to prove a link between vaccines and autism and didn’t declare it! All those attacks by anti-Vaxxer’s on doctors being in the pocket of ‘big pharma’ seem more hypocritical than ever.

Another thing that the book made quite clear was that a lot of people don’t make their decisions on whether vaccines are harmful or whether alternative medicines work based on the science. Instead, they base their decisions on personal stories, which have a bigger impact emotionally but aren’t backed by science.

The only part that made me go “eh” was this short section on autism and faith. Perhaps it was because the section was so short, but it seemed like Offit was linking anti-vaxxers with Christianity, which is just about the most ridiculous thing I can think of. Christianity isn’t anti-science and to generalise that way seems contrary to the scientific nature of the book.

Overall, this was a clear and easy to understand explanation of how all the misinformation about autism and treatment of it arose. Seeing how everything developed made me feel disappointed at how people are so willing to go against science at the expense of their children. Also, labelling autistic children as “vaccine-injured” and describing them as having “soulless” eyes is cruel and demeaning to children with autism.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

One problem with having an insane TBR list is that it can make the best-laid plans can go awry. After enjoying Shades of Milk and Honey last year, I was determined to read Book 2 of the series shortly after. Unfortunately, an unmanageable TBR list and new book finds intruded on that and I only got around to reading the second book, Glamour in Glass, recently.

Glamour in Glass moves away from the sly Austen references and England to Belgium, where Jane and Vincent are having their honeymoon (and looking for new ways to use glamour). Unfortunately, Napoleon's shadow rears its ugly head and Jane and Vincent find that they aren't spared from the coming war.

I don't know if it's because there was such a long gap between Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass, but I didn't enjoy this as much as I did the first book. I felt that it took a fairly long time for the war action to start, which was weird because the blurb had me thinking that most of the story was about the coming of Napoleon.

Character-wise, I felt like Jane was a lot more insecure in this book. Sure, she was always comparing herself to her sister in the previous book, but it feels like her self-worth is tied up in glamour so much more now and she has absolutely no trust in Vincent, despite the fact that they are married and he has given her very little indication to doubt him (of course, he's hiding something but it's not very big). That said, I did like how Jane pushed against the convention that had Vincent taking all the credit for the glamours that they made together.

But don't get me wrong, even though I'm not as happy with this book as the previous one, I did enjoy it. I like that Jane is a proactive character and that she's every bit as capable as Vincent instead of being a damsel in distress. Speaking of the damsel in distress trope, it was fun to see the tables turned and have Jane be the one that needs to save Vincent.

Overall, this was a fun story, although not as good as the previous one. I suppose that in trying to establish the series as more than a riff on Jane Austen, or perhaps because this one no longer alludes to Jane Austen to obviously, the book lost a bit of its initial charm. Still, I'll probably continue the series if I come across the third book.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The SEA is Ours edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng

Found this in the library and decided to borrow it for the SEA Reading Challenge! Like the title says, this is an anthology of short stories set in Southeast Asia, largely by Southeast Asian authors (from the back it seems like at least half the authors were born and raised in Southeast Asia while the rest have Southeast Asian roots). There are twelve stories in this anthology and they are:

The collection starts with a short introduction that, to be very honest, left me with a bad impression of the book before I started reading (good thing I borrowed the book without reading the introduction). It felt so angry and I didn’t really understand why - as far as I could tell, they were angry at the tropes in steampunk (Victorian England) because of diversity. Not sure how they connect but the anger was palpable.

There are twelve stories in this anthology and they are:

1. On the Consequence of Sound: This was about flying and flying whales! Very cool and I liked how Tagalog was woven into the stories - I was asking Jo Jie Jie about the sentences. It’s a pretty haunting story about ambition and sacrifice and a strong start to the collection.

2. Chasing Volcanoes: Another story set in the Philippines and another really good one! It’s set on an airship and has two strong female characters - the captain and the rebel princess who’s trying to save a village.

3. Ordained: This seems to be a family drama but to be honest, it was too short and I couldn’t grasp the story.

4. The Last Aswang: My brother and I have been talking about aswang with Jo Jie Jie and so I was really excited for this story. Unfortunately, it was a letdown. Perhaps it was the influence of the introduction (I really don’t like activist fiction, it’s not my thing) but this felt like an “our culture is better than the colonial culture” sort of story. Which could be good if done well (the story Devil Wind from Young Warriors is a good example), but in this case, it felt like the author started with a message in mind, which totally did not appeal to me.

5. Life under Glass: This was a short story about hunting rare creatures. I kind of wish it was longer because I didn’t get a chance to connect with the main character.

6. Between Severed Souls: It took me a little while to get into this story about a Filipino Pygmalion in the midst of a civil war but when I did, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The steampunk elements fit in well and I felt like all the characters had their own motivations and hurts, which made them come to life.

7. The Unmaking of Cuadro Amoroso: This was pretty good - three genius students plan and execute their revenge after the fourth in their group dies. Again, it took me a while to understand what was going on but the ending was very satisfying.

8. Working Woman: A steampunk story set in colonial Singapore, with triad lords and half-machine Samsui women. This was definitely one of the strongest stories in the book and one of my favourites because it had plot, it had strong characters, and it was in a world that was strange yet familiar. Would definitely recommend this to people looking for a Singapore steampunk story.

9. Spider Here: Another Singaporean steampunk story but this one wasn’t as strong was Working Woman. The world was intriguing, with the idea of ‘threads’ in living creatures that can be manipulated and a protagonist in a walking chair, but I wasn’t clear about what was happening even by the end of the story.

10. The Chamber of Souls: This was Vietnamese steampunk and one of the stronger stories in the collection. It deals with a group of refugees who are accepted into what seems like paradise - until they’re under attack. Add in a robot whose main purpose is to serve tea and store souls and you’ve got a story that kept me interested until the end.

11. Petrified: Another story taking place on a steamship, this was a fairly enjoyable (but also sad) tale with automatons that can pass for human. It felt like most of the action took place off the page (told to us in a recap) but I liked the concept, start, and ending.

12. The Insects and Women Sing Together: The last story in the collection was, sadly, a weak ending. Like with Ordained and Life Under Glass, I didn’t understand what was going on, even at the end.

Overall, this was a pretty uneven collection. It’s a pity because I am always for tropes being broken in a smart manner, but some of the stories didn’t connect and/or make sense to me. There were some good stories, but I went into this collection expecting an anthology as strong as Track Faults and Other Glitches and sadly, I didn’t find it.

Monday, July 2, 2018

White Trash by Nancy Isenberg

It took me quite a few days to work through this but I’m finally finished! I’ve been intending to read this for a very long time because I heard that it’s a good companion to Hillbilly Elegy - one is a personal story while the other (this) is an academic work.

Like the subtitle says, this book is about the class of people known as “white trash” or “red necks”, from when people started coming to America in the 1600s, where they were called “waste people” to the 2000s, the era of Honey Boo Boo child. Over the course of these twelve chapters, one message is hammered home, again and again in great detail:

There is, and has always been, a group of white Americans who are looked down upon and are seen as separate from the other ‘whites’.

Just to be clear, this is not a book on marginalised society in America. The focus is on this marginalised and historically looked down upon white people, and other racial groups are only mentioned in related to them; which means that African Americans are only mentioned sometimes and Asian Americans not at all. But this may have been a good choice because the book is a huge read and to try to tell the story of everyone would have made it too much to handle.

This book was very useful in illustrating how futile identity politics can be. I’m not and probably will never be part of this white underclass, but just reading this helped me imagine their frustration when after literally hundreds of years of insults and discrimination, they are told that they have something called “white privilege”. The book illustrates how little of this ‘privilege’ they’ve had when it says that:
"Poor whites were inexpensive and expendable, and found their lot comparable to suffering African Americans when it came to the justice system. Nothing proves the point better than the fact that both black and white convicts were referred to as “niggers”. "
If anything, this book has shown me that the issues of class and racism in America (and perhaps in other parts of the world) are much more complicated than some think. As tempting as it is to simplify things into “Group A oppressor” and “Group B victim”, history and reality is often much more complex and we must be able to grasp the nuances of issues if we are to solve them.