Posts filed under ‘Reviews’
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a book (deemed a mystery novel by the book’s narrator) written from the point of view of a 15-year-old autistic savant named Christopher. During the course of the book, Christopher demonstrates his photographic memory in detail. He uses a DVD as an analogy of what he is able to do, being that he can easily remember specifics, including what his mother was like when she was still alive, and even what she smoked, wore or read at a particular moment, as well as the exact words she said. Thus the narration resembles a transcript rather than a proper narrative, with more emphasis on the actions and words of others instead of their emotions. This uniqueness also stems from the fact that early in the book we find out that Christopher has difficulty understanding facial emotions and cannot describe feelings very well.
Despite his photographic memory, we also find out that the “mysteries” depicted in the book are indeed, from his point of view, mysteries, due to his inability to come to conclusions easily. For example, when he discovers a letter to him from his supposedly dead mother, he wonders if it was sent to the wrong person, while ignoring the possibility that his mother is not dead.
In general, the narration of the book may repel certain readers who prefer their narration to be more straightforward and less long-winded, due to a lot of sidetracking and anecdotes brought up in the story. However, it can also be viewed as insightful, since the narrating style used by Christopher is very uncommon due to his emotional disabilities. The information overload he experiences is also an insight that shows how he is able to analyse things that we normally do not pay attention to or take for granted.
This novel is a recommended read for those who like twists, no matter how minor they might possibly be, as there are numerous twists, both foreshadowed and unexpected, throughout the story.
My book pick for 2011 World Book Day is Barry Hughart’s masterful 1984 novel Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was. Here’s why.
Despite the book winning the 1985 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and the 1986 Mythopoeic Award for Best Fantasy, it has largely gone unknown and unremarked upon by the majority of fantasy readers. It was apparently successful enough for two more novels to be written about the protagonists Master Li Kao and Number Ten Ox (The Story of the Stone in 1988, and Eight Skilled Gentlemen in 1991), but for all intents and purposes the books have dropped into obscurity. The Stars Our Destination Books released an omnibus of all three novels in 1998, called The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, and ten years later Subterranean Press re-released the omnibus in both trade hardcover and limited leatherbound slipcased editions.
The novel takes place in seventh-century imperial China, but an alternate fantastical version of China (what Hughart refers to as “An Ancient China That Never Was”). In the small village of Ku-fu in the valley of Cho lives our narrator:
My surname is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but I am not to be confused with the eminent author of The Classic of Tea. My family is quite undistinguished, and since I am the tenth of my father’s sons and rather strong, I am usually referred to as Number Ten Ox.
On the fifteenth day of the eighth moon in the Year of the Dragon 3,337 (A.D. 639), after the annual silk harvest is inexplicably destroyed by blight, all the children of Ku-fu between the ages of eight and thirteen mysteriously fall into a coma from which they cannot awaken. Number Ten Ox is sent to Peking (Beijing) to find a wise man who can help them, and comes across Master Li Kao, an unkempt and grizzled old sage with “a slight flaw in his character” and a mischievous glint in his eye.
What follows is a masterful quest to find the Great Root of Power, a ginseng root with the ability to awaken the children from their unnatural slumber. Along the way, they run afoul of ghosts and monsters, navigate treacherous labyrinths, trick riches and information from the heartless and miserly, avoid the murderous gaze of the dreaded Duke of Ch’in, and find themselves wrapped up in a centuries-old conspiracy that involves immortal wise men and the August Personage of Jade himself.
Hughart’s prose vaults the reader through a spectacular and unexpected chain of events, and always with a sly nod and a wink, and dialogue that is often laugh-out-loud funny. Old as he is, Master Li has the sharp wit of the Smartest Man in China, and his observations and rapport with Number Ten Ox reveal a playfulness that comes across as hilarious. Even when they are in the most perilous of situations (which happens quite a bit throughout the novel), Li and Ox are the paragons of buddy comedy, which helps to diffuse the often horrible and over-the-top things that they must endure on their quest.
This is a book written by an American about ancient China, and so it is up to the reader to decide how authentic the voice and the story are here. (This is an especially apt challenge for our students, who have much more contextual knowledge of Chinese culture, literature, and mythology than I do.) However, that said, the book feels as if it rings true; both in the telling and in the details that Hughart chooses to give, it is evident that he did a tremendous amount of research and showed an equal amount of respect for Chinese history and cosmology. I welcome comments, especially from students who read the book, about the book’s authenticity.
Regardless, Bridge of Birds is a book worth discovering and keeping alive through discussion and recommendation. Kong Chian Library has multiple copies of Bridge of Birds for student borrowing; copies are also available to buy at OpenTrolley (but stocks are low, so be sure to order quickly).
N.B. My pick for 2010 WBD was Neil Gaiman’s novel The Graveyard Book, which I described thusly: “A remarkable retelling of The Jungle Book, but one set in a graveyard where the orphaned boy is brought up by ghosts. Nobody “Bod” Owens learns the important skills of Fading and Fear, but out beyond the graveyard still lives the man Jack who killed Bod’s family, and is waiting to finish the job. Scary and wonderful and full of masterful turns of phrase. An instant classic.”
For the month of February, Kong Chian Library will be focusing on the literary genre of War Stories.
From Senior Librarian Kris Koo:
In conjunction with the upcoming Total Defence Day, Kong Chian Library has displayed a collection of gripping war stories by some major writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. These stories remind us of the human dimension of war: the achievement and endurance as well as the anguish.
Now available are inspiring stories of action, courage, fear and friendship during wartime which are sure to grip you to the very end. Also ready to be borrowed are a number of Academy Award-winning war films of love, loss and heroism, must-see cinematic events that both enchant and enthrall:
- Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams
- Doctor Zhivago
- Empire of the Sun
- Hamburger Hill
- Hotel Rwanda
- King Arthur: Director’s Cut
- Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior)
- Lawrence of Arabia
- Lovers Grief Over the Yellow River
- Pearl Harbor
- The Thin Red Line
- The Fog of War
- To End All Wars
- We Were Soldiers
- Windtalkers/Hart’s War
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley revolves around an account given by Victor Frankenstein of his life to an ambitious explorer of the Northern Pacific Ocean: leaving his home in Geneva to pursue an education in Ingolstadt, Frankenstein picks up knowledge from professors M. Waldman and M. Krempe, eventually becoming obsessed with imbuing life into an inanimate being. Having subsequently succeeded, he abandons his creation, horrified by its grotesque appearance, an action that leads to disastrous repercussions when the monster causes the death of two of his loved ones. But then the creature does something even more unexpected when he attempts to strike a deal with Frankenstein, agreeing to leave humanity alone in exchange for an action which would put Frankenstein in a moral dilemma.
It is apparent why this is such a stand-out novel in literature, with numerous film adaptations appearing throughout the past century. An unparalleled sense of sympathy is evoked for the protagonist, as the author’s strong mastery of vocabulary places us in the shoes of Victor Frankenstein, allowing us to understand the melting pot of emotions that he experiences throughout the novel. Additionally, there is a haunting sense of catharsis as we are reminded of the potential dangers and pitfalls which scientific discovery and innovation may pose to mankind, that we should always bear in mind not to cross certain boundaries and limits. The skillful depiction of the protagonist’s downfall serves as a disturbing warning and a humbling lesson to those who feel as if they can afford to go against nature.
Another unique feature of this book is the portrayal of the antagonist — Frankenstein’s creation. He is not portrayed as a one-dimensional symbol of evil that causes wanton destruction with no rhyme or reason. Shelley devotes a significant portion of the novel in explaining why the monster is so bitter and manages to convey a sense of sympathy, also possibly hinting towards how society rejects anyone who does not fit in; even as we display unreserved love and care for those close to us, we do not hesitate to keep out individuals who possess undesirable traits, and as a result, perhaps no one can truly be kind-hearted.
However, some weaknesses are prevalent in the novel. Firstly, the author has a penchant for over-describing various pieces of scenery, sometimes taking up whole paragraphs in such painstaking efforts. In some cases, it successfully reflects the mood of the narrator; at other times, it’s quite irritating and results in an uncalled-for interruption in plot development. Secondly, some readers may be unaccustomed to the overly formal and mannered dialogue. Whether this is reflective of 19th century conversation habits amongst Englishmen or mere exaggeration to enhance the novel’s melodramatic nature is debatable.
Despite these minor flaws, Shelley’s keen understanding of human behaviour and strong mastery of imagistic descriptions makes the book an entertaining read.
Each of the 28 short stories within The Roald Dahl Omnibus begins in an expected way, but these expectations are subverted by the end with surprising twists. This technique is Dahl’s signature trademark, and can be seen, for example, in “Lamb to the Slaughter” (a story most Hwa Chong students should be familiar with), which involves Mary Maloney’s murder of her husband, and the suspenseful police investigation that threatens to expose her. Just as it seems that she has been caught, it is revealed that the frozen leg of lamb she used to kill her husband (by bashing him over the head) has finished cooking, and she invites the policemen to enjoy eating it, and thereby destroy the murder weapon through their act of consumption.
Classic stories and harder-to-find tales can be found within this omnibus aimed at older readers. Each story is an examination into the human condition, and their collective presence reveals once again a master of the short story form at the height of his skill.
The Lost Hero picks up several months after the events of Percy Jackson and the Olympians and introduces three new characters: Jason, an amnesiac who happens to be the son of Zeus; Piper, Jason’s “girlfriend” and a daughter of Aphrodite; and Leo, Jason’s best friend and a son of Hephaestus. While undertaking a dangerous quest to rescue Hera, the Queen of the Gods, the trio battle sinister new monsters and cross swords with some of the most notorious humans in Greek mythology, all while trying to rediscover Jason’s lost past.
I personally found this book a welcome change from the first-person perspective of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, as this story is told from the third-person viewpoints of the three protagonists instead. More of Greek mythology’s monsters, heroes and villains have been intricately woven into 21st century society, which was both amusing and interesting. A must read if you are a fan of Greek Mythology.
Addendum by Lu Wen Hao (2I3):
This book is another one of Rick Riordan’s classic thrillers, packed with wit, action and heart, full of the usual wry humor and nonstop action that never fails to disappoint. The book is crammed with plot devices and subplots, such as the gods who drift back and forth between their Greek and Roman personas. Riordan has proven that his storytelling is as polished as ever with The Lost Hero, by bringing Roman gods into the mix as well, and giving them slightly different personalities. In a way, this serves to make the plot more complicated and interesting by letting the readers to stretch their imaginations.
Long story short, this is a book that readers of the fantasy genre would love, and I strongly recommend it to avid supporters of fantasy and thoughtful readers who reflect on their personal favorite stories.
House Rules tells the story of Jacob, an eighteen-year-old diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, being convicted for a crime he did not commit. The crime: the murder of his social skills counselor.
It is unlucky that Jacob has Asperger’s, since all the hallmark behaviours of Asperger’s – not looking someone in the eye, odd movements and inappropriate actions – seem to automatically indicate guilt to the police.
Jacob’s mother also has to deal with a lot of unwanted stress during this difficult period of her son’s arrest: a budding romance with Jacob’s attorney, a resentful son who always comes second to Jacob, and the unexpected arrival of her former husband, Jacob’s father. Above all else, she must ask herself the hardest question of all: is her son truly capable of murder?
A captivating novel from start to end, the book takes the reader through the many twists and turns during Jacob’s trial. With the introduction of many different characters who all play an important part in the trial in one way or another, the novel keeps one in suspense until the very last word.