Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Feed by Mira Grant

This was one of the books I saw in England that made me go “hmmm” (but wasn’t attractive enough that I actually bought it). Luckily, the NLB has a copy so I managed to borrow it.

Feed is basically a thriller (political thriller?) set in a zombie-infested dystopian America. I was attracted to the premise of blogging + zombies. So basically, in zombie-infested America, blogging is the new news (there are still newspapers but blogs are dominant now). There are basically three types of blogs - Newsies, for your information needs, Irwins, for when you want to poke a zombie with a stick but don’t want to be there when it happens, and Fictionals, for poetry and stories.

In this world, George (Georgia), her brother Shaun, and their friend Buddy, are Newsie, Irwin and Fictional. When they land a plum job following Senator Ryman’s presidential campaign, they think they’ve found their big break. Instead, they find themselves uncovering a huge conspiracy and have to ask themselves - how far are they willing to go for the truth?

While Zombies greatly influence the world - from the laws to the security procedures and people’s lifestyles, this isn’t really a zombie book (as I understand it. Zombie dystopians aren’t something I have extensive experience with so I might be wrong). There are zombie attacks, but the book isn’t about surviving a zombie attack. Instead, it’s more about truth and politics in a world where zombies are a part of life.

I found that I really enjoyed this. George was a good narrator, and I really liked her relationship with Shaun and Buffy, not to mention the world. The world felt believable - like I could see people reacting to a zombie attack like this, and it was different from most political thriller-type novels.

The book is mainly from George’s POV, with quotes from their blogs beginning and ending the chapters. I found that I liked the quoted blogs, because it provided a good look into their world. I actually wish that I could read more blogs from the world (like can this be a mini site?) because their blogs-as-news concept, with the idea of rankings and traffic, was pretty cool. By the way, the word ‘blog’ in the book covers both the written form and vlogs. It basically means ‘internet content’

The plot also moved along at a fairly quick pace. The tension was consistently high, and I definitely did not predict the ending (which to be honest is a little heartbreaking).

If you’re looking for a different type of zombie and/or political thriller, this is a book that you’ll want to read. It manages to blend the two genres together pretty successfully, although the political thriller element is a bit more dominant.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young

I saw this in WHSmith and couldn’t resist buying it because how cute is this book? It’s all about cows and their lives! Alright, that last sentence doesn't sound particularly exciting, but this is a really charming book.

The Secret Life Of Cows is written by Rosamund Young, who runs Kite’s Nest Farm. The internet tells me that the farm is special because all the meat, fleece, and other products come from animals that have been given free run of the farm. The cows get to take care of their own calves and basically, the animals lead good lives before they have to die.

The book itself is a series of stories about the animals on the farm. It’s mainly about the cows, but Rosamund talks about the chickens and sheep as well. By observing the interactions between the animals, Rosamund shows us that cows (and sheep and chickens) do form friendships and care for one another.

I found this to be a really sweet read (and this is seriously the ideal farm). The farm workers care for their animals and it’s awesome to read about humane farming practices. The cows are really intelligent, and they clearly care for each other.

If you like animals, and if you like reading about farms (especially the Enid Blyton type of farms), you’ll love this book. It’s seriously the Willow Tree farm come to life and I think it’s great that something like this exists!

Monday, January 29, 2018

High King of Heaven edited by John MacArthur

I've got to admit, the title for this book is fantastic (or conversely, annoying) because I had Be Thou My Vision playing in my head every time I opened this book. Talk about a catchy title!

High King of Heaven is basically a book on Christ. There are 23 chapters by 23 pastors and theologians, including John MacArthur. The book is organised into four parts: the person of Christ, the work of Christ, the word of Christ, and the witness of Christ, with each chapter focusing on a specific topic, such as Christ in the Old Testament, the atonement, Christ’s relationship with God the Father, etc.

According to another reviewer (Doug on Goodreads), these essays are from the sermons preached at the 2017 Shepherd’s Conference. Since I didn’t listen to the sermons, all the essays were new to me. And with 23 essays, there’s a lot of material in here. There are some good parts, like a clear explanation of the Arian heresy, and the chapter on how Jesus read the Old Testament using a literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic.

Then there are some things don’t ring true. There’s a statement that there’s “no extra-biblical evidence that Caesar Augustus ever called for an empire-wide census” and that “there is uncertainty that Quirinius was a Roman governor in Syria as early as 6 to 2BC”, and the Joseph didn’t need to return argument as though these are facts when there are also arguments to the contrary. I feel that at the very least, they should present both sides.

There’s also a statement that “in the early Church, there was no political activism. Rather, there was preaching and prayer.” I suppose this depends on what you define as political activism, but religion was a very integral part of being a Roman citizen, which means that the early Church was making a political stand just by believing in Christ. So I don’t really agree with wording that makes it seem like early Christianity was 100% apolitical.

Most importantly, this book writes from the Calvinist viewpoint, which isn’t disclosed (it might be in the introduction but that wasn’t in my review copy). This was most obvious in the chapter of definite atonement, which completely leaves out general atonement. Unsurprisingly, this was the most unconvincing chapter to an Arminian like me.

Given the narrow theological perspective here, I wouldn’t recommend this book as the book on Christology or even an introductory book to Christology, even if you are a Calvinist because I believe it’s important for us believers to know about Christianity as a whole because people do ask about these differences. It is, however, a pretty decent book on the subject and contains some good points, so I would recommend reading it along with other books.

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

Friday, January 26, 2018

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier

I saw the movie version of this on the plane, watched it halfway and was like “eh, I’ll just reread the book.” While I’m now uncertain if I’ve read the book before (or if Rebecca is the only Daphne du Maurier book I’ve read), I’ve got to say that this was a really good read.

My Cousin Rachel centres around the titular Rachel, and the “My” is Phillip. The book opens with Phillip reminiscing about a hanging. With him was his cousin Ambrose, who raised him and who Phillip very clearly adored. On his doctor’s orders, Ambrose heads to Italy, where he meets a distant relative Rachel, marries her, and then dies. Phillip received a suspicious letter, but is that Cousin Ambrose trying to get help, or the ramblings of a very ill man?

Things only get murkier when cousin Rachel comes to stay, and Phillip very quickly becomes obsessed with her (though he can’t identify what he’s feeling). The novel centres around this one question:

Is Rachel a scheming murderess, or is she simply the victim of extremely bad luck?

The thing with the novel is that there is absolutely no way to know. For every piece of evidence against her, there’s a counter-piece (or lack of it). Rachel does speak, but can we take her words at face value? It certainly doesn’t seem wise to believe Phillip wholeheartedly, because he is a man obsessed, but are his suspicions verified?

This is a question for each reader to decide.

Oh, and the language in this book is amazing. I’ve read about obsessed characters before, but this is the first time I’ve felt the obsession in the language. Phillip is an unreliable narrator and Du Maurier makes us feel this with every word.

If you’re into quiet but tense books with unreliable narrators and unanswered questions, you definitely have to read this.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore

I guess this is one of the books that I'm not fated to own (it sounds dramatic but it's the best translation I can think of for 没有缘). I saw it in a bookstore while on transit, but balked at buying it because of the high price. I decided instead to keep an eye out for it in London, to see if it was cheaper. Guess what? On the first train we boarded, the guy opposite me was reading this. But alas, I didn't see it in any of the bookstores I went to. Like I said, no fate.

Luckily, this book was available as an ebook from the library and I managed to borrow and read it on the flight back.

The Romanovs is a chronical of the Romanov dynasty, covering roughly 500 years and twenty tsars and tsarinas. As you can imagine, this is a huge topic which means that this is a huge book. Even so, there isn't much space to dive deep into any one person - each tsar/tsarina deserve their own book - but there is enough detail to understand the life and rule of each person and the people close to them. Each chapter starts with a 'cast' of people, although I didn't really look at the lists of names.

And wow, these people led very tumultuous lives. I'm actually surprised there aren't more dramas about them (or maybe there are and I just don't know). Almost every Tsar/Tsrarina's life was filled with intrigued and danger, from the first Romanov who didn't want the throne, to the last.

Tsar Nicholas II probably gets the most amount of page space, with the book opening with him (to parallel the first tsar) and the last few chapters about him and his families' life and death. Otherwise, each Tsar/Tsarina gets an equal amount of screen time. The book could probably go into a lot more depth, but it's long enough as it is.

I would actually be really interested in seeing this book become a series of biographies. What I read about the Romanovs is fascinating and I would like to know more about then. Or perhaps I should just look for the biographies on my own.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Heath Robinson's Home Front

Finally finished one book because this has not been a curl up with a book sort of holiday. I got this on our first day, at the Churchill War Room. To be honest, I thought this was a book on household management during World War II, but when I picked it up, I realised I was so wrong.

Heath Robinson is a famous cartoonist known for his drawings on machines that overcomplicate simple tasks. I suppose they could have just compiled all the comics together, because I found most of them funny, but this book pairs the drawings with satire written by Cecil Hunt. It’s supposed to be a mock-serious look at how the British can help the war effort at home.

To be honest, the text was very hit and miss for me. There were quite a few funny lines, but an equal proportion of the jokes didn’t work for me. I suppose that’s because I’m not British.

What I liked were the cartoons and the little glimpses of British life during WWII. While you can’t take the book seriously, there must be a common standard for satire to work. So it was possible to catch glimpses of life during the war, such as the importance placed on blackouts.

Overall, I quite enjoyed this little book. While the writing wasn’t to my style, I really enjoyed the comics and if the title is anything to go by, the comics are the real star of this book. Plus it makes for a nice souvenir(:

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Enchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini

I don't know much about Ada Lovelace, the woman who is sometimes credited as the first computer programmer, which is why I jumped at this chance to read this "work of fiction inspired by history." To put it another way, this is a biography of Ada Lovelace written in the first person, which means that parts of it must be fictionalised.

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron, the poet, and Anne Isabella Noel Byron, 11th Baroness Wentworth and Baroness Byron. She was doubly unlucky in her parents, because her father was abusive and openly cheated on his wife and her mother managed to be both emotionally distant and manipulative at the same time. To avoid Ada from becoming 'insane' like her mother believed her father was, she was taught mathematics from an early age.

The book starts with the meeting and marriage of Lord Byron and Lady Byron (the only chapter to be written in the third person) and ends soon after Ada publishes her work on Charle's Babbage's Analytical Engine. Her work was supposed to be a translation of a French paper, but she added notes to it that soon eclipsed the original.

I found this book to be absorbing and hard to put down, although it's hard to know what was true and what is not - for example, Ada's gambling addiction is only very briefly mentioned. Since it was written in the first person, I very strongly felt for Ada and her different trials. Despite her privileged rank and her intellect, she was continually made to oppress her 'Byron side' and made to feel guilty for simply having feelings.

The chapter titles are all inspired by verses from Lord Byron's poems, which I thought was interesting.

If you want a purely factual biography, this is probably not a good idea. The author admits that liberties have been taken, although she tried to adhere as closely to the historical record as possible, so it's up to you to decide if you're comfortable with that.

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

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

It took me two tries to finish this book. I think that the first time I tried to pick it up (one or two years ago), I wasn’t quite in the mood for it because I gave up after a chapter. But this time, after having read The Wicked Boy and gotten used to the author's style, the book grabbed me and I enjoyed it very much.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is about the murder of Saville Kent and the detective, Jack Whicher. At a time where the Englishman’s home was considered inviolable territory, Jack Whicher (a working-class man, compared to the middle-class victims) had the nerve to ask the uncomfortable questions and show the ugly side of the family to the public.

Unfortunately for him, while he had fingered the right person for the crime, she was not prosecuted and he ended up in disgrace. At least he was vindicated when a confession was made and he managed to get back his career and confidence.

If you’re looking for a book that focuses solely on the crime or the detective, you are in the wrong place. While there is a lot of information on the family, the investigation, and even the career of Jack Whicher, the book also spends a lot of time discussing the influence of the case, on both the public and writers such as Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. This case has inspired The Secret of Lady Audley, The Moonstone, and the unfinished work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, among others. There is also plenty of discussion about how the detective came about, which I found to be very interesting.

I suppose the thing to note about the book is its style. It’s very factual and dispassionate, and I didn’t even sense the author’s opinions until the end. If you’re used to more personal true crime books, such as The Stranger Beside Me, you may find this a little dry.

Overall, I found this to be a very fascinating book. It goes beyond the murder mystery and explores the mood and thinking of the times. If you’re a fan of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and detective novels, you’ll probably want to read this to find out more about how the detective came about and how this case and it’s detective influenced the early writers of the mystery genre.

Friday, January 19, 2018

A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny

It's been far too long since I read Louise Penny. I remember starting the first Inspector Gamache novel, and now I've lost track of the last one that I've read. I grabbed A Trick of the Light, hoping that I didn't wildly misjudge which was the last book I read. While going back to Three Pines felt a little strange at first (I didn't recognise some of the incidents), it was good to be back.

In A Trick of the Light, Clara finally gets the artistic recognition she deserves with a solo exhibition. Everything seems to go well (or as well as it can go) until a body is found in Clara and Peter's garden the next day. Worse, the body is of someone Clara knows - Lillian, her one-time toxic best friend. Gamache is going to reach into her past if he's going to find out who's the killer.

In a way, this was a good book for getting back into the world of Three Pines because I've always had a soft spot for Clara. The development of her relationship with Peter was something that I've always seen coming and it was, in a way, cathartic to finally see what happens (hopefully that wasn't a spoiler). Anchoring the novel around her and her past made it easy for me to slip back into the world and I quickly remembered the other characters.

As more of the characters are revealed, the more the mystery unravels. Inspector Gamache and his team don't solve the mystery through fancy deductions of logic a la Holmes, but through hard work and by understanding the relationships between people. When the murderer is revealed, it feels like the right answer (although I did not manage to guess who it was).

Speaking of Inspector Gamache, it was a little heartbreaking to see the strain between him and Jean Guy, his protege. I don't recognise the incident that he talked about, the one that put the cracks in the relationship, but it made for a good subplot and I hope that it's solved in the next book (and I will be reading on to find out what happens).

If you're into people-centric mysteries, the Inspector Gamache series is for you. However, if this is the first time you've heard of the series, I would suggest that you start with the first book because the characters develop over the course of the books, and it would be strange to read them out of order.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Deluxe by Dana Thomas

I decided to borrow this book because the luxury industry is pretty interesting (at least from an economics standpoint). Luxury goods tend to be Veblen goods, with the demand increasing as prices go higher, unlike most goods. So when I saw this book, I decided to borrow it and see how the industry has changed.

Deluxe is a history and analysis of the luxury industry, starting from the 17th century to about 2005, near to the publish date of the book (2007). Most of the history and analysis centers on the Post World War II period, where the luxury industry became corporatised and a greater focus on the bottom-line came into play. The main claim that the book makes is that this focus on the bottom line has, in fact, cheapened the luxury industry, resulting in less exclusivity and quality. This is explored through issues such as fake luxury goods, the perfume and bag industry, and the luxury industiry in non-American and European markets (most notably Japan, with substantial sections on China, India, and Brazil).

Sadly, not much of the analysis focused on economics. It's a bit of a pity since the book claims that the luxury companies are now focusing on the mass market, and I would have liked to read an exploration of whether there was an economic contradiction in that. After all, luxury goods are Veblen goods, which imply that people buy these goods in order to signal a high status (conspicuous consumption), and a marketing shift towards the mass market could end up making these same consumers disinterested in the good, as it is now seen as something widely available and hence less of a status symbol.

Another issue I would have liked the book to explore would be the effect of counterfeiting on the demand for goods. The book talks about the increased quality of counterfeit goods and what the brands are doing for it, but I wonder how it affects demand. Does it reduce demand, because the good is no longer as exclusive, or does the counterfeit good train consumers to buy the real product? For example, are there any statistics on how many consumers start off by buying counterfeit goods (as aspirational symbols) and then 'graduate' to buying the real deal when they have enough money? That was a topic that I hoped would be explored but wasn't.

I just realised I've spent two paragraphs talking about what I hoped the book would have instead of what it does have so let's change focus now. What the book did a good job of was in interviewing people related to the luxury industry and weaving their knowledge into the broader view of the industry as a whole. While the account stops in the mid-2000s, it does provide a pretty comprehensive understanding of what the industry was like at that period of time and how it got there.

Speaking of time, the book did not feel as dated as I feared. I was warned by a friend that because the book was published in 2007, much of the luxury industry now is very different. While I don't know how much of that is true, I didn't find the book to feel very dated, the way some technology books are. There is a lot of emphasis on history (especially on the first part) and the analysis of the modern industry only appears in the second half of the book, which meant that the book felt fairly evergreen.

To sum, Deluxe is a readable account of the luxury industry. If you're interested in how the luxury industry has changed in the last few decades and don't mind not having the very latest information, I think this is a good read. Of course, if you're looking for economic analysis as well, you might want to look for another book.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Dark Dividing by Sarah Rayne

Reread this after Chord of Evil and it’s just as chilling as I remembered it! If I remember correctly, this was the first Sarah Rayne book that I read.

A Dark Dividing is a dual narrative with a dual narrative nestled within. The present day follows journalist Harry as he investigates an up and coming artist named Simone Anderson, with flashbacks to Simone's childhood.. The narrative in the past consists diary excerpts from Charlotte, who’s pregnant with twins. The present day narrative is slightly more complicated as Harry, Melissa (Simone’s Mother), Simone (as a child) and Rox (crazy nurse) are all POV characters. As the story continues, it’s clear that two sets of conjoined twins lie at the heart of the story.

And of course, there’s a sinister house named Mortmain...

The story could be extremely confusing, but the writing and pacing are extremely well-done and I wasn’t confused at all. Admittedly, this is a reread but I didn’t feel confused at all. The multiple POVs and time-shifts worked well to increase the tension of the book and the plot was well-paced as well.

My favourite part of the book is the dark and creepy tone. I looked and someone on the blurb called it a psychological thriller but it feels a lot more like horror to me. There is a dark undertone that’s present right from the start and it gave me chills, even during the day.

A note about characters: the two ‘baddies’ of the book - the creepy girl that Simone hears (hopefully that’s not a big spoiler) and Rosie were really well-developed. In particular, Rosie’s descent from a slightly odd character into madness and obsession was very well-written and felt natural (as odd as that sounded). There was a darkness in Rosie that grew and grew and in a way, she was the dark dividing.

If you’re into dark, creepy novels with deftly written dual narratives that tie together, you’ve got to read this (and other Sarah Rayne books). It’s got me wanting to reread more, and I probably will borrow whatever I can find from the library. And now, the question is: when will I get to the library?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Chord of Evil by Sarah Rayne

I requested this book because Sarah Rayne is one of the few horror writers that I enjoy (because I'm too much of a scaredy-cat to explore the horror genre). While I haven't read her works in a while - something that I should remedy soon - Chords of Evil has the same suspense and crescendoing dread that the other works have.

Chords of Evil is a story told in two time periods and through four points of view. It starts in the modern day, with Phineas Fox. His neighbour, Toby, asks for his help in finding his missing cousin Arabella. To be honest, the normalcy of the beginning threw me off, but the book after they find a mysterious painting, the book quickly shifts to Margot, who's a bit obsessed with her brother, and then back into the past to Giselle in Nazi-era Germany and then to one last character (not going to name her to avoid spoilers). As the different threads start to weave themselves together, the world of the story got darker and darker and I felt that familiar sense of dread creeping over me.

Sarah Rayne tends to be a master of the dual plot structure, but I'll admit that I was a bit confused initially. I'm not sure if it's just the ARC copy I received, but there was nothing to indicate a POV change, which meant that I ended up going back and rereading a couple of chapters because I got lost. To be fair, I did put the book down and I suppose that if I read the first few chapters in one sitting, this wouldn't have happened. But as the story progressed and I got a hang of who's who, the shifts in POV and time felt a lot smoother and instead of being confused, the tension increased with every change.

As for characters, I thought that Giselle and the other character in the past felt very well-rounded, while Phineas was a little more forgettable and Margot was just creepy. I also thought that Arabella verged on being just a bit too manic pixie dream girl-ish, but since she didn't really appear until the ending of the book, she ending up being more charming than anything.

To be honest, I don't think Chord of Evil is as good as some of her other books, like A Dark Dividing, Roots of Evil, Spider Light, or Ghost Song, which were the first few books of hers that I read - before this blog, or perhaps in its earliest days - and which I would dearly love to re-read again. But on the whole, it is a solid thriller and did a good job of creeping me out, even if the beginning was a bit rough.

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

Monday, January 15, 2018

You May Also Like by Tom Vanderbilt

I borrowed this book thinking it was going to be about the algorithms that recommend things to us (like YouTube videos and Amazon products). While that was mentioned, the book is actually about taste - why do we like what we do?

You May Also Like looks at the idea of taste and like by looking at specific areas. There are 6 chapters and each focuses on a different area, namely food, online reviews and recommendations, music playlists, art, beer and cats. There is some overlap between the chapters, but I managed to find different takeaways from each chapter.

From chapter 1 on food, the ideas that we think we want more choice than we do, and that the act of choosing something inclines us to liking it.

Chapter 2 on feedback in the internet age (aka algorithms) that fake reviews has less details about things like room size and location and more superlatives, not to mention more personal pronouns.

Also, the difference between a professional and amateur review is that the professional talks about reasons to like or dislike something while amateurs talk about why they like or dislike something (obviously my reviews fall into the amateur category)

Going on to chapter 3, I found the idea that as we get used to something difficult, we mistake perceptual fluency for liking something. In other words, the more you're exposed to something, the more you learn to like it.

Chapter 4 is on art and it suggests that we tend to see what we expect to see, rather than what is there.

In Chapter 5, one of the ideas introduced is that we don't expect our tastes to change as much as they do.

Finally, in chapter 6, the book considers the conundrum that a good beer (or cat or any other thing) is one that best represents the standard. But the standard is made out of criteria that people think make a beer good. So what makes a good beer? And the cycle goes on and on.

Even though this book wasn't quite what I expected, I found that I enjoyed it very much. I've never really thought about why I like the things I do, although looking back, I can see that my tastes have changed, especially when it comes to food. It was pretty interesting to read and think about why and how taste is defined.

If you're interested in non-fiction and the study of human behaviour, you may find this interesting. Through a wide variety of subjects, the book manages to explore different aspects of taste and likability, both personal and general.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

A friend recommended me this book and when I saw that it was a murder mystery by Anthony Horowitz, I had to pick it up. I really enjoyed the Alex Rider series and so I had really high hopes for this! (There aren’t any teenage spies in this though)

Magpie Murders is a murder mystery about a murder mystery. Susan Ryeland is the editor of Alan Conway, who writes the Atticus Pünd mysteries. She (and the reader) starts reading the book, but then she finds that the last chapter, the most important one where the murderer is revealed, is missing. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem but Alan Conway dies. Everyone thinks it’s a suicide by Susan disagrees and starts investigating (supposedly to find the missing chapters but really for the murder)

The Alan Pünd mystery, which is also titled Magpie Murders, hearkens back to the golden age of detective fiction with a foreign detective (who is German, not Belgium) investigating a mystery in an English town not far from Bath. The mystery starts with the death of the housekeeper and then ramps it up with the death of the unpopular rich guy of the place.

What I loved about this book is how much it celebrated the mystery. It sounds weird for a mystery to talk about the genre, but the meta mystery-within-a-mystery thing gave the book the perfect vehicle to celebrate all that is good about the genre. There are tons of references to various classics, and Agatha Christie’s grandson even has a cameo in the book!

Personally, I preferred the Atticus Pünd mystery compared to the Alan Conway mystery, but that’s because I have a soft spot for Agatha Christie and her contemporaries. I also appreciate how the first third of the book was the Atticus Pünd mystery followed by the Alan Conway mystery rather than alternating between the two. By putting most of the chapters together, I was able to lose myself in the story within the story rather than see it as a plot device.

In short, if you’re a mystery fan (and especially if you’re a golden age of mystery fan), you need to read this. The double mystery and all the references make this to be a really fun book.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Field Guide for Immersion Writing by Robin Hemley

As I was preparing for last year's trip to England, I started looking for travel-related books. One of the books that caught my eye was A Field Guide for Immersion Writing and even though it wasn't a travel guide/memoir, I decided to read it.

The book is divided into five chapters (six sections, if you count the introduction). The introduction introduces the concept of immersion writing, chapter one talks about the immersion memoir, chapter two is about immersion journalism, chapter three about travel writing, chapter four about ethics and legal considerations, and chapter five about story (book and magazine) proposals. Each chapter ends with exercises for the reader.

Personally, the introduction felt a little scatter-shot and I briefly considered abandoning the book, but I was hooked in the first chapter. The definition of the immersion memoir, which I really liked, is that “the immersion memoirist is interested in self-revelation or evaluation while using the outside world as his/her vehicle.” Basically, you’re looking at yourself by looking at outside events.

The first three chapters basically go through the different types of immersion writing in these similar but not identical genres. No matter if you’re a memoirist, travel writer, or journalist, if you’re doing immersion writing, you can divide immersion writing into five categories:

1. Re-enactment
2. Experiment
3. Infiltration
4. Investigation (for memoirs, this is more for biographies than autobiographies)
5. Quest

Through this book, I’ve realised that a lot of books that I’ve read are immersion writing, and I enjoy most of it. Of course, there are a lot more books that I haven’t read and I could see my TBR list growing as I read (hopefully I can get to them soon).

If you’re interested in what this genre of writing is about and you’re looking for books to read (or you want to write a book yourself), you should definitely read this.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I’ve heard of it. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is an exploration of a (not so) modern phenomenon - public shaming. By talking to many people who have been shamed one way or the other and how they’ve adapted to it, Jon Ronson tries to understand the issue.

People interviewed in this book included Justine Stacco (of the misguided tweet), Mike Daisy (of This American Life’s Apple factory episode infamy), Lindsey Stone (of the disrespectful photo) and many more. Along the way, Jon Ronson also explores the idea of the mob mentality, the radical honesty movement, and if our google search results are forever.

By the end of the book, Jon Ronson reaches the conclusion that “we see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age [...] We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside it.”

I agree with this observations, but I’m in two minds about whether it’s good or bad. On one hand, we should allow people to have a diverse range of opinions. On the other hand, we shouldn’t condone hate speech against other races, religions, or people advising others to do unethical or illegal things. So where do we draw the line? Can we draw a line?

What I liked about this book was the portrayal of the various people interviewed. Some of them were exposed for things I would personally find repugnant, but I found empathy for all of them. The only one I didn’t like was Adria Richards, because she was an unrepentant hypocrite (although no one should ever have to go through what she has). On the other hand, the man she (wrongly) shamed was a lot more likeable and sympathetic.

In conclusion, if you’re interested in exploring the issue of modern public shaming and how people react to it, you should give this book a go. Just a word of caution: some of the chapters involve a discussion of things like BDSM so I wouldn’t recommend this to younger teens.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Mansions of Murder by Paul Doherty

I requested this from NetGalley because I really like the Shardlake series and the blurb for this historical mystery reminded me of it.

The Mansions of Murder follows Brother Athelstan as he investigates a most perplexing mystery. First, there's a locked room (locked Church) murder of two strong men. And then two preserved bodies are found in the house of a recently deceased, upstanding member of his parish. The mysteries seem unconnected at first, but as Brother Athelstan and coroner, Sir John Cranston investigate, the signs point towards a gang leader nicknamed 'the Flesher', who also happens to be someone Cranston hates due to their history.

What I liked about this book was its descriptive language. I could picture the grimness of medieval England through the prose and it is definitely not a place that I would like to visit.

However, the language can sometimes work against the story. It was so descriptive that it took me a very long time to be able to form an impression of Brother Athelstan and Sir John Cranston characters. I even got lost in the text a few times. Plus, there was a very long conversation (almost a monologue) to reveal the backstory which I thought was a bit heavy-handed.

I admit that while I understood the ending, I still don't understand how they got to the ending. Perhaps it's because I got overwhelmed by the language, and while I have a very good sense of how England was in the 14th century, I don't have a good sense of how the story flowed. This is probably suited for fans of historical fiction who value setting. And I suppose I should have started from the first book, rather than the jumping in midway.

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

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

I picked this up because it sounded fun (and it's always good to know about the language I grew up speaking) and I found this to be a fun, topical look at the English language.

The Mother Tongue starts off with an introduction of English, moves on to the topic of language in general and the history of English, and then goes on to explore various aspects of the language, such as spelling, dialects, and why Americans speak different English.

The prose is readable and the topics are engaging. And from what I can find, what he says about the English language is supported by other researchers.

But, I would advise everyone to take what he says about foreign languages with a large grain of salt. In the introduction, he says that “In Japanese, the word for foreigner means ‘stinking of foreign hair.’” Obviously, I was surprised by this because I’ve never heard this, not even as a slang word. After some googling, the closest word I could find that resembles what he says is バタ臭い (bata kusai), which translates to “stinks of butter.” It’s a Showa-era term that is now obsolete. However, the online dictionaries have it defined as referring to something or someone that looks Western, sort of like the term “Banana”.

He also says that in China, the telephone is “te le fung”, which surprised me because I always thought it was 电话 (dianhua). But I’ll admit that my Chinese isn’t the best, not to mention that Singaporean Chinese is slightly different from Mainland Chinese, and it might be another obsolete/regional word.

If you’re a fan of the English language and would like to know more about its history and peculiarities, you’ll want to read it. Just be suspicious about claims regarding foreign languages.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus

I heard about this book when Lectus reviewed it and since she gave it four stars, I was pretty sure that I was going to like it. So I immediately placed a hold on it and once it came, I ended up devouring the entire book in one sitting.

One of Us is Lying is basically a mystery. Four students, who basically represent the jock, the pretty girl, the studious nerd, and the bad boy are framed for detention. Along with them is Simon, the guy who publishes gossip about the students, gossip which is always true. When Simon dies from an allergic reaction, suspicion falls on the four students. Things do not get better when blogposts from the 'killer' start turning up and secrets start to be revealed.

Since the book is told from the four viewpoints, I was a little afraid that I was going to get confused (this happens more often than I'd like to admit because sometimes all characters sound the same). But all four characters turned out to have distinct personalities and their own character arcs, and I not only had no problems following the story, I got so curious about the ending that I went to spoil it for myself.

The four characters are:

- Addy, the pretty girl dating one of the most popular guys in school. I actually like her the best, probably because the relationship she was in infuriated me so much that I cheered the moment she started to grow. Plus Addy is a good friend to the other characters and that was something that I appreciated.

- Bronwyn, the studious nerd. I thought her romance was pretty predictable, but I liked her well-enough and she was basically the driving force for them to find out what was going on.

- Cooper, the jock. He was a really sympathetic character and one of the few people who stuck with Addy when she became an outcast.

- Nate, the bad boy who has a past with Bronwyn. He has perhaps the most stereotypical role but it never felt cliched when I was reading the story.

Writing this out, I realise that this book could have been extremely cliched. But the story manages to rise above the stereotypes and is an engrossing mystery. I like that all four characters had their own character arc and all of them were equally fleshed out and carried their share of the story well. I would definitely recommend this.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Real Artists Don't Starve by Jeff Goins

I first heard about Jeff Goins on The Creative Penn podcast, and with me in a writing rut, I decided to try and read this to try and motivate me. And after reading this, I really wish that I've read the book sooner (and that I own a copy) because it is incredibly inspiring.

Real Artists Don't Starve tries to debunk the myth of the starving artist, that if you're in the creative field, you shouldn't expect to make money. To do that, the book is organised into three parts:

Part 1: Mind-set talks about the myths related to what it means to be an artist and what it means to be a creative person

Part 2: Market talks about the myths related to art and what it means to be a professional

Part 3: Money talks about the myths related to art and making money of it (it's actually very similar to part 2 and they could probably be combined into one section).

These three parts cover the 12 principles, and each principle is explored in detail. The ones that struck me during this reading were:

- "Most significant change begins with a simple step, not a giant leap": People don't magically wake up and become artists. I didn't wake up with a finished book. Art is completed by taking one small step at a time - writing a couple of pages a day, taking lessons, etc. It reminded me that the daily writing habit that I've lost is invaluable.

- "Great artists do not try to be original. They copy of the work of both masters and peers": this does not mean that we should be plagiarists (the book is very clear on that). This principle says that we should learn the rules of our art so thoroughly that when we break them, we know what we're doing. And we learn the rules by watching and modelling ourselves after masters and other peers in our field.

- the big break is a myth: people get lucky at some time, but a lot of 'breakout stars' have a lot of hard work behind them which means that we need to put in the work instead of hoping that someone looks at us and recognises our 'genius'

- you must surround yourself with fellow artists: not only to learn from, but because a network is how you get discovered. With the internet, we can find a community no matter where we are.

- "Promotion isn't something an artist avoids; it's an essential part of the job": Art needs and audience and as an artist, we have to find an audience. I am always reluctant to self-promote/do marketing, but it's true that no one will find me if I don't make myself easy to find, so this is something that I need to work on.

- "Charging brings dignity to our work": a lot of people expect free stuff, but it's part of human nature to value what we paid for more highly than something we got for free. As an artist, we should be comfortable asking people to pay for our art (of course, the other side of the argument is that for fields like books, we might need to give something for free so that people don't have a barrier to try our work. And ideally after they read it, they buy the rest)

- we must learn how to take appropriate risks: it might be romantic to think of art in all or nothing terms, but you cannot make good art if you aren't fulfilling your basic needs. Ways you can support your art includes:

a. Selling it to the market (what I'm trying to do)

b. Finding patrons (and patrons aren't just one or two wealthy people, they are everyone who helps support you)

c. Find a way to support your work yourself: this can be via a part-time job or by teaching your art, etc.

- "Own your work": this is more for fields where copyright is important (like characters or books), but it's important not to sell the copyright to your works too early and to take a careful look at the terms first, because your rights are what will help bring long-term financial security.

This book was definitely inspiring. The next step will be to try and convince my brain to act on all the inspiration that I've gotten. I'll probably be rereading this when I'm more settled in Singapore and I'll definitely be checking out other books by Jeff Goins.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Captivate by Vanessa Van Edwards

I just started a job doing customer service and since my people skills are not the best, I borrowed this book to see if there was anything I could do to improve it. Turns out that this isn't really about customer service, so there's not much that I may be able to use, but I found it interesting.

Captivate is divided into three sections: the first five minutes, the first five hours, and the first five days. It takes you from how to make a good first impression, to how to read people (and here I thought microexpressions were basically used in that one TV show), and how to interact with people of different personalities. Tips in the book include:

- Be memorable by highlighting people's highpoints
- Build a sense of connection by emphasising on your commonalities
- Get people to do assigned work but delegating the work by skills and assigning people to tasks that they're good at.
- Don't be afraid to ask for advice or show yourself to be less than perfect.

There's a personality test on the site linked to the book, and I took it took. Unfortunately, neither the book nor the guide gave an interpretation key, but if I'm not wrong, I'm high neuroticism and extraversion and slightly low openness, agreeability and low conscientious. In other words, I'm a worrier, very talkative, not very good at working in groups and can be seen as sloppy and unreliable. How accurate that is, I have no idea. I have found that the results I get from a personality test changes depending on my mood when I take the test and I have no idea if this is different from the rest.

Overall, I think this is an interesting book. I'm not sure how true it is, given that some have called the accuracy of studies in the field of social psychology into question, but it's definitely food for thought. Perhaps I will reread this in the future and see if there's anything more I can glean from it.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale is one of my top reads for 2017 and I was super excited when I was invited to review the sequel! And then my heart broke when the NetGalley page said that my email wasn't included. But luckily, I managed to contact the person who invited me to review and get the ecopy!

The Girl in the Tower picks up where The Bear and the Nightingale leaves off. Vasya has managed to subdue the Bear, but the villagers still think that she's a witch. Desperate not to be sent to a convent or married off, Vasya runs away with her horse, Solovey. Disguising herself as a boy, she runs into her beloved brother Sasha and ends up in the middle of fight between the Grand Prince of Moscow and the bandits burning down the city.

A lot of sequels fail to live up to the first book but The Girl in the Tower is just as fascinating and absorbing. Most of the key characters from the first book - Vasya, Solovey who is the best horse ever, and Morozko the frost demon - are here and minor characters like Sasha get their day in the sun. I love the fact that I recognised Sasha and the other characters because they were in the first book, so their appearance and expanded role felt natural.

Oh and by the way, Konstantin (the priest) appears too. He doesn't have as big a role as he did in The Bear and the Nightingale, but he is still as misguidedly evil and irredeemable as ever.

Another thing: I'm not a big fan of romance so I liked that there were no forced romances or love triangles in this. Vasya makes the choice to leave to avoid getting married and I'm glad the book doesn't sabotage that decision by having her fall in love. There is something between her and Morozko, but it's a doomed romance and I like that they didn't force it. Plus it sort of carried over from the previous book (though it wasn't as obvious so I didn't talk about it in my review) so I didn't find it weird.

If you loved (or even just liked - although I don't believe that's possible) The Bear and the Nightingale, you need to pick up The Girl in the Tower. The series continues to enchant and although you can read both as standalone novels, many elements of the first book were so naturally carried over and developed in the second in a way that made The Girl in the Tower even more of a delight to read.

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