Friday, August 18, 2017

Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Brandon

This was one of the books mentioned in Not Just Jane, and I was curious as to why it was the book of its time. So I decided to try and do a readalong on my dayre. Long story short, despite the fact that I thought this would take a few days to finish, I read the whole thing in one day. And because I was jotting down my thoughts as I go along, this review is going to be different from my normal style.

First impressions:

The start is a bit slow because there's so much description going on (a trait of that period, I guess), but I like that the fact there is a secret is introduced by the end of the first chapter. I also thought it was pretty interesting that Lady Audley was presented as a Mary Sue and almost immediately had that negated. Now, I might see all Mary Sues as Lady Audley — hiding some kind of secret. If it gets me to tolerate them, then I'll have a lot more books to read, which may not be a good thing, given my huge TBR list.

Also, the language is manageable for now. It actually reads really well, and I didn't feel any resistance like when I tried to read the mysteries of Uldopho (I don't think I finished the first chapter of that, although I might try again someday.)

Midway thoughts:

I don't know if it's because I've read about the book and the author but I'm pretty sure that I know what's going to happen. Still, it's quite fun to see how it happens. By the way, I found it pretty interesting that the blonds vs brunettes thing is brought up here! Looks like the rivalry is much older than just Betty and Veronica. Also, I'm feeling a lot more sympathetic to Lady Audley than I expected because she really is an interesting character. So definitely not a Mary Sue. Alicia, her stepdaughter is pretty interesting too! I'm looking forward to the big showdown I guess is going to happen!

Oh and there's this male character called Robert who reminds me of one of those young man in an Agatha Christie novel, only sexist! Mostly because of his rant.

The dialogue can be a bit stiff at times (or maybe that was what people used to sound like?) but it's still manageable. There are also some monologues that I think could definitely be cut out, but it's not too bad.

Final thoughts:
The second half was actually really absorbing and despite my plans to finish the rest of the book the next day, I ended up finishing it in one night. That's not to say it isn't without its flaws. It could definitely have been shorter (admittedly this is more of a personal preference) and I found Robert quite irritating towards the end.

Like I mentioned before, I'm a lot more sympathetic to Lady Audley than I expected so that may have played a part. And perhaps more importantly, despite the fact that this whole story is about Lady Audley, it is told almost entirely through Robert's POV. Lady Audley does have her monologue but it's basically sandwiched between Robert's opinions of her and it's not very complimentary.

And that is a shame because Lady Audley is a very unique protagonist (for her time, and maybe even now because female anti-heroes aren't that common) and it ends up being told through the eyes of a male and described in overly simplistic terms. I can't help but feel that if the story was told through Lady Audley's POV it would have been a lot more exciting (unreliable narrator woohoo) and maybe a different ending because she has quite a personality.

Lady Audley's Secret does feel a little dated in places and I'm not too thrilled with the ending, but overall it is a gripping read and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It definitely doesn't feel like a 500 page book (on my ereader) to me. It's illogical to do so because I have some complaints, but this is a 5/5 read for me.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Peranakan Chinese Home by Ronald G. Knapp

I have no idea why, but I thought this would be one of those simple introductions to an aspect of Peranakan Chinese culture, much like the books by Asiapac. But this turned out to be a more scholarly work that provided a deep inside into the houses of Peranakan Chinese.

If you haven't heard of them, Peranakans refer mainly to people who are the offspring of a local and a foreigner in South East Asia. If you've lived in Singapore a few years back, you might have seen the show "The Little Nonya" which was based on Peranakan culture. In common use (or at least how I always understood it), it most often refers to people who were the offspring of Malay and Chinese parents (often Malay mothers and Chinese fathers). The book also has a whole chapter dedicated to discussing the definition of the term "Peranakan", so it's clear that the most commonly understood definition may not be the most accurate.

And from there, the book goes on to explore in detail the Peranakan house, looking at its form, symbols, the reception hall, the courtyard, the ancestral hall, the living areas, the bedroom, and the kitchen. Every chapter is lavishly illustrated (you'll want either a print copy or an e-reader that can show coloured photographs and not just black and white text for this) which really helped me to understand what the author is talking about.

The pictures in the book draw on Peranakan Chinese homes in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, and has both breadth and depth. It was interesting to see how these houses were similar despite the fact that they were built in different countries and influenced by different cultures.

While the tone is scholarly and a little intimidating, I think that anyone interested in learning about Peranakan culture should read this book. It's very detailed and combined with the pictures, it gave me a more in-depth understanding of Peranakan culture and what it was like.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

I'm not sure when NetGalley decided to approve my request for this book, but I was super excited to read this because I enjoyed both Room and Slammerkin!

The Wonder is less like Room and more like Slammerkin because it's historical fiction. Inspired by the tales of the 'Fasting Girls', who were supposed to have done without food for long periods, it follows Lib, a nurse who is charged with making sure that Anna is surviving without any food.

Since Lib accepted the job without knowing what it entailed, she is shocked by the requirements. But as a nurse trained by Florence Nightingale herself, she is determined to be careful, methodical and to expose Anna as the fraud she is. But as she spends more time with Anna, she realises that the girl really does believe that she doesn't need to it.

The only problem is - her body is dying from starvation.

I'm not going to say more and reveal the ending but I thought this was an absorbing book. It's told in five long parts (really, don't start a part/chapter unless you know you have the time to finish it) and even though the events all take place in a week, it feels like forever and yet no time has passed. Through her interactions with Anna, Lib is forced to confront her own demons.

The characters here are well-written. Apart from Anna and Lib, I found that even minor characters have layers to them. Who is impartial? Who has an agenda? Well, in the end, I was so angry at many of the characters (who appeared quite innocent at the start) but the truth of who they were felt believable (if sad).

Oh and this is one of the books where the setting is practically a character. The story takes place in Ireland, with all its confusion that it gives to Lib with her modern way of thinking, and I cannot imagine the story taking place anywhere else. The Irish characters are clearly shaped by the land that they live in and their actions are influenced by their culture and heritage. Every time a character that was not Lib spoke or acted, there was the sense that this was Ireland.

I would definitely recommend this book to fans of historical fiction or people just looking for an engaging story featuring strong characters. A word of warning: the book does deal with very dark themes, especially towards the end. Do not expect this to be an easy read, although I guess the premise would have told you that already.

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

Monday, August 14, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales of Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World edited by Maria Tatar

Finally picked up this book, which I got aaaaalllllll the way back in June when I went back to Singapore. I've been 'saving' it for no particular reason and I can sort of see why. This was a good read and the anticipation of reading it made it even better.

(Also I just found out that NLB has an ecopy but I love that I have my own. Some books you just want to own)

Anyway, this collection of stories really is from around the world. Apart from the usual Western suspects, I saw stories from India, Japan, Ghana, Myanmar and much more. The only (to me really obvious) country that was left out was China. I mean, how can you miss Madame White Snake or any number of tales about humans and foxes? But I digress.

The stories are organised by topic, and they are:

1. Model couples from ancient times

2. Charismatic couples in the popular imagination

3. Animal grooms

4. Animal brides

The first two categories had tales that were familiar to me, but most of the stories in the latter two categories weren't. I enjoyed them all.

What makes this book stand out from other collections is the introduction! There is a very interesting introduction by Maria Tatar, covering things like classification, background to the tales and what they mean to humans. And there is a one-paragraph introduction to each tale, which provided background and a little bit of commentary without any spoilers.

If you are a fan of fairy tales, you will want a copy of this book. Apart from the introductions, there is real value in being able to read and compare tales like this from a variety of cultures. They show that we aren't as different as we might think (although obviously we aren't all identical because that would be boring)

Friday, August 11, 2017

Remarkable Faith by Shauna Letellier

I was intrigued by this book when I saw it on NetGalley because I have tried to do my own retellings of Bible stories. After reading this, I see that I still have a long way to go.

Remarkable Faith contains eight retellings of various people who encountered Christ in the New Testament. The eight are:

- the father of the demon possessed boy (Mark 9:17-27)

- the paralysed man who was let down through the roof (Mark 2: 1-12)

- the Roman centurion (Luke 7:1-10)

- the hemorrhaging woman (Mark 5:21-34)

- the Samaritan Leper (Luke 17:11-19)

- the mother of the demon possessed girl (Matthew 15:21-28)

- blind Bartinaeus (Luke 18:35-42)

- the woman who washed Jesus' feet with her tears and anointed them with perfume (Luke 7:36-50)

Each retelling starts with the Biblical account, then the author's take, followed by a short reflection and a prayer. I found that these work very well as devotions and I read one or two of them a day. This is definitely a book you want to savour in small chunks rather than read in one go.

Remarkable Faith offers a fresh way of looking at these familiar stories that we may take for granted. The emphasis is on the grace of God, and it was something that I needed to hear right now.

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

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Harvey Penick's Little Red Book by Harvey Penick

I read this book at the driving range and I like it enough that if the second book is still at BookOff the next time I visit, I'll probably get it (I obviously didn't learn my lesson  about having too many books when I moved).

Harvey Penick's Little Red Book is basically a collection of golfing tips and stories (and even one poem). Harvey Penick is supposed to be this really great teacher, although I haven't heard of him before. But he sounds really kind and like a good teacher.

Basically, Harvey's philosophy is that golf is a game you can spend your whole life learning (agree) and that although each person has their own style of playing, there are certain principles that can help you play a better game. So while he talks about people who are exceptions to the rules, he does give you the 'rules' that can help you improve golf.

And a lot of stories. I think there are more stories about golf than tips about golf in the book. I found most of them interesting, but I have a feeling that I'm supposed to be impressed at the people who wrote the introduction/are mentioned in the book. Then again, I like playing golf but not really watching it, so that probably explains my ignorance regarding those people.

This is definitely a book that fans of golf would like. But I don't think this is a good book for people looking to get into the game because it uses quite a lot of golf terminology (do the words "hook your putts" and "squaring the club face" mean anything to you?). In fact, I would probably understand and appreciate this a lot more when I was in MG because I was learning and using those terms regularly back then. Reading it now, I have to think hard to understand some sentences.

Still, I'm glad I got this book. It's always fun to read about golf from someone who loves it, and it serves as a good motivator for me(:

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Darkening Web by Alexander Klimburg

This book feels like something that I might have been made to read in one of my tutorials, which is probably why I requested it from Netgalley.

The Darkening Web is basically a book that explains the various aspects of cyberspace and why we are all vulnerable. Seriously, if this doesn't make you paranoid and/or give up on privacy on the internet, you probably haven't read this.

This book covers the basics of cyber security, hackers, the US's history and stance on cyber security, cyber attacks by Russia and China (seriously these two countries are insane. I find China scarier but that's probably it's closer to me), and what may happen in the future. Each topic gets about three chapters of its own, with the exception of the first part.

The book does go into the basics of the internet, but I think that if you don't have a basic knowledge of the end-2-end principal (which is basically net neutrality aka all websites are treated equally) or other web fundamentals, you may find it a little hard to keep up. By the way, this is one of the scenarios that may happen:
If the free internet and the cyber-sovereignty factions cannot find a workable detente, then the best we can hope for is the splitting of the global Internet into wholly national Internets, potentially even complete with their own routing and address structure. In truth, we are already halfway there: as research by the Internet pioneer (and senior Google executive) Vin Cerf and others show, the global Internet is already largely split into different identifiable segments.
What this basically means that if we continue on the current path, with the Great Firewall, Russia stepping up its cyber-attacks and much more, we could end up in our own little silos, which is even worse than what is going on now (and it's not very good now either). And this is the not-so-bad scenario (out of the bad scenarios). Worse scenarios could involve the state using the internet to spy on citizens and change their behaviour.

If you don't think that this could happen (or is just a Chinese sci-fi story - read something similar last year), well, in 2015, there was a report saying that the Chinese government is planning to introduce a mandatory social-credit scheme in 2020. But there's only one directive now so hopefully this doesn't come to pass (and the one directive is that this is to 'foster a culture of sincerity' which sounds a lot like 'influencing behaviour' to me).

This could be worse than Stomp.

In conclusion, this is a tough read, made harder by the fact that it's topical and with no real overarching narrative that I could see. It does, however, cover an important issue that applies to all of us on the internet, and for that alone, I'd recommend everyone borrow/buy a copy and read as much as they understand.

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

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

After reading The Shadow of the Wind, I immediately started on The Prisoner of Heaven because it was a gift from a friend (and the reason why I read The Shadow of the Wind). I was super excited because The Shadow of the Wind was fantastic so I had unreasonably high hopes for the book. While this wasn't as good as The Shadow of the Wind, it was still fantastic.

In The Shadow of the Wind, we are introduced to Fermin, who's this really smooth-talking and super amusing character who becomes a best friend to the protagonist, Daniel. In The Prisoner of Heaven, someone from Fermin's past comes back and the story behind Fermin comes to light.

Much like the previous novel, the story toggles between past and present to give the reader a bird's eye view of how things connect to each other. The characters from the previous novel are still there, and I really, really enjoyed reading about how their lives have been since the ending of the first book.

However, I felt that the climax was not as exciting as the first book. While it was satisfying, it didn't have the same intensity of reveal that The Shadow of the Wind had. Plus the cemetery of forgotten books didn't have as big a role as I would like. But looking at Book 2 (which I didn't manage to get my hands on and skipped), it seems like reading that would have enhanced the reading experience The Prisoner of Heaven.

Did I like the book?

Of course!

Am I going to read The Prisoner of Heaven once I find it?

Definitely (and I suspect that it will, like the other two books, drag me in).

But is this as good as The Shadow of the Wind?

Nope, not really. I would still recommend it heartily and if it were any other book I suspect I would be fawning over it a lot more, but I've got the first book on my mind and it sadly does not compare.

(This is still a 5 star book, don't get me wrong. I couldn't put it down once I started but I'm still comparing it to the first book and that was way too awesome.)

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart.
This is definitely one of the best books of this year!! Thank you so much Gen for sending me the third (?) book in the series and hence getting me to start with this. Now I'm half-excited and half-scared to start the book that you gave me cause I don't know if it's as good!

Unlike the previous book-themed mystery (and I'm definitely classifying this as a mystery), this was fantastic and seriously amazing. The Shadow of the Wind starts when Daniel is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his father. There, he is allowed to take one book back and the book that calls to him is an unknown novel called The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax (which I also want to read)

In his quest to find out more about the author, he discovers that someone has been buying (or if unsuccessful stealing) copies of Julian Carax's novels and burning them. Plus a menacing and definitely corrupt police officer shows up. These lead to a years-long mystery that ushers Daniel into adulthood.

I'm actually not sure if the above summary does the book justice because it is a lot more complex with a whole cast of characters. Apart from Daniel, the character that made the strongest impression on me was Fermin, a homeless drunk with an amazing ability to find books. He also has a silver tongue and a past with that menacing Inspector. He becomes one of Daniel's most important allies in his quest to find out what really happened.

I feel that the cast of characters and their relationships to one another were so well-written that they helped balance the whole book. It's easy to let the mystery dominate or the growing up Daniel has to do dominate, but since the characters are involved with both and each half cannot be untangled, everyone comes together in one seamless whole, and the journey for the truth becomes Daniel's path to adulthood.

Even the romance was something I enjoyed reading. Not gonna give spoilers (I hope! I will try!) because it is something that happens pretty late in the book, but I thought the false love lost and real love found arc was really good. By the way, adult themes are in this book although it's never explicit and there is swearing so don't give this to children and maybe younger teens (depending on their maturity).

The ending is happy, although not completely. There is one character and one relationship that doesn't end well (or as well as I'd hope) but I find that the little bit of sadness makes the happiness that Daniel and the rest get feel much more real.

I would recommend pretty much everyone (who isn't a kid, like I mentioned before) read this, especially if you like books and mysteries surrounding books. I loved everything about this - the plot, the characters (except the bad guys, though there was one character redemption that was surprising but still believable) and the writing.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Colt Harper: Esteemed Vampire Cat by Tyrolin Puxty

When Tyrolin, the author, asked me if I wanted to read Colt Harper: Esteemed Vampire Cat, I said yes because:

1. Her Broken Dolls books are really good
2. It had a really good blurb. I mean, almost anything with the words "vampire cat" will pique my interest but the blurb promised fun and a snarky narrator.

And it totally delivered.

Colt Harper is, as the title indicates, a vampire cat. You might think he's a monster but cats adore him (you might want to revise your opinions of cats). After all, he kills all those pesky humans that hurt or kill cats, which makes him a hero in his own twisted way. But, the Council doesn't see it that way, and since Colt has to be punished for killing another human, he has to do... community service.

The horror.

His fellow comrades (although Colt would protest at such a term being used) are Lexi, a tickle monster, and Jax, a werewolf with a deep, abiding sense of guilt. Running the place is the human Saffy, whom Colt instantly feels drawn to, although he can't figure out why. Secrets are revealed as the monsters to the monsters (humans known as Chasers) come out and start trying to kill Colt and the others.

This story is action-packed and fun. I liked the references to the author, which felt clever and were not annoying, and I liked Colt. My initial liking for Colt grew stronger after I found out that he, too, is not a fan of insta-love. That is one sensible vampire cat.

The rest of the characters were interesting too. I liked Lexi and Jax, and their relationship with Colt was definitely one of the highlights of the series. Saffy was alright, but there were sudden changes (especially towards the end) which made me not-like her so much. Plus, despite Colt's insistence to the contrary, he definitely favoured Saffy from the start so I never really got to see if she was interesting. Jax and Lexi, on the other hand, had to work for their screen time and I liked them a lot more.

This book will definitely appeal to fans of cats and/or Tyrolin. If you've read some of her other books and you're wondering if you should pick this one up, you totally should. It's a fun and interesting story with a snarky protagonist.

Disclaimer: I got a free copy of the book from the author in exchange for a free and honest review.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Forgotten English by Jeffrey Kacirk

I took my time reading this book and I'm glad I did, because it's a book that should be savoured in small doses. Forgotten English is a book about words that have fallen out of use. Some I actually knew/had heard about, some are the predecessors of modern words, and some flabbergasted me. The words are organised by theme, such as drink, occupation, love, etc., and each word contains the meaning and a brief history of it.

Most of the time, this history includes examples of how the word was used, with lots of quotations from old texts.

I found this to be very illuminating and enjoyable. Sure, we probably won't be using these words in our daily lives, but the history of English is a fascinating topic that I don't normally think about. It was really fun to learn something new about something that I thought I already knew.

Words that are explained include:

Mocteroof: which is used for the craft of "frubbishing" or making damaged fruits and vegetables look good (and the the entry explains how)

Mob fair: which is a job hunting fair for domestic and agricultural workers

Purl-men: 18th and 19th century beer-sellers who sold their beer on the Thames and other rivers

Lettice-cap: a medical appliance that resembles a hair net (although lettuce was probably not used)

Gorgayse: a Middle English word which means "elegant, fashionable" and is the predecessor of the word gorgeous

And much more!

You really don't have to be a wordsmith to enjoy this book. As long as you like the English language and/or history, you'll enjoy reading this.