China Rich Girlfriend Book Review

china-rich-girlfriend-kevin-kwan.jpgI really enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians and its cliffhanger left me desperate to get my hands on this sequel. Thinking back on it, I might have gone into the sequel with too high expectations. Or maybe I just got bored of the characters. Whatever the reason, what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t enjoy China Rich Girlfriend as much as I hoped I would.

In short, the book picks up two years after the first one. Nick and Rachel have reunited and Nick has stopped all contact with his family after the way they treated Rachel. Things have progressed to the point of marriage. However, despite these changes, Rachel still hasn’t been able to locate her birth-father as he apparently changed his name when he was younger. Through luck and Eleanor Young’s intervention, Rachel’s father’s identity is revealed (turns out that he’s super rich too) and he attends her wedding. He invites an excited Rachel and Nick to join him in Shanghai, China with the rest of his family. He has a son named Carlton, who’s described as being the Asian Prince Harry and a PhD educated wife, Shaoyen. However, once Rachel lands in Shanghai, her father begins to distance himself and she never manages to set foot into his house. She does manage to create some sort of bond with her half-brother Carlton, through the help of Carlton’s lady friend, Collette, whose father is apparently the 5th or 3rd riches man in China. A lot of other stuff happens, but the ending essentially is a happy ending. At least for Rachel and Nick it is.

As with Crazy Rich Asians, this book also shares different POVs and sticks with the main characters of Rachel, Nick, Astrid, Eleanor, and Eddie. However, to my dismay, Eleanor’s part in this book diminishes quite a bit and she gets overtaken by another character, the former soap actor turned rich wife, Kitty Pong. Kitty was actually introduced in the previous book as the gold-digging and tacky girlfriend of Nick’s cousin and Eddie’s brother, Alistair. Through the machinations of Nick’s aunts and cousin Oliver, Kitty broke up with Alistair and ended up dating Bernard Tai, another member of the Singaporean Elite, albeit more trashier and brash than the others. However, what is interesting about Kitty’s story in this book, is that her POV doesn’t feature very heavily. Rather, her story is told by others around her.

On this topic, I’ll do a recap of the stories besides Rachel and Nick. On Astrid’s side, it turned out that Michael’s investment firm made a lot of money, thereby propelling Michael into being super rich. However, his new riches have also changed Michael from being a loving husband, to being a materialistic, money-obsessed man who only cares about how Astrid’s looks can benefit him. In fact, their relationship takes on an abusive tone, until Astrid decides to leave him (not without its own difficulties though). Coming to Eleanor, I’ve already mentioned how her part in this novel was quite small and barring a few scenes where she ponders Rachel’s newfound parentage, she doesn’t feature much. Eddie has also changed, becoming less crazy, although still very much money obsessed. Finally, Kitty’s story is unique. Turns out, after getting some plastic surgery and having a daughter, Bernard did a complete turn around; from being a playboy intent on blowing his father’s money, to becoming an over-protective, uptight dad who controlled his daughter’s life very carefully; including making sure that she never played with plastic toys or ate non-organic food. With her husband and daughter in America, Kitty attempts to make her place with the Hong Kong Elite, failing miserably until she decides to give up, take her daughter back, and move to Singapore to become a part of the Elite there.

As with the previous book, we get alternating POVs from other characters as well, including Astrid’s husband, Rachel’s father Gaoliang, Carlton, etc. However, unlike the previous book wherein the musings of varied characters were often focused upon the main characters, the musings here were not as strictly managed. In other words, the characters mused about their life often too. For example, we got quite a few scenes and chapters devoted to Collette and her relationship with Carlton and her parents. That said, these scenes did technically manage to connect back to the main characters eventually (very much eventually).

That brings me to the plot. Despite my feelings toward the book, on a technical level, this book is more advanced that its predecessor. The plot is more complicated than that of the last books and it’s also more fleshed out. You can tell that Kevin Kwan has gotten more comfortable with writing — as the book felt a lot less clunkier than the original. However, there’s still A LOT of description in the book. I think that’s actually one of my main contentions with this book. In Crazy Rich Asians, the description was annoying, but also served to show you just how crazy rich the people were. However, in this book, you already know that these people are/ will be crazy rich, so the description doesn’t feel as necessary to the plot here. There as nothing new to glean from it, so it became annoying and boring very fast.

Similarly, I actually found this book to be less funnier than the original. I mean, it was funny and a great look at China’s development, but at the same time, it didn’t feel or read as funny as the first book. I think in part because of how much the description overwhelming bored the reader (or at least me). Secondly,  the new characters introduced in the book didn’t grab me. In particular, I found Collette very strange and annoying and couldn’t connect to her at all. Additionally, on the topic of China’s development, I would’ve liked to see more commentary on China’s history. In particular, the strict adherence to communism and its changing nature. It just felt like the culture connection was missing here — unlike in Crazy Rich Asians. However, thinking back on it, I think it might also have to do with the fact that Crazy Rich Asians was, in part, based heavily on Kevin Kwan’s experiences. As such, the thoroughly embedded showings of Singaporean culture in Crazy Rich Asians was probably due to the fact that he lived it. Similarly, the lack of Chinese history and culture in this book might have to do with the fact that Kevin Kwan never really experienced it. Either way, I missed it.

Plus, there were some vital scenes missing that I would’ve liked to see. For example, one of the main issues in this book, is the fact that Shaoyen has a hard time accepting the fact that Rachel exists and she might take some of Carlton’s inheritance. However, she comes around eventually — but there’s only one chapter showing this. Besides that one chapter, which comes at the conclusion of the book by the way, there’s no other interactions between the two; which sucked because I really wanted to see their interactions and read their POVs. It just felt like a rip-off for the reader.

Yet, all that said, it’s still a decent enough book. It might fall short of its predecessor, but it’s still a nice, light enough entertaining read.

My rating read it to continue the Crazy Rich Asians adventure and for a light, funny time pass read!

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Crazy Rich Asians Book Review

16085481I had been itching to read this book since it first debuted in 2013. However, the itch was manageable, until I heard about the movie adaptation and the cast that was selected. I LOVE Gemma Chan and Constance Wu and really like Michelle Yeoh. When their casting was confirmed, I decided I couldn’t wait anymore and quickly conspired to get my hands on this book!

Fair warning here — I think my reaction to the book is heavily biased by the actors casted for the movie adaptation. During my read, I kept on picturing the actors as the characters, which obviously made me like the characters far more that I might have otherwise. Secondly, I’ve talked before about how diversity is important to me, and this book is great on that front! Not only is it written by an Asian, Kevin Kwan, but it mostly features Asian characters in an international setting. On top of that, I think this movie might be one of the first to feature an entirely Asian cast in a Hollywood feature. It just feels so amazing to me and I’m so incredibly excited! As a result, I think my perception of the book is higher than it might be otherwise as well — because I want the book and movie to do well, so I see it in a good light. Of course, this is speculation on my part that I cannot confirm as I am obviously a subjective individual. Anyways, let’s move onto the review now.

Basically, Crazy Rich Asians is about two main characters: NYU’s Economics Professor Rachel Chu, and her NYU History Professor boyfriend, Nick Young. Rachel and Nick come across as any other young couple in love, and that’s what Rachel thinks. However, it turns out that Nick is actually filthy rich — his family is one of the richest in Singapore, tracing their riches and genealogy from several hundred years ago. Nick doesn’t tell Rachel any of this, as he was brought up to never talk about his family’s wealth. As a result, Rachel only finds out when Nick invites Rachel to spend the summer with him in Singapore, as he performs as the best man in his best friend, Colin Khoo’s, wedding. Colin Khoo, it turns out, also belongs among the Singaporean Elite and his wedding to model Araminta Lee (another part of the Elite), is actually the talk of the year in Singapore! Rachel only finds this out when she actually goes to Singapore and her Singaporean best friend from college, Peik Lin, reveals this to her.

On top of dealing with the crazily rich, Rachel also faces resistance and sees first-hand (although she doesn’t always understand them), the politics in Nick’s family and their mixed reaction to her. The Singaporean Elite, it turns out, are obsessed with genealogy, and Rachel, being the daughter of a poor single mother from Mainland China, doesn’t pass their test. However, the younger squad, Nick, his beautiful cousin Astrid, his other cousins, Colin and Araminta all like Rachel enough — it’s their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers who are opposed to Rachel. On top of facing resistance from them, Rachel also faces bullying from Singaporean socialites who are jealous that she managed to land Nick.

The plot of the book is very simple. I’ve outlined most of it above — Rachel and Nick journey to Singapore, she meets his family, they are cold to her. Nick thinks its a success while Rachel is unsure. They both go to bachelor/bachelorette parties where they deal with their own issues — Rachel gets bullied really badly by the other bridesmaids as they are determined to break up her and Nick. Things continue to spiral, until eventually, Rachel and Nick break up because of his mother’s meddling. However, this is only the plot of Rachel and Nick’s story.

The book actually has around five main characters: Rachel, Nick, Nick’s beautiful cousin Astrid, Nick’s mother Eleanor, and Nick’s money obsessed cousin Eddie. Although all characters have scenes together, their separate stories also differ a bit. Astrid’s story deals with her marriage to middle-class army man turned businessman Michael Teo. Michael obviously doesn’t match up to Astrid’s family (her being super rich as well), but he works day and night and the two really love each other. At least that’s what Astrid thinks, until she starts suspecting that he’s having an affair. Things escalate to the point of Michael asking her for a divorce. However, it’s only through the intervention of Astrid’s ex-boyfriend, super-rich tech guru Charlie Wu, that their misunderstandings are cleared (there was no affair) and they reconcile. Sidenote — despite being super-rich himself, Astrid’s family also disapproved of her relationship with Charlie because his background wasn’t filled with riches — he was a new generation (?) rich person, thus pointing to their obsession with lineage. Eleanor’s POV actually provides a good example of this. Eleanor’s story mainly deals with her attempts at figuring out the relationship between her son and Rachel, ensuring that Nick stands to inherit most of his grandmother’s money, and trying to break up his relationship. Finally, Eddie’s story just deals with his anxiety at trying to impress the public with his riches and his anger at his family for being so cheap (in terms of spending their money).

However, it’s also interesting to note that the book doesn’t just deal with the POVs of the five main characters. Other characters POVs pop up often as well. For example, we got little insights in characters like Nick’s dad, Charlie Wu, Peik-Lin’s dad Wye-Mun, Eddie’s mother, etc. However, their insights typically relate to the five main characters, vs. their own problems. I actually thought this was quite smart of the author to do, because it makes the book more focused and easier to understand. Your attention remains cemented on thoughts of the main characters, vs. getting jumbled into the various lives of various characters.

On that note, let’s talk about some of the technical aspects of the book, namely the writing. Here’s the thing, the writing is nothing special. It doesn’t consist of fantastic pieces of prose or flowery writing. In fact, some of the dialogue felt clunky at times — meaning that you felt like the dialogue was specifically meant to be written vs. a character was actually saying it. However, what the book does have, is copious, and I mean copious amounts of description. Kevin Kwan has the tendency to go overboard when it comes to descriptions. He describes every single little detail. For example, when entering Peik-Lin’s house, he uses almost an entire page to describe the Versailles inspiring living room in their home. Additionally, this description isn’t just done for surrounding scenery, it’s done for everything; from the food the characters eat, to the clothes they wear, to the sights they see. To be honest, it does get a little annoying to read extensive descriptions because it sometimes feels never-ending. However, at the same time, I actually kind of enjoyed it. The sheer amount of imagery it conjures is ridiculous. Not to mention that the descriptions of the stuff itself are absurd in themselves. It really highlights just how crazy rich these people are.

Which brings me to another facet of the book – its humour. The book is incredibly funny. It’s not funny in the sense that it has many jokes or anything, but it’s funny in the characters it has. They all, aside from the some of the main ones, shamelessly gossip, backbite, and plot against others. It’s absurd, but also super funny! It’s downright ridiculous the way some of them act — but at the same time, it’s so entertaining to read! For example, during Araminta’s wedding day, as she was walking down the isle, all she could think of, was how Astrid couldn’t even be bothered to wear a new dress to her wedding. Of course my relaying of this scene completely downplays just how hilarious it was in the book. Plus, I also really enjoyed the culture showcased throughout the book. We get little hints as to what Singaporean culture consists of — apparently food is a hot topic, the word “lah” is used very often, and there is some casual racism involved towards Mainland Chinese people. We also get little scenes of old Chinese traditions. It’s fascinating to read! Additionally, the characters themselves are also interesting and cool — Astrid being one.

Yet, for all of its hilarious triumphs, the book does have its faults. For one thing, in terms of plot, there’s not a whole lot that really happens. It’s fairly predictable and things don’t always get resolved. Secondly, the reader doesn’t really build a deep connection with the characters. Their motivations aren’t always clear and they aren’t always very interesting. For example, I personally had a tough time with Nick sometimes, just because he could be so oblivious. Finally, the descriptions could get too much. At times, it felt like the descriptions were there to show off to the reader the characters wealth, vs. describe it to them (if that makes any sense).

My rating: read it to enjoy a fantastically hilarious book about the lives of the crazy rich asians (in Singapore)!

Clockwork Lives Book Review

51TmxyY28AL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_When I first laid eyes upon Clockwork Lives, I was stunned by the beautiful cover. It’s a delicious red with gold writing and alchemical symbols. In fact, the markings are sort of carved on the hardcover book itself. On top of that, the paper inside feels luxurious and is given a parchment-like look. In other words, it’s incredibly aesthetically pleasing. Yet, despite the instant high regard I had for the book’s cover, it did not translate to the content of the book for me.

Basically, Clockwork Lives about a woman named Marinda. She lives in the small town/city/village (?) of Lugtown caring for her ailing father, super mechanic, Arlen Peake. As her mother, Elitia, left the family when Marinda was very young, she and her father form an incredibly close relationship; despite the fact that Arlen has some oddities about him. When Arlen dies, Marinda inherits his sizeable estate. However, there’s a catch. In order to get full access to her inheritance, Arlen stipulated that Marinda must fill a red book (much like this one) with people’s life stories. Using some sort of alchemical magic, Arlen managed to make it so that once a drop of someone’s blood hit a page in the book, their story automatically wrote itself in the book. Marinda, who prefers living a quiet, regulated, and isolated life, is understandably very upset at this development. Nonetheless, determined to get her inheritance, she undertakes the task of filling the book with stories. However, to her dismay, it turns out that the length of people’s life stories varies. In other words, one person’s story might span ten pages, as did Arlen’s, while another person’s story might just be a paragraph. Determined to fill up her book as quickly as possible (which meant that she needed to get longer life stories — aka epic lives), she journeys to her father’s hometown, Crown City, after having limited success in Lugtown.

The rest of the book details a) Marinda’s past, i.e. the situation with her mother, b) the various stories Marinda manages to collect about different characters c) the journey of self-discovery and growth Marinda embarks upon and d) the universe the book takes place. On that last point, this book is actually a sequel to Clockwork Angels, written by the same authors. I actually haven’t read Clockwork Angels, so I don’t really know what it’s about. However, what I’ve been able to glean from reading Clockwork Lives, is that this book series takes place in a steampunk alternative universe. Marinda’s country, Albion, is ruled by a leader known as the Watchmaker who apparently brought peace (“stability”) to the region and is actually centuries old. The Watchmaker figured out a way to create gold, using alchemy, and hence ensured that Albion grew prosperously. As this book is mostly for and from Marinda’s point of view, you don’t really get a big backstory for the Watchmaker. However, there are definitely a few hints as to how not everything is as rosy as it seems. There’s implications that the Watchmaker has done some terrible things. I actually found this part quite interesting and yearned for a deeper explanation of the Watchmaker’s past and activities.

On that note, I realized I forgot to talk about the format of the book. Each life story functions as a short story, thereby making this book seem like a collection of short stories. Each story is different (although quite a few of them connect!) and often has a different message (some have no messages at all). The interest level of the stories themselves also vary. I know I’ve talked before about how I don’t really like short stories because I find them lacking and prefer to read more fleshed out stories (aka The Hound of Death review). However, I actually really liked the short story format here. I think it worked really well for the book and that might actually have to do with the way the stories themselves were composed. As Arlen explained in the beginning of his story, it’s not the entirety of the life that matters, but the story that defines you/ you choose to tell. So in Arlen’s case, he wrote about how he grew to be the super mechanic he was vs. writing about his later life after he moved to Lugtown. It made for a really interesting reading experience.

In general, this was a decent enough read. I just felt like it was almost very middle-of-the-road. There were moments where Marinda’s growth and journey were incredibly inspiring. However, there were also moments where the book was just there. It’s hard to put into words, but I didn’t feel wowed by the book or anything. It was just a good enough read. The writing was decent, the plot was decent, and the implications of the book were also decent. The point of the book, or the way I understood it, was to encourage readers to live epic lives. It was to encourage readers to seek adventures, to take risks, to meet new people without fear. Again, a good and decent goal. Basically how I felt about this entire book: good and decent enough.

Sidenote — this book and the other books in this series were actually inspired by Canadian rockband Rush and their studio album named, Clockwork Angels. One of the co-authors of this book Neil Peart, is actually the drummer for Rush.

My rating: read it to enjoy some interesting short stories or as a good time pass read.

Ella Enchanted Book Review

24336Fun Fact: Ella Enchanted was among the first books I ever purchased for my own personal library decades ago. Also, a little embarrassed to admit this, but one of the biggest reasons I picked up this specific book, was because it had Anne Hathaway on the cover. I was/am a HUGE Princess Diaries fan and had watched her in its movie adaptation. Although I wasn’t a big fan of the movie, I did somehow, end up becoming a big fan of her. For some reason, Anne Hathaway appealed to my young self, as not only was she beautiful, but she came across as having spunk. And now that I think on it, I think this idea I had of her really affected the way I approached this book. The image I had of Anne Hathaway blended in with the characterization of Ella in the book, resulting in my forming an instant love for the spunky, strong, and smart Ella.

As I first read this book decades ago, you might be wondering why I decided to talk about it today; but there’s a reason for it. If you’ve been on my blog for a while, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I actually haven’t reviewed any books in a long while. Aside from The Night Circus, it’s been almost five months since I reviewed one. And the reason for that, was that I had actually fallen out of love with reading. Or perhaps a better way to phrase it, would be to say that reading did not hold the same excitement for me anymore. I would pick up book and then put them down after reading two pages. It puzzled me and made me sad, as reading had been one way I defined myself for years. However, I just could not find it within me to complete a novel. Then randomly, I plucked Ella Enchanted from my personal book collection and began reading. Henceforth, almost magically, my love of reading returned! As such, I figured that I owed the book at least one review on my blog. So let us begin!

Basically, Ella Enchanted is an adaption of the Cinderella fairytale. However, in this story, she’s named Ella and doesn’t really become a scullery maid by choice. Unlike in the original fairytale, book Ella had been cursed. When she was born, a fairy gave Ella the “gift” of obedience, making it so that Ella had to obey whatever anyone said to her — including if they wanted to take advantage of her. As a result, her mother forbid her to tell of her curse to anyone. When Ella’s mother died (like in the fairytale), it was revealed that their family cook, Mandy, was also a fairy. However, she refused to reverse Ella’s “gift” out of fear that something could go wrong.

Similarly, Ella and Prince Charmont (aka Charming), don’t really first meet at a ball. Rather, they meet at her mother’s funeral and form an instant friendship (their families apparently knew each other in the book). However, their bond suffers as Ella’s father remarries and her step-mother send her off to finishing school in another country. Fed up of her step-sisters taking advantage of her curse (i.e. by commanding her to give them all her money or forcing her to miss meals by telling her to not eat), she decides to run away from school and find the fairy who cursed her in the first place. The rest of the book details Ella’s adventures after running away from finishing school, her attempts at removing her curse, and her friendship with Char.

As it’s Cinderella with a twist, the ending remains the same as the core — Ella and Charmont marry and live happily ever after. However, as it’s an adaptation, some things have been changed. One of the biggest and best changes, in my opinion, is that made of Ella’s character. While Cinderella was depicted as being kind and doing servitude quietly, Ella is feisty and determined. She’s headstrong, stubborn, and brave. Even though her curse causes her to lose her freedom (as she has to do whatever people tell her to do), she manages to find loopholes and assert her own will. It’s kind of inspiring to be honest. On top of that, she’s also incredibly talented with languages (it’s actually really cool!). She dabbles with speaking ogrese, elvish, etc.

Speaking of language, the world that Gail Carson Levine, the author of the book, manages to create is also really cool. Although the book focuses mainly on Ella and her exploits, we do get some hints as to how the magical world around her is. I’ve already mentioned the differing languages (there’s actually some pronunciations included!), but there’s also descriptions of the types of creatures, their personalities and customs, their way of living, etc. Plus, the fairy subplot that she includes is interesting as well. It really felt like the reader was on the journey with Ella, vs. just reading about how her adventures went. Levine writes in a way that is easy to read and understand. However, she also manages to include the themes of love, friendship, strength, and determination within her writing, in a way that doesn’t come across as preachy or too subtle.

I never really enjoyed Cinderella too much as she was always too passive of a heroine for me (especially in the Disney versions). However, this refashioning is one of my favourite adaptations ever. It changes Cinderella/ Ella from a meek character seeking her happily ever after to a brave one who becomes her own hero and goes after what she wants. Highly recommend this for young girls looking for a role model to emulate (or to parents who are looking for a role model for their kids).

My rating: read it to enjoy a modern, inspiring take on the Cinderella fairytale.

The Night Circus Book Review

NightCircus.final_.2The Night Circus is a book that my friend recommended. Well, perhaps recommend is not the right word, as she did not like the book (you can read her review here). However, she wanted another opinion on the book so she suggested that I read it. I was immediately intrigued by the cover and black and white colour scheme, plus as a fantasy fan, it seemed to be right up my alley. So I agreed and here we are today to review it.

Basically, The Night Circus, is about magic. Two magic masters, one favouring innate talent and chaos and the other favouring control, select players who compete in a “game.” The game is played at a venue (the circus being the venue in this book) and the players aren’t told much about the game; just that they are a competitor. In the end, whichever competitor remains standing, wins the game, and therefore is considered a win for the type of magical training each master favours. The two masters, Prospero the Enchanter and Mr. A. H, each select two players, Celia and Marco, respectively, and train them for years. The game begins once the two begin working for The Night Circus, which is also in fact created for the game itself and is a part of it. Once the game begins, everyone in the circus actually becomes trapped, and every move of Celia and Marco’s has repercussions for everyone involved. However, contrary to plan, once Celia and Marco discover each other, instead of competing to win, they begin collaborating with their magic and fall passionately in love in the process. The rest of the book deals with a number of things, among them: how the game between Celia and Marco ends.

As my friend didn’t really enjoy reading this book, I figured that I would be lukewarm towards it as well. However, once I began reading, I just could not put it down! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and thought that it was fantastically good! In fact, I’m having some trouble deciding which category I should placed this review, as I like it far more than other items in the “Liked” category, but have not quite reached “Loved” status yet. Nonetheless, let’s continue with the review!

In my opinion, the best thing about this entire book, is the writing! Erin Morgenstern is so incredibly talented with words and it really shows in this book! She manages to weave such a mesmerizing magical ambience around the story; I really felt as if I was reading a fairytale! Not the mention the beautiful imagery she evoked! I had a good time trying to imagine everything (the Ice Garden was one of my favourites!). Although I will mention that she did have the tendency to embellish things slightly too much at times. It got to the point where I had difficulty picturing everything during my initial read and had to go back and reread it.

Her love story between the two leads (competitors) was really great too! It actually felt epic during some moments, which was surprise because I did not expect that. That said, the love story did falter at times, or at least the epic feeling of it did. Actually, on second thought, I think it wasn’t so much that the love story between the leads was so great, but rather the writing that was so stellar. Because, you actually don’t really spend enough amount of time developing a connecting with the characters. The third person narration keeps you a little distant, as do the characters themselves. For example, even though we get scenes of Celia, she remains partially elusive throughout the story.

That’s actually another thing. The book is written in third person narration and actually possess multiple point-of-views (POVs). So along with some scenes of Marco, Celia, Prospero, and Mr. A. H, we also get POVs from other people in the circus, For example, we get the POV of the guy who came up with the idea of the circus, Mr. Chandresh, Marco’s ex-girlfriend Isobel, a die-hard fan of the circus, Mr. Theissen, a seemingly random boy, Bailey, etc.

However, the multiple POVs also present as a con for the book. Each chapter consisted of a POV and thus was very fragmented. On top of that, the chapters and POVs themselves were not in chronological order. Thus, you could have one entry talking about an event that happened in 1902, while the next chapter would talk about an event than happened in 1887. Furthermore, sometimes there were multiple POVs of the exact same event, that happened during the exact same time, but even then, those POVs would be separated by various entries of other dates. It was so confusing. Plus, it sucked having to go back to the previous chapter, when beginning a new one, just to figure out the time/ chronological frame of events and how it fit into the timeline. It got a little less annoying as the book grew more interesting, but even then, it was still supremely annoying.

Similarly, the over-arching story itself left a lot to be desired. I mentioned earlier how it was basically about chaos vs. control. However, this story never really got solved (perhaps that was intentional?) and there’s not much background information given on it either. It kind of just fades into the background as the book instead chooses to focus on the display of magical feats by Celia/Marco, the various events that happen in the Circus, people involved with the Circus, etc. Additionally, it is also worth pointing out that the book itself is super slow moving. It could get very boring and in the middle, it sometimes felt like a chore to continue. Although it does pick up, quite quickly in fact, near the end.

That’s actually another thing. The description of the book cover is quite misleading. There’s no grand battle of magical feats or anything. As mentioned earlier, the book itself is quite fairy tale-like. It’s mellow and possess a dream-like feeling as you read. It isn’t action-y at all, despite the fact that there are some action scenes. It’s a very slow story, but I definitely enjoyed it. There’s this very dreamy feel to it.

That said, I definitely think that this book is for a specific type of reader. Those who like hard action scenes with quick mental work probably won’t like this book, because it is just so slow and dreamy. It’s more like a puzzle you work through, that takes a while for everything to connect (and everything does connect at the end).

My rating: read it to enjoy a fantastically picturesque fairy tale with grand feats of magic and beautiful writing!

The Oath of the Vayuputras Book Review

the_oath_of_the_vayuputrasI was incredibly excited to get my hands on this book. After having read The Immortals of Meluha and The Secret of the Nagas, I felt like I was ready to finish off this series and discover how the legends of the Indian Gods came to be. As a refresher for those of you unaware: The Oath of the Vayuputras is the final instalment in the Shiva Trilogy (other books listed earlier), and attempts to tell the story of Indian God Shiva and his companions as if they were humans rather than Gods (who eventually became Gods through their stories/ actions). The Immortals of Meluha (TIoM) introduced us to Shiva and the strange new world he discovered. The Secret of the Nagas (TSotN) fleshed out the world and narrowed down on a specific plot. And The Oath of the Vayuputras attempted to consolidate everything together with one giant battle.

Therefore, much like the previous book, The Oath of the Vayuputras picks up where the last book ended. Along with finding out the secret of the Nagas, we also finally discover what the purpose of the Neelkanth is: to destroy evil. However, as we learned throughout the first and second book, there wasn’t quite a clear consensus on what the evil exactly was. At first, Shiva thought it meant he had to conquer the Chandravanshi’s and then he thought it meant that he had to unite India. In this book, the true evil is revealed. I’m refraining from posting the actual spoiler, but like in the other books, this discussion on evil takes on quite a philosophical character. And like always, I found it quite enjoyable to read it.

Anyways, after the evil is revealed, it turns out that people are not quite convinced by Shiva’s definition of evil. As such, a war begins between, with those supporting Shiva (many of the side characters we were introduced too in earlier books) and those against him (the rulers of Meluha, Swadeep, and some priests). This war actually forms the crux, and numerous pages are devoted to describing the various battle formations, actual battle scenes, and the aftermath of such battles. Along with the war, the book also begins touching about the entire Neelkanth myth.

In TIoM, we were told that Lord Ram established a system of living which was replicated, down to the minute details in Meluha, and greatly respected by other kingdoms. It turns out, that the Vasudevs who communicated with Shiva in TSoN, were actually devotees of Ram who encompassed his teachings and were tasked with ensuring that they were followed (?). However, despite this connection, the Neelkanth wasn’t really a manifestation of Ram or even directly related to him. Lord Ram’s duty (and the duty of his later reincarnations (?)) was to pave a way of life, to ensure that the good was revealed and used. The Neelkanth, on the other hand, was to analyze when the balance between good and evil tilted toward evil, and then eradicate that evil. Fittingly then, the Neelkanth was a manifestation (reincarnation?) of Lord Rudra instead. Lord Rudra, as implied, was a fierce and just God who existed to ensure that good prevailed over evil and destroy the evil. Just as the Vasudevas were devotees of Ram, the Vayuputras (in the title of the book), were accordingly devotees of Rudra. As such, it was their duty to monitor the world and decide when the need for the Neelkanth arose and then accordingly raise the fabled One. However, as TIoM showcased, the Neelkanth wasn’t really chosen or declared by them. Instead, to everyone’s shock, Shiva’s blue neck exposed him as the Neelkanth. Hence, there also existed some confusion over whether Shiva was really the fabled the Neelkanth, or just some impostor who happened to coincidentally have a blue neck.

To this end, the book delves, albeit a little, into Shiva’s background and how he turned out the be the Neelkanth. Turns out, his uncle was a former Vayuputra. He recognized that the good was slowly turning evil and advocated for the declaration of the Neelkanth. However, the other vayuputras refused to listen to him. Hence, the uncle, Manobhu, stole the ingredients necessary to “create” the Neelkanth (blue neck), and secretly administered them to Shiva as he was convinced that Shiva was indeed the fabled Neelkanth, sent by the universe/ God. What was also interesting, was that apparently, Shiva’s mother was the sister of the Vayuputra leader (who also secretly defected and helped make Shiva the Neelkanth), while his father was Manobhu’s brother, aka also related to vayuputras.

Anyways, pretty interesting book. In general, I thought the book did a decent enough job of closing Shiva’s story. I particularly enjoyed how almost anti-climactic the end was. The end destruction commences amid sadness, without much fanfare or dispute. It was unexpected and created a melancholic tone that I think worked quite well for the book. It was enjoyable to read. That said, I definitely had a few complaints.

Firstly, I don’t quite understand why this book was named The Oath of the Vayuputras. To be more precise, through the title, I expected the book would deal with the Vayuputras at length. As mentioned earlier, we do get their backstory and there are actually quite a few chapters upon this. However, when it comes to the Vayuputras themselves, we’re only really given a few chapters (maybe 3?) where we actually get to see them. I just, it felt very misleading. Actually, I also found myself curious about the Vayuputras, about their way of life, their engineering, their own individual stories. Alas, we don’t get much on that.

Secondly, I was quite unsatisfied by the whole how-Shiva-became-Neelkanth story. We were given the basics of what happened, but not really why it happened. How was Manobhu sure that Shiva was the fabled One?  To this end, there is a tiny discussion on Shiva’s third eye (?) but even that isn’t explicitly explained. For someone quite new to Indian mythology, I would’ve much preferred a more in-depth explanation. On this note, I also found myself quite interested in the lives of those before Shiva, namely his parents and relatives (like Manobhu). I mean, we got more hints into the background of Sati and her father Daksha, than we did Shiva. It would’ve been nice to have the same focus on Shiva’s background.

Thirdly, there was also a lot, A LOT of unnecessary detailing. There were times where Amish just went on and on in describing places, things, people, etc. I mean, I understand the need for detail, but there’s also something to be said for being efficient with words. The overly detailed passages also led to the book to be quite long in its length, with over 500 pages of words. It was annoying and in my opinion, majorly detracted from the book/ reading experience. I found myself skimming through a few passages and/or pages as I got so bored with the overly verbose descriptions.

All in all, a decent enough conclusion. It could’ve definitely been improved upon (seriously, where were the editors?) but it was decent enough.

My rating: read it to finish the Shiva adventure and learn some more about Indian Mythology, but skip it if you aren’t interested in either.

A Series of Unfortunate Events TV Series Review

q9jqvvnrA Series of Unfortunate Events is a book series written by Daniel Handler under the pen-name of Lemony Snicket. However, unlike most pseudonyms, Lemony Snicket actually interacts with the book series and features as a part of the book’s universe. The book chronicles the lives of the rich Baudelaire orphans after their parent’s deaths. Lemony Snicket serves as a narrator and possess a personal connection to the Baudelaire’s. It turns out, he loved the Baudelaire mother, Beatrice, back when the two were still young. However, Beatrice ended up marrying Betrand, the Baudelaire father, rather than Lemony. Nonetheless, after hearing of her death, Lemony feels compelled to discover what happened to the Baudelaire children afterwards and hence the novel commences with him frequently remarking upon the terrible circumstances. Are you still with me?

The Baudelaire’s are made up of three children. Violet, the oldest at 14, is a genius inventor and often takes the leadership role in the various situations the children find themselves in. Klaus, the middle child at 12, is a voracious reader and has the ability to remember everything he’s read, the point where he can recite random quotations from random authors at verbatim. And finally, Sunny, is the youngest at 2(?). Although she can’t properly speak by the time the books begin, she is incredibly intelligent, possess the ability to understand complex situations and communicates with ‘babbles’ only her siblings understand. The trio lived happily with their well-off parents until a mysterious fire destroyed their house, presumably also killing their parents although no bodies were found. A local banker, Mr. Poe, is tasked with executing their parent’s will, which includes the huge inheritance the trio are to inherit once Violet comes to age. Despite being foolish and self-absorbed, Poe is also responsible for finding a new residence for the Baudelaire’s, as the parent’s will specified that the Baudelaire’s were to live with their closest living relative. And herein enters Count Olaf, the main antagonist, an actor with circus henchmen who is determined to get his hands on the Baudelaire fortune by any means possible, including murder.

There are 13 books in the series and each book deals with the children adapting to their new living situations, trying to get away from Count Olaf and his schemes to take over their fortune, and attempting to figure out their parent’s past/ present. The parents, it turns out, were spies (?) of some sort for the VFD (volunteer firefighters department?), a secret organization. Apparently, there was a schism in the organization wherein people split and took sides. The Baudelaire parents were obviously on the good side while Count Olaf was on the bad (yes, Count Olaf knew the parents from long ago). A lot of the people the Baudelaire’s encounter in the book are/were a part of the VFD, but despite their occurrence, the Baudelaire’s never do find out the full truth of their parent’s participation in the VFD. In fact, readers themselves never fully find out what the VFD is/for/does/did. Every new piece of information is given incomplete, through small vague clues, leading to eventual diversions to other topics/ parts of the truth.

I read somewhere that this elusive, purposeful holding of the full truth, was actually one of the themes of the book (i.e. the incomplete nature of the full truth). While I guess that explanation would help to solve the question of why the books remain so vague in its answers, I don’t really care. I just found it incredibly frustrating. I read this series way back, around the time the first book was published (early 2000s). Immediately, the dark comedic tone and mysterious story caught my attention and enthralled me. I faithfully read the books until the 10th book, after which I realized that the full truths of the story would never be revealed. The series contains 13 books, and while I normally don’t like reviewing or writing about things upon which I only have incomplete knowledge, I’m willing to make an exception in this case. I’m pretty proud of the fact that I managed to reach the 10th book because most people I know who’ve read the story have not finished it either, or even reached the 10th book. Despite the wonderful story and great suspense, the story is too frustrating and unfulfilling to follow, as the full truth is NEVER revealed. It’s just annoying to read a story only to realize that you’ll never actually know what happened.

Anyway, after that long recap, this post isn’t really about the books but about the tv series. This year, an original NetFlix production of the series was created and aired. Currently, only season 1 has aired and it has covered 4 books. Although I was quite frustrated by the books inability to answer its mysteries, I was still incredibly excited at the prospect of the show about them. The books are written well and do have engaging characters. The books had been attempted to be adapted for the big screen with a movie in 2004. But personally, I wasn’t a fan of it as I felt it rushed too many things. Hence, when I heard about the tv adaptation, I was excited because I felt a tv format would allow for greater detail and accuracy. To be happiness, that is exactly what happened.  The sets, stories, scenes, larger VFD mystery are all well done and plotted and remain fantastic. I honestly had not expected it to be as great as it was. That said, I do want to address a few things.

Firstly, I heard that there was some criticism over Neil Patrick Harris’s Count Olaf, with most people saying that he wasn’t scary enough. But to be honest, I don’t think that criticism holds. Yes sure Harris plays Count Olaf with more humour than his book counterpart, but that doesn’t detract from the scariness. His Olaf is still terrifying. There’s a menacing undercurrent to Olaf’s humour that comes through with Harris’s acting which prevents Olaf from coming across as too comedic. If anything, I think it enhances the character. Olaf fancies himself a great actor and Harris’s Olaf embodies that delusional identification with crazy costumes, weird voices, and general oddness. But he still manages to imbue Olaf with a scariness because his Olaf is also absolutely ruthless with his violent tendencies, devious tricks, and general horribleness. It’s more of a low-key threat, which I quite appreciate because I think it helps keep the tone of the show/ books.

Secondly, despite my earlier claim of accuracy in the show, I want to iterate that this doesn’t mean that everything is 100% accurate. If anything, it’s about 80% accurate, which is still quite accurate in the grand scheme of things. However, some characterizations are definitely off. Violet, played by Malina Weissman, is one of the few that come to mind. In the books, she functions as the fierce leader of the Baudelaire trio and often comes up with plans to save them. In the tv series however, her fierceness is quite downplayed and she comes across as more complacent than active. Instead, her role of leader is given to Klaus, played by Louis Hynes. On a similar note, Aunt Josephine’s character, is given more of a saint-washing, as in the books, she much more selfish and horrible.

Thirdly, I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity in casting. Don’t get me wrong, the majority of the cast was still white. But there were a few other people of colour in significant roles that I quite enjoyed. In particular, the Baudelaire’s guardians, Uncle Monty, a herpetologist, and Aunt Josephine, a formerly fierce but now cowardly woman, were played by Aasif Mandvi and Alfre Woodard respectively. Not to mention that Mr. Poe was played by K. Todd Freeman. Similarly, one of Olaf’s henchman, The Hook-handed Man, was played by Usman Ally. It’s always really nice to see diversity and although it could 100% be better, I felt that it was still a nice effort (although on a more introspective note, it’s sad how happy I get when there’s more than one POC because there should be more and standards should be higher).

Fourthly, I quite liked the way Lemony Snicket and his commentary were employed throughout show (through the use of Patrick Walburton as Lemony). It brought a uniqueness I did not expect and definitely helped to capture the dark humour of the books. Similarly, I enjoyed the red herring put by the show (deliberately being vague because it really is great LOL).

That said, I also read somewhere that this is a show to be savoured rather than binged and I completely agree. The books themselves are quite dark, but are prevented from being too depressing by Lemony Snicket’s commentary. The tv series doesn’t quite have that advantage at the same level. While Patrick Warburton is good at diffusing certain tense and dark scenes, they still leave the viewer unsettled and focused on the dark scene. If you watch too much of it, there’s chances that you’ll become very sad at the Baudelaire’s plight. However, if you savour each episode and take breaks, I think it would be more enjoyable because you wouldn’t be overtaken by sadness. I did the latter and quite enjoyed the series despite its macabre gothic tone.

My ratingWatch it if you’re a fan of the book series or if you’d like to watch a hopeless show with a sense of misplaced hopefulness.

The Masked City Book Review

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If you can recall, I reviewed the first book in this series, The Invisible Library, with great enthusiasm and expressed my fervent desire to read the sequels. This week, I finally got my hands on it! And to my delight, this book did not disappoint and instead left me with an even larger cliff-hanger/ desire to read further than the previous instalment!

If you’ve read my previous review, you probably know that one of my great attractions to this series, alongside its general plot (sign me up to become a library spy!), was the character of Irene. Irene is everything you’d want in a protagonist. She’s cool, smart, quick-witted, loyal, and even humble. There’s a few scenes in the book where other characters are visibly scared of her and she is always taken off guard and surprised (although this doesn’t stop her from manipulating the situation and scaring them more LOL). I usually don’t like it when characters are overly naive or modest, but Irene doesn’t come across like that. She’s genuinely unaware. Due to her position as a junior in the Librarian hierarchy, she believes that she still has miles to go before she can even consider herself to be a real, genuine, huge threat to others. So when characters do remark on her achievements or are terrified by her, she is taken off guard. That said, as I also mentioned earlier, this does not mean that she’s completely insecure or unsure of her capabilities. Irene is quite self-aware. She knows her abilities and she does have confidence in herself. I just, I really like her as a protagonist and this instalment just furthered my like. In this book, she goes beyond and demonstrated, not only how supremely talented and capable of a spy she is, but also how responsible, determined and loyal she is.

On that note, this book also goes further into Kai’s background. In the book’s plot, Kai is kidnapped and his kidnapping has the potential of beginning a war between his kind and the opposite of his kind (deliberately being vague, but hopefully for the benefit of new readers!). So, in terms of action, he actually doesn’t feature that much. He only really enters the scene near the end of the book. However, as the book is focused on him and his background, we do learn a little bit about him. And through learning more about his background, we’re also given more information on the world-building this series hinges upon.

We already knew that the Library existed in this timeless dimension with doors to other realities and we finally learn about some of the rules that govern how the other realities function. I had mentioned earlier how some worlds were “chaos-infested” where magic overtook natural order and in this book, we find out that this is because of fae (or fairy folk as I privately refer to them). Fae are described to be these powerful creatures who can create glamours and false realities (i.e. make you believe certain things through their words alone). When too many Fae inhabit a world, they make it chaos-infested because Fae tend to see everyone else as characters in their story. In an ironical twist, Fae see themselves as the protagonists of their story and everyone around them plays a supporting role. Apparently, this means that other humans are manipulated by the Fae so that situations can occur according to the Fae’s chosen story. Hence the term “chaos-infested” because too many Fae = too many competing Fae’s all crafting their own individual stories = humans manipulated and having basically no agency. Of course the degree of chaos- infestation also differs with the level. So while the previous novel was set in a mildly chaos infected London, this book takes place mainly in an extremely chaos-infested Venice (aka different reality). Hopefully, you’re still around after that complicated explanation.

Like my previous review, I don’t want to get too much into the plot of the novel because I think I’d like readers to experience it for themselves. However, I would like to discuss some other things I disliked and enjoyed.

Firstly, I was taken a little off guard by the relationship/ interactions between Detective Vale and Irene. As our lens through the story is Irene, it’s obvious that my observations are undoubtedly influenced by her emotions and POV. Hence, although perhaps it is arguable that Vale’s tone/ words were fine, when Irene found them to be quite harsh, I also found them to be harsh. And personally, I also found Vale’s behaviour with Irene to be quite rude. I understood that he was worried for Kai but at the same time, a little politeness wouldn’t hurt you know. Also, I was also quite peeved at the way Vale seemed to treat Irene’s job/ power. From my perspective, he was almost disdainful of her profession and dismissive of the amount of effort her powers took to be used. He was so callous in his remarks to her that I felt hurt on her behalf. Maybe Vale acts like this because he’s supposed to represent the archetype snobby, know-it-all detective. Whatever the reasons, I was not a fan, although his determination and abilities are indeed amazing.

Secondly, I also found this book to be more…tongue-in-cheek? I’m not quite sure what the exact word is, but throughout the book, Irene and other characters talked at length about stories, story-telling, plot cohesion/ creation, the role of characters, etc. As this is a book based upon books/ a library, I thought it was pretty humorous and ingenious of Cogman to include such discussions in her book. Although perhaps I interpreted it wrongly and perhaps the discussions on books were not meant to be ironic but rather educational? Either way, I thought it was quite interesting and subversive.

Thirdly, related to the second point, there was a whole bit in the book where Irene learns of the story of a horse-and-knight and it’s through that medium quite a bit of the latter discussion on books/ characters/ motivations takes place. However, it just really confused me. I didn’t quite understand the purpose? In my interpretation, the entire discussion was really just a means to an end, rather than being an end in itself. Which isn’t bad I suppose, but not something I’m a big fan of either (i.e. spending too much time on something that isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things). Or maybe I just interpreted it wrong. Whatever.

That said, I personally found the previous book to have more of a thrilling adventure. Don’t get me wrong, this book was definitely a roller coaster of a ride. Yet, as engrossing as it was, I don’t think it lived up to the original novel. I think it fell a tad, very very tiny bit, short of the original. There were a few mentions made of Alberich in this book and I found myself repeatedly more curious about his story/ unfinished business with Irene then the general plot of this book. However, perhaps this is not so much a critique on this book as it is of my own preferences. I suppose I am just more into the general personal plot of the book, centred on Irene specifically, than I am into general world of the book. And that’s actually what a lot of the book focuses upon: fleshing out the general world building of this series. Again, it’s not a bad thing and it’s definitely really interesting.

So the book is still definitely rated pretty highly in my opinion. I’m SUPER excited to get my hands on the final instalment and hopefully have all the little mysterious hints dropped about Irene and her past/ future to be resolved!

My rating: read it for fun and to continue The Invisible Library adventure!

The Winter Palace Book Review

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The Winter Palace, for those of you unaware, used to be the official winter residence of Russian monarchs. Of course when the monarchy was abolished in 1917, it stopped being used as a royal residence and instead became a tourist attraction. Nonetheless, when I saw this book titled The Winter Palace, I was intrigued. And when the book claimed to be about Catherine the Great, I was further intrigued and hence picked up the book to read. While the description of the book isn’t explicitly accurate, it was still an enjoyable read and I intend on reviewing it. So let’s get into it.

The Winter Palace is written by Eva Stachniak and claims to tell the story of Catherine the Great’s rise to power, beginning from when she was just Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst. However, our lens for this story is not Princess Sophie, rather it is a Polish royal maidservant, Barbara (or Varvara as she’s known in Russia). And so the story actually begins with a history of Barbara’s life and how she came to be so close to the monarchs.

Barbara has a semi-uninteresting beginning. She was originally the daughter of a bookbinder who managed to repair a book for Empress Elizabeth of Russia and impress her in the process. He manages to ensure that Barbara is taken in by the royal court after his death. In other words, Elizabeth used to take in young orphan girls and have them work as her servants. Hence Barbara initially begins as a seamstress in the court, but finds the work tedious (she sucks at it) and hence begins covertly listening to others instead. Her ability catches the eye of Elizabeth’s chancellor, Bestuzhev, who then becomes a mentor of sorts for he and teaches her advanced spying methods. From his teachings, she comes a ‘tongue’ for him and Elizabeth. She spies on all servants and reports on their sayings/ activities to them. Eventually, she advances to the point of becoming a ‘reader’ for the next-in-line for the Russian Throne, Prince Peter (eventually Peter III of Russia).

It is through this line of work that she first meets the young Princess Sophie and becomes familiar with her. Despite being told to be suspicious of Sophie and given the duty of spying on her (Bestuzhev severely disliked Sophie), Barbara finds herself taken with the young Sophie. Sophie gifts Barbara an amber necklace and forges a pact with her, based on the fact that the two of them are ‘foreigners’ in the court (Sophie was German/ Prussian). Barbara then switches sides and covertly becomes Sophie’s tongue, protecting her and warning her about potential conspiracies.Barbara is eventually found out by Bestuzhev and he persuades Elizabeth to get Barbara married off and thus forced out of the palace.

During this time, a lot of stuff happens in Barbara’s life. And through bits and pieces, we’re also given some happenings with Sophie. Turns out, she suffers from a horrible marriage as her husband dislikes her and doesn’t like consummating with her. Desperate for an heir, Elizabeth sends one of her Romanov cousins, Sergei Saltykov, to seduce and impregnate Sophie. Unfortunately, once Sophie becomes pregnant, Sergei is ordered to leave her (Sophie loves him by this time) and once she gives birth, her son is snatched from her womb by Elizabeth. Elizabeth takes the newborn, future Paul I of Russia, and raises him on her own, refusing Sophie even a glimpse of her son.

By this time, Barbara is able to come back to the palace and support Sophie. She also becomes Elizabeth’s main room-servant. Sophie, meanwhile, hardens herself and continues to live life. During this time, she also grows braver, sneaking out to meet friends in the middle of the night dressed as men, having her lovers come into her room without bothering to hide the signs, etc. Barbara continually does her best to protect Sophie from Elizabeth (who really dislikes both Peter and Sophie and only loves Paul) and lies to her. Alongside Sophie’s life, Barbara’s life also changes as her husband eventually dies in war. She is left alone with their seven year old daughter and a loyal female servant. It is at this point that Barbara realizes how badly she treated her husband and how she had happiness within her grasp as a young newly married woman/mother but failed to see it.

Eventually, the book talks of how Elizabeth’s health fails, how Peter’s reign is disliked, and how Sophie gains the support of the soldiers. Once Sophie becomes Catherine the Great, Barbara becomes Chief Steward and her friendship with Catherine is at an all time high. Things are running smoothly and everything is going as it should. However, through certain circumstances, Barbara discovers that Catherine employs other ‘tongues’ beside her and also uses her daughter to keep tabs on Barbara’s life. She is furious, seeing these things as a betrayal and unwilling to have her daughter involved in court life. She confronts Catherine who looks at her with pity and tell her that it’s no big deal. Barbara is still really angry, so she decides to take some time off and takes her daughter and servant travelling with her. They first visit Paris and then go to Poland, Barbara’s homeland. The novel ends with her deciding to stay in Poland and leaving the court behind.

As you can tell from the review, the book doesn’t really talk about Catherine the Great that much, it’s more about Barbara and her life and how it relates to the royal court. And actually, that’s one of my critiques of the book. It’s misleading in its title and cover blurb. It doesn’t really tell the story of Sophie’s rise to becoming Catherine the Great. We’re only given side hints as to what type of character Sophie possesses. Hence, our view of Sophie/ Catherine depends on our own individual interpretation. However, even then, it’s difficult to feel too connected to Sophie, because she just doesn’t feature predominantly. If anything, I felt like we got more of a glimpse into Empress Elizabeth and her court. We learn more about Elizabeth’s lifestyle and feelings and motivations, then we do about Sophie. And more than that, we learn extensively about Barbara. At times, it felt like this book was about Barbara who accidentally fell into the royal court and her life that followed, vs. Barbara as a proxy for readers to experience Sophie’s rise to power. On that note, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, because on her own, Barbara is a decent character. She’s definitely flawed and does unlikeable things at times, but she’s also quite engaging, or at least I thought so. I enjoyed reading about her life outside the palace and her various thought processes. I just wish that the author/ publishers had been more honest in their descriptions about this book.

Which brings me to my second point, I actually quite enjoyed the writing in the novel. It was clear and understandable. I also found the descriptions of the Russian Royal court to be quite apt and well done. It didn’t feel too overly-descriptive and I quite enjoyed the little touches Ms. Stachniak added, like when talking about how the characters would drink kvass vs just using the english translation of the word (beer-like drink). They helped the book have an authentic, historical feel. All in all, a pretty enjoyable historical fiction read. Albeit more geared toward a specific era in time vs. a specific person in history.

My rating: read this if you’re curious about what the Russian Royal Court was like, but you can skip it if you want to read about Catherine the Great and her rise to power.

Siddhartha Book Review

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So there’s two main reasons as to why I picked up this book. Firstly, it was placed in the ‘classics’ section in my library and as someone who has made it a goal to read as many classics she can, I felt compelled to read it. Secondly, it talked about Siddhartha and Buddha. I’m not particularly religious, but I find myself really digging Buddhism a lot of the time so I figured this book was a safe bet. So basically, it was a book that I assumed I would probably enjoy because I enjoy classics and Buddhism. Unfortunately, my logic did not turn out as I’d assumed it would.

Siddhartha purports to tell the story of a Brahim named Siddhartha. As a young boy, in an effort to discover atman (enlightenment), he leaves home. He ends up joining some ascetics and begins to adapt to their lifestyle, believing that once you strip away everything, you’ll be able to finally find enlightenment. Once he realizes that he won’t find nirvana with the ascetics, he gets drawn to one who has been assumed to already been enlightened, Gautama Buddha. He meets Buddha and is taken aback by his holiness. However, he discovers that Buddha’s teachings don’t exactly gel with him, so he declines to serve him and be a part of his group. Siddhartha believes in the unity of the world, which contrasts with Buddha’s teachings to transcend the world. Similarly, Siddhartha argues that teachings of any nature, including those of Buddha’s, while worthwhile, cannot really take the place of individual experience. Teachings can only teach you, they do not lead you to the experiences that really *change/ broaden your understanding/ enlighten* you. And those experiences are necessary in order for one to achieve enlightenment.

At this point, he comes to a stand still, not sure of what to do. He decides to go across a river to meet people on the other side/ see what life is like there. In his journey, he meets a curious ferryman who prophesies that Siddhartha will return to him and repay him in some way. Anyways, Siddhartha comes to the other side of the river. It’s a city filled with merchants, barbers, courtesans, etc. As he went to one extreme to find enlightenment and failed to find it, he decides to go to the other extreme. Hence, he meets a courtesan, named Kamala, and learns how to love (i.e. sex/ seduction techniques). On her insistence, he also becomes involved with a local merchant becomes a merchant himself. He remains in the city for a long time, continually taking part in life’s pleasures and slowly forgetting his teachings from the ascetics. Instead of stripping himself of everything, he gives in to everything. However, through time, he realizes that despite going to the other extreme, he still hasn’t obtained enlightenment. The guilty, materialistic, lustful life was a farce, a game, to cover the emptiness inside.

Taken aback and overwhelmed, Siddhartha leaves the city and contemplates committing suicide. However, after a spiritual moment with the word “om” and a chance meeting with an old friend, he decides to live and instead devote himself to the river. So he reunites with the ferryman and attempt to learn from the river’s spirituality. He and the ferryman become quite famous as sages as the two are content to detach themselves from the world and just listen to people and convey the messages of the river.

A few years later, it turns out that Kamala had given birth to Siddhartha’s son after he left the city, and had become Buddha’s devotee. She comes to the river to ferry across to meet the Buddha and chances upon Siddhartha. However, this reunion is short-lived as she is fatally bitten by a snake and dies. Siddhartha then assumes responsibility for his young son, who is himself bitterly opposed to this. The son refuses to listen to Siddhartha and adapt to his simplistic ways. Siddhartha tries to kill him with kindness (figuratively!) because he loves him so much, but the boy refuses and runs away after stealing all his money. Siddhartha attempts to go after his son but is persuaded by the ferryman to let his son find his own path; just like how Siddhartha found his own as a young boy. Peering into to the river with the ferryman, Siddhartha realizes that all things are connected in unity and that time is immaterial. So happiness and sadness, sufferings and pleasure, good and evil, are all together and part of the oneness of the world. In other words, he attains enlightenment.

Many years later, his friend having heard of a great enlightened man living near the river (Siddhartha) comes to meet him. When he recognizes Siddhartha, he asks Siddhartha to teach him or at least impart some of his wisdom. Siddhartha initially refuses but then relents, telling his friend of how time doesn’t exist and how for each true statement there is an equally opposite true one. His friend thinks of Siddhartha as a mad man and gets ready to leave. Before he leaves, he kisses Siddartha’s forehead, on Siddhartha’s request, and immediately experiences the same timelessness Siddhartha had seen in the river. Hence, the book ends.

To be completely honest, I did not find the book to be as enlightening (LOL) as I hoped it would be. I just, I felt bored. A lot of the ideas and themes discussed in this book were things that I had already looked into/ heard about. So there wasn’t anything extremely new in it for me to learn about. I think I expected too much.

That said, this doesn’t mean that the book is a bad book. I mean, I could see how this book has attained its ‘classic’ status. It does grapple with some really interesting themes and the final idea about how everything is connected and how each experiences matters is a really great one. One that I actually believe in as well. So in terms of message, it’s really solid. In terms of presentation, it’s pretty solid as well. The idea of someone going from one extreme to another in an attempt to find something is one that has been done before but always remains enjoyable to read. Siddhartha’s journey was indeed nice to read about. And there were some incredibly insightful sentences and paragraphs in the book that I really, really enjoyed. To illustrate my point, I’m going to actually copy down a portion of the book:

Siddhartha said: “What could I say to you, Venerable One? Perhaps that you are seeking too hard? That you seek so hard that you do not find?

“What do you mean?” asked Govinda. 

“When someone seeks,” said Siddhartha, “then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing that he seeks, and he is able to find nothing, to take in nothing because he always thinks only about the thing he is seeking, because he has one goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal. You, Venerable One, may truly be a seeker, for in striving toward your goal, you fail to see certain thing that are right under your nose.”              p 121-122 

Like I said, it is pretty insightful and quite profound. The passage also illustrates another feature of the book, it’s simple writing style. I think that’s actually the one thing that made me struggle with the book the most. I just, I was not a big fan of the writing, or perhaps I should say translation. It was written in german and then translated into english. I think I would’ve probably enjoyed the german version more, if I could read german. I enjoyed what was being said but my enjoyment was often brought down by the writing style. I found it difficult to keep up and found myself just reading over passages rather than reading through them. Perhaps I’m quite challenged when it comes to reading philosophical content. In sum, I think it’s a good book and worthwhile, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations and left me a little puzzled in my feelings about it. Good message, but not quite delivered the way I hoped it would be.

My rating read it to learn about what enlightenment could be, but don’t expect to have your life changed by it.