Ever

In the same spirit of seasonal sentimentality, I reread Gail Carson Levine’s least popular fantasy novel. I had bought my copy from one of those mail-order catalogues my primary school used to hand out – what an era – but I had found the prose too different from her other books to give it more than a perfunctory skim.

Last year, I made a conscious effort to read more books by non-Anglo-American authors. And remembering that Ever was heavily inspired by ancient Mesopotamian myths and texts, I impulsively gave it another go at 2 a.m.

This time around, the writing wove through my mind seamlessly. Each sentence was simple and succinct, but by no means stiff. Some readers have complained that whenever white authors attempt to emulate foreign voices, they contrive gross caricatures of broken English. While in some cases I would agree, Levine’s language was reasonably reminiscent of Pritchard’s anthologies of ancient Near Eastern texts. And regardless of authenticity, the prose was perfectly fluent, lush even, and conveyed lucid Mesopotamian landscapes without the crutch of verbosity.

The plot itself was not exactly impressive, nor were the mythical ordeals empathy-inducing. The romance was heartwarming fluff, but fluff nonetheless. Yet the unexpectedly ambitious themes warrant a full review. Ever was the first novel I had read (well, skimmed) that attempted to navigate the tricky, easily stuffy theological realm. Kezi was raised a devout worshipper of Admat, the omnipresent, omniscient god of her country, Hyte. When she meets a very different god in the flesh, she understandably experiences a spiritual crisis.

Through her eyes, Ever deftly traversed some Big Questions: Is there a God? How can we know whether He exists? How can we know whether He is good? Why do we suffer? Must we suffer? As a second-generation Christian, these questions were certainly relatable. But because of its bold subject matter, Ever has also been met with astringent criticism. Disapproving readers have drawn parallels between the seemingly callous, absent Admat and the Judaeo-Christian God; from that angle, Ever may well seem like an attack on the Abrahamic faiths.

Personally, however, I found few theological similarities. Kezi’s religion may be monotheistic, but the sacred text and religious practices contradict Abrahamic teachings too greatly to permit deeper or more serious comparisons. Levine herself said she deliberately distanced the book from the Bible.

Even if young readers were to draw their own parallels, this novel is still an engaging preface to the crossroads every child raised in a religious family will ultimately reach – questioning what they have always been taught to believe. Whether this leads them to their own personal relationship with their god(s) or to disillusionment, formulating your own understanding of your religion is, in my opinion, the only way you can truly believe. So why rule out a book just because you (or your child) might end up disagreeing with some parts of it?

“A mind is like a parachute. It does not work if it is not open.” – Frank Zappa

Rating: 3/5

How to Live Forever

“Remember is the last month,” said Festival.
“Remember’s not a month.”
“Of course it is,” said Festival. “There are twelve months thirty days long and the five days at the end of the year that are left over are called Remember. It’s when we all remember what happened in the past year, all the people who were born and all the people who died. You have to have Remember, otherwise you’d start the next year out of balance.”

Caesar’s calendar may not have had Colin Thompson’s witticisms, but the Romans did found a December Christmas, which more than suffices for a wallow in nostalgia. In this spirit of seasonal sentimentalism, I watched four seasons of Winx Club and reread this childhood gem.

It took me forever and a day to find this book, in part because I only remembered the above quote (I thought it was the cleverest thing as a child). But more maddeningly, Thompson also wrote a picture book with the exact same name – and a remarkably different plot. The picture book is quite well known – the novel, on the other hand, is not even in print anymore (you can buy a secondhand copy for US$170 on Amazon).

What a trip.

When I did find the book, I was surprised by how few people know of it. Essentially every English novel can be found and dissected on Goodreads – the bibliophile’s digital paradise, overflowing with needlessly lengthy reviews and pre-reviews and pre-release-reviews of the most niche books – and only 18 other people have rated How to Live Forever (compared to the 1074 who have rated the picture book).

My surprise was compounded by how well-written it is. For a children’s novelist, Thompson showed surprising restraint. Incongruous expository dialogues were sparse, the obstacles convincing, and the solutions not dei ex machina. The magic made enough sense to keep me invested in the characters’ mortal perils. And most impressively, the quirky details of the magical world were littered dismissively – that is to say, delightfully realistically – throughout the first three quarters of the book, until the protagonist finally caught on and all was explained. An infinitely more engaging introduction to a magical world than most children’s books allow.

Tricked into an alternate reality where books are as large as houses (in fact, they are houses), Peter searches for his father and the fabled Ancient Child with his Caretaker, a girl who was born at the same minute he was and consequently tasked with showing him around. As they journey through each gallery of the living library, readers will discover witty subversions of idioms and clichés, peculiarly disgusting creatures, and a strange abundance of wizened old men of dubious character.

“They live down on gallery two in the Chinese Sixteenth.”
“Don’t you mean the Chinese Quarter?” said Peter.
“No. That would be a quarter of a gallery. This is only a sixteenth.”

Unfortunately, some common pitfalls were still left unfilled. The scenes attempting to heighten the suspense by evoking an emotional response were embarrassingly overdone. Of course, as a child, I was less critical. I did find Peter’s outbursts irritating, but I brushed off his overzealous internal dilemmas as passable ways to raise the stakes. Then again, I was also stuck with other ‘age-appropriate’ books whose authors were often much more uncomprehending of children’s emotional capacities.

Ultimately, How to Live Forever is still a marvellous specimen of a children’s book that does not underestimate children – an increasingly elusive breed. Its wit will be sure to charm even grown readers wanting a light, heartwarming, winter read.

Rating: 4/5

The Little Book of Lykke

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Clementine and vanilla botanical candle from Kaminari. Prints from Artifact Uprising.

“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a month, get married. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help others.” – Chinese proverb

Rather than a shortcut to personal happiness, and despite its Danish title, The Little Book of Lykke is an international introduction to why some communities are happier than others. Investigating six keystones highlighted by a United Nations report, Lykke takes you across all six inhabited continents on a “treasure hunt” for what makes people happy. In surprisingly succinct sentences, it carefully considers cultural attitudes, national policies, local efforts, and individual case studies. Sure, some explanations may be oversimplified, but as a starting point, the analyses were more than sufficient to set Lykke firmly apart from the more wishy-washy-flower-child happiness self-help guides.

That said, some practical suggestions for individual implementation are given. They were helpfully grouped into boxes of Happiness Tips, which translated positive principles scientists, psychologists and anthropologists have observed around the world into small, day-to-day tasks. But the intention of these is to not only help yourself become happier, but also to make others happier too (which in turn will make you happier as well).

And of course, the binding and format of this book are lovely – if books can be hygge, then Wiking’s (currently) two-part series is the epitome of it. The Fair Isle illustrations and matte cream covers are cute touches, and aptly bring a smile to my face. Not to mention Wiking’s compulsive (and very topical) pun-making.

So should you read this book? If you want a one-stop checklist of steps to lifelong happiness, maybe not. The Little Book of Lykke is much more than that. But if you want a solid launch pad for your own investigations replete with social experiments and studies to refer to, then Lykke would be a good place to start.

Side note: I had first read the opening proverb on the corridor walls to a mall bathroom in Hong Kong, and I remember thinking it was the most profound advice I had ever heard. (Although hopefully your marriage remains happy for more than a month!) I was pleasantly surprised to find it in a book by such a quintessentially Danish author.

Rating: 4/5

A Book Person on Film

Another season of college applications (this time for exchanges for our mandatory gap year), another flurry of college essays. This one was for Yale.

Write about a book, play, movie, piece of art – anything in literature or arts, classic or contemporary – that has affected the way you think.

I was always a book person. So it surprised even me when I knew it had to be a film. The truth is, I cannot narrow down any commentary on my personality to anything less than ten, maybe twenty books. But there is a singular film I immediately name whenever I am asked which one my favourite is.

I grew up in Eurocentric ‘international’ schools, and consequently had exclusively entertained myself with British and American media. I was never remotely interested in local pop music or TV shows, due in part to my shameful incompetence in my ‘mother tongue’. But the primary reason slunk in the beautiful blonde models plastered on our billboards (even though Hong Kong is 90% ethnically Chinese) and the sense of superiority enveloping the small but significant expat population. I had long internalised the ‘fact’ that Western means cool, and Chinese therefore uncool.

That is, until my parents tricked me into watching 3 Idiots with them. When I found out it was a three hour-long Bollywood film, like in an American sitcom, I groaned and rolled my eyes. See, extrapolating the ‘non-Western means uncool’ sentiment means Asian media can never be as worth my time – the scripts are lame, the actors gauche, the cinematography kitsch. But just half an hour in and I had wept for joy and for sorrow, froze with shock and suspense, and was struck dumb by its profundity and breathtaking visuals. This film dropped some fire wisdom, y’all. Go watch it.

When I left the theatre and Googled 3 Idiots on my father’s phone (I still had one of those indestructible Nokias then), I saw that it was already an immense international success. And like in an American romcom, that was the precise moment a life-changing revelation clicked: non-white people can be cool too. Foreign films can be cool, and not just in the francophone arthouse way. Foreign actors are ridiculously talented at singing and dancing and being hilarious and heart-breaking at once. Side note: Notice how I say ‘foreign’ when I am neither American nor British myself? Sure, Indian culture may not be my culture, but the sheer sensation that was this film ignited a desire to get to know my own culture, and to own it.

The second way 3 Idiots reshaped my self-identity may sound clichéd. A film unafraid to show student suicide and suffocating academic pressure, it was the first narrative to chip away at my belief that only my grades are worth measuring. They were the only area that I could see myself empirically excelling in. I had many interests (horse riding, running, music), but at most I was above average. And in the rat race to the best universities for the best jobs for the best life, it had felt futile to be anything but the best.

“Ever since we were young, we believed that life was a race… Man, even to be born, we had to race 300 million sperm.” – 3 Idiots

Because I knew there are countless people much smarter than me, this sense of futility only further dampened my self-esteem. Sure, phenomena like Harry Potter has lines like:

“Harry – you’re a great wizard, you know.”
“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery and – oh Harry – be careful!”

But 3 Idiots pierced the viscous film of un-relatability I had not even noticed was enshrouding my mind. It spoke from a culture similar to my own – one in which education is worshipped as the one sure way to success, and parents are willing to splurge inordinate amounts of money on marginally better schools.

Did 3 Idiots magically snuff out all my doubts? No. But fictitious though it may be, it proved how my empirical performance is not the best predictor of my future success. Do something meaningful, and you are successful. And I am confident that in my pursuit of medicine, I will find many things that are meaningful, and achieve them.

The King of Bones and Ashes

Thanks to the publisher for providing me an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review. The King of Bones and Ashes will be available on 23rd January 2018.

Winnowing between three female narrators, Horn conjured a marvellous cobweb of Machiavellian machinations. The witches were meticulous murderers, preying on the more merciful and spinning soul-stirring confessions from omissions and lies. A family drama this may be, but certainly not the suffocating, suburban kind.

The novel ensnares with its serpentine subterfuge – by the end, I trusted only five characters. Three were the protagonists. One was long dead. The mysteries were unscryable, the twists bizarre. Nothing could have prepared me for the final reveal – I physically recoiled, after the five solid minutes I needed to process it. Nearing the last chapter, I was positively panicking that Horn would cut us off with a cliffhanger – this will be a trilogy after all, and he was still throwing major twists so near the end. Thank goodness he deigned to give us some closure.

My first Horn book, The King of Bones and Ashes had an idiosyncratic grain. The atmosphere throughout was strangely muted, as if the magical community were sealed off from the conventional world by a viscous, translucent film. I have never been to New Orleans, but the images that filled my mind had the same saturated filter as Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Set in a neon-hip, kitsch-modern beach park, the adaptation exuded an uncanny mixture of familiar and foreign, current and nostalgic. Horn’s latest did the same.

This book was also hard to neatly shelve. Some scenes were skin-crawlingly horrific, others were power struggles that would have made an Asian period drama proud. Oh, and magic was involved. There was also an unsettling strand of American Horror Story freakishness (fans of the series will likely enjoy this too), but with less of the occasional humour.

Would I recommend The King of Bones and Ashes? Sure. But maybe not for late-night reading.

Rating: 4/5

Monstress: Awakening

The award-winning and critically lauded Monstress series by an MIT professor and a Marvel illustrator caught my eye with the promised expansive world-building and layered characterisations. Set in an alternate matriarchal Asia, the steampunk-meets-kaiju graphic novel follows an Arcanic (a human and Ancient half-breed) wreaking vengeance for her dead mother.

The inherent advantage of graphic novels is that, because a single panel can impart so much more information than the average sentence, few introductions are needed. And in Monstress, readers are thrown straight into the war-torn bowels of a genocidal cult, a slave camp, and two enigmatic Arcanic Courts. The very first panel is a full-page illustration of Maika, our protagonist, stripped naked and being auctioned off for parts, sex and other unspoken horrors.

On the flip side, some authors rely too heavily on this convenience, tipping the balance too far towards ‘showing’ (without actually showing us much). They fashion ambitious worlds, but fail to supply compelling cultures and histories. Worse, in some novels, you have no idea what those cultures or histories even are, or what the heck is going on half the time. Disappointingly, Monstress belonged to the latter group.

Too many invented terms and technologies and species were slung in at once, with few effective definitions or demonstrations, despite the aforementioned option of just drawing it out. Details of characters’ lives and relationships were so haphazardly littered throughout the volume, I had no clue which ones were actually significant and which were just fillers. I was often plagued by the feeling that the panels were spliced together by some Machiavellian mischief-maker who cut out the important moments for petty torture. As the convoluted plot progressed, my questions only multiplied. I’m not sure I’m bothered to look for answers in the second book.

Maybe the characters really were more nuanced than your typical comic book heroines. The last graphic novel I read was Maus in Year 10, so I do not have much to compare them with. But compared with traditional novels, given how poorly the illustrations conveyed information, Maika’s identity crisis and emotional turmoil only succeeded in being a tad contrived.

The Art Deco-manga art was stunningly intricate. A shame that the elaborate detail did little to carry the actual narrative.

Rating: 2/5

Half of a Yellow Sun

This is a hard book to review. It was moving and merciless. The language was so consuming, when my mother called, “Come! Eat your chicken udon before it gets soggy!” for a moment I gawked and thought, We have meat! Then I realised what a fool I was. Of course we have meat. We always have meat.

Another image swam through the many imagined ones still treading in the shallows of my mind. My friends and I were sitting on the uneven planks of a stilt house. The wooden, wall-less structure served as Ban Chôk’s community centre. We had just eaten our first meal in the village and our interpreter was asking us what we thought of the food. Someone said, “There’s no meat. Can we have some meat next time?” Others nodded. I also nodded, even though I did not notice that there was no meat and I liked the coriander soup and boiled vegetables anyway. After the man left, our teacher said quietly, “Meat is expensive.”

I remember those words from time to time. They always kindle in me something akin to shame. School voluntourism trips are always somewhat hollow, but it was another level of irony to demand so unthinkingly from the people we were supposed to have been helping.

Half of a Yellow Sun is commanding like that. It immerses you in the mundane, meticulous details, which bring other details from your own life with them. From the eyes of five characters (an uneducated village houseboy, a radical professor, his rich and beautiful and cultured lover, her twin and an Englishman), we see an intimate, pitiless tapestry of the years leading up to and embroiled in the Biafran War. Adichie’s narrative is one that needs no exposition – the famine, rapes, forced conscriptions, international politics, national politics, civilian massacres… all were palpable through her characters’ individual treks through love and loss. In the first half, at least.

In the second half, those same details lost their potency. The metallic tang of war was already in the air, yet we were still tangled up in personal scandals that took entire chapters to unfold. I was irritated by how frequently the precipitating event was clumsily alluded to – obvious attempts at building suspense. But reading “the months before Baby was born” twice on the same page only fanned my frustration more than anything.

My criticism may sound paradoxical; after all, these deeply personal narratives are what make Half of a Yellow Sun so evocative. But somewhere in the middle, they just became distractions. I wanted awfully to like the book, so I took a break and read something else first. I only came back to it four books and a month later.

I’m so glad I finally finished it. Once we moved past the scandalous event, the prose returned to its unflinching brilliance. Half of a Yellow Sun is a book I would recommend to everyone. I will never adequately articulate how arresting and haunting and relevant it is. This story is not over yet.

Favourite quote: “This is our world, although the people who drew this map put their land on top of ours. There is no top or bottom, you see.”
Rating:
4/5