So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – Jon Ronson

October 3, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in English in 2015

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I had loved The Psychopath Test. And so I have a number of books by Jon Ronson. The Men Who Stare At Goats is a popular one, but one that for some odd reason I’ve just been unable to finish. Then there’s Lost At Sea, which I’ve not yet started. And then, of course, there’s this book: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

It is an intriguing topic, public shaming. Especially in this world we live today where it has become so, so easy. All of us who have connection to the Internet have at least one social media network account. It could be YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… these are just the giants, and I’m pretty sure there are many more that I don’t know of.

Social media has made it possible for us to deliver our thoughts to the world about something happening in a completely different timezone, regardless of how or even whether or not that event impacts me in any way at all. The platforms are designed in such a way that hashtags (#) have made it easier to create and track trends. And if something someone said far far away manages to capture your attention, and perhaps create some resentment, it really doesn’t take that much effort at all to let the world know just how you feel about it. You don’t even have to lift your bum off the chair.

I had imagined this book to take this line of thought and roll with it. And perhaps it did, for a little while. But then it started diverging elsewhere, and I kind of got lost a little. Maybe I should have managed my expectations a little better—and I really should know better than to plug my own expectations onto a book.

In saying that, I ended up not loving the book in the way I had thought I would. And in my head, it does not rank up there with The Psychopath Test. But he had some very interesting stories to tell, some of which were perhaps more related to how we deal with shame, rather than the animal that public shaming is shaping out to be. And that’s all fine, actually. If I had started the book without any pre-conceived notions about what I thought the book might be about, then I would have very likely enjoyed the book far more than I did.

But that’s kind of what we do, isn’t it? We approach everything with our own versions of what we think something should be, and when it ends up not matching what we had imagined, it throws us off a little.

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The Mother’s Tale – Camilla Noli

September 29, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in English in 2009

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The narrator is a young mother of two. Her eldest daughter is only just 14-months old, her youngest son only just born not too long ago. She used to be a successful career-woman, she tells us, but when she found herself smack in the middle of motherhood when she gave birth to Cassie, both her and her husband decided that the best way to cope with it was for her to quit. He had told her it would be temporary, and she tells us that she was simply too tired to argue about it, so she quit.

Today, she’s still a stay-at-home mum, and it seems, slowly losing her mind. She tells us about the exhaustion, about the many, many niggling details about caring for two very young children that would suck any person dry. She tells us about the group of mothers she sometimes hangs around with, simply because that’s the only choice she has now. She tells us about her husband, Daniel, how he is smitten by their daughter, and how sometimes she gets just a little jealous that he no longer has eyes for her alone.

She tells us about the life she had before motherhood, about how she met Daniel, about how they became one. She tells us about how good she used to be at her job, when she still had one. She tells us all this, her memories of a past life, almost, with a longing so desperate, it seeps out of the pages into our hearts. It’s a life she had to give up to become something she hadn’t banked on—a mother.

I was immediately intrigued by the one-liner on the cover:

All mothers love their children… Don’t they?

The book is not about all mothers—it is about one mother in particular. And while it seems horrific to think that there might be, somewhere out there, a mother who doesn’t love her children, this book makes a very good argument for why that might be.

I’ve read a number of reviews on this book saying that it’s simply not believable, and that the unnamed narrator was just too evil to be real. But for me, that was simply not the case. I didn’t love the woman, but I could relate. I could feel her frustration. I was able to put myself in her shoes, to see her point of view. It was like I knew why she needed her old life back—she didn’t know how else to be herself anymore.

For me, this was a brilliant book.

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

September 28, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in English in 2008

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The man Jack is in a house with a mission—murder everyone in it. He’s almost done; there’s only the baby boy left, and that would be easy. But he doesn’t realise that the baby has crawled out of his crib and onto the road, and found his way into a graveyard. By the time the man Jack realises this and arrives at the graveyard, the baby is no longer anywhere to be found.

The man Jack doesn’t know this, but the baby has been taken in by the residents of the graveyard, a Mr and Mrs Owens, to be more specific. They name the baby Nobody Owens, or Bod for short, because

“He looks like nobody but himself,” said Mrs Owens, firmly. “He looks like nobody.”

“Then Nobody it is,” said Silas. “Nobody Owens.”

It’s unheard of to have someone from the realm of the still-living to be given the Freedom of the Graveyard. But Mrs Owens insists that this child is to stay with her, and so it is that Bod Owens becomes a living being amongst the dead.

The boy grows up, of course, as he is still living and breathing, and as the days and years go by, he learns more and more about this world that he is not supposed to be a part of. But he cannot cut ties with the world of the living, either, because he cannot deny what he really is.

It is this ambiguity that becomes the source of many of his misadventures, and yet it is also because of his link to both worlds that he finds precious relationships.

This is my second Gaiman book this year, the first being Stardust, and I did read both within a short period of time. I must say I felt Stardust was a more beautiful and complex story, and perhaps The Graveyard Book, a more simple one. But both were really quite wonderfully constructed, the worlds were not only believable, but almost tangible.

Neil Gaiman is an absolute master in creating the world that exists within the pages of a book.

Once We Were There – Bernice Chauly

September 27, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in English in 2017

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Delonix Regia, or Del as everyone calls her, is a young journalist in Kuala Lumpur during a turbulent time. The economic downturn, the Reformasi movement, the remaining Mahathir years, and the subsequent Badawi administration, all form the backdrop for the story of her transformation.

At the start of the book, Del comes off as rather idealistic, and somewhat of a free-spirit. As the years pile on, she finds love and marriage and parenthood, she learns how harsh reality can be, and experiences the darkness and helplessness that society can inflict on anyone with even the slightest vulnerability.

I somehow feel like I’m not sure what to say about this book. I know I didn’t like it much, but it’s been a few weeks now since I finished reading it, and I still can’t figure out what it was about it that didn’t sit right with me. This is a story set in a city that I was born and bred in. The political setting is one that I’ve experienced myself. And yet, I felt a little alien to it, like I couldn’t place myself in the story, couldn’t get pulled in, couldn’t really feel the atmosphere like I know how it can feel.

It’s strange, I think, to read about a story set in a place so familiar, and yet feel like a stranger. Maybe that’s what threw me off. Maybe there were too many things going on.

And I don’t think I liked Del very much. Or her husband, Omar. Or her friend, Sumi.

I don’t know. It just didn’t gel with me.

Grotesque – Natsuo Kirino

September 26, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in Japanese in 2003
Translated into English by Rebecca Copeland in 2007

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A woman, Yuriko, has died. In fact, she had died two years ago. Strangled and left alone in an apartment unit. Less than a year after that, another woman, Kazue, is killed, seemingly by the same means. And amazingly enough, both women are related in some way to our narrator. She is unnamed, but we know her to be Yuriko’s older sister. And Kazue was our narrator’s classmate in the prestigious Q High School.

From the very beginning, we know that our narrator never liked Yuriko. In fact, she probably hated her very existence, resorting even to calling her a “monster” simply for being so inhumanly beautiful—so perfect that she is almost eerie. Our narrator also didn’t like Kazue very much, thinking that Kazue was over-ambitious and naive and simply didn’t have her foot in reality.

To be honest, our narrator probably didn’t like anyone at all. Not her parents, not her classmates, not her colleagues.

But what’s this story really about, anyway? Our narrator is trying to tell us what had really happened to Yuriko and Kazue, why they had become prostitutes, and why they had been killed. She’s telling us her side of the story, what she believes had happened, and she tries so hard to convince us to believe her. Yet at the same time, we are also allowed to view the incidents from various other sources—Yuriko’s and Kazue’s journals, for example. Quite quickly, we realise that everyone’s got their own take on what had happened in the past, all of them are telling the truth as they perceive it, and all of them are lying to protect themselves. None of them are reliable.

And isn’t that just how all of us are? That no matter how truthful we claim ourselves to be, what we say and believe can only be our own truths, and these truths, though we may die for them, may quite jarringly be an untruth in someone else’s retelling.

Still, this was an uncomfortable book to read. Not because of the subject matter. Perhaps it was the language, or the translation. Or perhaps it was how the journals didn’t read like journals, but like articles written with an audience in mind. Or perhaps it was how obsessive our narrator was with her younger sister’s perfect face, so much so that it became rather repetitive.

I almost didn’t care for any of them anymore, but the time I got to the end of the book. I know that the author’s got a strong message, and it did come across as I was reading it. But somehow, it was an odd reading experience. And interestingly, I’m keen to give Out a go, just to see how that one reads.

Stardust – Neil Gaiman

August 8, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in English in 1999

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Dunstan Thorn lives in Wall, a little village where there is a very well-known, physical wall, from which perhaps the village got its name. There is a small opening in the wall, and peering through it, it looks like there’s a beautiful meadow beyond. But no one goes through it, except on one very special day every nine years—the day of the fair. People from the world over would crowd this small village of Wall, all so that they could go through that opening, into the meadow, to see the market by the magic folk.

He meets a beautiful young woman, a faerie, selling some of the most exquisite crystal flowers he has ever seen. He is bewitched, perhaps, and returns to the meadow late that same night to claim his Heart’s Desire. But he is a mere mortal, a man, and cannot stay on this side of the wall. He returns to his village to live his normal life the best he can. Then, nine months later, a newborn in a basket is pushed through the opening from the meadow into the village of Wall. A piece of paper comes with this package, and on it is written: “Tristan Thorn”.

Tristan grows up in the village of Wall, just like an ordinary boy, though sometimes he feels that perhaps he is just a smidge different from the rest. But a boy he is, and like his friends, he is smitten. Losing his heart to the beautiful Victoria Forester, he promises to retrieve a fallen star for her. This, then marks the start of his journey to the world beyond the wall, where he must find this fallen star, and bring it back with him to Wall.

It’s a beautiful book. And it’s odd, because I can’t seem to be able to pinpoint exactly what about it makes it so pretty, but the book itself feels like it’s been sprinkled with stardust, and the magic almost feels normal. It’s an adventure story, one that brings Tristan to places he has never gone before; but also one in which he grows up without anyone ever really noticing it.

The book itself is like magic, I feel. There are so many things I want to say about it, but there are also so many things that I feel are unsayable. Almost as if I’m afraid of losing some of that magic, of making it less magic, simply by mentioning it. It’s playful and serious at the same time; funny and sombre at the same time. Everything is a fantasy, and yet everything is real, all at the same time.

 

Honeymoon – James Patterson

July 29, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in English in 2005

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Nora is a woman that would make so many other women jealous. She’s beautiful, she has a successful career, and she’s standing in a room in New York with the world’s most perfect man. He is very sexy, very successful, and very much in love with her. She’s going away for the weekend, but not before they have some earth-shattering sex. And after a sumptuous after-sex meal, this perfect man proposes to her.

Nora’s life is to die for.

Nora’s weekend trip is to visit a client of hers in Boston. She’s an interior designer, and it seems she makes house calls very often. After all, her clients are mostly extremely rich. But this Boston man is no ordinary client. They wrap their arms around each other the moment they see each other, eager to have skin touch skin, and for some raunchy activity. Boston man is very handsome, very charming, and also very much in love with her.

Boston man is Nora’s husband.

She’s living a double life, and it seems like she’s happy to keep it that way. Both men are extremely wealthy, and obviously more than willing to lavish her with anything her heart desires. But what is it that she really wants by seeing both men? Their love? Their money? Their lives?

It’s no secret that very soon into the book, Nora kills one of them, makes it look like he died from a heart attack, and makes millions with a few clicks on the computer. She knows how it’s done; she’s done this before. But unlike the previous time, now she has someone on her tail. It comes in the form of an insurance agent, and a chance to rake more money from this poor man’s death. An investigation is happening behind her back, trying to unearth the secrets that is Nora Sinclair.

This was a very quick read. It was like how James Patterson himself describes his books, “the pages turn themselves.” But perhaps for me, not necessarily because it was so exciting and full of suspense that I couldn’t wait to find out more, but more due to spontaneous reaction—I’m done with this page, on with the next.

There were, of course, some moments of surprise, and a couple of times when a reveal is something I never expected. The pace was quick, chop chop, beat after beat after beat. And I felt it worked for this kind of story. It is, after all, a murder mystery/thriller. You’d want it to read that way.

In the end, though, I’m not entirely sold.

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Extra notes:

So why a James Patterson book?

I signed up for an annual subscription with Masterclass earlier this year, and James Patterson is one of the instructors. There are quite a number of courses on writing, with authors like Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman, as well as Dan Brown and R.L. Stine. It’s quite a treasure trove for me, really.

So I finished the James Patterson course, and one of the things he talked about was the importance of having an outline. What was really interesting for me was the fact that he shared one of these outlines with us, and, no surprise, it was the outline for Honeymoon. So of course I had to read the book alongside its initial outline, whether it is to compare notes, or to see if I can tell what thought process was going on, what he kept, what he threw out, what he added in, how he changed things.

While I didn’t love this book, I also don’t think it will be my last James Patterson book. He’s written so many, I’m actually curious to see how his other books read.

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