Book Reviews

Book Review: Empress Orchi

Empress Orchid (Empress Orchid, #1)

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“My sorrow for Hsien Feng and my country was beyond expression.”

This is a unique work of fiction. Empress Orchid defies all popular sentiments of Empress Dowager Cixi by depicting her as an almost regular woman who was driven to what she did through mere necessity. Initially, she applied for the position to become one of the many wives of Emperor Hsien Feng only to prevent her uncle from selling her. She acquired the art of seduction to please her Emperor to avoid being left in isolation her whole life. She ousted the men in power after Emperor Hsien Feng’s death to prevent them from killing her first. Creative as this point of view may be, it is utterly unconvincing that Orchid could be innocent and helpless to her circumstances yet able to climb up to the absolute top of China in an era when a woman’s opinion did not matter.

I have no doubt Empress Cixi was not born a scheming and malicious person. However, I cannot be sold on the idea that she survived and thrived without actively scheming to pre-empt her opponents, taking them down ruthlessly. Nonetheless, I am grateful that Anchee Min is able to present this enigmatic character in a different light, even if its sole purpose was to oppose the conventions of Chinese blaming the downfall of it’s Imperial Dynasty on one woman.

“This was my first time entering the heavenly ground after the foreigners has assaulted it. Lord Elgin was three hours late. He entered with two thousand men in a display of pomp. He rode in a crimson palanquin borne by sixteen men, knowing that this privilege was reserved only for the Emperor of China. I made an effort to be gracious, although I was disgusted beyond description. I bowed slightly and shook Elgin’s hands in the Chinese style. I struggled and succeeded in keeping my emotions from spilling.”

Through this book I also gained a very personal insight to the humiliation felt by the Manchurians and Chinese alike at the cusp of foreign invasion. Emperor Hsien Feng was slowly but surely losing the North of the country to the Russians. The looting of the Summer Palace by the British and French forces in 1860 devastate the Emperor so much his health deteriorated rapidly after. Like many rulers before him, they viewed non-Chinese as inferior and barbaric. To have them taking their country bit by bit is not merely mortifying, but leaves behind a painful mark that will not be erased for generations after.

Fast-forward 159 years later, China had risen in the contemporary era able to swallow up whole most nations in this world and go head to head with the present day superpower. Whilst there is much criticism on Chinese (and American) behaviour, only when one peeks into the past will they be able to comprehend China’s thirst for showing the world what it is capable of.

The book flows reasonably well, especially considering the challenges of describing ancient Chinese philosophy, practises and customs in English. I hope this book provokes interest in the understanding of the stupendous fall and rise of China over the past century and a half.

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Book Reviews

Book Review: My Fight Your Fight Ronda Rousey

My Fight / Your Fight

My Fight / Your Fight by Ronda Rousey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was surprisingly easy to read, especially considering that I read it post downfall of Ronda Rousey’s UFC career.

Ronda Rousey, a stupendous athlete known for her outspokenness, confidence and incredible martial arts prowess wrote and published this autobiography, subtitled “The Undefeated UFC Champion” right before her subsequent devastating back-to-back losses to Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes. The book is broken down into small easy-to-digest morsels, arranged loosely in a chronological manner from her childhood to the climax of her UFC career. I was once perhaps, 1/200th of the athlete that Ronda Rousey was, hence I could relate to the sufferings she endured as a woman athlete – from something that seem mundane like wardrobe malfunction in a fight to weight and body image issues. Unlike Rousey, losses in matches was something that came like second nature to me. Thus I had first imaged it will be hard for me to go indepth into the mindset of a winner, albeit a deserving one, right before she suffered crushing losses.

Like many other Rousey fans/critics, I am unimpressed by the manner in which she handles her losses. It isn’t simply because she avoids talking about it, but that she never particularly acknowledges and give due respect to the sufferings her opponents may have to endured before taking her position. However, this book reminded me why Ronda Rousey is Ronda Rousey, what she did for women in combat sports and why I believe, despite the subsequent events, she is worthy of the glory she earned.

What I had not expect was how it gave me insight to why she remains a sore loser, nearly 4 years after she was knocked out by Holly Holm right before my eyes here in Melbourne. Before I’d even flip to page 1, there it was, those words that haunted me for a bit:

“For Mom and Dad, I hope you’re proud of me.”

When a human being defies so much of history and social expectations and dominates in an arena never dominated by any other person of the same gender before, she would stand on top of the world and utters how she hopes her parents are proud of her.

On that same note, I hope that whatever she chooses for now or in future that Ronda Rousey will feel enough pride for Ronda Rousey and never require the validation of any other human being, genetically related or not.

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Book Reviews

Book Review: A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The devil is in the details, they say. A book this size has a lot of devils, any one of which will bite you if you don’t watch out.”

Disclaimer: I read this book with the hindsight of having watch the current 7 series on telly. Regardless, the knowledge of what is to come did not diminish the pleasure of reading this masterpiece at all. In fact, it served to reiterate what a momentous effort it must have been to create an epic story of this proportion.

I feel it is unwise to label this book as ‘fantasy’. The brilliance of this novel for me lies in the variety and complexity of characters interwoven with an even more complicated plot. George R.R. Martin’s inventiveness and grasp of history, religion, language even fashion is downright mind-blowing. The schemes and battles of the seven kingdoms resembles many stories in the real world, both past and present. Who is to say that the use of advance technology that is common in one nation can be depicted as witch craft in a less developed country? Should the schemes of our G7/G8/G10 nations be told from a different point of view, it may well sound like a fantasy too.

The novel also touches upon a large number of perennial subject matters, such as ambition, greed, sibling rivalries, failure and growth, class distinction and even the psychology of unequal parental love. The stark contrast between the two (Stark) sisters – Sansa and Arya is depicted splendidly. The two girls not only represents common sibling rivalry but also symbolises the conflict of two very different females and their place in society.

There was a guilty pleasure in devouring this book within a few days when I considered the years it must have taken to write it. Now I am hungering for more.

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Book Reviews

Book Review: The Luminaries

The Luminaries

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4-4.5 star

I took up English at the age of 6 and struggled with it for the next 15 years or so. Unsurprisingly I failed English Literature countless times, yet I had gone on with life reading thousands of books written in this language. As such, I am unable to critique this book, perhaps, with some of the merit it deserve. For example, any accurate representation on the English language of the late 19th Century would have been completely lost on me. Regardless, after diligently pushing through the 800+ pages of this enormous book, I managed to finish this… sort-of masterpiece. This is my take on it.

The best part of this novel for me, is Catton’s consideration, albeit a small one, to the non Anglo-Saxon characters that form a complete backdrop to the gold rush era of New Zealand (and Australia). A token Maori appears occasionally as a supporting role. His participation in the overall mystery is small but the cultural significance of his presence quite large. The reality in those days were that the later migrants to the land of the long white cloud were profiteering from the riches of the land, whilst Te Rau is struggling to make end meet and has to advertise his role as a local guide to earn a few pennies. The Chinese, hardworking and industrious as they were in those challenging times, were rarely rewarded for that virtue but instead commonly regarded with derogatory and treated as second class.

The complexity of each character and the amount of research required to compile such an intricate plot is impressive to me. The story line involves 12 players of varying age, profession and origins. The tale unfolds through the point of view of each of them, while hard to follow at times, it adds a dimension to the book that goes beyond a simply mystery of dubious fortune, missing and murdered men. The execution is masterful, especially for a second-time novelist, I found that remarkable.

The length of the novel to me, is the imperfection, or perhaps it’s downfall. The book came into my possession for years. I had made several unsuccessful attempts to get into it prior to this one. I am glad I read it, however, the last 200 or so pages did not add much more to the novel hence resulted in a degree of boredom and frustration towards the end. If the book had been a little more concise and to the point, it may have earned itself a few more readers.

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Book Reviews

Book Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“… I advised you long ago never to use your imagination. It can only cost you your life.”

It is difficult to use common words to describe this piece of art. I struggle to fathom the state of mind of any writer who is able to conjure up a tale like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. To describe the journey I took in reading this 600+ book was ‘magical’ or ‘bizarre’ feels woefully inadequate. It simply defies the pattern and formula of modern literature, in my opinion, in a poetic and graceful manner.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is told via the point of views of a stellar cast – the placid Toru Okada, a confused teenage girl and a war veteran who had witnessed unspeakable violence in a forgotten war. Their stories are interwoven into the encounters of another string of apparently unrelated but equally intriguing characters, including a pair of sisters named Malta and Creta with seemingly supernatural powers and a mother and son named after Indian spices who helps resolve spiritual problems for the rich and privileged women of Japan.

Personally I enjoyed the journey, even though I am unable to say if I took home any new moral values or scientific learnings from this book. I gave it five stars simply because the book had me hooked from start till end without any expectations of a sound ending or a believable plot. It was in a way, meditative to read this novel.

I do not think this book is for everyone. It must certainly be approached with the broadest of open minds and even then I’d expect many to be lost in the labyrinth of nothingness.

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Book Reviews

Book Review: Big Little Lies

Big Little LiesBig Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

2 ½ stars

If depression is the new accessory, this book has just turned domestic violence into a fashionable handbag.

The stars are given purely for the fast pace and suspense of the book. To be fair it kept me wanting to know more about each character as Liane Moriarty unpeels their stories. The ending is largely disappointing – too tidy, convenient and way more satisfying than the reality that usually prevails for the true casualties of domestic violence. This is a novel to read on a holiday by the beach, for an intellect wannabe hoping to utilise down time reading something informative.

The flavour of the year on Australian telly is men learning to respect women. To be more specific, white Australian suburban men learning to respect white Australian suburban women. Like the numerous government campaigns, Liane Moriarty probably thinks she is doing society a favour by exploring a serious subject in a light-hearted manner. I am all for that style of propaganda. However, it isn’t the message that she tries to deliver; it is what that is glaringly lacking in the message that I find disturbing. In this novel, only Caucasians exist in Australia as no other ethnic group was represented in the public school of suburbia Sydney. So often it is the marginalised women, the minority, the migrants or refugees with no family support that struggle to break out of the cycle of domestic violence. There is a complete absence of non Anglo-Saxons, not even a hint of colour in the homogenous cast of ‘Big Little Lies’.

There are constant referrals to the challenges in leaving a violent home, but none of the ‘victims’ seems to need to endure any hardship before the community magically comes together and pull them out of their fix. Everyone comes to terms with their flaws eventually and tries to seek amends and forgiveness. I live in Australia, but alas Ms Moriarty and I must live in very different countries indeed.

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Book Reviews Mental Health

Book Review: The Sinner

The SinnerThe Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wish I can offer a higher rating. The book captivated me from the start. It discussed at great lengths two subjects that I am very interested in – Adverse Childhood Experiences and Brain Injury.

In my opinion Petra Hammesfahr did an excellent job in illustrating little by little, how a dysfunctional family albeit one with no physical or overt sexual violence can ruin a child’s life. Cora Bender struggles through her childhood with no pragmatic concept of social values or self worth. There are fragments of this book that reminds me of Stephen King’s Carrie, when a religious fanatic mother causes severe destruction to the life of her child in her bizarre endeavours to lead her offspring to a grossly misinformed path. I feel Cora Bender is reasonably convincing as a brain injury survivor. Her sporadic mood swings, random ramblings and her altered sense of reality compounds the already complex circumstances surrounding the story.

What infuriates me to no end is realism, or the lack of in Hammersfahr’s depiction of the police work and subsequent ‘happy ending’. Police Commissioner Rudolf Grovian is utterly unsold by an open and shut case; he rejects an otherwise straight forward case and delve deeply into the psychiatric condition of Cora Bender. When the DA, defence attorney even the state appointed (well-reputed) psychiatrist appears indifferent about the truth pertaining to Cora Bender’s mental condition, a police officer takes matter into his own hands and dedicates most of his resources to prove the innocence of a mentally ill woman who killed a man in front of dozens of witness. The only attempt by Hammesfahr to explain Grovian’s unnatural interest in Bender is the brief and flimsy description of Grovian’s relationship with his estranged daughter.

Overall, I feel like Hammesfahr is writing a Hollywood or Disney story about killers with mental health issues. These days when one randomly pins a psychiatric condition to the instigator of every inexplicable murder or mass killing, I resent greatly how this book simplifies and glorifies the real world treatment of many less attractive, older, angrier and hairier versions of Cora Bender.

So a man saves an otherwise helpless damsel in distress. She gets a chances to live happier ever after. I want my money back please.

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Mental Health


I’m finally forty, thank fuck
The way I toyed with death, I’ve been an absolute schmuck
Neurosis, psychosis, paralysis, I could have been hit by a truck
I did not succumb, I managed to triumph, that was just dumb luck

No fanfare, no frills
All I hear is the devil’s trill
Reminding me of them formative years
The feuds that led to four decades of tears

I’m finally forty, I’ve been furiously feeding the fear
That nobody can love me, no one’s been near
I was feigning my fervour, really, life’s worn me to a frazzle
There is little left that can truly dazzle

I could fabricate a fantasy
Image there’d be no further fury
Stop chasing a life that pursues fatality
I’ve made it this far despite all animosity
Diss me if you like, this is indeed my reality

I’m finally forty, it’s all gone by like a flash
Please no more pain, not of the mind nor of the flesh
Anyhow I can always count on time being finite
Come what may, at least now I have some insight
(Even with my fading eyesight)

Book Reviews Mental Health

Book Review: Matilda by Roald Dahl

MatildaMatilda by Roald Dahl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It has been 30 years since ‘Matilda’ was published. This is a noteworthy fact as the novel highlights the tremendous foresight of Roald Dahl. In my opinion ‘Matilda’ is well ahead of its time; it identifies numerous Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and depicts them in a light-hearted manner, palatable for the most innocent of minds.

Matilda Wormwood is a 5-½ year old girl with extraordinary talents. Whilst she is not abuse by her parents, her presence in the family was largely ignored while her talentless brother is constantly praised and nurtured. This is unfortunately a not-too-unfamiliar scenario in many families whereby boys are prepped to be successful while girls are expected to look good, have no ideas of their own and not focus too much on books. The lack of appreciation from her family results in Matilda misbehaving, starting from pranks on her father to the telekinetic gift she subsequently develops.

Over the decades, society has gradually sobered up to the consequence of abusive childhood but remains lukewarm about the effects of emotional neglect. I experienced a similar childhood as Matilda and when I read the novel as a child I felt a great sense of relieve to learn that I was not the only one feeling dissed by the relentless conditioning of the adults in my life, wishing I was less intelligent and more docile. In reading Matilda as an adult, I feel profoundly disturbed by the reality of how little has changed in the past 3 decades.

In addition, the novel touches gently on other serious subjects such as child abuse at school, the bonding of young children when an adult that is meant to look after them constantly mistreats them. Eventually when Matilda finds a more constructive use for her exceptional mind, she loses her desire and gift to play sophisticated pranks on the lessor adults.

The father of Matilda Wormwood is based on a real-life person from Mr Dahl’s hometown. I suspect Mr Dahl, like many great authors did not conjure this plot from nothing. Tragically, the reason for the lasting popularity of this novel is likely due to how relatable it is. After all, every reader was once a 5-½ year old child.

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Book Reviews General Affairs

Book Review: An Innocent Man

The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small TownThe Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town by John Grisham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When television series such as Law and Order and Crime Scene Investigation runs for decades, it is evident that the general public enjoys the belief that law enforcement are a force for good, that they never give up until the truth is uncovered.

Unfortunately, the reality is too far from our imagination of such dedicated workers. In the end, everyone who works in the legal system are not only subjected to the human flaws of err, but also of denial, laziness and self interest.

“The Innocent Man” is misleading in the sense that the book wasn’t about a singular disaster but describes a series of catastrophic errors of the judicial system that resulted in not only wrongful convictions but often the execution of innocent people. I have been an ardent fan of John Grisham yet it is hard to believe that this non-fiction book of his is more surreal than most of his imagined stories. I applaud him not simply for his immense talent in turning a long and complex story into a page turner – I finished the book in 24 hours – Mr Grisham is clearly endeavouring to provide a complete picture of the good and bad side of law. In his other novel, “The Rogue Lawyer”, I noticed how he describes an over zealous group of trigger happy police, anxious to march into the home of a suspect with guns and cannons blazing. This was possibly inspired from an incident in “The Innocent Man” where a SWAT team returns from duty dejected as they missed an opportunity to showcase their prowess in the arrest of a high school science teacher with no violent history.

The Innocent Man is a terrible tale where no happy ending is possible. While no one likes to read about the lives wasted due to the inadequacy of a system we are expected to have faith in, I hope John Grisham will continue to deliver such powerful messages to anyone who cares to listen. The world is imperfect and no amount of disguise from Hollywood can change that.

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