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.