Friday, November 24, 2017

A Book Review: The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna

  I walked into my book club meeting for October, and the librarian handed me a book called The Eye of the Sheep. Its cover depicted the face of a little boy next to his furry, canine friend.

I thoguht to my self, "What is this?"

I turned the book to its back and read the blurb. At the time I thought the book sounded boring. I came home, set this book on the shelf and forgot about it for the next 3 weeks. As the date for the next book club meeting approached, I gathered this book and thought to myself that I would just skim through it. However, 20 pages into this book, I realized the error of my prejudice - The Eye of the Sheep was in fact, an excellent book and I regretted to having set it aside for so long.

Sofie Laguna, an Australian novelist, wrote this book. It won the 2015 Miles Franklin Award. This is a moving story about how, the effects of domestic violence can pass down from one generation to the next. The story is told from the perspectives of a little boy called Jimmy Flicks.

The story was set in the sunshine state of Queensland, Australia. The time was the early 1980s. Little Jimmy lived in a house with his parents and an elder brother. But Jimmy was not like other boys of his age; he is either too fast, or too slow. Jimmy could not understand the world of the adults, especially why his father was getting so angry with him. Only Paula, Jimmy's loving mother, could manage little Jimmy. She taught Jimmy how to sleep by counting the sheeps, and she steered Jimmy out of his father's way. One day, Jimmy's world crumbled, leaving the little boy on his own to set things right.

The Eye of the Sheep told a riveting story. The author's writings were energetic and effective. The most interesting aspect of the book, I opine, was the way the story presented the views of an autistic boy. I was captivated by the descriptions on how little Jimmy saw the world, and it opened my mind to something that I never thought about before. I used have a flat mate who had severe ADD. Now I wonder how he saw the world and those around him.

Thematically, The Eye of the Sheep explored the tragic effects of domestic violence. In this book, the aftermaths of domestic violence didn't just stop at one generation. No, it passed on to the next generation like ripples in a pond. Minor spoiler: in this book, Jimmy's mother suffered episodes of domestic violence in the hands of her husband. However, this book succeeded in giving each character a rounded portrayal, and it didn't just depict the father as a villain. Instead, the story explained why Jimmy's father was abusive, and it was tragic. This story got me thinking – we really need to be careful about the things we do and say because it is never free; somewhere, someone, will have to pay for our actions and be scarred by it, just as it might go further to hurt those who come after them

During the book club meeting, I expressed my astonishment; although the story was set in the early 1980s (a relatively modern age), but Jimmy's mother endured the abuse in silence nevertheless. My friends at the book club, most of them are ladies and senior to me in age, informed me that in some cases, women would endure domestic violence for the sake of her children. To me, the information was both startling and upsetting. In my opinion, while some traditional views might teach that it is a virtuous act of self-sacrifice for a woman to endure an abusive husband and respond with love, but I think that sort of belief is extremely harmful. It is harmful not only to the victim but also to her children. Why? Because domestic violence traumatizes children, and they carry its shadows with them into their adulthoods and their own family, just like what happened to Jimmy's family in this book. In my opinion, instead of enduring domestic violence, surely it is better to expose it early so the victim and her children can both receive counselling and healing.

I came away from The Eye of the Sheep with a headful of thoughts. I was invested in its characters and I cared for them. Jimmy's story is heart-breaking, but it concluded on a hopeful tone. This is an excellent book and it brings to our attentions, the poisonous effects of domestic violence. I highly recommend this book.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

A Book Review: Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

  Among my great discoveries of this year are the books of Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I spent many winter nights curling up on a couch, engrossed by the stories in The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. I like Zafón's writings. His books brought ashore gothic literatures to my reading world. I wanted to read more Zafón. I hunted for his books at my local library, where I found Marina.

Marina's cover depicted a red rose, with a tag line underneath it saying "A gothic tale for all ages". It turned out, Marina is an young adult novel. I am not fond of YA books but I like Zafón. I swiped my library card, and I took Marina home with me.   

What are my thoughts on this book?

Zafón did not disappoint me.

Marina started in the winter of 1979. The city of Barcelona was preparing to rejoice in the festival season. In the heart of the city walked a lonely soul, Oscar Drai, a fifteen year old boy who lived at a boarding school. By chance, Oscar met a girl in a white dress named Marina. She took Oscar to a cemetery, and together they watched a macabre ritual. At exactly 10 am on the fourth Sunday of every month, a coach would bring a woman in black, her face shrouded, to visit an unnamed grave marked only by a strange emblem depicting an opened-winged, black butterfly.

Curiosity drove Oscar and Marina into following the woman in black. Their journey resurrected a forgotten memory from post-war Barcelona; a world of aristocrats, famous actresses, and business tycoons. Meanwhile, a dark secret awaited for them in the tunnels beneath the city streets...

Marina is blend of gothic, romance, horror, and mystery. This book was originally written in Spanish, and translated into English by the poet, Lucia Graves. Admirers of Zafón's works will find many things to like about this book. The writings are fluidic and descriptive, it is properly gothic and very suspenseful. Story wise, this book contains a mystery inside a mystery; the woman in black was a mystery, but Marina also carried a secret of her own. Let me just say, this book delivered a powerful yet unexpected ending that tasted both bitter and sweet. I like this book and its characters, a lot.

I cannot say too much about this book without spoiling the story, so I will stop here. I spent 3 nights with this book and its story captivated me. I think Marina is a good introduction to the literary world of Zafón. If you are fond of mystery, romance, and gothic novels, then make sure to add this one to your list.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Book Review: Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett (Discworld #23)

Vampires suck. Yet, people are fascinated with them.

Mosquitoes also suck, but on a hot summer night, most people would find mosquitoes annoying than interesting.

Maybe people think vampires are "cool" because they are mysterious, exotic, yet dangerous; the protruding canines, the dark clothes they wear, their pale complexions, and don't forget, the gothic castles they live in. Those things are pretty cool.

But aren't vampires also scared of garlics? Is it cool to fear garlics? Anyway, vampires are usually associated with all the abovementioned things. The question, where will the vampires be without this list of traditions?

"But vampires will never be rid of these traditions", you said.

Well, you are thinking of earth, but I can talking about Discworld, a realm of many possibilities. In fact, on the Disc there is a story called Carpe Jugulum; it is all about the modern vampire's place in the society. Here is how it goes:

A time of enlightenment has descended upon Lancre. The king invited a family of vampires to the naming of the new born princess. The ceremony was to be conducted by a Omnian priest called Mightily Oats.

Hang on, did you say the king invited vampires to his daughter's naming? Who in their right mind would invite vampires?

Well, this vampiric family looked rather normal on the outside. They wore bright clothes, they filed their teeth, and they weren't even afraid of garlics and religious symbols!

But vampires will always be vampires, just because vampires stop living in gothic castles don't mean they won't suck. As soon as they arrived at Lancre, the count and his family cast a hypnotic charm on the whole kingdom so they can suck more (this is the further evidence that people are easily attracted to vampires). Ohhh, big trouble! Fear not, the formidable witches of Lancre, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Agnes Nitt, will save the mountain realm from the vampiric suctions!

In Carpe Jugulum, Terry Pratchett satricited the vampire and gothic literature and the result is hilarious. If you have read, or seen, books and movies such as Twilight then you will appreciate the humor in Carpe Jugulum even more. What makes it even funnier is that this book came out in 1998, which was almost a decade before Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series achieved fame. As usual, Sir Terry's writings are superb, I think he mimicked Edgar Allen Poe's style to create the gothic vibe felt in vampire novels, but on the whole this book is a slapstick comedy. So you can imagine what this book is like. It is something out of this world and it is laugh-out-loud funny.

But every Discworld book is bigger and deeper than the comedy on its surface. Underneath this satire about vampire novels, Carpe Jugulum touched the engaging topic about religion, faith, and modernity. I found it very interesting that only two characters in this book, Agnes Nitt and Mightily Oats, were able to resist the vampire's hypnotic charms. How? I won't spoil it, read this book and find out for yourself.

Theme wise, this book is one of the heaviest in Discworld series. What is the main theme? I think it is about basic morality. Aside from the three witches, the fourth hero in this book is an Omnian priest called Mightily Oats, who entered the story as a priest who was doubting if his faith has a purpose. Initially, the three witches disliked Mr. Oats because his church order had a history of burning people who disagreed with them, witches included. But as the story progressed, Granny Weatherwax and Agnes gradually came to respect him for his decency (and the narratives respected him too). The dialogues between Mr. Oats and Granny Weatherwax were the most profound moments in this book. Eventually, Mr. Oats overcame his crisis of faith and was able to defeat a vampire at the pivotal moment, because Granny Weatherwax (an irreligious witch) reminded him that the problem was never his doubt in his religion, but it was his doubt in humanity and himself that was causing the problem.

However, this theme also raised further questions: Should people always do what their religions tell them to do, or should they do what their inner decnecy tell them to do? And is religious morality compatible with progress at all?

This book touched a handful of topics about religion that reminded me of my own exodus from Christianity; from the schisms within the church, the religious history, to the moral conflicts I always felt about the religious doctrines while I was a believer. But that is enough ranting from me. It suffices to say, while Carpe Jugulum is abundant with humors but it also philosophically heavy. I think this is an excellent book, and what a way for Terry Pratchett to end the witches sub-series.

Until the next time, happy reading!

P.S. "Carpe Jugulum" was thought by Terry Pratchett to mean, "go for the throat".

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Book Review: Maskerade by Terry Pratchett (Discworld #18)

There is a phantom in the opera house!

What phantom? You mean, Gaston Leroux's novel, The Phantom of the Opera?

No no, I am not talking about the phantom in France. I am talking about the phantom who is murdering people in the opera house of Ankh Morpork! Oh, you haven't heard of this one yet. In that case let me tell you a little bit about a book called Maskerade. It is the 18th installment in the Discworld series. Speaking of which, can we have some dramatic organ music? It would be even more atmospheric to have ever-rising female vocalizations in the background. Oh yes, play the soundtrack from the movie, The Phantom of the Opera. Ah ha, now we have the right ambience.

What is the story about? I don't want to spoil the book too much. Let's just say, in the buzzing city of Ankh Morpork an ex-owner of a cheese factory bought a majestic opera house. To his mind, running an opera house is just letting some people sing on the stage while he sits back and collects the money. How hard can that be, right? Well, this poor man doesn't know, within the walls of the opera house echoes the legend of a phantom, who not only brings luck to the actors and the actresses but also kills people. More recently, this resident phantom is setting loose a murdering spree. It sounds pretty grim, heh? Worry not, because Discworld's greatest witches, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, are coming into town for a night of fun and detective works that will make Agatha Christie proud.

Maskerade parodied The Phantom of the Opera, it poked fun at the world of opera and the high societies. I think this is the funniest (and my favorite) book out of all the Discworld novels featuring the witches. Every bit in this book is comical. Its eccentric characters and their dialogues tickled my funny bone. It is slapstick and I couldn't stop laughing with the story. The previous Witches books were all structured as quest stories set in the countryside, but this book took the shape of a crime thriller set in Ankh Morpork. The worldbuilding in Maskerade is rich and vibrant. This novel reminded me of the City Watch series, which are my favorite books of Discworld.

This book also expanded the character of Agnes Nitt, whose debut in Lords and Ladies was a minor role. I like Agnes and her story. Sir Terry used Agnes' character to touch on the issue of female body image in the entertainment industry. Speaking of the themes, we can always expect a Discworld novel is more than just a parody. In the case of Maskerade, while this book is not as philosophically complex as Small Gods, but it still explores very interesting questions. For example, I particularly liked the theme about masks – like the actors on the stage, we all wear masks to face our surroundings, and each time we face a different situation we put on a different mask. When is the mask on? When is it off? And who is the real you? In this book, I think Nanny Ogg is the only character who doesn't wear any mask. This is also why I like her the best.

Makerade has both style and substance, it reminded me why I fell in love with Discworld at the first place; the humor, the sharp observations about life, and the thought-provoking questions. This book is very different to the Witches book that came before it, and it has to be my top 10 favorite Discworld books.

Until the next time, happy reading.