Book Review: The Lady Of The Rivers by Philippa Gregory

Most tales in history tell the stories of men, who ride to wars for gospel, glory and gold, or scheme and plot against their political rivals. Little is said of the women who lived in these times, except as ‘commodities’ – pawns to be married off to cement alliances, bring wealth into a family, or treated as baby-making machines. But historians and storytellers often forget that women are individuals of their own, with hopes, dreams, wants and desires beyond what has been laid out for them by men and people in positions of power. And even in misogynistic societies that try to control and suppress women even as they fear them, there are brave women who dare forge paths for themselves, grasping their fate in their hands to change their own fortunes.

It is for this reason that I enjoy reading Philippa Gregory‘s novels and her rich descriptions of events and life in medieval Britain. Gregory’s characters are colourful, passionate, and while we can only speculate to the person’s nature based on what happened in history, her highly romanticised and embellished accounts breathe life into them. In any case, I think it’s a great way to introduce lay readers to these extraordinary people, often female, who are otherwise forgotten as mere footnotes in history.

While most of us would know prominent figures such as Anne Boleyn or Margaret Tudor, (thanks to popular portrayal in modern media), there isn’t much about Jacquetta St Pol, despite her being a lady of importance in the court of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou during the Wars of the Roses.

Gregory’s Lady of the Rivers shines some light into this often overlooked figure.


Young Jacquetta is a lady of a noble Luxembourg household, whose family claims ancestry from the water goddess Melusina. She befriends Joan of Arc, held prisoner by her uncle, and who was later burned as a witch by English troops. This early encounter teaches Jacquetta the fate that awaits a woman who tries to overstep her role in a world of men. Even so, Jacquetta is gifted by the Sight, and is determined to make her own way in the world.

Three years later, Jacquetta marries John, the Duke of Bedford, who seeks to use her otherworldly ‘gifts’ to discover the secrets of alchemy. After his death, Jacquetta is left a wealthy widow. She falls in love with her husband’s squire, Richard Woodville – an honourable man, but poor. They get married in secret, much to the displeasure of the King, and are exiled from court after paying a heavy fine. Jacquetta gives birth to their first child, Elizabeth Woodville. Little do they know the future in store for her.

The couple is eventually forgiven and allowed back to court, where they rise in favour with the ruling house of Lancaster. Jacquetta and Richard Woodville are allies to Henry VI and his French bride Margaret of Anjou, Jacquetta’s kinswoman, but the royal couple become increasingly unpopular. No thanks to favouritism and the lavish of titles and land to select nobles, rivalry between the houses of Lancaster and York come to a head. Margaret of Anjou falls pregnant with the heir to the throne, although it is heavily implied that the baby was fathered by the court favourite Duke of Somerset. To make things worse, the king falls into a coma, and civil war breaks out. Jacquetta, her husband and their allies are now forced to navigate a dangerous minefield as the country descends into chaos.


The Lady of the Rivers is signature Gregory, woven around a central female character full of fiery passion and a refusal to go quietly into the night. Gregory’s protagonists are never shrinking violets, but actively working behind the scenes to secure their future and ensure the survival of their families and loved ones. As a character, Jacquetta seems to crave a quiet life surrounded by her husband and her children, but cannot resist a higher calling and is torn between her sense of loyalty for her household and doing what is right for the country. Jacquetta’s foresight does not give her much relief, as even though it is told as if she has the power to foresee certain events or what may come to pass, she is often powerless in doing anything to stop or change what is to come.

As usual, actual events in history are used as the basis for much of the novel, and it was a good entry point for me to find out more about the Plantagenets, the 300-year dynasty that came before the Tudors. Truth is stranger than fiction, and these historical accounts are juicier than Game of Thrones : there’s murder, treason, adultery, betrayal, war and savagery, kinsmen turning on kinsmen.

Gregory’s works often feel rushed at the ending, and this was no exception, ending almost abruptly – but all in all, The Lady of the Rivers was a solid read. I’d recommend picking one up if you’re interested to expand your knowledge on British medieval history (as well as her other works), although they shouldn’t be used as factual basis.

Score: 7/10








Book Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Japan is a fascinating place, but it is also one that can seem rather… unusual to outsiders.

Like how they’re insane sticklers for punctuality (the management of a train service issued an official apology ‘for the inconvenience caused’, after the train departed 20 seconds early). Or their crazy dedication to order and their need for conformity (there’s a Japanese saying that goes ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’. So much for individuality).

Conversely, the flipside to this restraint and rigidity is pretty extreme, which is why you have things like hikikomori (a social phenomena where mostly youngsters cut off any contact from the outside world, becoming ‘hermits’) and high suicide rates.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is a reflection of this duality.

I came across the book while browsing at Kinokuniya, and attracted by its cover design (in baby blue, canary yellow and bubblegum pink), flipped it open. I remained rooted on the spot for an hour and a half. The book itself was not a long read, but it was certainly one of the more interesting stories I’ve read in a long time – a tongue-in-cheek look at Japanese society and its hypocrisies and machinations.


Keiko Fukuhara has been a convenience store worker for over 18 years, and is by society’s standards, an oddball. At 36, she is single, unmarried and has no ambitions to climb the career ladder, content in the monotony at the store. In fact, she thrives in the everyday tasks of arranging perfect displays to maximise sales, shouting out Irrashaimase! to customers, anticipating their every move and reflecting that efficiently to cater to their needs. She calls herself a ‘cog’ in the machinery of the store.

As we delve deeper into the story, which is told through Keiko’s eyes, we learn that Keiko is not quite ‘normal’, and that she herself is aware of this, albeit in a detached kind of way. Like the alien that has learned to blend itself in with the rest of the crowd by putting on a mask, she has learned to hide her thoughts, although at times she still gets confused with how she should act. It is rather eerie to read the degree of self-awareness when she narrates her mimicking the way her colleagues speak and dress, and how it changes with every new person that comes to work at the store (I’m reminded of the film Body Snatchers). While discussing things with groups of people, she ‘carefully arranges her facial expressions’, as it she herself is incapable of showing her natural emotions.

Keiko also reveals psychopathic tendencies, as recalled in an episode from her childhood when she and her classmates find a dead budgie. While all the other children were crying, she snatches up the bird and tells her mother that they should eat it, mortifying her mother. At a school fight, when two boys were fighting and the rest of the class were screaming for them to stop, Keiko grabs a chair and hits one of the boys over the head – her reasoning being ‘they wanted them to stop’. Even more disturbing is the casual way she thinks of stabbing her sister’s son when the pair come visiting, because he wouldn’t ‘shut up’. Of course, Keiko has learned from her childhood experiences to hide these thoughts and not act upon them, because it isn’t ‘normal’. She does not seem to be bothered by it though – it is simply the best way to go about life efficiently.

In a sense, her convenience store job has given her a purpose and a measure of ‘normalcy’. But it seems everyone in Keiko’s life, from her colleagues to her well-meaning family, do not want to leave her alone – intent in making her ‘conform’. They bug her about dating, about marriage, about finding a new ‘real’ job, etc. and as time passes, she finds it harder and harder to justify and to fit in.

At the store, she meets Shihara, a misogynistic social outcast unable to hold down a job. Despite working at the convenience store, he despises it and looks down on his colleagues as well as the manager, and finally gets fired for slacking off and also stalking female customers. Shihara rages against how society wants people to conform, telling Keiko how “Strong men who bring home a good catch have women flocking around them, and they marry the prettiest girls in the village. Men who don’t join in the hunt, or who are too weak to be of any use even if they try, are despised.” But while Keiko seeks her form of ‘normalcy’ in her convenience store job, Shihara wants nothing more than to loaf about and hide away from the pressure of it all. The two strike up an unlikely deal in order to try to get everyone off their backs – by moving in together.


Like the convenience store where most of the story happens, everything seems bathed in an artificial, fluorescent light. The conversations sound unreal, plasticky, but it works well with the overall tone of the story and the character who, as the story has established, is incapable of feeling and appearing normal at times. But in a way, you can’t help rooting for Keiko. I think despite how the character is and her complete lack of empathy and feeling, most people have felt like Keiko – she just wants to live life her own way, no matter how different it may be to others. And who are we to deprive other people of such a right, if they aren’t harming anyone?

Modern fiction is so mired in morality and social justice themes that it can get rather preachy. Which is why, to me, Convenience Store Woman was such a refreshing read. Despite Keiko’s quirks and odd behaviour, I never felt that the author was judgmental. In fact, I felt that Keiko had a right to her version of normalcy and happiness… like from a job at the convenience store.

Book Xcess Tamarind Square, Cyberjaya – Largest Bookstore In Malaysia / Open 24 Hours!

A book store that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week sounds like every bibliophile’s dream come true – and you can actually find it at Book Xcess @ Tamarind Square in Cyberjaya. Opened last year, it’s also the largest book store in Malaysia, spanning over 3,000 square metres of space. 

*As a self-professed bibliophile, it’s a little embarrassing that I haven’t been to the place until recently, despite it being quite close to where I live. Lol.


The Book Xcess at Cyberjaya is the company’s seventh outlet, and like all their other stores, sells new books at discounted prices of up to 80 percent! (apparently how they achieve this is by getting surplus titles that can’t be sold. They’re all in brand new condition!)

Most of the books are 1/3 of the price you get at regular bookstores, so you can get really good deals. They carry up to 200,000 books. If this isn’t bookworm heaven, I don’t know what is.


HUGE floor space, divided neatly according to categories. You have stuff like general fiction, classics, teen fiction, non-fiction: biographies/historical, children’s books, architecture and design, comics, graphic novels, romance, young adult, fantasy/sci-fi, and many more. Note that because these are surplus books, you might not always get the newest or the most popular titles (eg if you’re looking for Harry Potter / Hunger Games / etc. you might be hard pressed to find them here).



Because the space was converted from a carpark, the design actually incorporates elements of that into the store, such as the overhead signs which have been left in their original spots, the pillars painted over with numbers, and the concrete flooring with ‘exit’ and ‘parking’ signs.


There’s also a nice spot for you to hangout with your laptop, complete with power points. No charges! Very popular with students for their assignments. There’s also a cafe serving drinks, cakes and sandwiches.


A section selling beautiful notebooks and journals. They also carry craft books and pop art wall hangings.


Spent a good two hours browsing. Bought some books for a friend and one for myself – Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I heard about it from an architecture library curator, who said they used it for book discussions. Haven’t started yet but it’s basically told through the eyes of Marco Polo in which he seems to describe different cities in his narrative, but they’re all actually about the same city – Venice.

Book XCess @ Tamarind Square is open 24/7, for if ever you feel like hanging out at a bookstore at 2AM.


L3M-04, Tamarind Square, Persiaran Multimedia, Cyber 10, 63000 Cyberjaya, Selangor

Some other pictures I took of Tamarind Square. Love the architecture here, which is a mix of industrial (raw, unfinished concrete, greys and black steel) + lots of greenery. Pity there aren’t many shops here.






Little Giraffe Book Club @ Batu 11 Cheras, Selangor

We tend to picture libraries as tranquil, cosy sanctuaries – so the last place you’d expect to find one is in an old kampung house in the middle of a Chinese village. Opened in late 2017, the Little Giraffe Book Club at Batu 11 Cheras is anything but your average ‘library’. Formerly a dilapidated home, the space was given a new lease of life by curator Lee Soon Yong and a group of passionate architecture students, who envisioned a communal space that would also benefit the community.


Originally, the Little Giraffe Book Club was a community initiative started by a group of kindergarten teachers with the aim of educating children in the village. Back then, the library was housed in a mobile container. Seeing the need for a proper place and with support from the locals, Lee, a former architecture student who grew up in the village, embarked on the project after returning from his studies in Taiwan.

Much of the building’s old exterior has been retained – from the pink and green wooden panels to the traditional windows and grates, zinc roofing and shaded veranda. Like many village homes, the compound is not gated, and there are benches and seats for visitors to rest on.


The interior has been remodeled into a library-cum-cafe space, with open, lofty ceilings. One side of the space also features floor to ceiling windows, so the result is a bright, cheerful space with plenty of sunshine to filter in.



The library corner, which sits on an elevated section, carries a large selection of children’s books in various languages. The layout of wooden shelves and steps makes it more fun and interactive for the children, who sit cross legged on the floor to read their books or play with toys. To be frank, this is the noisiest ‘library’ I’ve been in – but I’m sure it works well for the kids, because most of them learn through stimulation and play.



So why a giraffe? Lee says it’s because children like animals, and a giraffe is far sighted – just like their vision to improve the community through educating the next generation. “You can’t force adults to read, but you can encourage reading habits from a young age,” Lee explains.


The space is not only a library – it also runs as a cafe, which is how they support the book club. Their specialty is rojak – (for the non-Malaysians reading this, it’s a type of salad. But definitely not the healthy kind lol), since one of the people running the place is the son of the couple who run the famous Rojak Wan stall in TTDI! I never used to like rojak until I had Rojak Wan’s – the beautiful combination of fresh fruits and veggies, tossed in a thick shrimp paste sauce and topped with crunchy crackers, fried Chinese crullers and ground nuts – is simply divine.

Aside from rojak, they offer coffee and simple fare such as burgers and rice dishes. Expect a long wait if the place is crowded, however.

Due to the zinc roofing and its lack of air conditioning, the space can get very warm in the afternoons. It’s best to come in the mornings or evenings, and if you have an off day on the weekday, come then to avoid the weekend crowds.


114, Jalan 15, Batu 11 Cheras, Selangor

Opening hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 1pm to 10pm


Book Review: And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini is a brilliant writer. His vivid descriptions and complex characters spring from the pages, and he is unafraid to write about things that most authors  shy away from. His stories often revolve around his homeland, Afghanistan, and the hardship of everyday Afghans. But in the midst of this pain and suffering, Hosseini offers up rare glimpses of beauty and hope in a land ravaged by war, poverty and pain.

I first got acquainted with Hosseini’s work through his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns. While I enjoyed the book, the ending was too tragic for my liking – I think we have enough tragedy in the world, without having to be reminded of it in a hobby meant for escapism. Not saying that all books need to have happy endings, but sometimes it just feels like none of his characters ever have a reprieve. I never did finish his titular masterpiece of which he is best known for, ie The Kite Runner. The suffering one of the main character endures was too horrifying, made worse by the fact that I knew it was a reflection of real life. Maybe some day I’ll pick it up again.

I recently finished his third and most recent book, And The Mountains Echoed, which was written after a six year hiatus. Departing from his previous style of having just one or two protagonists, And The Mountains Echoed reads more like a collection of short stories, with characters that are all connected to each other in some way. The main theme, however, is love – love between siblings who are separated at a young age and whose separation touches the lives of many in unique ways,the love between mothers and their children, the love between family, unrequited love, a secret love.

We learn about each of the characters’ hopes, dreams and desires. The fluid style of writing means that a character’s story may be told through another in the future or the past. Hosseini skillfully weaves all of them together to form a vivid, cohesive and touching tale. At the end of it, I was moved.

I think this is as close to a ‘happy’ ending that Hosseini can offer to readers. The story is still pretty sad, but some of its characters still manage to find joy in different ways – not necessarily how a reader might hope them to find – but joy nonetheless.

And I think that’s how life is.

Score: 8/10





The Library In A Mall – The Selangor Public Library @ Jaya One, Petaling Jaya

Malls can be a nice place to shop, eat and chill. 

Now, you can add reading to the list, as the Selangor Public Library opens its doors at Jaya One in Petaling Jaya. Tucked in a quiet corner of the mall’s ground floor, the newly opened public library has a small but nice selection of fiction and non-fiction titles, and a cosy space where visitors can relax in comfort, peace and quiet.


Shoes are to be left outside, or placed into bags at the entrance.


Spacious and clean, the library is divided into several sections. There is a section for fiction, non-fiction, as well as children’s books, encyclopedias and graphic novels. The colour scheme and ambient lighting is warm and inviting.


(Right) Children’s section with colourful pouffe stools.There aren’t too many books at the moment though. They welcome donations.




You can register for a library account for free, and it only takes minutes! Just fill up a form at the counter and you can start borrowing right away.


I know I just bought a tonne of books recently but I couldn’t resist. The time limit is three weeks, so I have my work cut out for me lol. Halfway through Khaled Hosseini’s And The Mountains Echoed, which seems less depressing than his other works. (**I never did finish The Kite Runner because it was so friggin depressing. Maybe someday I will).

The thing about Malaysian libraries is that they’re not always up kept well in the long run (case in point: our National Library is just… sad) so I hope this doesn’t succumb to the same fate.


Ground Floor, Jaya One Mall, Petaling Jaya

Opening hours: 10AM – 7PM

Entrance / membership: Free



Why You Should Visit The Big Bad Wolf Book Sale : Kuala Lumpur 2018 Edition

Most Malaysians will be familiar with the name Big Bad Wolf by now. Founded in 2009, the massive book sale event sees millions of titles going for low, low prices, sometimes up to 90% off. The majority are remaindered books (ie unwanted new books sold by publishers to retailers at a lower price), in various genres – mostly in English, but also Bahasa Malaysia and Chinese.

The sale is currently ongoing until December 17 at the Mines International Exhibition and Convention Centre in Seri Kembangan. For book lovers, this is the perfect opportunity to grab as many as possible! 🙂 One unique thing about the BBWS? They are open 24 hours – so you can basically waltz in at 12AM for a spot of midnight shopping, when the crowds are less.


I went on a Sunday and it took me well over an hour just to get into the vicinity, and even then I had to park two blocks away at The Mines 2. Be prepared for extremely bad traffic and a lack of parking spaces, because The Mines is in a neighbourhood area and the roads are ill-equipped to handle a large amount of traffic. Maybe try Grab instead to avoid getting stuck in the jam.




There are over 3 million books on sale, stretching from one end of the gargantuan hall to the other. Books are separated according to language and genre, piled on smaller ‘islands’ for easy browsing. You can get a trolley or a basket from the entrance – some people even bring their own suitcases!


I visited the sale in 2017 and got some pretty good titles, so I was looking forward to a new haul. A little disappointed as there were not many horror and science fiction offerings. Only saw one Stephen King book, the same one I got last year. 😦 They did have a nice selection of non-fiction though, especially history books. There’s also a section dedicated to graphic novels and comics.


Most of the books were wrapped in plastic, which I didn’t find environmentally friendly. Before, the books were sold ‘naked’.


Satisfied with my haul, I then had the arduous task of lugging them back to my car two blocks away. First, a quick massage.


What I got this year: a good mix of non-fiction and fiction! Successfully stayed under budget – RM97.20 for eight books. Most of the books were about RM10 or RM12. Still at least 70% cheaper than buying them from regular bookstores, which would cost upwards of RM40.

I was pysched to see a copy of the Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time by Mark Haddon – we used this for our Creative Writing studies in college. It’s told through the perspective of an autistic boy, who is determined to investigate the murder of his neighbour’s dog.

Other titles: 

  • Mafia Brotherhoods by John Dickie
  • The Pope & Mussolini by David I. Kertzer – attracted because apparently this won a Pulitzer prize
  • Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright – about drug dealing and artifact smuggling in Mexico
  • Time 85 Years of Great Writing – a compilation of Time articles
  • The Good Shufu by Tracy Satler 
  • The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza
  • The Infidel Stain by MJ Carter 

Yes, sadly, no horror titles. But I still have a couple of them bought from last year’s sale that I haven’t read. 😛 Aiming to finish my H.P Lovecraft collection sometime in the near future lolol.


Happy Reading!

Book Review: The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seiersad

For many of us before 2001, Afghanistan was simply another dot on the map in the Middle East – one of those poor, problematic countries torn apart by a long history of war.

Until September 11 happened.

Suddenly, everyone wanted to know more about Afghanistan. What were the Taliban? Was the Islam they adopted the real Islam? Were Muslims really violent? Why were they attacking the US? Who was Osama bin Laden? Journalists flocked to the place in droves, despite the precarious situation on ground, to find stories to fulfill the world’s sudden insatiable appetite for news. Among them was Norwegian war correspondent Asne Seiersad. While in Kabul, she met local bookseller ‘Sultan Khan’, and asked if she could write a story about him and his family. He agreed. So Seiersad went to live with them for four months, observing their daily habits/interactions.

When The Bookseller of Kabul was finally published, it received critical acclaim for its intimate portrayal of the lives of, in Seiersad’s own words, a ‘unique’ Afghan family. With it came controversy – the actual Sultan Khan came forward to dispute its contents, suing Seiersad for defamation and breach of privacy. He also alleged that because of the book, the family has had to seek political asylum in other countries for fear of persecution.


Sultan Khan is considered ‘wealthy’ by Kabul standards – he has a book business in the city, which has survived decades of war. Sultan, described as in his 50s, has lived through several regimes; even been imprisoned by some. The book describes how the Taliban era was like – an extreme ideology that saw ancient relics bombed to dust for being ‘un-Islamic’, singing and dancing banned, women confined to homes, men punished for not having their beards at a certain length, Sultan’s books with illustrations of animals or living things burned.

After the Taliban are gone and a ‘democratic government’ established, Sultan looks forward to his business flourishing. He takes a second wife, a teenage bride called Sonya, ignoring the wishes of his first wife Sharifa (whom he has sent to Pakistan to look after the book business there) – but nobody dares to speak against him because Sultan’s word in the family is law. Despite their somewhat ‘rich’ status, we are told that Sultan is tight with money and that the family lives a frugal lifestyle, in an old building in Kabul that has been ravaged by the war, with bullet holes in its walls. Members of the household include Sultan’s sons Mansur and Aimal, who are denied education but are instead made to work at Sultan’s shop to prep them to take over the business; Sultan’s mother Bibi Gul and her daughters Leila, Bulbula and Shakila, among others.

Readers are privy to various events in the course of their lives – proposals, marriages, deaths, births, interwoven with political events and happenings. For many of the characters, life seems to be one big reel of unfulfilled dreams and broken wishes, where they are doomed to sadness and tragedy because of the culture and their standing in it.


The book makes for an engaging read and is a descriptive and easily digestible account of life in Kabul, within an Afghan family. But I think one of the biggest problems with The Bookseller of Kabul, as brilliantly written as it was, was that it was marketed as non-fiction. This, in my opinion, was a double-edged sword. Seiersad took the liberty to write what she perceived were the characters thoughts and feelings, as if they were narrating the story, rather than her take on it as an impartial observer. By adopting a novelistic approach, it made the story engrossing – but it’s pretty obvious that it’s really Seiersad’s voice and opinions talking through the ‘characters’, turning it into a commentary rather than an objective report.

Seiersad’s portrayal of Sultan Khan was not of a likeable man: if this was fiction, he’d be an antagonist. I can understand why he sued her (he also wrote a book chronicling ‘his part of the story’)…I mean, imagine inviting someone into your home and being made out into a villain! One also gets the feeling that Seiersad somehow ‘exploited’ the ignorance of Khan’s family members, especially of the women who are uneducated, because if they knew everything that they said would have been written down and aired like dirty laundry in public, would they have spoken so freely?

The Bookseller of Kabul has a very clear cut, black and white narrative. At times, its critique is clear. As a book written by a Norwegian woman, a country where freedom and equality among sexes ranks highest in the world, it must have been hard for Seiersad to remain neutral, and she projects this into her writing. There’s also the fact that only three people in the house spoke English, so Seiersad must have done a lot of guess work if she was to write as if she knew what the characters were thinking or feeling.

A recurrent theme throughout the book is gender inequality and violence against women. Afghan society is notoriously misogynistic : girls are forced into becoming child brides (like Sonya), are denied education, are not allowed to roam freely without a male companion and a large number die in childbirth (average number of children, 6, with 1 in 10 kids dying before they reach the age of 5). Marriage for love is an alien concept, daughters are sold and bartered like transactions. Many husbands abuse their wives physically and emotionally, honour killings are prevalent and because of the country’s political/cultural setup, educating them on changing their ways takes a lot of effort, and may not even happen in this lifetime.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t read The Bookseller of Kabul; I merely caution you not to take it at face value. It’s still a fascinating insight into the many facets of Afghan life, and one feels both sympathy and admiration, especially for the females of its society who have to endure so much. Real life is not a fairytale, so no matter how much one wishes for it, not all characters will have happy endings.