Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Since I will be going to Bath, I decided to reread Persuasion, Jane Austen’s last novel and the one staring her oldest heroine

At 27 years old, Anne Elliot is a confirmed spinster. Ignored by her vainpot father and older sister, she’s more or less given up to romance. But when her father has to rent out the family home, she finds that the new tenants have a connected to Captain Wentworth, the man she loved and rejected all those years ago.

And of course, Captain Wentworth reappears in her life. And soon after, her long lost cousin (and her father’s heir) also reappears, with his ways seemingly mended and with great interest in Anne too.

What I had forgotten about the book is that the first half doesn’t even take place in Bath! It takes places at Anne’s younger sister’s home in Uppercross and most of the groundwork drama happens here too. To be honest, Uppercross feels more ‘real’ than Bath.

My least favourite character in this book has to be Mrs. Russell. Anne’s family are all vapid and egocentric to a certain degree (her married sister being the most tolerable), but Mrs. Russell holds the ignoble decision of persuading Anne to break off her first engagement to Captain Wentworth. For all the praise Anne gives her for being a sensible woman, she seems almost as shallow-minded as Anne’s family, except her shallowness manifests differently.

As for Anne and Wentworth, I feel like their romance is the most unique out of all of Austen’s books. Unlike all other Austen heroines, Anne and Wentworth have a past and they know each other. The romance is more of cutting through eight years of distance and misunderstandings to show the constancy of love.

(Plus Anne is still older than me so I can look up to her.)

It’s always a pleasure to read Austen. I want to read Dickens and the time-travelling Shakespeare books first, but if I have the time before the trip, I’d like to read Northanger Abbey, the other Bath novel, as well.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

I first heard of this book from Wendy at Literary Feline and as soon as I heard it, I was intrigued. Regency era fiction with magic? Yes please!

While the blurb talks about Pride and Prejudice, the opening pages (and the characters) remind me of Sense & Sensibility. Jane Ellsworth is the ‘ugly’ sister, but she has a cool head and incredible skill with glamour - creating illusions from the Ether. Her sister, Melody, is a charming beauty. The book starts with Jane and Melody pining after the same man, Mr. Dunkirk.

However, this love triangle quickly becomes more complicated when Mr. Dunkirk’s sister, Beth arrives. At the same time, Captain Livingston, the charming nephew of their neighbour moves in, and the talented but tactiturn glamourist Mr. Vincent is hired by Lady FitzCameron (Captain Livingston’s aunt).

Since I was in the mood for Austen (and will be rereading Persuasion after this), this was exactly what I wanted. I’m normally not a huge romance fan, but I found myself captivated by the messy relationships (romantic and familiar) and rooting for Jane to have her happy ever after.

Jane Austen fans will probably find similarities between Austen’s characters and the characters in Shades of Milk and Honey, but each character is more than the sum of their tropes and have their own desires and motivations. So while there are delightful references to Austen, the book is able to be enjoyed on its own.

My favourite characters were Jane and Beth. Jane because of her heart and skill, Beth because she reminds me of Georgina from Pride and Prejudice (but given a lot more pages than the novel). Melody was rather flighty most of the time, but if this was a homage to Sense and Sensibility then her character totally makes sense.

Fans of Jane Austen and readers who like their historical fiction with a dose of magic will enjoy this book. Given the tidy ending, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there are at least two more books in the series and I look forward to reading them.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris

After reading this book, I shall forever look closely at novels set in the 19th century to see how they treat the subject of hospitals and medicine. If it's set in the early 19th century and there is anything approaching hygiene, then it's probably not very accurate. If it's in the 1860s to 1870s, then I'd expect to see a debate about how diseases are spread and how surgeries are carried out.

The Butchering Art is the story of how medicine changed for the better, thanks to the efforts of Joseph Lister. At a time where the field of medicine had the wrong ideas of how diseases spread and the risk of surgery could be higher than the risk of not being operated on (there is one surgery which had a 300% fatality rate - patient, assistant, and bystander), Joseph Lister's discoveries and his creation of an antiseptic system/procedure made things much safer for everyone.

While Joseph Lister is the principal focus of the book, the author also includes enough explanation of the field of medicine at the time and the people who influenced him, which made me appreciate how ideas are not born in a vacuum. It also helped me to see how timely and important these discoveries were, and contextualised them.

This memoir is very well-written, flowing through time and introducing many different people without being confusing. It's also very easy to read (aka not overwhelming the way some non-fiction books are). Even though I had less than a cursory knowledge of this period of time, I found myself being able to follow the events of what was going on and ended up reading this in one go.

If you're interested in the history of medicine, you'll want to pick up this book. The discovery of germs and how to prevent infections marked a turning point in turning hospitals from being houses of death to places of healing.

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

Saturday, November 25, 2017


So like one of the things that I'm doing to distract my brain is reading. Unfortunately, Longform doesn't link to as many new articles as I like. Luckily for me, I found out about BiblioAsia!

BiblioAsia is a quarterly magazine by the NLB (National Library Board). Each issue has its own theme and there are tons of interesting articles inside.

There are basically four ways you could read the magazine. The first is by getting a paper copy although I have no idea where you'd get one, since the site just says that it's also distributed to "members of the public." The next way you could read it is via the NLB ereading program using Overdrive. This lets you read offline, but the formatting isn't very good and there's only one issue.

The remaining two ways are online.

If you want to read the latest issue, you can use this link. Only the latest articles can be accessed from this site but they are beautifully formatted with pictures and it's really a pleasure to read them. And while most of the articles are in English, there are also Malay, Tamil, and Chinese articles. So there's really something for everyone.

The last method, which has everything from the archives, can be found at this link.

This does require to download and read from a PDF, so it's not very suitable for a phone. Anyway, issues/articles I recommend are:

1. Volume 13 Issue 2:
- Murder Most Malevolent: an article about some of the most horrific murders that occurred in Singapore (horrifying and fascinating read)

- A History of Singapore Horror: a history/exploration of horror in Singapore folklore, books and films. True Singapore Ghost Stories, Incredible Tales and more are discussed.

- An Unusual Ambition: The Early Librarians - this is mainly cause I like books so reading about the people who work with books for a living was fun.

2. Volume 12 Issue 1:

- Old World Amusement Parks, exploring the history of New World, Great World, and Gay World

- In Remembrance of Reading, about reading and our memory about reading

- The Anatomy of a Book series (this appears in a few issues) and it's pretty interesting to learn about the parts of a book.

3. Volume 12 Issue 2: The entire issue because there are loads of articles about food! Really liked the one about brands that we used to have and how European families in Singapore made their food. And unrelated to food, but there's an article about a woman and her grandmother's experience in WWII that was surprisingly moving.

4. Volume 11 Issue 3: The entire issue of this too, which is about crime in the old days and has articles on Chinatown when the triads still ran it, Chap Ji Kee, Opium, the history of Bugis Street, etc.

5. Volume 10 Issue 1:

- My memories of Reading: the author's account of how books made her who she was (and I read so many of the books she did too - Chalet Girls, Secret Garden, Little Princess and much more!)

- Folk Tales from Asia: which highlights some of the books in the NLB's Asian Children's Literature Collection. Love the introduction and pictures of Indian handmade books, Japanese woodblock prints, and Chinese binding.

By the way, this article is also supposed to have a reprint of a Neil Gaiman speech but it's taken out of the PDF (guess they didn't get the rights). But you can find the speech on The Guardian.

6. Volume 9 Issue 3:

- Communal Feeding in Post-War Singapore: did you know that for about two years, there were "People's Restaurants" located all over Singapore that were supposed to provide healthy meals for cheap? I didn't and it was interesting to read about this short-lived program

- Mrs Beeton in Malaya: I've heard of Mrs. Newton and her cookbook, but I didn't know about her influence in this part of the world! So I found this really eye-opening.

7. Volume 7 Issue 1: The Growth of Imagination in Singapore - Children's Literature in English (1965 - 2005). This is a bit dated, given that it stops at 2005, but you should read it if you're interested in learning more about local children's literature and how it changed.

Anyway, I hope all these have showed you that there are tons of interesting articles on a variety of subjects in the archives. Plus they are all free to read, so if you're looking for reading material, this is a good option.

Friday, November 24, 2017

A Curious Guide to London by Simon Leyland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Sovereign by C. J. Sansom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Llyod Parry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 20, 2017

More BBC Radio Dramas to Listen to

This isn't the usual book review, but I opened the BBC iRadio app today and saw a lot of interesting radio dramas, so I thought I'd share in case you're like me and haven't opened it for some time either.

The first is Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Unfortunately, the first episode has already expired, but I started from the second and could still follow it along. Each episode is about 30 minutes which makes it easy to listen to. If you don't have the app, you can find the episodes on this page. 

I haven't listened to Sherlock Holmes but this is on my to-listen list (along with a ton of podcast episodes). If you've already listened, let me know what you think! The page is available here.

This is another series that I haven't listened to yet, but I've always enjoyed the BBC's adaptations so I'm sure I'll enjoy this too. Emma is a really fun Jane Austen novel and I look forward to listening to this too. If you're on a computer, this is the link to the page.

I'm currently listening to this and I'm enjoying it very much! Then again, I love Pride and Prejudice so it would have to be a really bad adaptation for me not to like it. If you want to listen, you should go to this page. 

Let me know if you've listened to any of these, or if you've got any recommendations! 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Templars by Dan Jones

I requested this from NetGalley because it sounded interesting and I don't know anything about the Templars. If you don't know about them either, they're this Christian order that was formed to protect pilgrims to Jerusalem and ended up playing a big role in the crusades. Also, most modern portrayals of them (especially the 'Templars are still alive' thing) are inaccurate.

As a history of the organisation, this book takes a broad view, focusing not on the everyday life of a Templar but on the key events and people that made up the Templars or fought against the Templars. Since there are several countries involved this could have become very confusing but the author manages to make it one coherent narrative.

I found it pretty interesting to read about them and how they fought against the equally strong (and at times even stronger) Muslim countries. Thankfully, the author stays away from a discussion of both Islamic and Christian theology and/or which was right, instead focusing on who does what (and why), which I think helped make it an objective narrative.

Another thing I also liked that even though this is a book about a Christian organisation, Muslim sources are quoted as frequently as Christian ones (ok I didn't do a formal count but it definitely felt that way to me). Quoting both sides helped me get a fuller picture and to understand how the Templars saw themselves and how others saw them.

One thing I thought fascinating about the Templars was that their portrayal depended largely on the motives of the writer, something that holds true today. Usama ibn Minqidh portrays them as open-minded and specifically mentions that they let him use one of their Churches for his daily prayers. But another man, Imad al-Din, calls them "the worst of the infidels." The difference occurs because the former wants to talk about honour and chivalry while the later wants to praise Saladin.

I think anyone interested in history would enjoy this book. It's definitely a heavy read, but it is fascinating and after reading it, I wonder why anyone would bother making up stories about the Templars. The actual history has so much to draw on.

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

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief is one of those books that everyone but me has read (or so it feels). It's so highly recommended that I'm actually afraid to read it, because what if it doesn't live up to expectations? Well, when I saw the book on sale (for only 300 yen!) I decided it was time to read it.

If you haven't already read it, The Book Thief is a novel set in Nazi Germany and narrated by Death. Liesel (our protagonist) starts her career as the book thief when she steals a book at her brother's grave. After which, she is separated from her mother and sent to live with Hans (Papa) and Rosa (Mama). Nazi Germany is not a kind place to grow up with, even though her foster parents do love her - though Rosa has a strange way of showing it, and Liesel comes face to face with the horrors of Nazi when her family takes in a Jewish man named Max.

Ok, this summary leaves a lot to be desired because it doesn't mention Rudy (best friend and love interest), the various people that Liesel meets, or the depth of story created by the mere act of saving a human life.

I think the most unique part of this book is the narrator. The book is narrated by none other than Death, which is fitting for the grim setting. While death and Liesel don't interact directly for most of the book, he is the one telling the story and his personality shines through every line. The point of view seems to alternate between first person and third, but death is always present. There are also interludes (perhaps they are poems? or just very indented text?) with facts or definitions and a dash-dash keyword feature at the start of each part. I was not as big a fan of the interludes and the start of each part as I was of death as a narrator and actually ended skipping all the "featuring" sections.

There are also a few sections that are pages from the "books" that Max writes and I think they may be my favourite parts of the book. They are moving and the illustrations go very well with the text. I can almost see Liesel slowly making her way through the words and it helped to show the deep bond between the two of them.

Overall, I really loved this story. While not everything about the way it was written appealed to me, I thought that death as a narrator was the perfect choice and I loved the depth with which each character was written. It's a moving and horrifying tale of how life in Nazi Germany was like, for both the Jews and the non-Jews.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Russian Countess by Edith Sollohub

The Russian Countess is an autobiography of Countess Edith Sollohub, born Edith Natalie de Martens. She was born and raised in Pre-Communist Russia and was unfortunately trapped in Russia after the revolution. This autobiography focuses on her life before the revolution and how she did her best to survive and escape after.

My first surprise came when I read the introduction of the book and found that it was written in English. I had assumed that this was translated, and to be honest if I didn't know that it was written in English, I would have assumed it was a very well-done translation because the English was really natural.

The second surprise was of her experience during the revolution. I don't know what I expected, but whatever I read was a surprise. Perhaps the fact that she wasn't put in jail immediately surprised me. Or perhaps it was because of how little the spirit of communism seemed to be in everyone. I had this image that most people wanted to become communist, but the book made it seem like most people were indifferent to it, or at best using it opportunistically.

Although this book provides a fascinating look into what it was like to live through revolutionary Russia, I do think that it doesn't provide a whole picture. Edith was supported in large part by her servants, who were still faithful to her. In fact, another thing that surprised me was that even after the revolution, she managed to keep a governess for her boys and her first escape was with a few servants. Certainly not the number she used to have, but it was definitely not zero. I think life for an ordinary person or even a person of nobility who was not well-liked would have been very different.

Not that I'm saying that this book isn't worth reading. Far from it. I really enjoyed reading it and I am in awe of how talented and resourceful Edith was. I just realised that I have to be careful not to take one person's account and assume that it applies to everyone living through that event.

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

Father Brown: The Essential Tales by G.K. Chesterton

Father Brown: The Essential Tales is supposed to be a "definitive collection" of fifteen of the Father Brown mysteries (short stories) by G. K. Chesterton, selected by the American Chesterton Society and with an introduction by P. D. James.

If you don't know about Father Brown, he's this little priest who uses his knowledge of human nature to solve crimes. But this being Chesterton, the writing is rich and lyrical and Father Brown is definitely not a conventional detective. He takes leaps of logic that end up making sense because it follows the human heart.

These stories are really more about the human condition as Chesterton saw it than a normal mystery. The writing is a lot more lyrical than something by say, Agatha Christie (who I also love dearly) and contains sentences like:
"A man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sons is not likely to be wholly unaware of human nature."

"Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak. 
'I know a man,' he said, 'who began by worshipping with others before the altar, but who grew fond of high and lonely places to pray from, corners or niches in the belfry or the spire. And in one of those dizzy places, where the whole world seemed to turn under him like a wheel, his rained turned also and he fancied he was God. So that though he was a good man, he committed a great crime.' "
Father Brown is the central figure in all these stories. Occasionally, someone called Flambeau will appear, first as a master thief and then as a semi-private detective (and Father Brown's friend). But there isn't a Watson or Hastings, so it's best not to expect one. Of Flambeau, he is once described (as he packs for a boat journey):
"Flambeau had stocked it with such things as his special philosophy considered necessary. They reduced themselves, apparently, to four essentials: tins of salmon, if he should want to eat; loaded revolvers, if he should want to fight, a bottle of brandy, presumably in case he should faint; and a priest, presumably in case he should die."
Which I think is a wonderful description of him. My favourite stories definitely feature him.

I think the Father Brown stories are for fans of Chesterton, for people who already like Orthodoxy or The Man Who Was Thursday. While I adore his writing, I realise it's not for everyone so you may want to try a story or two before deciding if you want to read the whole book.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

They Never Came Home by Lois Duncan

I'm not sure why this was in my in my TBR list but it still sounded good when I read the synopsis so I decided to borrow it. I checked after I finished and apparently this was written in the 1960s and it definitely shows in the writing. Still, this was a fun, quick read.

They Never Came Home starts when Dan and Larry go missing on a hiking trip and are presumed dead. Larry's family promptly falls apart, with Larry's mother falling into a delusion that her son is still alive. As Joan, Larry's sister, tries to protect her mother, she receives a phone call claiming that her brother owes this mysterious guy 50,000 dollars. As she tries her best to make up for her brother's debt (by taking on this mysterious job), she starts to discover that this disappearance may not be as simple as everyone thinks.

To be honest, I managed to guess the 'twist' in the story the first time the narrative cuts away from Joan and Frank (Dan's brother). But, I was interested in finding why and how the story was going to resolve itself, so I read all the way to the end.

As for the characters, I quite liked Joan because of the way she managed to pull herself together. I think she was a good protagonist, and I thought it was sensible of her to get help when she felt that she needed it (well, it was from her boyfriend's younger brother so it wasn't the best choice but good job for getting help and refusing to get into a stranger's car!). I also thought that the reveal of Larry's true character was quite well-done, though very predictable.

All in all, I think this is a fun, quick read. It does feel a little dated, but it's captivating enough that I read it pretty much in one go.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Friend Request by Laura Marshall

I requested this book because it's about social media and I am so about that, thanks to one of my tutorials when I was in uni. Normally I read all the non-fiction stuff so it's pretty fun to read fiction where it plays a huge role for a change.

Friend Request starts when Louise gets a request from Maria, a girl that she used to go to school with. That would be quite normal and in line with the purposes of Facebook if it wasn't for the fact that Maria died while they were at school. And truth be told, Louise bullied Maria. Sure, she was 'forced' into it because she wanted to keep her precarious position in the social order (and Louise does genuinely regret it), but as far as anyone knows, Louise was a bully.

This request sends Louise spiraling, as messages from Maria arrive and she's forced to confront the past that she's been running from. A class reunion only provides more trouble and (mild spoiler) when someone is murdered, things take a decided turn for the worse.

For the most part, the book is told in first person from Louise's point of view. It alternates between the present and the past, but most of the action takes place in the present. There are also a few sections where the narration suddenly shifts to third person - I think this was done to heighten tension but all it did for me was to break the narrative flow and I ended up skipping those sections.

Where this book shines is in the relationships between the characters. Friend Request does a good job of showing us how toxic friendships can leave lasting impact, and the hold that your school experiences can have on you. I thought Louise was a very sympathetic character and a good example of someone who did awful things but is now trying her best to overcome her past.

I think this is a pretty good mystery featuring social media. I guess it's going to feel relevant as long as Facebook is the dominant platform, but even if Facebook itself becomes passe, I think the issues of being bullied, having toxic friends, trying to overcome your past will always stay relevant.

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

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Land of the Meat Munchers by Nicholas Yong

Now this is the kind of stuff that I wanted to read when I started the SEAReadingChallenge . An ordinary zombie story but set in Singapore and by a Singaporean author. I started this yesterday so I guess this is why I had that zombie dream.

Slight digression: I don't know why, but when I search for ebooks (not print books - I assume the situation might be different there) set in South East Asia and by South East Asian authors, I see a lot of literary fiction and stories where the South East Asian protagonist moves to a Western country. Which is cool because we need all sorts of books, but why must SEAsian culture be so overwhelmingly written about in relation to Western culture? Can't we just have books about us without comparing us to other countries?

Or maybe the only reason why I see this phenomenon is because most of the books made into ebooks are these literary & cultural conflict type and there's a lot of other books line Land of the Meat Munchers that exist only in print (really hope this is the case).

/Digression over

Land of the Meat Munchers is a tale of zombie Singapore. A mysterious zombie virus hits Singapore, leaving Jim and other survivors alone to fend for themselves. Chased while out on a food hunt, Jim must make his way back to his group in Tiong Bahru MRT station, with only his new friends - Selina and Raj, for help.

I admit, it was initially weird to see Singapore and hear Singlish in a zombie book. Then I caught myself and realised that there is no reason for this to feel weird. If the US or the UK can be the setting for a zombie apocalypse, then Singapore (and Malaysia and Indonesia and Thailand and everywhere else) can be a setting too. It shouldn't be weird.

The setting was very Singaporean, which was great. At first, I was a bit worried that it would be like a typical zombie book, but with a few names changed. But apart from Singlish dialogue, the book also has Beng zombies, HDBs, the word "ponding" and much more, all well-woven into the story itself. This wasn't a zombie world with Singapore added to it, this was a Singaporean zombie world.

I also found myself really enjoying the fact it was set in Singapore and how Jim, Selina, and Raj were learning to work together. Each of them had their own traumatising past and seeing them learn to work together (or not) was something that I enjoyed reading. Although Jim is the main character, I felt that all three were equally fleshed-out and well-written.

I also liked the fact that the book considered the question of how a zombie outbreak would occur and why we would be isolated. Though the question was never answered because all communication lines and power lines were down, the fact that the characters wondered about this made the setting feel a bit more realistic. If there ever is a second book, I hope the question of why Singapore would be left alone would be answered (or if the zombies managed to travel the causeway)

If you're a fan of zombie books or just looking for fiction set in Singapore, I think you'll really enjoy this. A lot of thought clearly went into making this zombie story Singaporean (including a zombie all in white that continues to try to shake people's hands even in death) and I found this to be a really fun read.

P.s. There is some mature language in this book so it may not be suitable for kids.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Hello, Sunshine by Laura Dave

I borrowed the book because the premise of "social media star falls from grace" to be really interesting. But be warned, this will be a spoiler-full review.

The 'Sunshine' in Hello, Sunshine is a social media star. Her cooking videos have earned her millions of fans, a book deal, and even a TV show. But one day (mild spoilers), someone hacks her and her whole life is revealed to be a lie: her recipes are by someone else, her entire origin story is fake, and she slept with someone who isn't her husband. As a result, her fans desert her, her husband leaves, and she loses the book and TV deal. Humiliated and friendless, Sunshine goes back to her hometown in the Hamptons, to the sister that hates her and the niece she never knew.

The story is written in the first person, from Sunshine's perspective, so if you like her voice, you'll probably like the book. I did like Sunshine, and I was rooting for her to finally acknowledge her part in what happened and to let go of the social media stuff (it took a while because Sunshine plotted to get back to Internet stardom)

Most of the book is what you expect, with Sunshine being 'forced' to face her past and attempt to reconcile with her sister, as well as decide what she really wants from life. For the most part, it's an easy and predictable read (which is good when you're stressed about packing and all you want is something light) and the only time I was blindsided was when the twist came.

And the twist really angered me so SPOILERS AHEAD.

It turns out that the person who hacked Sunshine and outed her was her husband (the one who left her when he 'found out' about her affair) and he did it because he 'loved' her.

And at the end of the book, she goes back to him.

Without him apologising (or if he did it was such a weak apology that I did not recognise it).

Can we talk about how messed up this is?

Yes, Sunshine was wrapped up in her lies at the start of the book and desperately needed to change, but the way to change someone is not to maliciously, deliberately, and publicly humiliate and destroy them. The book makes it clear the hacking isn't an amateur job - Sunshine's team changes the passwords and her husband has to get around that + build a website + schedule tweets to seem innocent to make this work. And he's supposedly the architect who's not into technology.

Which means that it was a well-thought-out plan. In all that time, he couldn't think of a better way to help Sunshine, such as getting her to therapy or TALKING TO HER ABOUT IT? (The book is clear that he was nothing but supportive outwardly while planning her downfall).

This is like if I tell you my house has cockroaches and instead of starting with cockroach traps, you take a match and burn down the house (without telling me)

What makes me angry about this is that it is presented as 'love'. No, this is not love. This is not a drastic intervention. Her husband basically destroyed her life and left her alone (apparently he called her sister a few times but to Sunshine, he was completely absent) and she still went back to him because she was pregnant and loves him.


This is not love but it's being presented as such and I worry that others will read the book and internalise the wrong message. No one should be allowed to hurt someone else in the name of love. To be clear, this is different from telling someone the painful truth or staging an intervention - that may be painful but it is like antiseptic on a wound, not burning a house down because cockroaches were found. One is necessary and the other isn't.

To be honest, I was really enjoying the book until the ending. It was a solid 4 stars and probably would have stayed that way if the ending was different, but this portrayal of 'love' has dropped it to a 1 star rating.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Social Life of Books by Abigail Williams

Note: I'm currently in the middle of moving back to Singapore and don't have access to wifi in Fukuoka. I'll be back in a few days, once I'm back home(:

I borrowed this book because... why wouldn't I? It's about books, which is one of my favourite things.

To be clear, this is not an easy read. It's about the ways people read in the 18th century and it's written in very dry, academic language. I almost stopped several times because of the language and the only reason I continued reading was because of the subject matter. To be fair, the fault is mine for assuming this would be an easy read.

The book covers 8 topics:

1. Reading aloud (the primary way people read then) and what that meant

2. How the act of reading was part of social life

3. How books were read

4. How people managed to get their hands on books

5. The pervasiveness of poetry

6. The difference between reading aloud and acting and what that meant

7. How people viewed fiction

8. How people viewed religious and scientific works.

I mentioned that the language was very academic and dry, but the subject matter is really interesting and I picked up a lot of interesting facts. For example, people used to read parts of books rather than from cover to cover, which explains the structure of older books.

And in the section on the novel, it is written that 'the novel might be seen as the antithesis of sociable reading' and so communal reading was encouraged to negate the 'isolating' effects of the novel. This second point was quite surprising to me because the novel is seen as helping to develop empathy nowadays, not encouraging people to become isolationists.

Oh, and if you're a fan of Jane Austen's Mansfield Hall, you'll enjoy the chapter on acting vs reading aloud because it helps to explain why it was so scandalous for the young people in the book to put on a play.

Overall, if you're interested in reading about reading and/or the history of reading, you should pick up this book. The style is a bit intimidating (I probably need a few more reads to properly get everything!) but the information is fascinating.