Thursday, April 26, 2018

Plain Secrets by Joe Mackall

A few years ago, I had this Amish fiction binge and I’ve remained curious about them ever since. When I heard that there was a book that wrote about them accurate and compassionately, I knew that I had to read it.

Plain Secrets is a fairly short book (only twelve chapters!) about Joe and his friendships with his Amish neighbours, the Shetlers. His neighbours are respected in their community and show no hint of dissatisfaction, but one of their nephews, Jonas, has left the Amish. By talking to Jonas and being a good neighbour and friend to the Shetlers, Joe shows us why people would stay Amish, and why people would leave.

I thought that this approach made the book very even-handed. Even though Joe cares dearly for his friends and values them, he also feels frustration at some of the things they do, such as continuing to drive in buggies (which are really no match for cars). I especially felt his frustration when he told me that many Amish don’t vaccinate their kids, which was also something that surprised me.

And occasionally, Joe also talks about the differences within the Amish. The way he adds the info always felt appropriate and I learnt a lot. I knew there was a difference between a Mennonite and the Amish, but I didn’t realise that there were so many differences between the Amish too. The degree to which they separate themselves from our world depends on the order that they belong to.

If you’re interested in reading about a group of people who live completely different lives from us, I think you’ll like this book. It’s not some shocking, scandalous expose, but it taught me more about the Amish. I’ll end my review with the last sentence of the book, which I really liked:
"And the beauty and truth of it is this: That to these plain people, in these times and in all others, the values that reign supreme are community, acceptance, and faith, which can, with prayer and a little luck, lead to peace."

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Staircase of Fire by Ben Woodard

When Ben Woodard asked me if I wanted to review The Staircase of Fire, I said yes because I enjoyed his first book in this series, A Stairway to Danger. It's been some time, so I don't really remember what happened in A Stairway to Danger, but The Staircase of Fire read well as a standalone novel.

The Staircase of Fire starts when Rose, an African American lady, insists on her right to vote. In the extremely racist town of Shakertown, this is something that cannot be stood for and Rose and her son, James, decide to leave. But on their way out, things go very wrong and everything is witnessed by Tom, who's still dealing with the guilt from his sisters' death. Scared to say a word, Tom resolves to find the Shake gold and leave this town for good.

While the start of the novel feels like a mystery, this is really more of a bildungsroman. Yes, Tom does hunt down clues to find the gold but this story is really about Tom coming to grips with his past and with the society he lives in. It's about him growing up and deciding what kind of man he wants to be. The search for the gold is a small part of the book compared to Tom's journey.

Like I mentioned before, Tom grows a lot in this book and I really enjoyed reading his journey. It seems like almost every white character is racist in some way (which is historically accurate) and it was refreshing to see Tom learn to break out of the narrow-minded thinking that he had and which surrounds him.

Just a note of warning: apart from some violence, there is mention of sex and sexual assault in the book. It's nothing explicit, but if you're sensitive or if you want to give this to a younger kid to read, you might want to keep it in mind.

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

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Meet Me in Atlantis by Mark Adams

I decided to borrow this book because I quite like reading about weird stuff, even if I don’t necessarily believe in it. Meet Me in Atlantis is Mark Adam’s account of his attempts to find the fabled lost city.

And I must say, I’m a bit envious of how much travel he did. He visited the proposed sites for Atlantis, such as Santorini, Morroco, and Malta. Along the way, he meets and talks with a number of Atlantologists to hear and think about their theories before presenting his theory on what happened.

What I liked about this book is that it didn’t purport to know the truth about where Atlantis was or if it even existed. While Adams respects the people he talks to and tries to understand where they come from, he also readily expresses his doubts about their theories.

Through all these conversations, I got to learn quite a bit about the theories about Atlantis. Although I must confess to being a complete noob because I didn’t even know that this whole thing originated with Plato (which is why a lot of people start with “was this a story of Plato or history”).

Oh, and I admit to being happy when I read about the cult of Pythagoras because I heard about it on Tanis. Pretty nice to see something I heard about referenced in another book - and if anyone knows a good book about Pythagoras, let me know!

Overall, I enjoyed this. I don’t think I’m going to go out and read all the books about Atlantis available, but the next time I listen to a podcast that references conspiracy theories rooted in Ancient Greek culture, I’ll actually know what they’re talking about.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

Even though this book is really famous (and for good reason), I only got around to reading it today because my brother went and watched the play with his school and I wanted to be able to talk about it with him.

The Curious Incident About the Dog in the Nighttime is a book ‘written’ by Christopher. Christopher is crazy smart when it comes to math, and like my brother, doesn’t like bananas and doesn’t have much people skills.

The story begins when Christopher finds Wellington, the next door neighbour’s dog, dead and decides to investigate. His investigation brings up a revelation - namely that his mother, who he thought was dead, is actually alive and living in London. So this is slightly less of a mystery and more of a story about Christopher trying to make his way in the world.

Of course, I really, really liked Christopher because he reminded me so much of my brother! I think the characterisation of someone with relatively high-functioning autism was well done and I really felt all his pain. And the last line of the book! Seriously those lines could make me cry (look away if you don’t want spoilers):

"And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington? and I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything."

Yes, Christopher, you really can do anything (‘:

And I asked my brother for his thoughts on the story and he says that he liked it very much because he could relate to Christopher but his classmates kept turning to look at him. I hope the play taught them a bit more empathy.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Gutenberg's Fingerprint by Merilyn Simonds

I chanced upon this on the library and it was an immediate borrow for me! Gutenberg’s Fingerprint is a story about how a book is made and the history of books (and ebooks).

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint starts when Marilyn teams up with Hugh, from Three Hellbox Press, to publish a limited edition run of her collection of flash fiction called The Paradise Project.

As Marilyn digs deep into the process of making a book - from making the paper to typesetting to stitching the papers together - she talks about the history of the book. At the same time, she’s preparing an ebook version of The Paradise Project, which gives her opportunities to muse about ebooks and the future of books.

Merilyn is clearly passionate about books, both as an object and for the things they mean. When she talked about picking a font, I started getting interested even though I’m normally a default font kind of person (although I admit that I like to write in Garamond).

She’s also even-handed about ebooks too. While she loves the printed word, she also talks about the advantages of ebooks as well.

That said, she’s not very accurate when it comes to self-publishing. The stats she cites are those that don’t include Amazon, although it would have been easy enough for her to go to Author Earnings (and the book was published in 2017 so the data should have been available when she wrote it).

Plus, she makes the claim that it’s harder to survive as a writer now when a quick look at people like Mark Dawson, Joanna Penn, or even the people at Kboards make a convincing case that it is, in fact, easier than ever to make a living as a writer.

Overall, I really enjoyed this. This book is basically an exploration of the book with a fellow bibliophile, making it a very fun read. I’m glad I read this in the printed form too.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Down to Oath by Tyrolin Puxty

When I was invited to join the blog tour for Down to Oath, I immediately said yes because I’ve loved every single one of Tyrolin’s books so far!

Down to Oath proved to be no exception as I got sucked into Codi’s world. Codi appeared, fully formed, in Oath, a drab, boring town. But unlike the other residents, Codi wants something different. She wants colour and she wants pattern and she wants to shake things up. One day, she meets a child version of herself and realises that there are three other worlds. From there, the story really takes off as Codi and her other selves (Little Codi, Thorn) try to discover why their there and what it means to leave their worlds.

And I must say, the world building here is fantastic! I really loved the concept of the four worlds - Oath, Pledge, Bond, and Word and the idea that each world has its own distinctive characteristics.

As for Codi (Creative Codi), it was pretty interesting to see her come to terms with her selves. Little Codi could be a bit of a brat but was mostly adorable. Thorn (warrior Codi) and Creative Codi quarrelled a lot so the way their friendship developed was exciting. The last Codi, Willow, I didn’t get to see much of, which was a pity.

The story is told from Codi’s point of view. Truth be told, the beginning reminded me of the narrative style in the Broken Dolls series, but the story soon grabbed me and I stopped comparing it with [broken doll character]

If you’re a fan of weird worlds and exciting adventures, you definitely have to pick it up. I’m definitely looking forward to the next book in the series.

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

Monday, April 16, 2018

How to Make a Zombie by Frank Swain

My brother spotted this book in the library and asked me to borrow it because in his words, “I don’t want to attract suspicion.” But I ended up reading it first and it’s really interesting!

How to make a zombie is all about the science of the undead (or living dead). From Voodou zombies that use fugu poison to induce a state similar to death to Russian experiments reviving a decapitated dog’s head, the book takes a look at the various ways people have tried to raise the dead and the ways we may be zombies. The latter part is more on the insects and animal kingdom and there are a surprising number of insects who not only lay their eggs in a living host but who can manipulate the host to act in ways disadvantageous to its survival. Which makes my fear of insects seem a lot more rational now.

I really liked the later chapters, which were about how 'zombies' are being created today. The first part, which is on zombies created the natural way, is more on whether you can resuscitate a dead body. It's pretty interesting, but one can only read about so many failed methods. I thought the chapters on how brains can be taken over and actions influenced to be much more interesting, although they aren't really traditional zombie stuff (although I suppose if you take a traditional zombie as the "fake death than hypnotised to be a slave then it's somewhat similar).

Not a science major so I can’t speak to the accuracy of its contents, but this was an engaging read. I liked the humour mixed into the book (especially the Japanese-based pun) and chuckled more than a few times. This is definitely pop-science but it's enjoyable and that's what counts.

Definitely for aspiring mad scientists or people who like weird pop science books.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

I think that compared to other series, I finished the Southern Reach series in the shortest amount of time. But that's a good thing because if the details of Annihilation and Authority were not still fresh in my mind, I doubt that I would understand much of Acceptance. And because of that, expect spoilers for the first two books in the series.

Acceptance picks up directly from where Authority stopped, with Ghost Bird, now revealed to be a clone of the biologist, and Control wandering around Area X. The chapters from their POV are interspersed with chapters from Saul, the lighthouse keeper before Area X was Area X, and Gloria, the director and little girl that used to live in Area X, as she tried to carry out her work. Each person told a different part of the story, but they all filled in one bigger puzzle.

Ghost Bird, Control, and Saul told their stories in third person, but Gloria told hers in second. I'm not too sure what was the effect - perhaps to make us feel closer to her? - but it wasn't unpleasant and I appreciated finding out a little more about Control's mother. I did prefer the third person POV chapters though, because they were a little easier to understand. Then again, perhaps that's why Gloria told her story in second person; it's a little unnerving and she is an unnerving person.

That said, answers are still scant. We do get to find out more about the origin of Area X and why Grace was so hostile to Control, as why as why the Director went on the expedition to Area X, but we don't receive any concrete answers as to why Area X exists or why Control's family is involved. Things are hinted at and I think a second reading might prove more illuminating, but I still have a lot of questions.

If you read as far as Authority, then you need to finish the series and read Acceptance. I feel that these three books are highly dependent on each other (except perhaps the Annihilation, if you're okay with uncertainty over the fate of the Biologist) and these books need to be read in close succession to each other if you want to understand what's going on. And now, I feel like I'm ready for the Netflix movie.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett

Well, here it is. The last Discworld novel. I was both excited and sad to read this; excited because I love Discworld and found this series through the Tiffany Aching books and sad because this is the end (it's amazing that I managed to postpone my reading of it for so long). And like with the other Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett did not disappoint. There are mild spoilers for the series (especially the Witches line of books) below so be warned.

The Shepherd's Crown starts off with the death of Granny Weatherwax. Which I quite mixed up with the death of Miss Treason and got momentarily confused (despite them not being alike. But you don't expect Granny Weatherwax to die). And with the death of Granny Weatherwax comes a hole and a thinning of the barriers. As her appointed successor, acknowledged by You and the bees, Tiffany takes over Granny's steading and runs herself ragged going between Granny's place and the Chalk. But even though Tiffany is an immensely capable witch, the barrier is still thin and the elves are plotting.

I must say that this book feels so fitting in so many ways. Apart from my personal experience of having the Tiffany Aching novels be my introduction to the series (although I haven't read quite a few Rincewind books and the conman one so this isn't the end for me), this fourth book has so many echoes of the first book. There are the elves, for one, and Tiffany makes another pivotal step forward as a witch.

And as someone who was very excited about Tiffany and her relationship with Preston, I was excited to see him mentioned here. Sadly, it wasn't a happily ever after, but they both seem to be happy so I'm happy for her. And of course, I loved loved loved reading about Tiffany's journey as she learns more about who she is.

The Nac Mac Feegles also play a pretty big part in the book and it was a pleasure, as always, to read them. They even managed to get Lord Vetinari to say 'Crivens', which is something I definitely was not expected.

If you're a Discworld fan, and especially if you're a Tiffany Aching fan, you need to read this. The Tiffany Aching series might be for YA readers but Discworld fans of any age will enjoy this.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Strange Contagion by Lee Danial Kravetz

I picked this up because it sounded interesting! Strange Contagion is about how emotions and behaviours can spread, which is definitely not something that I thought about before.

Strange Contagion starts when Lee Daniel Kravetz moves to Palo Alto and a student from the local high school jumps in front of a train. That’s sad, but what’s scary is that students from that school started to jump/tried to jump after that trigger incident, prompting him to look into why this was happening.

To be honest the whole suicide being catching thing reminds me a lot of the film Suicide Club, but this book is nonfiction and makes a lot more sense. The author goes to talk with the leading experts in this field and takes us along with him, allowing us to learn that:

- We mirror people unconsciously

- We can catch both positive and negative behaviours and emotions

- Leaders matter. They will impact how people feel.

- On a related note, one toxic coworker can bring down an entire workplace

- We can get primed to do things: this basically means we can pick up the goals of someone else and we’ll end up thinking we thought of the goal ourselves

- While behaviours do spread like bacteria, it’s possible to interrupt the spread by training people to recognise and stop the behaviour. That’s how the Cure Violence model managed to reduce killings by 56% and shootings by 44% in Baltimore (among other success stories)

- When we ruminate, we continue to ‘infect’ ourselves

- Training ourselves to have a nuanced understanding of emotions can help us lead more emotionally healthier lives (like the other book I read!)

- We may be able to reach a ‘resistance point’ for negative viral emotions and behaviours, but eradication is unlikely.

- Community is both the cure and the means of spread.

All in all, I thought this was a very good read. I didn’t quite realise how much of an effect I could have on others, or that others could have on me. So now that I know, I have one more ‘tool’ I could use to make sense of my emotions when they threaten to overcome me.

The only thing I wish the book would add would be a summary chapter. We basically follow the author through his journey and pick up the information at the same time as him. That made it a little harder to put things together (things didn’t really merge into a whole until I started writing down the points I bookmarked), so a chapter summarising everything would have helped a lot.

I think you’d be interested in this book if you want to know more about human behaviour and what affects it. It doesn’t provide all the answers, but it is an interesting look into how we can ‘catch’ feelings and behaviours from the people around us.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

As you know, I love fairytales. Normally this is just about read them and about them, but now, I found a novel based Dortchen Wild! If you haven’t heard of her, Dortchen Wild was Wilhelm Grimm’s wife and one of the key contributors of fairytales.

While there is, sadly, not much material on Dortchen Grimm, Kate Forsyth has used what she could find to write the love story of Dortchen and Wilhelm, starting from their meeting when Dortchen is twelve to when they get married when Dortchen is thirty one. Woven into their love story are the fairytales that she tells Wilhelm and his brother Jakob.

And don’t think that because I said “fairytales” that this is a happy story. It’s not. If you’ve read the first edition of the Grimm’s fairy tales, you’ll know that their stories were very dark and not for kids. [MILD SPOILER ALERT] Likewise, The Wild Girl is dark because Kate Forsyth theorises that some of the changes between the first and second edition of the Grimm tales were made to protect someone they knew who suffered abuse (in this case Dortchen)

Apart from seeing how fairytales came to be (or could come to be), I thought the historical time period in this book was absolutely frightening. The Wild and Grimm families lived through Napoleon’s reign, which means that they lived through some pretty harsh times that the book does not shy away from exploring. There’s also quite a bit of information about herbs as Dortchen’s father runs a medicine shop.

The characters in this book were really well-written. I felt the pain of Dortchen, felt annoyance at her sister Gretchen, smiled at the exuberance of her best friend Lotte Grimm, and basically went through the whole emotion range while reading this. It really is a very intense read.

Fans of the history of fairytales will appreciate the afterword and short but informative section on the sources of fairytales.

If you’re in the mood for a meticulously researched and well-written novel about one of the key women behind the Grimm tales, you have to pick this up. It’s a fantastic and intense story.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Longbourn by Jo Baker

I love Pride and Prejudice so when I heard that there’s a book written about the servants at Longbourn, aka the Bennett’s house, I knew that I had to read it.

Longbourn follows the lives of the Bennett servants, focusing on Sarah, one of the housemaids. When the book starts, she’s working for the Bennett’s, washing all the muddy petticoats (something Lizzie doesn’t have to think about). But then one day, a mysterious young man called James Smith comes to work as a footman. Sarah tries to start off on the right foot with him but James just avoids her. Luckily for her, the Bingleys have a doorman that seems to be interested in her.

The events in this novel happen in parallel with Pride and Prejudice. Each chapter starts with a line from P&P, but though the events of P&P influence Longbourn, you don’t actually see much of the original book.

Although we do see Elizabeth and Jane through the eyes of Sarah and Mrs Hill, the housekeeper. They seem like their original selves, but ignorant to the world of the lower classes. I probably enjoyed reading about them the most because I really do love Lizzie Bennett.

To be honest, I didn’t expect myself to get so invested in Sarah’s story. I picked this book up for the Bennetts, but then I fell in love with the characters here. The only thing I don’t get (SPOILERS AHEAD) are Sarah’s romances. I can sort of get her and Bingley’s footman because they did talk but her and James? They avoided each other! Luckily, once their in love, their actions made a lot more sense and I ended up rooting for the two of them.

If you’d like a fresh take on Pride and Prejudice and don’t mind the original characters making just cameos (okay, they make more than just a cameo), you definitely have to read Longbourn. It’s a lovely read that hooked me and got me to finish it in one sitting.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Do You Believe in Magic? by Paul A. Offit

It would be really funny if I read this book while eating some vitamins or other alternative medicine things but I read it while eating chips (okay I only did this for the last few chapters). Which probably isn’t the healthiest thing to do, come to think of it.

Do You Believe in Magic is a book about alternative medicine. Each chapter looks at a particular cure, going into its history and the (lack of) science behind it. Areas covered are:

- Vitamins and supplements
- Hormone replacement
- Autism ‘cures’
- Chronic Lyme disease and how it isn’t real
- Curing Cancer
- Alternative medicine and children
- Homeopathy

Apart from looking at specific areas of alternative medicine (which really should be called “medicine that doesn’t work”), Offit also looks at the power of the placebo effect.

Now, the author isn’t against TCM or other herbs. He acknowledges that traditional folk medicine has contained remedies that science has verified. What the author is against is unverified/verifiably false cures that sell false hope, and in some cases, result in deaths that could have been prevented. There is a line between placebo medicine and quackery and the author is not afraid to draw it.

I found this book to be eye-opening. I already heard of some of this stuff, but I wasn’t aware as to how damaging some of the ‘alternative medicines’ can be, or how scientifically false they are. It’s particularly heartbreaking to read about how parents are harming their kids and/or depleting their lifesavings because they end up falling for these hucksters.

If you’re interested in the field of homeopathy or alternative medicine, you have to read this book. It’s a well-written explanation about how much you can trust the alternative medicine industry and its proponents and will definitely open your eyes to their practices. And if you want to read more, I recently found this blog called Naturopathic Diaries ( where an ex-Naturopath pulls back the curtain on her Industry.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Floating Admiral by the Detection Club

This is my third Detection Club book and I picked it up because Christie, Chesterton, and to a smaller extent Sayers contributed to it (sorry Sayers but I love Christie and Chesterton a lot more).

Unlike Ask a Policeman, where the authors played with each other’s characters, and The Anatomy of Murder, The Floating Admiral is a straightforward round-robin novel. The body of Admiral Penistone is found in a floating boat and Inspector Rudge is called upon to investigate. As Rudge investigates, he realises that the case is far from straightforward - what does the vicar and a hasty marriage have to do with the murder? Do they have anything to do with the murder?

I definitely enjoyed this a lot more than Ask a Policeman, although not as much as The Anatomy of Murder. The styles of the various writers meshed together pretty well, except for Chesterton, who wrote a lyrical prologue that only makes sense at the end. The mystery was also interesting, although you can definitely sense that some writers just threw in things to make it more complicated.

I also found the appendix to be interesting. The writers give their solutions for the murders there and it was clear that each writer had their own way of plotting a mystery. Some were very detailed (Sayers) while some were very brief (Jepson). All were pretty convincing to me, although as the story developed some solutions became less plausible than others.

If you’re a fan of golden age mysteries and of the Detection Club, I think you would enjoy this book! It’s a fun mystery and I could tell that the writers had a lot of fun with this.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa by Michael Finkel

I'm a fan of true-crime books which is why I picked this up, but True Story is a little different from most true crime books. Instead of focusing solely on the crime, the book devotes equal attention to the author and his relationship with the main suspect.

True Story starts with Michael Finkel being exposed for making up large parts of his New York Times story on child labour. At the same time, he finds out that Christian Longo, who was recently captured for the brutal murder of his entire family, had impersonated him while running from the law. Lured by the prospect of a story, Finkel reached out to Longo and eventually develops a relationship with him. The book juggles Finkel's own journalistic past with his developing friendship with Longo and an account of the murders.

Longo's acts were horrific. There's really no getting around it — he killed his wife, Mary Jane, and his three children before escaping to Mexico and having a week of fun. And even knowing that, Finkel finds himself drawn into a friendship with Longo. While he tries to convince himself that it's just to get a good story, he finds himself opening up to Longo more and more. It really hammered home the point that some of the most charming people are capable of brutal acts of murder. I spent a lot of the book sympathising with Longo as he got to tell his side of the story, and then I realised (along with Finkel) that I had been duped. Despite his protests of honesty, Longo told multiple versions of the murder, all of them making him sound like a good person.

This really isn't one of the usual true-crime books. The emphasis here is on Finkel and how he develops, and at times it feels like the Longo murders were just a backdrop for his growth. Mary Jane and the children are viewed primarily through Longo's eyes, and it's only at the end that we see what a monster he is.

And that may be the frightening part of the book: to know that if we were given only one side of the story, we might end up supporting a monster. Now, I would love to read a version of this story that focused on Mary Jane and her children, she deserves a voice too.