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.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Judas and the Gospel of Jesus by N.T. Wright

Have a blessed Easter weekend everyone! 

My uncle managed to help me borrow this book so I finally got to read it! I heard it was a good explanation of Gnosticism vs Christianity and it didn’t disappoint.

Judas and the Gospel of Jesus focuses on the Gospel of Judas (which you can read online just by googling - it’s only 7 pages long). It’s supposed to turn Christianity upside down because in this story, Judas is the hero because Jesus told Judas to go betray him.

But before you throw out your Bible in despair, here’s what you need to know about Gnosticism. It’s very different from Christianity, as you can see by looking at the following characteristics:

- Gnosticism has what the book called a “deep and dark dualism.” It believes that this world we live in is full of wickedness and evil and if it wasn’t for an evil god that created it, wouldn’t exist at all.

- Apart from the evil god, there is a pure and wide and tue god who is different from the creator god.

- Therefore, the aim of the human is to escape from this material world and into a purer, higher spiritual existence

- And you get this ‘salvation’ from a special secret knowledge (gnosis) from a ‘revealer’

As you can see, this is not even similar to what Christianity teaches.

So while this later writing (and it is definitely written after Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) provides an interesting view of how some people back then thought, it’s not really Christian at all. Even though it’s called the gospel of Judas, it’s not really a Gospel the way Christians use the word.

Side note: some scholars have suggested that the Jesus in this gnostic Gospel is more humorous because he laughs but actually the laughter in the Gospel of Judas is mocking laughter rather than humour

The book also places the gospel of Judas and Gnosticism in the correct historical context. The Christians weren’t persecuting a valid alternative of Christianity in order to gain power. In fact, it’s the Christians who were dying for their faith while “the Gnostics were the cultural conservatives, sticking with the kind of religion that everyone already knew” and basically doing their best to avoid martyrdom. That means that the Church was merely defending their faith and following Jesus.

The last chapter of the book looks at how strains of gnostic thought has invaded society and how this has made everyone so eager for some new claim to ‘truth’. It’s a pretty sobering chapter because he shows that even Christians are subject to conspiracy theories.

If you’re interested in finding out what Gnosticism is, you definitely have to read this. It’s a pretty short book but it packs a lot of information. The language is also very clear and you definitely don’t have to be a Bible scholar to follow the arguments.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

I finished the second book of the Southern Reach trilogy and it is so good! It takes place after the first book so be warned: this review has spoilers for Annihilation.

While Annihilation took place in Area X, Authority takes place in Southern Reach, the authority that sends expeditions into Area X. Control/John (playing around with names and identity here!) has been sent to take command of Southern Reach and fix it.

But his attempts to understand the place and the biologist who returned slowly changes him, and the last part of the book honestly had me wondering how much of it was real and how much was in his head.

I really enjoyed this book! I mentioned before that book one seemed to be more of an exploration of Area X than a quest, but this book has a much stronger plot. It does center around Control and his perceptions of things, but the book also delves a little deeper into the mystery of Area X and the returnees.

That said, not everything has been answered because there’s still book three. While I do know a bit more about this odd and fascinating world, there’s still so much more I want to know! Especially about Control’s past and the secret of the Director/Psychologist.

You definitely can’t read this book as a stand-alone so I would highly recommend reading Annihilation first. And if you liked Annihilation, you have to read this.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

This book is the reason why I was grinning like a fool in public while I was reading it (I really should know better than to try and read a Discworld novel and hope to look dignified).

The Fifth Elephant is part of The Watch subseries of the Discworld novels and it has His Excellency Commander Sam Vimes going to attend a dwarf coronation as the Ankh Morpork ambassador. Naturally, he finds a crime because Sam Vimes is the Watch.

While he does leave the watch in the capable hands of Carrot, Carrot suddenly finds the urge to resign and authority of the watch falls to Colon, with side-splitting consequences (for the reader. Also, this subplot will make a lot more sense if you’re already familiar with the Watch).

And like the best of the Discworld novels, Pratchett weaves in a deeper meaning, this time looking at the meaning of tradition, living with other races, and how identity (specifically dwarfish identity) is defined.

While I love this book, I don’t think that this is a good first book for people looking to get into the Discworld series because it assumes the reader knows about pre-existing relationships. But it’s definitely a must-read for fans of the Watch. And I don’t really need to go on about the book because I will just rehash my old feelings for the characters (p.s. if you’re invested in Carrot and Angua’s relationship, you have to read this book!)

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Captured Economy by Brink Lindsey and Steven M. Teles

I first heard about this book when it was mentioned on episode 829 of Planet Money. The idea that government regulations could lead to increased inequality was pretty interesting, plus the book was written by a libertarian and an American liberal, something you don't really see, so I decided to read the book to find out more.

The Captured Economy is a basically about how rent-creating policies in a variety of fields are leading to an increase in inequality in America. If you don't know what "rent" is, it's basically "the excess payment made to any factor of production (land, labor, or capital) due to scarcity. It's basically the extra money one earns for holding on to a certain factor of production. The book looks at various sectors and argues that there are policies that lead to higher rents, which in turn benefit the people with more money and lead to growing inequality. The sectors are: finance, intellectual property, occupational licensing, and land use.

Strangely enough, the first thing that struck me as very true when I read the book wasn't the rent-seeking part, but this section in the beginning:
"When people feel economically insecure, they grow more defensive, less open and generous, and more suspicious of 'the Other.' When life seems like a zero-sum struggle, gains by other groups are interpreted as losses by one's own group."
I don't think that this is the sole cause of xenophobia, but I do agree that it plays an important role, seeing as many complaints about foreigners tend to come with complaints about how they're 'stealing our jobs'.

The book makes a pretty good case that some pieces of regulation are leading to growing inequality. But, I'm not too sure where is the line to be drawn when it comes to regulation. In the podcast, they mentioned teeth-whitening as an example of excessive occupational licensing. While it may be simpler than other dental procedures, it's not without its risks - in Singapore, some home whitening kits were found to have excessively high amounts of chemicals that would result in overly-sensitive teeth. While excessive regulation is bad, no regulation seems to have the potential to harm consumers as well (especially consumers who don't understand how much of XYZ is safe and may underestimate its effect).

Overall, I thought this was an interesting and thoughtful book. The explanation of rent at the start was clear and the arguments were easy to follow. While the book focuses only on American economics, the theory behind the arguments can be applied to any economy and made me think about how much regulation is necessary in different industries.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers

I borrowed this book because I really enjoyed The 13 1/2 lives of Captain Bluebear (my introduction to the author) and because the title has the word 'books' inside. What I didn't realise that this is part of a series and that I probably should have read The City of Dreaming Books before reading this.

The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books is set two hundred years after the events of The City of Dreaming Books. As the narrator and protagonist Optimus Yarnspinner will gladly tell you, he's grown incredibly rich and popular since the events of the previous novel. However, the 'orm' has left him and he is unable to write. Intrigued by a letter claiming that the Shadow King has returned, Optimus returns to Bookholm and discovers that much has changed since he left.

Although the start of the book promises a mystery and adventure about this Shadow King, most of the story is concerned with the ways that Bookholm has changed. In a way, this is a travel guide about a fictional place in narrative form. The reader gets to see (through illustrations) Bookholm, learn about its different inhabitants, and even enjoy some puppet shows. The novel does end with the Shadow King, but it seems like the rest of the story is being kept for another book.

Despite the lack of plot, I really enjoyed this story. Bookholm is a fascinating place and I enjoyed reading about it. And since I didn't read The City of Dreaming Books, everything felt new to me so I wasn't bored at all. The only thing I didn't like was that there was a section of the book that used a Gothic font which made it a little hard to read.

Optimus is also an entertaining narrator. He's fairly pompous, but he clearly enjoys stories and I found him to be very endearing. I also enjoyed his interactions with his old friends in the later half of the book and that made me want to read The City of Dreaming Books.

Overall, this is a book that will appeal to bibliophiles looking for their ideal fictional city. I'm not quite sure if I want to live in Bookholm, but I definitely want to pay it a visit.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Say Everything by Scott Rosenberg

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Alice by Christina Henry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 15, 2018

China's Mobile Economy by Winston Ma

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two things mentioned that I thought were interesting were:

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman by Tessa Arlen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Trust Me, I'm Lying by Ryan Holliday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 5, 2018

House of the Lost by Sarah Rayne

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 2, 2018

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Winter of the World by Ken Follett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Japanese Mythology in Film by Yoshiko Okuyama

I had to borrow this book as soon as I saw it because I took a class on Miyazaki Hayao’s films. That’s a very tenuous connection but I’m clinging on to it all the same.

Japanese Mythology in Film is an introduction to the study of Japanese culture through movies (both live action and anime). The author argues that semiotics can be used to uncover signs of Japanese mythology which in turn can be used to develop cultural or visual literacy.

First, a few definitions:

Semiotics is “the study of a system of signs to determine how symbolic meanings are created and transmitted through use of words, concepts, images, and so forth.” In other words, studying the meaningful words and pictures in the movie (at least in my understanding).

Mythology in this book is defined as “the stories and allegories of deities and humans, the afterlife, and natural phenomena and supernatural forces as well as to other myths and legends of the mainstream and folk religions of Japan.” So basically religious Japanese culture.

After explaining what semiotics is in detail and why it’s a valid way of analysing film, as well as the presence of mythology in film, the book goes on to analyse the following topics:

- Taoism and Shintoism in Onmyoji and Onmyoji II

- Folklore motifs in Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke (Obviously this was my favourite chapter)

- Buddhist and Folklore motifs in Dorito and Departures

- Eclectic myths in Mushi-Shi and Cyber mythology of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

I’m only familiar with Miyazaki’s movies and I’ve watched a few episodes of Mushi-shi, but the book does a great job of summarising the movies so that I can understand the analysis (and it made me want to watch everything mentioned).

If I start to go into detail about what I learnt, I’d just end up summarising the whole book. Perhaps it’s because of the breadth of the work, but I felt that this book taught me more about Japanese mythology and culture than the Miyazaki module.

Because this book is aimed at undergraduates, the tone is academic. However, it is definitely not inaccessible and I would recommend this to anyone interested in Japan, myths, and/or cinema.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani

I heard a lot of good things about this book (and apparently it’s based on a true story) so I decided to borrow it and see what it’s about.

The Perfect Nanny starts when Paul and Myriam hire Louise to be their children’s nanny. Myriam has been unhappy as a mother, so Louise allows her to go back to work, which she enjoys. However, Louise becomes obsessed with carving out a space for herself in this family and starts to take more and more drastic steps.

The tension in this book was really high, which made it such an addictive read. Louise seems to be perfect at first, but there are warning signs, such as her (literally) ferocious love for the children. Then bit by bit, she starts to unravel, which raises the tension even higher because we know how this is going to end.

The writing was great too. You could totally feel how obsessed Louise is, although I still think My Cousin Rebecca’s portrayal of obsession is still better. While I totally got that Louise was getting obsessed, I didn’t feel the obsession the way I felt it when Du Maurier wrote her book. Apart from Louise, Myriam’s guilt about going back to work was also well-written, and I could empathise with her.

That said, the novel doesn’t actually show the climax. We see the immediate aftermath and the build up to it, but no climax. It actually feels like the novel was abruptly cut off, because there are a few more loose threads than I was expecting.

All in all, this was a very tightly written novel. If you’re into domestic thrillers, this will probably be right up your alley.

Monday, February 26, 2018

I Never Knew That About England by Christopher Winn

This is one of the books that I got in England! I thought it’d be a nice trip souvenir, though maybe it’s more suitable for during the trip.

I Never Knew That About England is basically a compilation of interesting facts in England. The book is organised geographically, according to the “39 traditional English counties that have defined the map of England for many hundreds of years, since these are based on natural boundaries.” I’m a total geography noob so it doesn’t matter either way to me, but I suppose it’d be a plus/minus point to people who are passionate about counties.

The facts here range from one sentence to a couple of paragraphs long, and cover things such as:

- the home of marmite (Burton-on-Trent)
- the legend of the “wicked lady”, a heiress who was so bored so took to becoming a highway robber
- the world’s first railway bridge (Causey Arch)

And many more facts. Some were familiar to me, but many are brand new.

And because there is just so much to say, each area only gets a little space. If I were still in the planning stages of the trip, I would definitely have added a few facts from here into my itinerary. In retrospect, perhaps it’s a good thing I found this book in England. The itinerary was far too long as it was.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

If you're a fan of the Myths and Legends podcast or just a fan of mythology in general, you need to read this. Norse Mythology is Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse myths, such as how Thor got his hammer, the strange wedding of Freya, Loki’s children and much more. Most the stories end with a line about Ragnarok so that even though the stories are disparate, they have a sense of purpose. Everything leads to the end. Everything leads to Ragnarok.

The language here is Gaiman at his best. It rings with the timelessness of myth, with the added inclusion of wry humour. [Slight spoilers] I also liked how most of the book was in past tense, until the time of Ragnarok, where it changed to present tense which gave it a ring of prophecy.

The characters too were well-written. Thor is a great hero but he’s not the wisest. Loki is truly ambiguous, the trickster who’s allegiance is only for himself (leading to some pretty comic situations). Then there are tragic characters, like Hod, who was tricked into killing his brother and then died for it. Or Tyr, wise and self-sacrificial. There is a wide variety of gods and they are all brought to life in these stories.

If you’re a fan of mythology, you’ll want to read this take on the Norse myths. It’s wonderfully written and I actually want to listen to theaudiobookk. These tales sound like they should be told by a bard.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Gatekeeper by Nuraliah Norasid

My first book for 2018’s SEA Reading Challenge is from Singapore! It’s called The Gatekeeper and it’s a fantasy novel heavily influenced by Malay culture.

Obviously heavily inspired by Singapore, the novel takes place in Manticura. It starts when the young medusa Ria experiences betrayal and in her panic, freezes an entire village of people. Since this makes her a criminal, her sister Barani and her run to the underground city of Nelroote. When the war comes, Ria becomes the Gatekeeper of the city, which is how she meets Eedric, a human with monster blood.

Despite the fantastical elements and setting, this isn’t really a fantasy novel. There is no quest for the hero, instead the novel focuses on the developing relationship between Ria and Eedric, which some thinly-veiled criticisms of race relations in Singapore. Er, I mean monster-human relations in Manticura.

What I loved about this book was the setting. It was amazing to see a world with Greek and Malay influences and I very much enjoyed the language in the novel. It’s a refreshing change from most fantasy books.

What I wasn’t too fond of was the plot. It started strong, with Ria and her sister having to go into hiding, but then it slowed down considerably. It felt like a good portion of the book was on world-building and the slowly-developing relationship between Ria and Eedric, which is a pity because I feel like the beginning promised a much more exciting read. Not to mention that it almost becomes message-fiction at times, which is a bit too heavy-handed for my tastes.

And there were a couple of things I didn’t understand. At first, I thought that Nelroote was where the monsters hid from humans, but then I saw that monsters live in Manticura too. Then I thought that perhaps these monsters were just in complete hiding, but ‘surface relatives’ are mentioned and one monster is even sent to the outside world for schooling.

In that case, what is the point of hiding? Are they even hiding, if they have enough documentation to get into schools? And if so, why did it take the authorities so long to find Ria? Those are questions that were not answered satisfactorily in the book.

Overall, I liked this book. The setting was very well-done and it had a strong start. Although I’m not a fan of the slow plot, you should consider reading this book if you’re looking for a fantasy with a twist.

P.s. The ebook isn't available yet so it's only available in paper form (according to the publisher, they don't release the ebooks until 2 to 3 years after the book is published)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

I wonder if you’ve watched the move The Black Cauldron? It’s not one of the more famous Disney movies, but I like it quite a bit. So when I found out that it was based on the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, I decided to try the first book - The Book of Three.

At the start of this book, Taran is an assistant pig-keeper to Hen Wen, Prydain’s ordinary pig. He dreams of heroic quests and adventures away from what he thinks is his humdrum and boring life. But when Hen Wen runs away, Taran leaves his life and comes into the sphere of the dreaded Horn King.

The start and the setting are both fairly traditional in terms of high-fantasy but what makes this book different are the characters. Taran may dream of being a great hero, but his companions are quick to remind him that he’s not. There’s Eilonwy, an enchantress in training who has a quick tongue and a kind heart, Fflewddur, the ex-king who can’t make it as a hard (and who has a harp who refuses to let him lie), and poor, self-pitying Gurgi.

These aren’t very noble companions, especially compared to Prince Gwydion (who’s actually a very practical person), but they are who Taran travels with for the bulk of the book and they help him to grow.

I enjoyed this a lot. It reminds me a little of The Lord of the Rings, although the humour introduced by the characters make this a much lighter read. A lot of the book is spent on introducing the characters, but the plot moved along at a good pace.

I will definitely be continuing this series and now, I really want to rewatch The Black Cauldron! Obviously the movie takes liberties with the book, but both are fun and should appeal to fans of fantasies.

Monday, February 19, 2018

A Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare

I enjoyed An English Murder so much that I borrowed another one of Cyril Hare’s mysteries! A Tragedy at Law is supposed to be his most famous work so I was really excited to begin it.

Drawing on his legal experience (or so I’m assuming), A Tragedy at Law is a mystery that deals with the finer points of the law. Mr Justice Barber is a self-important judge who’s making his rounds on the ‘circuit’, which basically means he’s moving from town to town judging cases. It should be uneventful, but then he gets a threatening letter. That shouldn’t be a cause of worry, but a box of poisoned chocolates comes. And the threats just keep escalating from there.

Thrown into this mix are Derek Marshall, the Marshal, and Francis Pettigrew, a lawyer who is unsuccessful in profession and love (the love of his life having married Justice Barber). Can they find out what is happening?

The book uses a variety of POVs, but the dominant one is Derek. I suppose that as the ‘newbie’, he’s in a good position to wonder at (and try to understand) what’s going on, plus he’s easily convinced to help by Hilda, Justice Barber’s incredibly smart and charming wife.

Hilda, by the way, is an amazing person. You don’t normally see such strong personalities in fiction. Here’s a woman who was called to the bar and is clearly more intelligent and charming than her husband. She’s also got some fears of her own which she’s hiding and deserves all the page time she has (I would love to read about her earlier years). Sheila, the woman Derek falls in love with and the only other woman with a significant amount of attention devoted to her, seems almost dull in comparison. She seems to be more plot device than character.

That said, there is one other female character with a pretty strong presence, but she never directly appears or speaks. She’s very closely tied to Hilda, so I didn’t consider her a primary/lead character.

What I really liked about this book was its tone. There’s a wry humour that’s present throughout the book, and I enjoyed it very much. Clearly, Cyril Hare isn’t above poking fun at the pompousness his profession is sometimes filled with. The humour also fits in with the cynicism of Pettigrew, which works because Pettigrew’s the ‘detective’ of the novel.

That said, the ending of the book was a little hard to understand. There isn’t a grand denouncement like in the Christie novels, but instead, there’s a not-really-clear explanation by Pettigrew towards the end. I had to read that last chapter a couple of times before I understood it.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel, although I personally prefer An English Murder. I liked the humour present in the book and the use of Derek as the main POV character, although the ending does detract from the story a little.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Feathered by Rachel Wollaston

I am a huge fan of fairytales, as you all know by now, and when I heard about Feathered, I had to read it. A retelling of The Swan Princess? Yes, please!

Feathered is a bit complicated, but let me try to sum it up. The book opens with Marion being executed for being a witch. But since she had a deal made with an evil wizard to save her father, Elward, he takes her soul and puts it into the body of a swan. She has only one hour a day where she can return to her original form. However, Marion has also managed to create a double - Ida. Ida was created out of the darker parts of personality and when Elward discovers her, he demands that Marion take over Ida's body to pose as a princess and get close to the royal family. But Ida has a mind of her own, as Marion and Elward will soon see.

I found Marion's struggle to be fascinating. This book takes the idea of a "darker half" literally and turns it into the plot (sort of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but with swans and princess). Ida and Marion's struggle for power was fascinating, although it seems a bit unfair that [possible spoiler alert] that Ida seems to be able to "see" through Marion's eyes a lot more than Marion does through Ida's.

Another thing I enjoyed was the ambiguity of Elward, the wizard. At the start, he's the evil wizard, but by refusing to let him reveal his true plans plus his occasional 'rescue' of Marion has her doubting if he's as evil as he seems. Plus, a 'Healer' wizard as a bad guy was an interesting and unusual decision.

That said, I wasn't really convinced by the romance aspect of the book. Having two personalities split between two human and one swan bodies makes it difficult for me to believe that Marion can spend enough time to fall in love with anyone. Add in the fact that this takes place over a few days and Marion being upset that "he doesn't realise that's Ida and not me" sounds a bit odd to me. I mean, Ida is a part her and they just met after all. (Trying to be vague so not as to spoilt the book. Sorry if it doesn't make much sense).

Overall, I thought this was an interesting take on the Swan Princess. I think that you'll enjoy this if you're into fairytale retellings.

Disclaimer: I got a copy of this book from the author in exchange for a review as part of a blog tour. I also knew the author from WriteOn (I thought her name sounded familiar and her afterword confirmed it!)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett

I have finally finished this book, which was recommended to me by my counsellor. It was a pretty heavy read, so I read it in bits and pieces. Also, I just saw the subtitle and I realised that I’m reading about a lot of secret lives lately, starting with cows.

Anyway, How Emotions are Made basically does what the title says. It tries to explain what emotions are. According to the author, her new theory goes against classical thinking and is completely revolutionary and true. I don’t have any knowledge of neuroscience, and even though about 100 of the 400 page (on my iPad) book consists of citations, I am not even remotely qualified (and didn’t put in the time and effort needed) to talk about whether her idea stands up to scientific scrutiny. Instead, I want to talk about the ideas in the book, which I found thought-provoking.

Ok, so the book says is that there is a classical view of emotions, which says that emotions are in-built from birth and are universal. But, the book asserts that this view is false and that emotions are concepts that we interpret. These concepts are created by our experiences and our environment. In other words:
"Emotions are not reactions to the world; they are your constructions of the world."
This means that emotions aren’t universal. The way you experience stress, for instance, may be different from the way I experience stress. And because emotions are basically concepts that we build from experiences, it’s possible to modify and/or widen them. The book says that

New emotion concepts from a second language can modify those of your primary language

This makes a lot of sense to me. How do I explain the emotion “natsukashii”, which is something like “nostalgia” but not really? It’s something I learnt while learning Japanese, and if you can learn new emotion concepts via new languages, it makes sense that I added this ‘emotion’ through my Japanese study.

Moving on to more practical things, the book says that emotions have three functions:

1. They make meaning. For example, if I’m breathing heavily, am I scared or tired or what?

2. They prescribe action. If I’m panting, what is the appropriate response? That depends on what emotion I’m feeling (constructed based on past response)

3. They help regulate the body budget, which in turn affects health.

The body budget concept and link with emotions is interesting because it says that when your body budget is thrown out of balance, your brain mispredicts the amount of energy you need over and over and that eventually affects your physical health and can trap you in a vicious cycle.

Is that true? I don’t know but from personal experience, following on the tendency to not want to go out makes me feel lonelier and decreases motivation and further reduces my want to go out and there’s the cycle.

The book holds the view that depression “may be a disorder of misbudgeting and prediction” and that autism may be related to an inability to predict emotion concepts. These sound pretty revolutionary to me and I have no idea how I feel about them (the book also says that animals probably don’t experience emotions the way humans do which is a sad thing to hear after The Secret Lives of Cows).

Another thing the book talks about is that it emotions are concepts, and concepts are tools of culture, then emotions can be “specific to a culture”, creating rules that about “when it’s acceptable to construct a given emotion in a given situation.” This is another thing I find intriguing, because it would explain cross-cultural difficulties. If we perceive the world and hence reaction to situations differently, of course, there’ll be times we don’t understand one another.

In that case, persistent cross-cultural communication difficulties might be because the person in question has not managed to learn the emotion concepts of a particular culture. Oh, and in the book, the process of adjusting your emotions to a new cultural context is called “emotion acculturation”, so if anyone/I want to research this more in the future, here’s a possible keyword.

And to end, I’ll just talk about the two suggestions the book has for mastering your emotions.

The first is to move your body and/or change your location and situation.

The second is to try recategorising how you feel. This requires you to be able to differentiate between similar emotion concepts (like grief and despair) and “perhaps the easiest way to gain concepts is to learn new words.”

Which, I suppose, is one good thing that can come out of all my reading (assuming I don’t just read and forge). The book continues the previous quote by saying that:
Words seed your concepts, concepts drive your predictions, predictions regulate your body budget, and your body budget determines how you feel. Therefore, the more finely grained your vocabulary, the more precisely your predicting brain can calibrate your budget to your body’s needs.
The advice in the book is basically what my counsellor advised: do more exercise, drink more water, and go out with positive people (ok the last one isn’t in the book). And I suppose that through the counselling sessions, I’m learning to recast my emotions.

This was an extremely heavy but interesting book. Like I mentioned before, I don’t know how much of it will hold up to further scientific scrutiny since it purports to be revolutionary, but it definitely gave me a lot of think about. If you’re interested in neuroscience and your emotions, you may want to read this.