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Book Review: Today Will be Different by Maria Semple

Buying a new book is kind of like going on a blind date. You judge them by how they look, you read their profile to see if you find them interesting, and you listen to other people say good things about them. Then you go on a date; get to know them. Sometimes you find them perfect at first glance, only to realise it’s all a flashy front. Other times they might leave a bad first impression, but you find more and more things to like about them as you go along.

There are also those that you just can’t quite bring yourself to like from start to finish – not because they’re bad, mind you – but simply because you don’t quite gel with them.

Sadly, for me, this was Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different.

It has been awhile since I did reading of any kind (blame it on electronics and my super short attention span these days), so this was a double let-down. I had very much wanted my first foray back into reading to be a good one. Today Will Be Different seemed to have held so much promise, from the bright orange cover and the “100 Notable Books” stamp on the bottom right of its sleeve, to the heaping praise on its back and in the first five pages of the novel (“Hilarious, heartwarming” – Dana Getz, Entertainment Weekly; “Deliciously mucky mayhem” – Alexis Burling, San Francisco Chronicle). Oh, and apparently Maria Semple is a writer of renown, having written the critically acclaimed “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” (which I haven’t’ read. It was made into a film starring Cate Blanchett).

It wasn’t as if Maria didn’t warn the reader though. The protaganist herself, Eleanor Flood, does it in the opening: “You’re trying to figure out, why the agita surrounding one normal day of white people problems?” Not being white, nor raised in the West, I found it difficult to relate to any of the characters in the book – which is perhaps the main problem. I am not the book’s target audience, which I assume to be other white women, like Eleanor herself.

Now, if I had heeded this warning, I might have saved myself three nights of reading, and spent it with another book. But by the time I realised I wasn’t going to like this one, I was in too deep to give up. (The irony is that in the book, Eleanor is basically faced with a similar situation with her ‘friend’ Sydney, whom she can’t stand because the latter is ‘boring’, but can’t bring herself to cut off because she’s already invested and it would be rude and mean.)

SYNOPSIS

Eleanor Flood was once a high-flying animation director in New York, before she left her job to settle down in Seattle with her husband Joe, a hand surgeon of renown. The pair now live with their eight-year-old son Timby (spelled with a B, because rich white people have to give their children quirky names like Audio Science and Bear Blaze) and a pet dog, Yo-Yo.

The entire novel takes place within the span of a day and opens with a proclamation of sorts by Eleanor, that “Today will be different”, followed by a list of small, positive what-have-yous you often find in self-help books, like “no swearing”, “be my best self” and “attend yoga”. Of course, the day will be different: just not in the way Eleanor imagines it to be. Things start off well enough; she sees the husband off to work, drops Timby off at school and meets her poetry teacher for her regular poetry recitation – through it all, readers are given bits and pieces on Eleanor: how she used to be the animation director for Looper Wash, a popular animation series, and how she’s now working on a project called Flood Girls, a personal memoir about her life growing up with an alcoholic father, for a publisher.

Eleanor’s charming day starts to spiral out of control when Timby calls in sick from school, and she has to drive him to the doctor’s. Stopping by her husband’s office, only to be told by unsuspecting staff that he’s on vacation, Eleanor goes on a manic quest to find the whereabouts of her husband, and in the process, spiral completely out of control. A chance encounter with an old acquaintance dredges up ugly family secrets and past hurts, mostly revolving around Eleanor’s estranged sister Ivy. And like a typhoon on a warpath, Eleanor descends into a manic state of chaos, dragging her poor son along as she tries to deal with the hurt and betrayal of her past, her insecurities and her fear that Joe might be cheating on her.

VERDICT

I did not know wtf was going on throughout most of the book. Okay, maybe I did, but like Eleanor, it was so all over the place I had a hard time keeping track of things and the parade of ‘quirky’ characters who were all quirk and no true substance. The flashbacks felt like they were plonked into the middle of the story to give context to Eleanor’s trauma and why she is the way she is, but it feels forced and disrupts the flow of the story – I often found myself flipping back to see where the story was before it got interrupted. I also didn’t quite understand the choice where Semple switches to write in the third person in the middle of the novel.

To be frank, Semple has a certain charm to her prose, but her main character is just so unlikeable that I found it very difficult to sympathise with Eleanor’s bad choices and bizarre behaviour. Like leaving her son alone while she runs off to chase her poetry teacher whom she left hanging after receiving a phone call, stealing a young mother’s car keys because it happened to have the same name engraved on it as the name of her estranged sister’s daughter, then trying to sneakily return them by dropping them into the school charity collection box but dropping her own keys into them instead. Oh, she also leaves her dog tied outside a grocery store and forgets all about it while she’s trying to track her husband down.

I suppose these are all meant to be ‘funny’, in a “look at the kooky,middle-aged white woman! Aren’t we all sort of like that on some days?” Uh, no. Eleanor is a danger to herself and her son, and it’s amazing that this is a character written as a mother. If I had a mom like that I’d check myself into child services. Timby is more responsible than you! Stop acting like a goddamn brat!

Her manic energy and the way her train wreck of thoughts are translated onto the pages is not endearing (the best way I can describe it would be how I imagined a dog would be like when chased after something and saw a butterfly. Like woof woof angry postman bark oh look blue flying thing wow). It’s infuriating. More than once I have felt like throttling Eleanor, and that’s saying something, wanting to throttle a fictional character. If Eleanor was a person I knew in real life, I wouldn’t go near her with a ten-foot pole.

In most books, flawed characters have a redemption arc, but Eleanor doesn’t seem to take anything away from her experiences. She’s broken, yes, but she doesn’t rise above her past, she simply throws herself headlong into the next chaotic mess with reckless abandon, selfishly screaming about how hurt she is and how broken she is, while not caring about what happens to people she claims to care about.

The ending was truly bizarre as well and was not at all satisfying after slogging over the book for three days. But for those who want to read the book, I’m not going to spoil it.

I don’t think there are bad books, simply people who aren’t meant to read them. And Today Will Be Different was simply not for me. But hey, don’t trust me: trust the glowing book reviews from established publications. I’m just a nobody with a blog.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.
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Review: Ordering Books Online From Fully Booked Philippines

As a child, my parents encouraged me to read a lot, even though they aren’t readers themselves. We weren’t rich, but they’d buy books for me whenever they had money to spare, so I had no shortage of Peter & Jane books and Enid Blyton novels. For that I am truly grateful. Because without books and the magic of imagination and wonder, I would not be who I am today.

Course, I think my mom regrets it immensely, now that the house is running out of space to store my books lol.

But I digress.

A friend’s daughter had her birthday recently, and since she likes reading (a rare thing among kids these days, I think!), I thought of sending her a book. A Neil Gaiman title if I could find it. But since my friend lives in the Philippines, I had to look for a store/retailer that could deliver there.

I first went to Amazon, but apparently it has a policy whereby books, music, video and DVD products can’t be shipped internationally (coz of copyright issues). Same thing with sites like Kobo and Kindle (even the e-version! If you’re in a different country, it only allows you to read it in that country wtf).

After what felt like hours (and getting annoyed that we’re in 2020 and it isn’t even convenient to buy a fahking book to gift to someone overseas) I ended up at the website of Fully Booked, a books and stationery retailer in the Philippines. Their flagship store in Bonifacio Global City, Manila, is known for its cool lifestyle-oriented aesthetic; similar to how BookXCess is like here in Malaysia. They also have an online arm, and they ship within the Philippines. Perfect!

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The site is easy to navigate and offers a seamless online shopping experience. Books are sorted by category (children’s books, fiction, non-fiction, lifestyle, art & design, etc.), and they also have a tab for special collections and bestsellers. If you know the title/author you’re looking for, there’s a search bar you can use to navigate the site. Aside from books, Fully Booked also carries stationery, totes, clothing and novelties, as well as toys and games.

After selecting your order and adding them to cart, simply key in your details and check out. Payment can be done via (for those in the Philippines) Dragonpay through options like Over-the-Counter Bank Deposits and Over-the-Counter Non-bank payments, and credit card. Since I’m based in Malaysia, I chose Paypal as my mode of payment, and it automatically converted the currency from RM when deducting the amount (this is based on standard international conversion). You can also choose to pay via Cash on delivery, provided you have a minimum order of PHP799. Free shipping is also available for orders above that amount.

Once I made the order, I received an email confirming my purchase, along with a tracking number. It takes about three to five working days to process, after which they’ll send another email informing you that the shipment is on its way.

All in all, I think it took about five days in total for the book to arrive, which is quite efficient!

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I originally wanted to get Coraline, but it wasn’t available, so I chose a lesser known Gaiman title which I thought she would enjoy.

Cinnamon is a picture book set in a make-believe place in India. It talks about a talking tiger, who is the only one who may be able to get a mute princess to speak. Illustrated by Divya Srinivisan, the book is full of colourful illustrations that both adults and children can enjoy.

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Some of the book’s lovely illustrations!

I was glad to hear that she enjoyed reading it – and that it piqued her curiosity about Indian culture. That’s another great thing about reading : it encourages us to broaden our minds, and with that, our understanding of the world.

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So that was my review of using Fully Booked for the first time. Even if you don’t live in the Philippines, I think it’s fairly convenient to buy something from Fully Booked as a gift for someone there. The only downside is that you can’t give it as a ‘surprise’, since you’ll need to key in their contact details.

fullybookedonline.com.

PS: Thank you Mr.A for the photos!

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eslite: “World’s Coolest Bookstore” is Coming to Malaysia

As a self-professed bibliophile, bookstores are among my favourite haunts. They’re portals to magical places where the possibilities are endless – and thanks to brands like Book XCess and Kinokuniya, and indie stores like Tintabudi and LitBooks, they’ve become cool lifestyle hubs as well.

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Now, book lovers can rejoice as they’ll have another place to get lost in literature. Renowned Taiwanese bookstore eslite – known for creating the world’s first 24-hour bookstore – is set to open their first ever branch in Southeast Asia in 2022, right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. Dubbed eslite spectrum, the venue will be more than just a bookstore: it aims to become a creative cultural venue offering a rich selection of books in various languages, music, design and hand-made goods , performing arts, themed restaurants and coffee shops, lifestyle brands and diverse cultural and creative brands from both countries.

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Founded in 1989, eslite is extremely popular in its native Taiwan, with over 38 stores across the island nation – and their cultural icon status has made it a must-visit for many book-loving tourists. Time Magazine and CNN christened the brand as “Asia’s Best Bookstore” and “World’s Coolest Bookstore”, with the eslite spectrum Songyan store in Taipei named among the 14 Coolest Department Stores in the World by CNN.

The Starhill

Such impressive credentials can only be equaled by an impressive venue – which is why Kuala Lumpur’s eslite spectrum will be located at The Starhill in Bukit Bintang. The partnership, which was cemented virtually between YTL Land & Development Bhd vice president Joseph Yeoh and eslite Group chairperson Mercy Wu, will see the 70,191-square-foot store becoming The Starhill’s anchor tenant, and will also include a street-fronting F&B outlet on the ground level right next to The Starhill Piazza, where creative events and programmes will be staged all year round. The flagship store will also feature a sweeping café terrace on Level 1 overlooking The Starhill Piazza fronting the bustling Jalan Bukit Bintang – perfect for patrons to gather, connect and people watch. An exclusive escalator is also strategically placed to bring shoppers directly from The Starhill’s new entrance atrium to eslite spectrum upstairs.

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Speaking during the signing of the tenancy agreement, Yeoh said that the partnership is a match made in heaven, as it is also in line with The Starhill’s plan to create KL’s ultimate premium social destination for all to celebrate literature,the arts, fashion, design, music, food and creative events.

“I believe this partnership can potentially be a catalyst for a deeper cultural exchange between Malaysia and Taiwan through retail experiences and a community-oriented store that reach a wider audience across all ages and demographics,” he said.

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Meanwhile, Wu said that as one of Southeast Asia’s top tourist destinations for Taiwan, Kuala Lumpur is well poised to promote exchange and interaction involving Asian publications and the cultural and creative content of the region. “We also wish to create more opportunities for cross-regional dialogue between Taiwanese and Malaysian writers and their works, and present readers with novel reading perspectives. Malaysia is an exciting country, with its own characteristic design aesthetics and cultural creativity, and we look forward to integrating the multi-ethnic and cross-cultural characteristics of Southeast Asia, and inspiring exciting diversified creativity in our store,” she adds.

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The retail and tourism sector might be experiencing a slowdown right now due to the pandemic, but this too, shall pass – and hopefully we’ll be able to enjoy the eslite spectrum when it opens in 2022.

Because I certainly won’t say no to more books!

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Big Bad Wolf 2020 – Malaysia’s Largest Book Sale Goes Online

Since 2009, Malaysian bibliophiles and book hoarders have made their annual pilgrimage to the Big Bad Wolf Sale, which is held every year around Feb/Mac or Nov/Dec and is touted as the largest book sale in the region. The last time I went in 2018, they had over 3 million titles!

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Buang balik #2018

Due to the pandemic, many events have had to be cancelled – so the BBW won’t be held physically this year. They are, however, having an online sale, so you can still shop for books from the comforts of your own home. The sale went live at midnight on Nov 4, and will run until Nov 11 (which is shorter than the usual BBW which usually runs for 2 weeks).

Now, although BBW and BookXCess (BBW’s parent company) has been around for some time, they’ve always been more of a brick-and-mortar business – as evidenced by their bookstores, which are all beautifully designed as ‘lifestyle hubs’ where you can sip on a coffee, work, study, etc. There is of course nothing wrong with this; I personally prefer physical bookstores and the joy of finding an awesome book hidden in a corner shelf , getting to inhale the smell of paper, touch the sleek edges of the page. Hmm.

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The BookXCess store at Tamarind Square, Cyberjaya is the largest bookstore in Malaysia, and it operated 24 hours a day (pre-pandemic)

But we are living in uncertain times, and many businesses have had to accelerate their digital processes and shift to a more online-centric model to cater to shifting consumer needs/demands. BBW’s first online sale will be a test as to how well it’ll be able to cope. So far, there seem to be a lot of teething problems.

Since going live at midnight, many users have complained that the website is inaccessible – probably due to the sheer amount of web traffic which is overloading their servers. When they do get in, some have problems creating an account, while others can’t browse because titles are not showing up on the pages. Still others have said their cart turns up empty after they’ve selected the items they want to purchase, and some users haven’t been able to checkout at all.

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I’m part of a local book group on FB, and these are just some of the frustrated comments:

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Curious, I went to the website myself at around 11AM today. It loaded fine at first…

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But upon trying to register for an account:

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Tried again at 12.40PM and managed to get a form to fill up, but after filling it up and pressing ‘create account’, it cleared my data and requested for me to fill up my details again.

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BBW has at least acknowledged they’re having problems on their page.

Now I’m not trying to be mean here or say that they’re doing a shit job – I’m sure their IT department is working round-the-clock to resolve these issues, and despite how some people have commented that “Oh you should have been prepared knowing that there will be many people surfing your website”, I know Murphy’s Law applies – you can prepare for every possibility in the world, but things that will go wrong will go wrong.

But I also understand the frustration on the consumer’s side – one comment said it took them an hour to register an account, an hour to browse and select their books, and another hour to checkout because they had to keep refreshing the page – a total of four hours. In a digital-savvy world of instant gratification and convenient online shopping, four hours just doesn’t cut it.

That being said, there are also customers like these – which is when you know you’ve done something right with your brand:

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If you do manage to get in, BBW 2020 does have great discounts, up to 90% off on 40,000 titles and with over two million books on sale. They also provide free shipping on orders above RM180. If you’re buying above RM300, you’re entitled to a further 10% discount with the code BBW10% off.

Anyway, I hope they manage to sort things out soon because I do think that they are doing a good thing – which is bringing books to customers. There are also many pros to going online, namely avoiding the crowd of shoppers and the massive traffic jams that are a signature of BBW sales every year.

PS: I initially wanted to browse some of the titles, but perhaps this is for the best seeing as I have a TBR pile from AS FAR BACK AS 2013 LMFAO I HATE MYSELF WHY AM I LIKE THIS LOL.

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These were from 2018. I have only managed to finish the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time wtf. Kill me.

Have you ordered books from the Big Bad Wolf Sale 2020? How was your experience?

4 Horror Books To Read This Halloween

“What do you usually read?” is a question I often get whenever people find out that I like reading. And when I reply that I like horror, there’s always this funny expression on their faces, as if I have just committed social suicide by daring to admit this in public lol.

I mean, I get it. Horror movies and books have always been considered ‘low culture’. They’re popular and they have mass appeal, but they rarely talk about contemporary social problems and issues, and seem to serve little purpose except to entertain. Even if there are moral values, they’re often expressed on an individual level eg how a protagonist beats the odds to outsmart a bloodthirsty killer, or how a priest overcomes his doubt to find faith and strength to banish demons.

But even though many horror titles might not be as ‘groundbreaking’ as books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or To Kill a Mockingbird, I still feel that horror offers value. Perhaps not in the sense that it highlights social issues to invite discourse and change, but in that it recognizes something primal within ourselves : our sense of self-preservation as a species, and how we cope with ideas and things we cannot fully control or understand. Just as our ancestors used to tell fantastic stories about mythical creatures, demons and things that go bump in the dark as they huddled around campfires or in caves for protection, so do we as modern humans retell these stories and think of our mortality – even when we’re safe and snug in our comfy beds.

But I digress.

Since it’s spook season, I’ve rounded up a list of my favourite horror books to get you into the Halloween mood. Some of these are classics which have been made into films, so you might already have heard of them – but they’re worth reading to see how different they are from the depiction on the silver screen.

It by Stephen King

With King’s novels, I was a late bloomer: I only started reading his books when I was in college and had access to a public library. Which is just as well, because I don’t think a younger me would have been able to deal with the dark themes and mature subject material in many of his books.

My first King book was It, and it remains my favourite to this day, alongside Misery, The Dead Zone and Desperation. As kids, my brother and I had coulrophobia (I still have an irrational fear of clowns actually lol), and the idea of an alien clown that feeds off the flesh of young children and has shapeshifting powers is just … terrifying. That aside, I think It was peak King – it is well written with great pacing, and the villain and characters are well developed. More than just kids banding together to fight an ancient evil, it’s also a brilliant coming-of-age-story and a heartwarming one (when you’re not being scared shitless by Pennywise popping up everywhere) about the power of friendship.

Ring by Koji Suzuki

Here’s an online review which encapsulates how I feel about Ring by Koji Suzuki:

‘one.. you really can’t bear to read and want to lock away and bury away as far as possible, yet at the same time each word is enticing, putting you in a trance, making you read on.’

I have watched the Ring films (both the Japanese and the American versions), and while they’re creepy, they can’t hold a candle to the book. Despite being a grown ass adult when I first read it, I still found it hard to fall asleep as my imagination ran wild with thoughts of Sadako popping up at the foot of my bed, or standing just behind my curtains lol. I did something really childish too: I put the book underneath a pile of books, because I had this silly thought that if I left it on top, the ghost would somehow ‘come to life’ hahahaha. 😛 I guess that’s the mark of a good horror novel… (or maybe I’m just chicken). There’s very little gore or violence in the story, but Suzuki is so adept at playing with the psychological aspect of horror, you can feel the tension and creepiness ooze off the pages like miasma.

The Exorcist by William Peter Blaty

Do you believe in demons? Demons exist in various cultures and faiths because like the concept of yin and yang, where there is good, there will always be evil. The Exorcist is a classic that deals with themes of demonic possession – that of 12-year-old Regan, whose family is dragged into a nightmarish hell as they attempt to rid her of the evil. It is horrifying to read about the abuse that the young girl suffers as the demons torment her. I can’t help but think that it is a literal and figurative representation of the ‘demons’ within humans that drive people to do truly evil things, even without demonic possession. The story has a classic good vs evil plot, and you can’t help but cheer when the big-guns priest – him of the staunch faith and the back-up power of god – comes to smite evil.

The Beaver Book of Horror Stories – edited by Mark Ronson

Image via ebay because I don’t know where I’ve put my copy…

Okay this one is kind of a cheat entry because it isn’t a novel per se, but rather a collection of short stories. I found this gem in a 2nd hand bookstore and even though the cover was super campy, flipping through a couple of pages was enough for me to fork out five bucks. BEST. FIVE. BUCKS. SPENT. EVER.

There are 10 stories within written by different authors, including Mark Ronson himself, and they cover a wide range of horror subgenres including body horror, monsters and the paranormal. Most of the tales are from 19th century authors, which lends them a gothic quality. Some of my favourites are Pickman’s Model by HP Lovecraft, which talks about an artist whose monstrous paintings are so brilliant and terrifying one wonders where the inspiration comes from – and The Seed from the Sepulchre by Clark Ashton Smith, where explorers discover an ancient man-eating plant after stumbling upon some ruins in the jungle.

And there you have it! If you’re new to horror, these are my recommendations – but the world of horror fiction is a vast one, and there are still plenty of terrifying stories to unearth.

What are some of your favourite horror titles? Share them with me so I can look out for them.

Happy Halloween!

Book Review : Lotus by Lijia Zhang

Hey guys!

It’s Day 9 of the Movement Control Order here in Malaysia. Despite having more time on my hands, I haven’t been reading as much as I’d like to. My attention span is so short these days, it’s hard to concentrate on anything (gadgets are partly to blame). But enough about my poor reading habits – let’s talk about a book I finished recently – Lotus by Chinese author Lijia Zhang. Lotus is Zhang’s debut novel, and chronicles the life of a young prostitute, the eponymously-named Lotus, and the characters that come into her life.

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Synopsis 

The story opens in the bustling Chinese city of Shenzhen, where Lotus is nabbed by an anti vice squad on suspicion of being a ji (prostitute). She is rescued by Bing, a freelance photographer who has been documenting the lives of working girls as part of a photojournalism project. Initially suspicious of his intentions, Lotus begins to trust him more and agrees to be photographed for his project. A friendship starts to blossom, and we soon learn the reasons for Lotus’ involvement in the world of prostitution.

Like many migrants from rural China, Lotus came to the city in search of a better life, against her family’s wishes. Determined to put her younger brother Shadan through university, Lotus takes up a low paying job at a factory together with her cousin. After a factory accident kills her cousin, Lotus wanders into the city, blaming herself for her death. Ashamed to return to the village and with no other options, she gets into the sex trade.

Bing, who himself has a troubled past, finds himself falling more for the down-to-earth Lotus. The two eventually become lovers, and Lotus gives up her work in the hopes that Bing will marry her. But as Bing’s career soars after his photojournalism project gets picked up by news outlets, and he is offered a lucrative job offer a national newspaper, can their fragile relationship endure the challenges that are thrown against them? And is what Lotus feels love, or just longing for a stable life away from the streets, and a financially secure future for herself and her family?

Verdict 

Inspired by the tale of her grandmother, who was sold into a brothel in the 1930s, Lijia Zhang’s first fictional work is based on the academic work of two American researchers on the modern Chinese sex trade, as well as Zhang’s time volunteering at an NGO which helps working girls in China. The story is almost autobiographical, and readers are led into the ‘world’ of Lotus, which is very much rooted in real life.

The strength of the novel lies in its multidimensional characters, and Zhang skilfully peels back the layers of their narratives. There’s Little Jade, who was sold off by her parents due to poverty and forced into the sex trade; Mimi, who is in an abusive relationship and keeps getting abortions in the deluded belief that her boyfriend somehow loves her and Xia, an elderly ji who works as a prostitute to help provide for her sick son’s medical bills. They each have their own hopes and dreams, and they cling to them in hopes of a better future, despite how life has turned out for them.

The characters themselves are also used to highlight prevalent social issues in modern Chinese society, such as materialism and corruption, the negative impacts of modernisation, internal immigration, class struggles, and more. An example of this can be seen through Lotus herself. Disillusioned by a seductive dream of an easier life, she leaves her village only to find the bitter and harsh reality of living in the city. When her cousin dies, she hopes to get fair compensation, but is instead fired from the factory – leading her down the path of prostitution as a means of survival. Meanwhile Bing, as an up and coming photographer, has to deal with greasing up politicians and big shots despite knowing the extent of their corruption, just to climb the social and corporate ladder.

I actually really liked the complexity of Bing’s character, a man who is kind yet torn between his desire to love and a desire to make a name for himself after having been called a failure for much of his life. He is apparently based on the late Zhao Tielin, a Chinese photographer who lived among prostitutes in the Hainan slums. I actually went to look up his photos after finishing the novel, and they are both beautiful, sad and haunting. You can check them out here. 

I also enjoyed Zhang’s writing, which is easy to digest and peppered with prose. Chinese as a language is pretty far removed from English, and there are idioms or sayings that may be difficult to translate into English, or may feel somewhat stilted. In Lotus, however, they take on a melancholic, poetic quality. The beginning of each chapter opens with an idiom, and its characters also regularly talk in prose. When I was a kid I used to listen to many of these old sayings (from mom, or old wuxia films) not fully comprehending their meaning. Now that I’m older, they make so much sense, and I can truly appreciate how beautiful the language is. Eg : “Where water flows, a channel is formed” (meaning where there’s a will, there’s a way – but it sounds so much cooler in Chinese lol), or “Every river has its source, and every tree has its roots” (meaning that we all come from somewhere, and we should not forget our roots).

All in all, Lotus is an excellent novel that encapsulates the human spirit and our desire for a better life, but it’s also a novel about people finding their way in the world in the face of adversity, whilst also touching on socio-economic issues in China that are often swept under the rug.

Score: 7/10. 

 

**Currently reading: Indonesia Etc. Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani 

My Mini Library

Hey guys!

It’s Day 6 of the Restricted Movement Order in Malaysia. Officially, there are 8 more days to go –  but looking at the upward trend of cases, an extension might be imminent. 😦 I know I am luckier than most in that I have enough savings to tide me over should the RMO be prolonged, but there are many out there such as the homeless and the destitute who are in danger of falling through the cracks as governments scramble to control the spread of the virus. Aside from doing our part as good citizens, we should also help donate what we can to help frontliners such as charity workers and NGOs.

As for what I’ve been doing at home: I’ve been working on my articles, both for my main job as well as my side hustles. It’s a good thing I did them way ahead of time, because looking at how things are, it’ll be a while before I can go out to conduct any sort of interview.

It can be difficult to keep yourself disciplined when you’re ‘working’ from home (my workspace is literally two steps away from my bed) but so far I’ve been adhering to my routine – wakeup at around 8.30 am to 9, breakfast, and then start working by 10. I take a short break for lunch, and then I work until 5pm and wrap up for the day. In the evenings I either help my mom out in the kitchen, or I work out for half an hour. After dinner, I surf the net, read or write for the blog.

The good thing about not having to spend time in traffic is that I have more time to do the things I want. I recently sorted out some photos in my laptop and realised I never blogged about my book cabinet. I had it installed at the end of last year because my mom, a neat freak, was losing it over how many books I had (and kept buying). I had books all over the place; on a bookshelf in my room, in the cabinet downstairs, in giant containers and boxes. She gave me an ultimatum – either I got a bigger space to keep everything, or she’d throw them away. So, cabinet it was.

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It took a couple of days to set up (problem with parts and stuff) but the result was great. It’s harder to get to the books at the top though, so we put stuff we don’t normally take out often like the photo albums and some old magazines.

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N was still here last year (he’s now in the Phils due to job commitments) so he had no choice but to help me sort out my mountain of books lol. You gotta work for your board and lodging, bruh

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It took us several hours but we finally got everything nicely in place! Even had them sorted out according to category, so there’s like a section for all the comics, Asian literature, fantasy, historical fiction and horror. How do you sort your books? I know some people like to sort their books according to colour, or alphabetical order, or genre.

 

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My favourite shelf.

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If you see books that look like they’re in a less-than-stellar condition, they’re either a) second-hand books, or b) my favourites, because I like to reread books and they somehow end up in tatters lol.

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Asian literature.

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Another shelf in my room. The books ended up in the upper cabinets.

People have asked me if I’ve actually read ALL of the books I have. And no, I haven’t. My reading habits have gone down the drain ever since I started working, but I’ve been trying to get back into it these last couple of months, and I can proudly say I’ve finished at least one book a month in the last 3 months. Now, only several dozen to go…

 

 

 

Book Review: Timeline by Michael Crichton

I first read this as a tattered library copy, almost ten years ago, when I was still in college.Even back then, I could see why the paperback was dog-eared and well thumbed through, its spine full of creases. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but for many years, I was unable to find it in local bookstores since it’s not a new title, and reprints are harder to find. I was overjoyed when by chance, I found a copy at Book Xcess recently (I was going to the checkout counter and almost missed it).

Timeline is classic Crichton – clever, suspenseful and thrilling – and once you get going, it’s extremely hard to put down. If you love medieval European history and an action packed narrative involving people from the future being thrown into the past, then Timeline will keep you glued to its pages, and then some.

Synopsis 

A vacationing couple driving through the Arizona desert discover a wandering old man, who seems lost and incoherent. They bring him in to a local hospital, where it is discovered that he is an employee of a quantum tech company called ITC. However, he quickly succumbs to abnormalities in his blood vessels, and dies. On his body are detailed sketches of what look like floor plans for a monastery.

In southwest France, archaeology professor Edward Johnston heads a group of young archaeologists, studying the 14th-century towns of Castelgard and La Roque, under funding from the ITC. After an interview with a local reporter, the Professor, suspecting ITC of undermining their operations, travels to New Mexico to confront its CEO, Robert Doniger. During his absence, the professor’s students uncover disturbing artefacts in a sealed chamber at their excavation site – including a message from the professor supposedly written on a 600-year-old parchment, as well as his eyeglasses.

Four of the students – Andre, Chris, Kate and David – fly to ITC HQ to search for answers. There, they are informed that ITC has developed a quantum technology that allows for time travel, and that they need the group’s help to extricate the Professor, who is somehow stuck in the 14th century after travelling back there with a machine. 3 of them, Andre, Chris and Kate, return to the past with two guides, while David remains behind. Things quickly go awry once they arrive, with one of their guides being beheaded by a knight, and the other escaping back to the present, only for the grenade he pulled to detonate once he returned to ITC, destroying the laboratory. While the present day team scramble to repair the machines so the group will be able to come back home, Andre, Chris and Kate have less than 36 hours to find the professor before their batteries run out and they are trapped forever –  all while navigating a brutal time period where violence and power rule, and the slightest wrong move might mean death.

Verdict 

Like many of Crichton’s novels,Timeline is nicely paced and action packed; keeping the reader enthralled as to what comes next. Crichton’s novels usually follow a ‘formula’ – the stories typically start off by introducing a problem, or by highlighting that something has gone wrong. We see this in novels like Micro, which opens with people getting killed under mysterious circumstances (we later find out that they’re actually killer bots), and Jurassic Park, where an employee of InGen is brought with serious injuries from Lo Sa Raptor (we later find out = dinosaurs). Similarly, the lost and not-of-sound-mind employee the couple find in the desert sets the story up that not everything is going smoothly, and a shit storm is brewing.

Next, we’re introduced to the cast of characters. Like my favourite author Stephen King, Crichton’s protagonists often fall into a category, but instead of authors and writers (which King likes), they’re usually scientists and those in academia – but with athletic prowess (how else are they going to survive all the physical shit that’s going to be thrown at them?). I remember reading Micro and going ‘wow that’s convenient, that they’ve got all these characters that have just the right skill for a particular situation’. Timeline is no exception – but perhaps it is necessary to ensure that the characters have a higher fighting chance. (Imagine dropping me into the medieval era – the first thing I’d do is lose my glasses, and then stumble around blind, then get eviscerated by a noble. Probably).

There’s Andre, a researcher who is obsessed with the medieval era, and who (conveniently) knows how to joust, fight with a sword and a longbow, and speaks the local languages of the era. It seems he is made for medieval times – and jumps right into the fighting, with no hesitation of killing those who seek to harm them whatsoever. Kate, the architecture expert, is able to utilise her knowledge of the buildings to look for secret passages in the castle, helping the group to narrowly escape pursuit several times. She also has great reflexes and climbing prowess, enabling her to escape from dangerous situations. Chris, the comic relief, has the greatest character development, from a somewhat weak and whiny pretty boy to discovering a streak of bravery that lets him stay alive and also help his friends.

I really like how Timeline tries to make things seem more believable by incorporating aspects that most novelists would not think about. For example, I hate the fact that some books (and films) just drop their characters in the middle of another era and all the characters can speak the same language. Worse still, you have movies like Memoirs of a Geisha, where the actors are non-Japanese, and they all speak English in bad accents, lol. In Timeline, the predominant language used is Middle English, which is very different from the modern English we use today (reading the novel actually prompted me to go look up videos on Youtube), as well as languages like Occitan and Latin. To overcome this, the group have earpieces that automatically translate whatever is being said to modern English. But this doesn’t overcome the fact that some of the group are unable to speak in the language of that era, which proves to be a challenge when interacting with the medieval people they come across.

An interesting theme that is raised in the book is the accuracy of what is portrayed in history. What we know today of medieval times is largely based on what we have unearthed, in writing or records, but there is no sure way of capturing the way medieval people lived exactly, because so little of this history survived. Like the bones of dinosaurs, we’re able to guess as to how they probably looked like, but not how they behaved. Similarly, buildings and castles provide a very brief glimpse into medieval times, and we have certain records of things – but at the end of the day, where there is no concrete record, everything is mere speculation and subjectivity. The characters discover this when they time travel.

All in all, Timeline is a great science fiction-cum-action novel. If you love fast paced, action packed science fiction novels, and you like Michael Crichton’s works like Andromeda Strain, Micro, Jurassic Park and Sphere, Timeline provides a solid 8.5/10.