“Hong Kong’s defeat had brought Liusu victory. But in this unreasonable world, who can distinguish cause from effect? Who knows which is which? Did a great city fall so that she could be vindicated? Countless thousands of people dead, countless thousands of people suffering … Liusu didn’t feel there was anything subtle about her place in history. She stood up, smiling, and kicked the pan of mosquito-repellant incense under the table.
Those legendary beauties who felled cities and kingdoms were probably all like that.”
Love in a Fallen City, Eileen Chang
Two pages into the first novella, Aloeswood Incense, I was reminded of the Original Feminists panel at the Penguin Classics pop-up in London last spring. Paraphrasing rather poorly, but: it really is a special kind of heartache to love so fiercely books that don’t love you back. Did that make sense? Stay with me.
Moving on to the titular story (and my personal favourite), Love in a Fallen City, my heart was so full it was near bursting. Revealing my address on the Internet is perhaps not the wisest course of action; nevertheless, it was so incredibly surreal to see a Penguin Modern Classic take place just a street over from where I live, and celebrating my home city with such palpable, understated lucidity. 🇭🇰
Going back to that paraphrase, younger me was besotted with Austen, Orinda and Gaskell, but in each author was always confronted with a Single Story disconnect (see: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). I wish she had found this collection sooner.
Thank you, Penguin Books and Karen S. Kingsbury, for this translation. I can’t wait to see our canon continue to broaden.
“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.”
We may be quite a ways from Christmas by now, but I did originally start this on its very last day. Most of the past five months was spent well away from the book in dread of having to finish The Haunted Man before it finally occurred to me that life is too short to suffer through boring stories – classic or not. So I picked this up again last night and read the rest.
Christmas Festivities: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
The perfect amuse-bouche for this eight-course collection, Christmas Festivities captured the quintessential Christmas spirit so evocatively, it is no wonder that when Dickens died in 1870, a “London barrow-girl” exclaimed, “Then will Father Christmas die too?”
The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton: ⭐️⭐️
Not having known what a sexton was, I imagined green mini-Grinches stealing naval navigation instruments* and yes, saxophones. Why are they called sextons anyway? This story was – as the author of the introductory essay observed – an early version of what would become the insurmountable Christmas Carol. And being an early version, the miserable, miserly sexton’s redemption was rather rushed, and the goblins inspired more bewilderment than character-changing fear.
A Christmas Episode from Master Humphrey’s Clock: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
A cheering chapter on lifelong friendship, forged from shared solitude on Christmas Day.
A Christmas Carol: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Ah, the belle of Fezziwig’s ball! Need I say more? Just as delightful as it always was, still is, and ever will be. God bless Us, Every One!
The Haunted Man: ⭐️
The one story I could not finish. The Haunted Man represents best the side of Victorian literature I simply cannot slog through. While Dickens’ ability to spin superlatively detailed descriptions of a single man’s appearance into a five-page-long portrait of the entire British Isles is impressive, to say the least, the slow, brooding nature of this novella was too much for me.
A Christmas Tree: ⭐️⭐️
Rather long-winded reminiscences of Dickens’ childhood Christmases. Intensely vivid, but lacking the vivacity of Christmas Festivities.
What Christmas Is, as We Grow Older: ⭐️⭐️
Another quaint – if quickly forgettable – rumination on the bittersweetness of Christmastime. A season of charity and compassion, unquestionably, but also an annual marker of unaccomplished aspirations, or time passed without loved ones now in “the shadow that darkens the whole globe … the shadow of the City of the Dead”. Dickens emboldens us to admit these remembrances “with tender encouragement” instead.
The Seven Poor Travellers: ⭐️
I dithered between one and two stars for this concluding story. On the one hand, I had no problems finishing it (although it is considerably shorter than the never-ending Haunted Man). On the other, despite the narrator’s impromptu generosity and the conviviality of the seven strangers, I finished it feeling hollow. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if the travellers’ stories were actually told. Or perhaps not; I was getting tired of the plot by the second page.
*In case it’s too obtuse, sextants, I’m referring to sextants.
“What I am thinking of is the man of imagination and science, whose courage is infinite because his curiosity surpasses his courage. Nothing will keep him back.”
I admit, genius though he is, this is my first work by Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov. After reading these three exquisitely-wrought stories – all from his Dozen and Collected Stories and each depicting obsessions of very different natures – I can only remark how unfair it is that Nabokov can write so expressively in both Russian and English. I, on the other hand, can barely read my ‘mother tongue’.
The Aurelian: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Ah yes, the grim Russian short. I’m not sure I have read a single sunny story by a modern Russian writer. Either way, in The Aurelian, Nabokov (an aurelian himself, by the way) captured perfectly the damp, dark, dusty depths of middle-aged despair, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to the purgatory of unrealised youthful ambitions. A truly uplifting tale.
Signs and Symbols: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Upon first finishing this, I confess I was confused. What even was the point? But as I fruitlessly pondered and pondered again the descriptions of this and that offhandedly mentioned detail, I realised what a dull-witted fool I was. In our visceral desire to analyse and assign meaning, are we not, like the son, caught up in mild “referential mania” ourselves? And so, Nabokov sits back and says, checkmate.
“Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.”
Sheer, unbridled brilliance: his hallmark wordplay and wit were poured so viscously into this titular short story, it took some effort to slop through. While it did get rather pompous towards the end, this science-fiction satire of science fiction was still a dazzling display of literary dexterity.
“The clichés are, of course, disguised; essentially, they are the same throughout all cheap reading matter, whether it spans the universe or the living room. They are like those ‘assorted’ cookies that differ from one another only in shape and shade.”
Thanks to the publisher Thomas Nelson for providing me a complimentary advance reading copy through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review remain completely my own. Fawkes by Nadine Brandes will be available on 10th July 2018.
“An exotic place to live, despite the view of severed heads on spikes rising every which way.”
An ambitious allegorical reimagining of the Gunpowder Plot and the English Reformation, Fawkes addresses not only the horrific religious violence, but also the slave trade, racism, misogyny, stigmatised diseases, and such philosophical dilemmas as revolutionary jus in bello and personal spiritual truth.
Fawkes is also an exemplary example of world-building. No passage felt obtrusively expository; instead, readers were allowed to discern the rules governing Brandes’ brand of magic themselves. Few young adult fantasy novels give their audience due credit nowadays.
This otherwise impressive feat was dampened, however, by the lapses into 21st-century colloquial speech – especially when it was the White Light speaking. The omniscient, omnipotent colour snickering like an American teenager was jarring, not to mention that the story took place in 17th-century England. The American spelling throughout the novel was also somewhat distracting, but at least it was consistent, so I let this one slide.
Nevertheless, the colour magic concept was genuinely inventive. I almost wish a little more time was spent navigating its subtleties; after all, much of our protagonist’s motivation was fuelled by his need to master it. How was each person’s strongest colour determined, for example? By their temperament? Talents? Interests? And what about purple?
Some characters’ incentives and plot developments were also too convenient. But I did appreciate the unwavering pace – an admirable achievement for such a thematically ambitious book. I would choose minor improbabilities over drawn-out digressions any day.
Overall, Fawkes is a diligently researched retelling of one of English history’s most widely commemorated events (this accuracy somewhat spoils the plot, yes, but I assure you Brandes remembered to inject fresh suspense). I wouldn’t read too much into the parallels between the two factions of colour magicians and the Protestant-Catholic conflict either (the snarky White Light voice, for one, and for another, religion does not have to be passed down from father to son), but they were cleverly and neatly drawn. A solid three stars.
“Triumphantly, he announced their deaths to the cheering crowd in a famous one-word euphemism: vixere, ‘they have lived’ – that is, ‘they’re dead’.”
Almost three months later, I have finally finished this expansive account of Ancient Roman history. SPQR – the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus PopulusQue Romanus – is neither a nostalgic glorification of Western imperialism nor another reworked reduction of how Rome fell. Instead, Beard chronicles with wicked wit their most dignified and depraved moments, piecing together an exceptionally engaging mosaic of how Rome grew from an insignificant village to the first global superpower.
While this did take me much longer than the typical book to read, SPQR is most certainly not a stale or stuffy textbook. Simplification simply does not exist in Beard’s lexicon, and as compelling as her writing is, it takes some time to digest. Besides, exam season is a terrible distractor; at one point, I was stress-reading eight books at once. 🙃
“His supporters dubbed him pater patriae, or ‘father of the fatherland’, one of the most splendid and satisfying titles you could have in a highly patriarchal society.”
Ever since Roman Week in Year 3 (we wore togas and wrote on homemade wax tablets instead of our usual workbooks), I have been engrossed in Graeco-Roman mythology. Sure, Percy Jackson made it cool, but I assure you I was thoroughly fixated years before The Lightning Thief.
Yet despite this persistent interest, I never gave much thought to the folk behind the folklore. So when I found SPQR in a bookstore – a critically endangered species in Hong Kong – I jumped at the chance to buy it.
As a culture that prided itself most on its military prowess, it would have been far too easy for any work on Ancient Rome to get lost in all the conflicts, conquests and controversies. Beard did dissect these in vivid detail, but she also painted us just as detailed a depiction of the ‘home front’ (what a delightful pun): “How long did Romans expect to live? At what age did people get married? What rights did women have? Where did the money come from to support the lavish lifestyles of the rich? And what about the slaves?” She was careful, too, not to overlook the poor, of whom – and not just from Ancient Rome – historical evidence is always sparse.
“This time, the senators met in the temple of the goddess Concord, or Harmony, a sure sign that affairs of state were anything but harmonious.”
This being said, towards the latter half of the book, Beard slipped into progressively more presumptuous prose. This was most rampant in the chapter Fourteen Emperors, which frankly read as self-assuredly as the Edward Gibbon whom Beard made the subject of her satire.
I am, however, inclined to give Beard the benefit of the doubt; after all, SPQR was written for the popular reader, not the academic scholar – or even the ancient civilisations enthusiast. So perhaps she felt she was doing us a favour by skipping the sometimes dull elucidations of exactly where her conclusions were drawn from. Her Further Reading section is rather extensive – spanning some 26 pages.
Nevertheless, I would suggest SPQR only as a starting point. A sweeping starting point, yes, but a starting point nonetheless. No single book can ever be a comprehensive account of Ancient Roman history – or any civilisation’s history – anyway, covering ‘just’ the first millennium or no.
Thank you to the kindest InkBlottings for tagging me! I hardly have time to write anything other than book reviews during exam season, so it’s nice to be able to post something a little different. Do check out Jamie’s blog, the originator of this tag, too!
1. Where do you typically write your blog posts?
Obviously, my desk is nowhere near this organised now.
Journal from Whitelines x Leuchtturm.
My workspace corner in the living room, next to the window. I bought my very first desk last year; before that, I just studied on the sofa, which was a terribly unproductive and unergonomic way of doing things.
2. How long does it take you to write a book review?
One or two hours? Depends how much I like the book and how well known it already is. Generally, the more I like a book, the harder it is for me to articulate exactly why it is so incredible. And if it’s a classic, I try harder to contribute something new – or at least something personal.
3. When did you start your book blog?
February 2016, when I should have been revising for my IB mocks instead.
4. What is the worst thing about having a book blog?
The interminable feeling that I could have written something less mediocre.
5. What is the best thing about having a book blog?
The ever-present impetus for engaging with the books I read. Making myself pinpoint why I like or do not like a novel, what I admire about an author, encourages me to process prose with a much more appreciative mindset. Hopefully one day this will help me publish my very own bestseller. ☺️
6. Which blog post have you had the most fun writing?
It’s too hard to choose just one – and some of them aren’t even book reviews! But to shortlist five:
The rules are pretty simple: Answer the questions, give credit to the creator (Jamie), tag five people or more, and have fun! Oh, and leave a link below so I can read your answers too 😊 But don’t feel the need to do the tag if you don’t want to!
Thanks to the author for providing me a copy in exchange for an honest review. For my full review policy, please click here.
“Staring through a rainy window at a little piece of heaven. Unwilling ever to fully participate in the paradise that surrounds her.”
Snow City is – double meaning intended – dreamlike. Not quite surreal, not yet magical realism. In fact, I’m not sure the term ‘realism’ could at all be applied to this novel. The hazy quality is not disquieting though. But it does dull the senses.
Echo Japonica: Thirty-five. Unmarried. Living alone in self-imposed quarantine. One day she was surviving apocalyptic America. The next, she was in Snow City – her utopian dream world painstakingly perfected on nights dogged by desperation and despair. In Snow City, people are kind, children are loved, women are respected. But with a creator still haunted by a depraved reality, how safe can this shelter really be?
As tiresome as Echo’s diction became and as frivolous as her imagined name was, it was hard not to identify with her. This is a tad embarrassing to admit, but I often puzzle over the minute logistics and intricacies of my own imagined worlds – whether they be lifted from my favourite books or new ones I hope will one day make their way into my very own bestseller. Who wouldn’t trade the relative monotony of real life for an existence that redefines the impossible?
And so I had no difficulty immersing myself in Echo’s occasionally melodramatic prose (she has a particular penchant for repetition and ellipses). The plot, too, was intriguing – peppered with well-placed twists, some as bewildering as our protagonist’s predicament. I easily waded through these 240 pages in a single sitting.
The dreamlike tone, however, was a double-edged sword. It lulled me through the entire book, keeping me entangled (the usual ‘hooked’ is too sharp a word here) in the breakneck plot. But there were also frequent allusions to the horrors of the – our – real world, from which Echo escaped. Horrors made all the more horrible by the realisation that they are happening around us, right now. Horrors that we have become desensitised to because this is human nature, right? Snow City was not as immune as Echo had intended it to be either, so harrowing events plagued its coddled centre too. Yet – the emotional response these passages ought to have evoked was muffled by that persistent dreamlike tone. Even the moving moments felt oddly detached.
Despite its promising premise, Snow City also adamantly avoided the issues of reality, religion, death, authorship and creative control. More ‘mundane’ questions were left unanswered too: How did Echo get here? Why did Echo get here? In the end, the whole woke-up-in-her-literal-dream-world business had disappointingly little to do with the story. I know, I know, letting yourself let go and indulge was part of the point. But we still deserved more closure than this.
Overall, Snow City has an idiosyncratic – if a little insubstantial – charm. A quick, easy escape from reality.