Monthly Motif Challenge

READ THE WORLD – Malaysia: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Yun Ling, the only survivor from her internment camp, sets out to build a memorial to her sister. Her quest leads he to The Garden of Evening Mists, and to Nakamura Aritomo, a man of extraordinary skill and reputation, once the gardener of the Emperor of Japan. When she accepts his offer to become his apprentice, she begins a journey into her past, inextricably linked with the secrets of her troubled country’s history.

The Garden of Evening Mists is told in the first person from Yun Ling’s point of view and spans over fifty years. The novel takes place in three time periods, when Yun Ling is a retired judge and writing down her story, when she becomes a gardener’s apprentice, and when she’s a teenager in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during Japan’s invasion of Malaysia. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Anna Bentinck and I really how she narrated it. The way Bentinck narrated it was great as she had a different voice for the older Yun Ling and the younger Yun Ling making it easier to follow what point in time the story is set.

I knew very little of Japan’s invasion of Malaysia during World War Two, or Malaysia’s history in general, before reading The Garden of Evening Mists. As it spans so many years, you get to see how the country changes over time, the different political influences it has, and how the people must adapt and deal with some the atrocities they face.

Yun Ling is a brilliantly complicated and realistic character. She suffered a great deal at the hands of the Japanese, she suffered physical and mental abuse, her family was torn apart, and she became a changed person due to her experience. She has every right to hate those that hurt her, but her feelings go towards all Japanese people so naturally her relationship with Aritomo is strained – at least to begin with. Seeing Yun Ling learn to deal with her anger, hurt and resentment and try and move on with her life was really powerful and compelling. Her relationship with Aritomo was fascinating as they were constantly learning from one another and as they slowly started to share more about their pasts, they were becoming a solid unit.

There were some surprises along the way as slowly Yun Ling started to piece together hers and Aritomo’s pasts, and how they may have been connected long before they met. The Garden of Evening Mists is a great historical story with some beautiful writing. The way the garden was described was so vivid and stunning, but equally the brutality Yun Ling faced was just as vivid and shocking. I enjoyed The Garden of Evening Mists far more than I was expecting to, and would recommend it to just about anyone. 4/5.

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REVIEW: Dune by Frank Herbert

“Spice” is the most valuable yet rarest element in the universe, it’s a drug that can be used in many different ways, and it can only be found on the inhospitable desert planet of Arrakis. When the Emperor transfers stewardship of Arrakis from the House Harkonnen to House Atreides, the Harkonnens plot to take back the planet, putting Duke Leto and his family in danger. Duke Leto’s fourteen year old son Paul and his mother Lady Jessica, escape into the desert there they meet the Fremen, the native people of Arrakis, and fight to survive and take back what has been taken from them.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Scott Brick, Orlagh Cassidy, Euan Morton, Simon Vance, Ilyana Kadushin. It was a pretty good audiobook though some of the characters voices weren’t always consistent through the story so it was sometimes a little jarring at times. I definitely don’t think I would’ve read the physical book (as it’s so large and intimidating) so listening to it on audio made it more accessible for me.

Dune is about so many things, politics, religion, family, technology, and all these things are so well-developed that you end up with a vivid world this space society takes place in. that’s not to say it can’t be a bit confusing or overwhelming at times, it definitely can, but it does pose some interesting multi-layered ideas about politics and religion and how they interact.

This interstellar society that’s formed of many important families who control individual planets, though you only really follow the Harkonnens and the Atreides, is fascinating in a way as it’s full of weird contradictions. They have technology like force fields, but they fight with swords and daggers. They have space travel but they also have a belief in magic. It’s an odd combination that makes Dune seem like a historical story sent in a science-fiction world – especially with all the political backstabbing and the royal titles.

The descriptions of the planet Arrakis, its people and its creatures (there’s humongous worms with many teeth that roam the sand dunes looking for food) makes this hostile planet Paul and his mother find themselves stranded on a truly unsettling and dangerous place.

Paul is a compelling character. He’s had a lot of training in various forms of combat and politics, plus his mother has taught him the ways of persuasion and other skills that seem like magic to many people. He’s smart and capable for a teenager, but he’s pushed to the limit when his life, and the lives of everyone he knows, is threatened. I really liked his relationship with his mother Jessica. Their relationship was constantly shifting, sometimes they were like mother and son, other times they were like equals, and then at other times Paul seemed the more mature and self-assured as he seemed to be able to see possible futures.

Throughout the book there’s little experts of books from within the universe this story is set. As the story progresses, I came to realise these exerts were theoretically written after the events that Paul and Jessica were involved in. As they were often a history of Arrakis and its people, they gave you a hint as to whether or not Paul would succeed in his aims and what would become of the characters you’re already following.

I’m pleased I’ve read Dune, though it did end somewhat suddenly. A couple of the main plots were completed but there’s still a lot more to explore with this intergalactic political system. I didn’t know before going into Dune that there’s a number of sequels. I don’t think I’ll be reading them though as while I liked the story as I was reading it, I didn’t love the characters and I’m not desperate to know what happens to them next. 3/5.

REVIEW: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

The year is 1984, Great Britain has become a part of superstate Oceania which is ruled by The Party who employs the Thought Police to stop people being individual and thinking or acting any different to what the Party says. Winston Smith works for the department of Ministry of Truth, he’s an outwardly diligent worker and believer in the Party but really he secretly hates the Party and reams of rebelling.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Andrew Wincott, it was an engaging and well narrated audiobook.

The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is a scary place. It’s a dystopian world where Big Brother is always watching, the Party have full control and anyone who even thinks something that’s not in line with the Party message is wiped from existence. One of the most frightening things was how from such a young age, children are almost brain washed to be perfect citizens. They learn to tell the authorities about anyone who is not being the perfect citizens, even their own parents. No one can trust anyone, and because there’s so much surveillance and the Thought Police can appear to know what you’re thinking, it’s like you can’t even trust yourself.

The another thing that’s unsettling and scary is how quickly people can apparently change and become used to a totalitarian society. Winston was a child when things began to change, and he meets older people that vaguely remember how life was, but have little desire to make a fuss and to try and change things. That’s in part because it seems so hopeless because the Party is so far reaching and powerful.

I felt myself not really paying attention at times when Winston and Julia are reading a book about how the Party gets and maintains power. It was interesting, but it was a lot of exposition to take in at once and there was so much of it that I often had forgotten what the characters were doing before all this information appeared.

It’s interesting to finally see the origin of so many popular culture references in their original context. It gives the Big Brother reality show that’s been a part of British TV for almost 20 years a more sinister tone. As does the British comedy show Room 101 where celebrities are invited to discuss the things they hate and try and persuade the host to send those hates to oblivion aka Room 101 – it’s slightly more sinister now I know that Room 101 was a torture room.

I’m happy I’ve finally read Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s an unsettling social commentary and an engaging read. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Murders in the Rue Morgue And Other Stories by Edgar Allan Poe

A collection of three short stories, two of them are The Murders in the Rue Morgue and its sequel The Mystery of Marie Rogêt which are creepy and gruesome mysteries. The third is The Purloined Letter which is mystery about a seemingly simple case.

I had an interesting time with this short story collection. It was the first time I’d read any Edgar Allan Poe and I flew through, and really enjoyed, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, but I found the other two stories a real drag.

All three stories are told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator. His friend Dupin is an amateur sleuth so when there’s a crime, he narrates how Dupin gets involved and how he might solve the case. Dupin’s explanations of what happened is where the stories lost me. They’re really long and in depth, with page long paragraphs that I found myself getting lost in as his explanations didn’t intrigue me. They seemed like a way to show off how clever Dupin was but there was never enough to make me like the guy.

The events of The Murders in the Rue Morgue are horrifying and there are a lot of vivid descriptions on the crime scene. Those sequences, in all the stories, are the most compelling. It’s the explanations that ended up boring me instead of making me interested in finding out whodunnit.

These short stories reminded me of the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and E.W. Hornung. The style of writing and story-telling is quiet something but unlike Sherlock Holmes or A.J. Raffles, Dupin isn’t a charismatic protagonist that I almost instantly took a liking to.

I’m not sure if this was a good introduction to Poe but at least I can now say I’ve read The Murders in the Rue Morgue. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Albania: Negative Space by Luljeta Lleshanaku

Translated by Ani Gjika.

A collection of poetry from Luljeta Lleshanaku examining the space between objects and people, how things balance together and the different human emotions.

I’m not someone who knows a lot about poetry, but I found a lot of Lleshanaku’s poems beautiful yet bleak. There’s a loneliness to a lot of them, when someone is the subject matter of a poem they often can’t connect with others and there’s a distance between the subject and what they’re doing. Many of the poems aren’t tied to one specific place or time, instead the “story” flows from different perspectives, almost always focusing on the mundane.

Most of the poems here were about a page long, but there were a few that almost played out like short stories – Homo Antarcticus and Water and Carbon are two examples of this. They are both sad, haunting poems about people who are at a distance from others, through they choice or not. I enjoyed the poems that were more like short stories rather than the page-long ones as they naturally had more depth to them.

The poems in this collection are quiet peculiar and haunting. Whether it’s because they have been translated into English or because they’re from an Albanian poet, they don’t quiet fit with what my preconceived notions of poetry are. It makes reading these poems an interesting experience and I could see myself going back and rereading some of them to see if they have a different affect on me.

This is my pick this month’s Monthly Motif “Read a book that has won a literary award, or a book written by an author who has been recognized in the bookish community” as Negative Space is the winner of the English PEN Award and Luljeta Lleshanaku received the 2009 Crystal Vilenica award for European poets.

REVIEW: A Thousand Perfect Notes by C.G. Drews

Beck hates his life. He hates the Maestro, his mother who will except nothing but the best when it comes to playing the piano. Beck is forced to live out her dreams and expectations and nothing is every good enough – it makes him hate music. That is Beck’s life. That is until he’s partnered with August on a school project. August is bright and carefree and can’t stand to see anyone or anything in distress. Beck begins to see that there is more to life than music and fear, but can he take the steps to rescue himself?

Trigger warnings for emotional and physical abuse from a parent to their child.

A Thousand Perfect Notes is often heart-breaking. It’s told from Beck’s point of view and his fear; confusion and the glimmer of hesitant hope he has deep down are all palatable.

To say Beck’s mother is horrible would be an understatement. She is angry that she can no longer play the piano, so all her energy and passion is directed at making Beck love the music she claims to love. Nothing but perfection is good enough for her and she can always find fault with Beck’s playing. And when she finds fault she can be cutting with her remarks or violent with her hands.

Beck’s little sister Joey is the one bright spark in his life before August, and his mother knows this and threatens Joey in order to make him practice and be on the piano. Joey and Beck’s relationship is just lovely. She’s such an authentic young child, who manages to be wiser than her years but also really sweet and loving.

August is like a breath of fresh air for Beck. Their friendship grows organically as she’s stubborn but sensitive to Beck’s moods as he doesn’t know how to act around her, or how to act around anyone who is kind to him. Watching their relationship develop, and how Joey fits in with the two of them, was great.

A Thousand Perfect Notes is a tough but brilliant read. Having it be a relatively simple story with its focus on Beck and his life makes it a sad read but that focus allows you to get to know Beck so well that you can’t help but put yourself in his shoes and want his life to be so much better. One thing I really liked about A Thousand Perfect Notes is that it never says Beck is a victim, he has an inner-strength that even he doesn’t necessarily realise is there to begin with and the story allows him to use that to rescue himself. It’s not that once August is around, everything becomes OK – it’s so much more than that which is wonderful as anything less would’ve been a disservice to both Beck and August as characters. 4/5.

I chose A Thousand Perfect Notes to be my pick for this months Monthly Motif Challenge “Read a book you think is a perfect vacation read and tell us why” as I always think it’s easier to read and enjoy a hard-hitting story when the sun is out and you have little to worry about when you’re on holiday.

REVIEW: I’m Travelling Alone by Samuel Bjork

When the body of a young girl is discovered hanging from a tree, the only clue the police have is an airline tag around her neck. It reads “I’m travelling alone”. In response, seasoned investigator Holger Munch is charged with assembling a special homicide unit. That means tracking down his former partner – Mia Krüger – a brilliant but troubled detective who’s plans are to die. Reviewing the file, Mia finds something new – a thin line carved into the dead girl’s finger nail; the number 1. This is just the beginning. To save the other children Mia must push aside her own demons and see the bigger picture before the murderer becomes a serial killer.

I’m Travelling Alone is told from multiple perspectives meaning that the action never really lets up and while you may have more information than the detectives, that doesn’t mean you can see how everything’s connected straight away. There’s subplots that on the surface don’t look to be related to the main case but slowly the people become connected and the way everything is interwoven together is very natural.

The chapters are very short, often less than 10 pages, and they nearly all end on a mini cliff-hanger which makes this over 500 pages story a quick read. I’m Travelling Alone is often tense and it definitely has some unexpected twists and turns as the case develops and it becomes clear that there’s something seriously disturbing about the killer.

Mia and Holger are very different people but the way they work together is great. There’s the mentor-mentee relationship but Mia is so good at seeing patterns and the connections between things that she’s often smarter than Holger. That doesn’t mean Holger’s an idiot though, they each bring something to the partnership and the scenes when they bounce ideas off each other are enthralling. The whole team is great and it’s clear why they have been brought in on this case and they all bring a unique perspective to the team.

I’m Travelling Alone does end somewhat suddenly. Everything’s been building and building, and then it doesn’t really have the closure that I was expecting. Besides from that, it is an enjoyable and engrossing detective story. 4/5.