Snow City

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 Front CoverSnow 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.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Day the Angels Fell

Thanks to the publisher for providing me an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review. The Day the Angels Fell will be available on 5th September.

“Children are caterpillars and adults are butterflies. No butterfly ever remembers what it felt like being a caterpillar.” – Cornelia Funke

The most exasperating pitfall of children and Middle Grade books is when authors underestimate their young readers. They underestimate their emotional depth, their comprehension of love and loss, their intelligence, their ability to carry themselves with composure. Children are so used to being overlooked, they observe and surmise a lot more than adults would expect.

On intelligence

For the entire middle third, I was not sure whether the author thinks his readers are that incompetent to not be able to piece together the blindingly obvious clues or if he wants his characters to seem that incompetent. Because my eight-year-old cousin would figure it all out stat. And Sam, our protagonist, was already 11 years old. Besides, his best friend was supposedly smart. Realistically, she would have figured it all out stat too. The only silver lining was that it provided some unintended eye-rolling humour.

If Smucker really wanted to make his book longer, instead of dragging on the dramatic irony for chapter after chapter, he could easily have developed the relationship between the elderly Sam and the young son of his tenant. When the novel ended, they still barely had any rapport, and in a book attempting to tackle the loss of innocence, it was an unfortunate waste.

On emotional depth

Even more frustrating was how severely Smucker underestimated children’s cognisance of death. Yes, denial and fluctuating emotions are very realistic reactions. But Smucker’s contrived execution of Sam’s wilful blindness and moral dilemma did little to make him relatable – only forced and unsympathetic. He was mature enough to immediately understand how eternal life, without perpetual youth, would be torture. But the next moment he was bewilderingly desperate to give his mother such a life.

A more convincing and meaningful arc would have had Sam not recognise this tortuous consequence until later, perhaps after he came to terms with his anger and guilt (with a little help from Abra and Mr Tennin). Or the angels’ story could have been revealed later. Since Sam remained in denial for most of the book anyway, his primary dilemma could first have been deciding who to trust (after all, in the real world, distinguishing between good and evil is rarely packaged with such obvious pointers) or a much harder time finding the three materials (the symbolism of which could also have been better considered).

Instead, any intended poignancy was lost. A shame, because some elements of The Day the Angels Fell were reminiscent of the acclaimed A Monster Calls. What Patrick Ness understood was that his preteen readers can grasp more than the inevitability and finality of death. Instead, his character grappled with guilt – guilt over being tired of mentally clinging on to his mother, tired of feeling duty bound to dredge up more vain hope each time she tried a new treatment. Maybe many adults are doubtful that a child’s comprehension of death could be nuanced enough to factor in society’s implied ‘acceptable’ stance on cancer and death (i.e. the former should always be fought and the latter always avoided at all costs), let alone that the same child could be burdened by it. That’s frankly a little condescending, isn’t it?

Bottom line

The Day the Angels Fell had potential, but turned out to be a disappointing misunderstanding of its own target audience.

Rating: 2/5

Being Mortal

Part review, part reflection. Maybe the withering aeroplane air was making my eyes watery. Maybe I wasn’t functioning properly with only two hours of sleep. For whatever reason, as I read this book on my flight to New York, I found it so profoundly moving at times, I even shed a few tears.

I am not unfamiliar with mortality and death; my eldest cousin passed away a few years ago, my father was hospitalised during the SARS epidemic, my great-great-aunt is in a nursing home and no longer remembers who I am, my mother had cancer, I wrote my IB Extended Essay on active and passive euthanasia. Yet I had never given serious thought to the social, cultural and economic crisis ageing has become.

In his fourth book, Gawande unpicks the crucial ingredients of a life, though limited by a body breaking down, that is still fulfilling. He also unpicks when it becomes wise to start letting go, and what letting go really means. He touches on euthanasia and assisted suicide, and how their implications run deeper than simply offering one more choice – they shape entire cultures’ perceptions of, reactions to and proposed solutions for the ageing population. And he does all this with a compelling, compassionate voice.

When put into written words, our attitudes towards dying and the dying are almost absurd. Our modern culture increasingly prioritises the children’s need for peace of mind over the ageing’s need for a dignified, autonomous life. And this prioritisation is viewed as the loving course of action. It is paternalism – a word the said children’s generation cringes at – reversed. The history of nursing homes likewise stems from logic that retrospectively sounds foolish: why don’t we shuttle the old and infirm into these hospital ward variants until they recover? Hence, “nursing” homes. The fact is, we never recover. The only certainty in life, after all, is death. So why do we so stubbornly pursue ever more aggressive invasive procedures and sterile, depressing ‘homes’ for the dying? This is the pressing question Gawande attempts to answer.

On a more personal note, like the AIDS patients in the Carstensen Hong Kong-American experiments, when my mother was diagnosed with cancer, her perspective was overhauled. By the time I was finishing primary school, I knew where my parents keep their share certificates, the passwords for all their financial documents, how to pay the electricity and water bills online, and the minutiae of their wills. Just in case I die in a freak accident, she would always say. I never had much interest in these conversations, not because I wanted to avoid thinking about death, but because her fixation had turned it into another mundane source of nagging. And an 11-year-old could only have so much interest in life insurance claims.

But Gawande pushed me to empathise with her fixation, which I shamefully admit I had never attempted to do. Being Mortal is an important book, not only for the generation that is currently ageing, but also (and perhaps more so) for the generation after. We are the ones who wield the power to shape how we will age in the future generations to come.

Rating: 4/5

The Sea and Matters of Life and Death

@cloudninekid
Taken from the Little Great Wall (小長城) on Cheung Chau Island.

Two or three weeks ago, I consented to show my college essays to a friend. I only applied to two American universities, so my collection is quite limited. Nonetheless, he still managed to make a respectable handful of observations. One prompt was: what historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? And he immediately asked me why all three events1 mentioned in my response had happened on boats or in the sea. His question kept resurfacing in my mind, because I hadn’t known how to answer – I didn’t notice this connection myself. Just a week after he had asked me, I unearthed a scented candle that I had bought almost a year ago. It is supposed to encapsulate the clear Caribbean shallows. Even more recently, I was dithering over whether to buy a sea salt perfume or a mandarin one, and eventually chose the former. When I told my friend, he laughed. Do you have some Freudian subconscious attachment to the sea? But although it was meant in jest, as he looked around his room, he also noticed tchotchkes that would suggest a tendency towards naval pursuits. And yet, as we considered the possibility of an actual attachment, the edges of both of our impressions of the sea were tinged with fear – of drowning, of the cold, unforgiving depths. So we wondered:

Why does the sea hold such a paradoxical mixture of allure and fear?

The seaside has traditionally been synonymous with endless supplies of freedom, glamorous vacations and luxurious sunshine, at least in Western literature. But the depths, although still breeding fascination in the braver few, usually inspire fear. Could it simply be the dangers of drowning and strange creatures that push us away? Is it just the shadowy line between the shallow and the deep (or the far away from shore) that causes such conflicting emotions? Or is there something more fundamental, fuelled by the dual nature of water itself?

Four years ago, my English class watched Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Many of us pointed out the recurring motif of water, especially in the defining moments of the titular characters’ romance. (They first meet on opposite sides of a fish tank, the balcony scene ends with an underwater kiss, and Romeo ominously falls into the pool when he leaves after consummating their marriage.) When someone asked our teacher why water is so important (Isn’t fire a better embodiment of love and passion?), he smiled. “Ah, because water gives life, but can also drown us.” Even today, I am periodically reminded of his comment – from analysing Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice to reflecting on my trivial preference for sea salt perfumes. Do we unconsciously consider the sea to epitomise the cycle of life and death? Are our inconsistent emotions the consequence of this perplexing juxtaposition?

Perhaps these questions are taking too introspective a step into what is probably a superficial phenomenon. As a young(er) child, I was obsessed with mermaids, sirens and other lore surrounding the vast seas. I printed colouring pages of The Little Mermaid, and read any book mentioning mythical sea creatures. The idea of a secret world, kissing yet so distinctly separate from our own, as familiar as it is unfamiliar, nourished my thirst for something beyond the ordinary. But not too far beyond, like Narnia or Middle-earth. I wanted something almost believable – a world within our world. The mythical creatures aside, it may very well be this partial familiarity that generates so much collective interest in and fear of this 70% of our planet’s surface. While the land also boasts a dizzying amount to study, to comprehend, the sea whispers the additional allure (and repulsion) of a sense of foreignness. And humans, being the greatest extremophiles on our planet (as a Medicine professor at Cambridge once declared), always seek to conquer territories designed to keep us out.

Photograph by Christy Lau.


1For those who are interested, the events were: the abandonment of Mary Celeste, Syracusia’s maiden voyage and the Battle of Red Cliffs.