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.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Skary Childrin and the Carousel of Sorrow by Katy Towell

This was an impulse borrow and read and a good example of why I like the library so much. A book catches your eye, you read it, and while it’s enjoyable, it’s a good thing you didn’t actually buy it (because for me, buying books = will reread in future).

Skary Childrin follows three girls (and one boy). There’s Adelaide, who is supposed to look like a werewolf but that isn’t really obvious in the illustrations. She has really keen senses though. And then there’s Maggie, who’s very quiet and spend a lot of the book being grumpy. Then there’s Beatrice, who’s the youngest and can see ghosts. She’s the sweetest character of the lot but the way she’s drawn made me think of a Black Eyed Child (maybe that was the inspiration?)

The three children are students at Madame Gertrude’s School for Girls and pretty much feared and hated by everyone. In a town that was cursed 12 years ago, anyone that’s different automatically gets the side-eye (or worse). But one day, a new librarian named Miss Delia comes to town. The girls and Miss Delia get off to a good start but Miss Delia mysteriously disappears. Desperate to find the one teacher who was kind to them, the girls enlist the help of Steffen and realise that Miss Delia’s disappearance may be connected to a string of disappearances happening around town.

What I liked the book was basically the concept. A town where the weird and strange exists sounded interestingly scary and I thought the three girls sounded like fitting protagonists (they were).

The mystery was also pretty decent - the girls’ narrative was interspersed with scenes of people disappearing after riding a mysterious carousel and that was enough to keep me reading until the end. It turns out that I managed to pinpoint the villain the minute he appeared, but I didn’t figure out the motive until the end.

Interspersed with the story are scenes that look to be pencil drawings. They’re pretty childish in style, so maybe it’s supposed to be one of the girls’ drawings? I thought it was a nice complement to the story.

What I wasn’t so enthusiastic about was the narrative style. It reads like a third person limited but it was hard to figure out who the POV character was (or if it was just skipping around the whole time), which hindered the suspension of disbelief. And like I mentioned before, the villain was pretty easy to identify, mostly because the majority of the book has them trapped at school rather than doing much investigating.

Overall, this is a pretty fun book for readers (the target audience are probably people way younger than me) who like spooky stuff that isn’t horror.

Friday, February 9, 2018

What Lies Beneath by Sarah Rayne

Another Sarah Rayne reread, because who cares about my TBR list? (Ok, I do but I like rereading books too)

What Life Beneath is the story of Priors Bramley. It was closed off after a chemical experiment was more harmful than expected, which means loads of secrets. In the past & present, Ella is worried that the re-opening of Priors Bramley will reveal the secrets she holds. In the past, the slow fall of the Cadences is shown through journal entries and a regular POV narrative with two main POV characters.

This sounds complicated, but it’s actually one big story that ties up satisfyingly (if rather sadly) by the end. There are at least 5 POV characters, but they’re all pretty distinct and effectively used to increase the tension in the book.

The most intriguing character has to be Ella. Crispian, Jamie (characters from the Cadence subplot), Amy, and Malik (characters from the present day) are all well-done, but Ella stands out because of her mental journey. She starts off as a sympathetic if slightly paranoid person who made a mistake as a child, but as her story continues, I found that there was much more to her than meets the eye. And it’s pretty terrifying.

Oh, and something I noticed in this reread is the narrative style. The POV is mostly third limited, but there are a lot of opinions from other people in the village, which allows you to get a sense of how the community thinks (or how a character interprets the community’s reactions). It’s a kind of nosy, informal style and I really enjoyed it.

According to the note at the end of the book, there are quite a few abandoned villages in England, and a few of them inspired Priors Bramley. That may actually be the most terrifying aspect, since it brings a sense of realism to the book.

I would totally recommend this to anyone who wants something a bit scarier than a normal mystery. There’s no outright horror here* but it’s a complicated, slightly creepy, and intense story.

* Which, come to think of it is weird because after my first round reading Sarah Rayne’s books, I associated her with “dual plotline horror” which shows how little I know of horror.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking

I’ve been seeing the word “hygge” pop up a lot in the past year or two, but never really felt the desire to read books about it until Kimberly at Turning the Pages reviewed this. Since she made it sound good (and because I need to expand my range of emotion concepts), I decided to borrow this.

And you know what? Hygge (pronounced “hooga” but read in my head as “haigg”) is something that I can totally get behind. It seems to be a uniquely Danish word, but as far as I can understand, hygge is a state where you feel loved, stress-free, and totally happy. Plus, it’s often associated with coziness.

The book is divided into fifteen chapters, covering a variety of topics from the elements of hygge to hygge and happiness. The book is lavishly illustrated and when the author is talking about the elements of hygge and how it comes about, he also gives concrete ideas and recipes for the reader to do.

Obviously, not every element of hygge can be mimicked wholesale. For example, candles are a huge part of hygge, but I’m don’t think they’re appropriate for Singapore’s climate. Japan, maybe, although when I think of hygge in Japanese terms, I picture eating ice-cream while under the kotatsu, with the TV on.

That’s probably why the book also mentions that hygge can differ from person to person. In the section about smells, the book says that “what makes a smell hyggelig differs very much from person to person, because smells relate a situation to ones experienced with that smell in the past.” In the same way for many elements of hygge, what would evoke the same feeling in non-Danes will probably be something slightly different.

If you’re new to the concept of hygge, I think this book would be a great place to learn more about it. Apart from explaining what it is, the author also provides a lot of concrete suggestions for achieving hygge.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay

I picked this book up as soon as I saw it in the bookshop because I watched The Bletchley Circle (which you should definitely watch if you haven’t already) and wanted to read about Bletchley Park, which actually existed.

If you’re like me and only know the very basic stuff about World War II, Bletchley Park is basically this top-secret place that broke the German Enigma code during the war. This means that the British had information about German activities, which helped them make better decisions about what to do.

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park is very loosely chronologically organised, starting from the formation of the park to the aftermath and its restoration. I use the word loosely because the book doesn’t mind meandering away from the chronological narrative to discuss things like recruitment, cultural activities available, the food, romances, etc. I really liked this form because I got a sense of how things progressed and life at the park as a whole.

The book also features several of the people who worked at Bletchley, quoting their recollections. I thought it made the book a lot friendlier than if it was just a summary of the official documents. People featured in this book include Sheila and Oliver Lawn, who met and fell in love at the park, the Honourable Sarah Baring, and many more. It also talks about the people at the top, like Alan Turing and Dilly Knox (and people’s recollections of them).

By the way, I’m totally not sure if I’m just imagining it, but several of the characters in The Bletchley Circle have the same names of a few people who worked at the park. I wonder if it’s a sort of homage?

And this is unrelated, but I saw a reference to Heath Robinson and was really pleased that I got it! Guess it was a good idea to read Heath Robinson’s Home Front first.

If you’re interested in history, I think you’ll enjoy this book. It’s a well-written book about Bletchley Park and the people who lived and work there. If you’re like me and didn’t know about the place, I think this would be a good introduction to it.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Beauty of Murder by A. K. Benedict

I first heard of A. K. Benedict when she appeared on Joanna Penn’s podcast. Her books sounded interesting so I decided to borrow this and give it a go. Basically, it was an interesting but confusing read which was also weakened by the insta-love.

The protagonist of The Beauty of Murder is Stephen Killigan, a new professor at a fictionalised version of Cambridge. One day, he stumbles onto the body of a missing beauty queen, but the body disappears without a trace before the police arrive. And because most people try to find a reason for why a body would appear, Stephen investigates and very quickly realises that this is no ordinary murder and the one responsible is a very dangerous killer.

For the most part, I found this book to be interesting and quite original. [POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT] The book manages to combine murder and time travel in a very atmospheric setting and has a seriously creepy villain. But, it’s let down by two aspects: The first is the instalove, which you probably know is my pet peeve. Stephen quickly falls in love with a girl called Lana, and apart from being a bit of a jerk because he knew his (only) friend liked her, the timeline was simply too rushed. I mean, Stephen meets her just before he finds the body and things move very fast after that. I don’t feel that there’s enough time for them to fall in love because he’s alone for most major events throughout the first half of the book, plus I didn’t see much chemistry either. It was described, definitely, but I wasn’t convinced.

The second thing is that the book is pretty hard to understand. Time travel is a fairly complicated subject on its own, and I think the book does a good job incorporating that into the novel, but I was left confused quite a few times. Some of it may be because I’m just not smart enough to process it because there are 2 time periods and 3 point of view characters (although oddly enough, I don't have this problem with Sarah Rayne's books and she uses more time periods and POV characters), but the book does feel like it’s trying to be clever and I think that added to the confusion. I did try to reread certain chapters several times, but I never understood how they led to the following chapters.

Despite my fairly long complaints about the book, It is, on the whole, a decent read. The pacing is quick, the tension rises steadily, and the setting is sufficiently dark and befitting of the crime. If you like dark crime and England, you might want to check this out.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Alibaba's World by Porter Erisman

This was one of the books that I got at the Popular fair last year. I was interested in this because I don’t know much about the Chinese Internet despite black zemi being all about the internet.

Alibaba’s World was written by Porter Erisman, who worked at Alibaba from 2000 to 2008, when it was growing from startup to the juggernaut that it is today. The book focuses mainly on the competition with eBay China and the acquisition of Yahoo! China. At the end, there’s a brief overview of the company and 40 lessons for the reader.

The book is mainly about Alibaba’s history, which was focused mainly on China (they even pulled out their Silicon Valley Office pretty early on), so I think the tagline “how a remarkable Chinese company is changing the face of global business” isn’t very accurate. You won’t really learn the how, although you’ll definitely be able to trace the growth of the company.

What I thought was interesting about my reaction to the book is that I didn’t get the “this company is AMAZING” response that I got when I read biographies of Google (incidentally, Jack Ma met the founders of Google. The meeting did not go well and if you believe this account, it’s Google’s fault). This is despite the fact that the book is highly complimentary towards Jack Ma. While I think that Alibaba’s achievements are amazing, I wasn’t convinced that they’re doing good.

I think part of the reason is because the book doesn’t go much into business ethics (and their stance to counterfeit goods was... standard) and part of the reason is that they don’t seem interested in challenging China’s censorship laws, which I have a pre-existing bias against. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not all in the “all speech should be allowed camp”, but I think that China is way too excessive.

Perhaps this is from the Google meeting, where Jack Ma appeared to be uninterested in getting better search results, unlike the Google People’s (even if they were portrayed as unfriendly).

But I digress.

If you’re interested in learning more about Alibaba, I think this is a good read. It’s not a comprehensive look at the company, but it’s a good, easy to read introduction. And seeing Alibaba’s growing dominance, it may be a good idea to learn more about it.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

White Whine by Streeter Seidell

I’ve been having a pretty bad week and am in totally no mood to tackle anything remotely heavy. So I borrowed this, because I remember laughing when I found the site a couple of years ago (although it doesn’t seem to load for me now).

White Whine is basically a collection of ‘whines’ that exemplify the idea of first world problems. They can be tumblr posts, Facebook posts, and even newspaper articles (apparently some kids sued their mom for lousy birthday cards?!). The book is organised into topics, with the majority of each short chapter being taken up with a commentary and then a couple of whines.

To be honest, I’m not a fan of the commentary. I understand the author was trying to be funny, and maybe it’s because of my current mood, but I didn’t really laugh. It felt more like the commentary was building up to a lot of funny whines and then I’d see one post, which was anticlimactic. I actually started skipping them after a while.

I don’t know what it says about me, but some of the whines actually sounded pretty reasonable. If I saw someone scrubbing themselves with a pumice stone in the hot tub I was in, I’d definitely be grossed out. So sometimes, the author just felt like a cranky old man.

If this was a collection of the best of the posts submitted to the site, I’d like this a lot better. The book works when it pokes fun at the ridiculous entitlement some people have, but it falls flat at other times. If you are/were a fan of the site, you might want to read it, but if you’re not, you can just skip it.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Feed by Mira Grant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 29, 2018

High King of Heaven edited by John MacArthur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 26, 2018

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier

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

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

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

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

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

This is a question for each reader to decide.

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

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

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Heath Robinson's Home Front

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Enchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

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

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

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

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

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

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