The Distance of the Moon

“Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.”

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Four flights of fancy, these selections from Calvino’s Cosmicomics “interweave scientific fact with wordplay and whimsy”. They tell the history of the universe, witnessed through the eyes of Qfwfq, an exuberant, always extant, chameleon-like figure. But the most extraordinary part isn’t the plot, or the prose, but the opening phenomena, which were once thought to have been real, scientific events. 🌑

The Distance of the Moon: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

The first half was filled with delightful, phosphorescent imagery. But the hollow characterisations did little to endear the lovers’ sheer ridiculousness to me. In such a phantasmic setting, the narrator’s final proclamations ought to have been romantic, but instead just encouraged an eye roll.

Without Colours: ⭐️

Almost as bland as the colourless, “uninterrupted horizons”. The abrupt leaps of language were also too convenient to make the ending poignant. Inventive, certainly, but too insubstantial to sustain my interest.

As Long as the Sun Lasts: ⭐️⭐️

Published three years after the original Cosmicomics, there are subtle inconsistencies in Qfwfq’s recollections of his millennia on Earth. The story was still sweet though – a 12-page expansion on the archetypal bickering old married couple.

“Without which the history of the universe would not have for him any name or memory or flavour, that eternal conjugal bickering: if ever it should one day come to an end, what a feeling of desolation, what emptiness!”

Implosion: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Published 44 years after the original Cosmicomics, Implosion is an abrupt departure from the preceding stories’ conversational tone. Here, Qfwfq is philosophical – no longer enchanting children (or children at heart) by the fire. But while Implosion may be less exuberant and experimental, the introspective prose struck a chord in my introverted soul.

“To explode or to implode, that is the question: whether ’tis nobler in the mind to expand one’s energies in space without restraint, or to crush them into a dense inner concentration and cherish them.”


My other Penguin Modern reviews:
Three Japanese Short Stories
Four Russian Short Stories
Of Dogs and Walls

Three Japanese Short Stories

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Nothing is better than homemade matcha on a rainy day.

I have been making an effort to read more non-English literature, and these new Penguin Moderns are great bite-sized tasters for new authors and unfamiliar cultures. I’m already halfway through my second one, Four Russian Short Stories!

Heroes have always been monsters who crushed sentimentalism underfoot.

Behind the Prison: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Lethally sharp satire whetted against uncomfortably relatable truths. Behind the Prison is at once uproarious and unapologetically pessimistic.

“No, nothing in this world is as oppressive and debilitating as blood ties.”

“For her I would gladly ferry across the Sumida on the coldest winter day to buy her those sakura-mochi sweets from old Edo that she loved so much. But medicine? Not even on the warmest day would I want to go buy her medicine.”

Closet LLB: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The most personally terrifying of the three. Like Otsukotsu Sansaku, I had “embraced the unshakeable goal of becoming a novelist” as a child, and I, too, steep myself in literature while I have supposedly settled into (and here is the most obvious difference) medicine. Thankfully, studying medicine was my own choice, and I hope to become something of a Paul Kalanithi or Atul Gawande. But my goodness, may I never be reduced to a Sansaku!

“How much fun are you getting out of life?”

General Kim: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This last story fits the blurb best: “beguiling, strange, funny and hair-raising”. A delightfully surreal parody of Patriotism with a capital P to round it all off.

“To any nation’s people, their history is glorious. The legend of General Kim is by no means the only one worth a laugh.”

Overall rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Have you read any Penguin Moderns yet? If so, which ones were your favourites?

Gold Shadow

Thanks to the author for providing me with an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review. For my full review request policy, please click here.

“Don’t look like you’re going to cry all the time. Tears are one of their favourite drinks around here.”

I liked the second half decidedly more than the first; it was difficult believing both were written by the same person. But first, coffee some general observations: Gold Shadow promised diversity, and it delivered – superlatively. Some uninspired introductions were a little on the nose, unlike the easy assembly of Kaz Brekker’s criminal crew. But it never crossed into tokenism, and once the North American setting was revealed, it lost its studied air.

Imagine if Black Mirror’s Nanette Cole had yelled at Robert Daly, “You think you’re the misunderstood nerd, but you’re just another sick, entitled white guy who can only feel masculine behind a computer screen!” The first half of Gold Shadow would have been the expository equivalent. In fact, it may as well have been one grand explanation, with a side of sudden jumps into minor characters’ points of views, as if the protagonists’ running commentaries were not explicit enough. Besides, for a character whose whole life had been eked out in the same hellhole, the dutifully described details would have long been taken for granted. An especially exasperating scene saw another character explaining the types of slaves to an escaped slave.*

Having said that, getting through the first half was not hard; the plot was intriguing enough. It just could have been a much more full-bodied blend of form and function, given how much better the second half already was.

Ah, the second half. We were finally allowed some actual action, and Perry likewise progressed to more polished prose. Her writing showed such articulate restraint, I almost forgot my prior frustration. I especially enjoyed experiencing Ebony’s world through her enemy’s eyes – after all, this enemy was not privy to any information, so she had no explanations to lavish on us. No, she had to deduce, as we should have been allowed to deduce.

Without the crutch of clarifications, character development also flourished. The main cast was finally dressed with flesh beneath their stereotypical façades: the strong and silent one, the broken beauty, the outwardly cold but secretly soft-hearted leader… A few characterisations had come off as contrived in the beginning (Ebony’s soulless survivor persona, for example; the self-evident declarations of emotional detachment did not help), but Perry’s better bridled hand ended up convincing me to unreservedly, unconditionally invest my (rather delicate) emotions in the entire cast – the ‘good’ and the inane alike.

Another reason Perry is a babe is the blessèd absence of romance. I do like my realistic romances, which I think add some welcome hope and lightness and angst and pathos to high-stakes and action-packed plots. Amongst these characters however, the mildest insinuation of that kind of emotional intimacy would have been a blue whale out of water. So thank goodness for Perry’s wisdom here – a virtue that is sadly absent in worryingly many recent and raved-about young adult releases.

Ironically, the few instances of additional world-building in the second half were also far more effective than all the descriptions in the first half combined. There were still some details missing that would have helped me care more about the characters’ country. I have yet to grasp just how advanced the technology has become, or what the general populace think or know or want. But since Perry concentrated on crafting the slave cities and the rebellion in this first book, it was understandable.

All this to say, I look forward to reading the second book. The ending of this one was tantalising, to say the least. And if the second half was anything to go by, I am sure the next instalment will have writing deserving of a place in young adult bestseller displays.

“Being early meant being on time. Being on time meant being late. But being late was unacceptable.”

And may it be published early, then.

Favourite quote: This may be my new favourite dedication: “To all those aspiring writers who dream first and sleep later.”
Rating: 3/5


*Show, for heavens’ sake, don’t tell! seems to be my personal Peeves. A small selection of books that give their readers proper credit: A Darker Shade of Magic (its sequels, not so much), The Bear and the Nightingale, Caraval, The City of Brass, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, How to Live Forever (the novel), The Night Circus, and of course, the ever beloved Harry Potter.

“If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.

The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” – Ernest Hemingway

The Last Namsara

An enjoyable but ultimately forgettable read, Ciccarelli’s debut novel relied too heavily on clichéd characterisations and predictable plot twists. While the symbiosis between stories and dragons was an interesting original element, for a plot line that attempted to spin hair-raising intrigue, the consequences rang hollow.

The Last Namsara had a suffocating focus on the royals’ machinations, with no convincing portrayal of their people’s emotions. If we do not know what the people want, what they believe, who they believe, where their loyalties lie, or how they would react, does it really matter who wins? Not if we don’t really care about said royals either.

Their motivations rang hollow too. Jarek’s insatiable lust for Asha was bewildering; even if it branched off a desire for the throne, there was no need to also desire her body. Did he just want what other men could not have? Because few other men would want her. Was he just a jerk? Maybe. Dax’s revolutionary tendencies were similarly abrupt and uncertain. The romance was even more contrived. Only Asha and the king’s bloodlust was somewhat believable.

Besides, if the people detested the old stories so much, why would they name the wicked girl they feared the most after an ancient goddess? Why did the people become hesitant to execute a criminal once she was given another fabled title? The anti-Old One regime seemed to be deeply entrenched, yet it was only enforced one generation ago. Certain things just didn’t seem properly thought through, as if the author herself did not adequately understand the country or the culture she was creating.

But having said all that, The Last Namsara still was enjoyable. Asha was not exactly likeable (or relatable), but she was sympathetic. I especially liked the short stories wedged between each chapter. Will I be waiting for the second book? No. But this one is still worth a try if you’re in a fantasy book slump. Maybe Ciccarelli will be more ambitious in her next novel.

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

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