Tiny Library

Offshoot from http://tinylibrary.blogspot.com

Shanghai Girls: A Novel

Shanghai Girls: A Novel - Lisa See May and Pearl are sisters living comfortably in decadent 1930's Shanghai and working as models. When the Japanese attack, they are forced to migrate to America, where they encounter prejudice and hardships. This novel is one of my stand-out favourite reads of 2011 so far. I wasn't expecting it to be as gritty or in-depth as it was and I loved how the relationship between the two sisters was portrayed, especially as I'm very close to my own sister. The immigrant experience was captured well, as was the fear of all Chinese in America after Mao came to power, and the involvement of the FBI.

The Twelve (Book Two of The Passage Trilogy): A Novel

The Twelve - Justin Cronin I received this book as a Christmas present and started reading it without really knowing what it was about, apart from a vague idea that it might have something to do with vampires. I was hoping for an epic adventure, and I definitely got it! Without revealing too much of the plot, it is sort of about vampires, but mainly about how humans deal with an apocalyptic event and what happens afterwards.The book is split into two parts - before and after the life-changing events and the first part was amazing. I just loved all the stuff about humans trying to contain a crisis, FBI involvement, child smuggling, medical research gone wrong and crazy nuns. The pace was brisk, the plot was interesting and it was easy to engage with and relate to all of the characters.But unfortunately, the part about after everything had gone wrong was just OK. And this was about two thirds of the book. There was a really abrupt shift between before and after, which was a bit disorienting, and I found the newer characters harder to relate to and identify with. The writing seemed to suddenly get a lot more waffly too, and the book began to remind me of a Stephen King novel. A character couldn't be introduced or reintroduced without Cronin telling us everything about them, including their early history, likes and dislikes and probably even what they had for breakfast this morning. This slowed the book down considerably and there were parts where I was thinking "just get on with the story already!".That's not to say I didn't enjoy reading the second section - I did - I just think it could have done with a good edit. The story ideas were still good (although I think Cronin copped out by giving someone superpowers to keep everyone else safe) and the plot still interesting, I just wanted things to move faster and the tension to remain high.When I read this, I wasn't aware that it's apparently the first book in a series or trilogy and consequently was a bit disappointed with how unresolved the ending was. Now I know it's a series it does make more sense to leave some loose ends but I can't help but think that Cronin should have been able to tell the whole story in a book of this size. Maybe it's because series are popular with publishers?After all of the above moans, I should say that I did enjoy reading this book. It's hefty, for sure, but it's an easy read and some parts are truly unputdownable. I'm unsure as to whether I'll read the next one when it comes out.

What on Earth is Going On?: A Crash Course in Current Affairs

What on Earth is Going On?: A Crash Course in Current Affairs - Tom Baird, Arthur House The subtitle of this book is 'A Crash Course in Current Affairs', and it pretty much does what it says on the tin. It's divided into chapters arranged alphabetically, each of which is about a different current affairs issue (from topics such as politics, health, the economy, other nations etc). Each chapter is then divided into shorter sub-sections that give you a brief outline of the issue, assuming you have no prior knowledge of the subject whatsoever.Score: 4 out of 5I consider myself to be a relatively well-educated person and I both watch and read the news, but whilst reading this book I was amazed at how much I didn't know. I found the history of nations with conflicts particularly interesting, especially the chapters on Sri Lanka, Burma and Georgia. The chapters dealing with economics or finance were less interesting for me personally, but still informative. I would like to say I now fully understand hedge funds, but that would be a lie!The best thing about this book is that it gave you lots of information at a beginners level and beyond without being at all patronising. The writing style was simple and straight-forward and the information chunked into short memorable sections. There is also the odd touch of humor to keep things light and away from the academic zone. There could always be arguments about what is kept in and what is omitted, but as an introduction or a refresher in current affairs, I don't think it could be beaten.The major downfall is that this is the kind of book that will date extremely quickly. Already reading it in 2010 rather than when it was published in 2009 there was some out of date information: Gordon Brown is no longer Prime Minister, and the last UK coalition goverment wasn't in 1945 anymore! The whole book is written from a UK perspective, but I found there to be a good balance between domestic and foreign issues. Overall, it was easy to read, informative and a good refresher course in what is going on in the world. Recommended.

Shakespeare (The Illustrated and Updated Edition)

Shakespeare (The Illustrated and Updated Edition) - Bill Bryson I mainly picked up this book because I love Bill Bryson, and will read anything he writes. I also loved Shakespeare back when I was doing my English Literature A-Level but hadn't read much either by or about him since. As always, I found Bryson really readable and the edition of the book was just beautiful.I knew next to nothing of Shakespeare's life before I started reading (apart from the controversy over him maybe being gay) so there was new information in the book for me. To be honest, I found it more interesting reading all of the different theories crazy people had put forward about his life, based on one line of text from one of his plays.The book was also a kind of travel-guide to Elizabethan England, and this bit was really well done. One of the things I love most about Bill Bryson is that he always seems to realise what the most interesting parts of any topic are, and covers just these. So the book was short, but easy to read and enjoyable.

Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir

Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir - Margaux Fragoso The back of this memoir states that it is a book about a relationship between a fifty-one year old man and a seven year old girl. And it's controversial because it is about just that, a relationship. A socially unacceptable, manipulative, controlling relationship, but a relationship nonetheless and Fragoso writes about it honestly, resisting the temptation to paint herself sympathetically to appeal to readers.Margaux is seven when she meets Peter at a swimming pool - she sees him playing a game with two boys and decides that she wants to join in. Over time Margaux and her mentally ill mother come to like and depend upon kind, generous Peter as a way of getting away from Margaux's father, who has good intentions but is at best absent and at worse an alcoholic brother. Gradually Peter makes himself indespensible to Margaux and starts to groom her. When their relationship becomes sexual, Margaux sees it as something she must just put up with in order to get the love and affection she craves. Even when she has a chance to get away from Peter, she can't bring herself to give up the only person in the world that she thinks truly cares for her, despite all of the things she hates doing. She shuts away that part of herself into a new persona and becomes slowly desensitised.Although a memoir like this, in which conversations are recreated and events described in great detail, can only capture the essence of what happened, Tiger, Tiger felt like it had a lot of truth. I've read some other reviews of it and lots of people are reacting against Margaux for becoming sexually manipulative and not getting away when she had the chance. But for me, this only shows Peter's power as he has manipulated Marguax to the extent where she becomes the instigator and sexual behaviour is completely normalised, something to put up with to get treats. I think it was brave for Fragoso to write it like that and to show ambiguity in all of the people she includes, rather than making it just black and white, good and evil. There is a scene that people object to in particular, where Marguax tries to become sexually manipulative with someone else, but that is how children who are abused often react, and that's usually how the abuse comes to light.The worst part for me was how lots of the adults knew what was going on, but decided not to know and to look the other way. All they do is spread gossip rather than help. I think that does happen in society - no one wants to think that a child could be getting abused, so people find reasons to think something else. In the afterword, Fragoso writes that she hopes the book will help people to become more aware that paedophiles don't look like monsters and don't act stereotypically, and I hope so too.

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything - Christopher Hitchens Before I share my thoughts on this book, I should probably explain the viewpoint I read it from. When I said in the introduction that I am non-religious, I meant that I have never been exposed to religion personally at all - I was not baptised/christened and can count the times I have been to a place of worship on one hand. No one in my family is religious either and I didn't miss it growing up. I was taught instead to treat others as I wished to be treated, to be respectful and to realise that life can be tough, and sometimes it's bad luck, and all you can do is be ready for it and make the most of the time you have. I didn't even meet a strongly religious person until I went to university at 19 and became friends with an Orthodox Jew.So I was kind of in the middle with this book. I have no bone to pick with religion myself; I do find it hard to understand why people are religious but each to their own as long as they aren't bothering me. Hitchens in his book had a completely different attitude - I've read Dawkin's "The God Delusion" as well and Hitchens makes Dawkins look like a moderate! I can only describe Hitchens' views as militant/fundamentalist atheism, in that he sought to make everything the fault of religion without acknowledging any of the good religious people have done or even that religious people can't be lumped together as one homogenous entity. And that seriously weakened his arguments for me.Hitchens also approached the topic from a mainly literal/historical perspective, which would have been fine if he had stuck with it, but he also veered into the scientific arguments. The problem with this was that he made some mistakes - I know enough biology to know that his conclusions about ears were wrong, and if you're going to write such a controversial book, you better make sure your facts are straight!In places his conclusions were too simplistic. Concerning American slavery, he basically argued that religion caused slavery - correct me Americans if I am wrong, but whilst religion may have defended slavery for a while, there was more to it that that. Societies the world over have taken slave from conquered areas since the dawn of time. Hitchens was bending over backward to show that "religion poisons everything" when he would have been much more convincing if he had argued "religion makes things bad, sometimes" or "religion can prolong bad things".That's not to say that all of his arguments were weak. It has been historically well documented that parts of all the major religions have been man-made (Council of Nicea etc), and when Hitchens stayed with history or culture, he was on strong ground. His sections on the use of condoms in Africa and Muslim protest against vaccinations were also very effective.So overall, a mixed bag. There were some good points struggling to get out but Hitchens was just too angry and a bit fundamentalist. I can definitely see why some atheists argue that he gives them a bad name.

Villette (Modern Library Classics)

Villette - A.S. Byatt, Charlotte Brontë, Ignes Sodre Have you ever had one of those days where everything goes wrong? For Lucy Snowe, the narrator of Villette, her entire life is like one of those days. Having lost her family at a young age due to mysterious circumstances never quite revealed, she journeys alone to Villette where she becomes a governess for school-owner Madame Beck. Excelling at her work, she progresses to the station of teacher and has some emotionally fraught entanglements with the people around her.In many ways, Villette was a difficult book to read. Lucy was a secretive narrator, holding some information back only to reveal it later and giving the reader few clues about her feelings. This meant I had to be paying close attention at all times to really get the best out of the book. But by the time I was half-way through, I was enjoying Lucy's reserve as it made any flashes of real feeling much more profound. I could also relate to this characteristic of hers; her pride and self-protection.Another difficulty was the odd conversations written in French. I understand this adds authenticity but as someone who has never studied French (my school did German and Spanish), I worried that I missed some things. Bronte did provide just enough English in these sections for me to follow what was going on and it was only occasionally that French was used, but it was tricky for me.So yes, this was a difficult book and it required much mental exertion but boy, was it worth it. Bronte's characterisation was simply flawless - very subtle but powerful. Somehow, without explicitly telling me much about each character, I felt as though I knew them as well as my friends. From Ginevra, Lucy's self-indulged and lively friend, to Madame Beck, a sneaky puppet-master with her eye at every keyhole, each character was fully formed. My favourite was Monsieur Paul, the literature teacher.Bronte's wonderful writing meant I was connected to the characters, especially Lucy. So at certain points in the book, I was heartbroken right along with her. And this I think was the true power of the book - Bronte pulls you in and takes you right along with Lucy. All the other stuff faded into the background for me; the theological discussions, the morality and the pedagogy of teaching. That was all interesting too, but I was too busy living the book alongside Lucy.

City of Sin: London and Its Vices

City of Sin: London and Its Vices - Catharine Arnold City of Sin is an examination of the oldest business in the world: prostitution. From brothels to Roman bath houses to modern day sex scandals and rent boys, Arnold tells the history of London through the eyes of it's sex workers. And it's a history of 'the more things change, the more they stay the same' with the same characters coming up in different guises throughout history; high class call girls, desperate working-class prostitutes, madams and aristocratic clients.The book's main strength is that Arnold is a very good writer and each chapter is evocative of the time period it centers on. Arnold is especially good when describing the murky, sinister London of Jack the Ripper and Sweeney Todd, I almost felt as though I had been transported back in time. More importantly for a book like this, she doesn't judge or defend the people she is writing about - she just relates facts and experiences in an interesting way without being sensationalist. As I originally come from the East End of London myself, I particularly enjoyed the parts about the docks and sailors and working class families of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.Another thing I enjoyed was the wide scope of the book - from Ancient Roman through to modern times and not just about prostitution in the traditional sense. There were also interesting sections on homosexuality, organised crime and writers such as Oscar Wilde. My only criticism of the book is that I felt it was very obviously written by someone who had studied English Literature rather than history. Whilst I like English Lit and did enjoy some of the literary references and quotes, I felt like there were just too many and not enough actual history. Occasionally I did turn a page and think "oh, not another poem!".

The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe

The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe - Peter Godwin Godwin was born and raised in Africa and practised as a human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe before becoming a foreign news correspondent. The Fear is part history, part politics, part travelogue and is written as Godwin travels the country as events unfold, talking to Zimbabweans.The name of the book comes from what Zimbabweans called the period between the two elections. In the first Mugabe lost and before the second the ruling party used any method possible to 'convince' people the change their votes. The Fear refers to the toture, random beatings and repression that came to anyone suspected of having voted for the opposition party. There are some very harrowing stories of torture and rape contained in the book (for example, a man who had wire tied around his testicles and was led around by this wire) and Godwin doesn't shy away from the more horrible stories.The courage of ordinary Zimbabweans really shines through. Despite torture, most that Godwin talks to remain defiant and focused on their goal of change, no matter how Mugabe responds. Godwin himself gets in quite a bit of danger throughout the book and is at one point forced to leave the country. The technique of writing the book as a travelogue gives it immediacy, stops it from being too dry and makes it very relatable. Even though I already knew the outcome of the crisis, I found myself swept up in the human side of it, the side that was missing from the news reports.I would highly recommend this book as a good example of well written, readable non-fiction.

Growing Up Amish: A Memoir

Growing Up Amish: A Memoir - Ira Wagler This biography tells the story of Wagler's Amish upbringing and his struggle between the comfort of his traditional life on one hand and the freedom of the outside world in the other hand.This memoir was an enjoyable read and was pacy enough to keep the pages turning quickly (I finished it in two sittings). Wagler's life was covered in chronological order and I particularly enjoyed the sections about his childhood. As a primary school teacher who often bemoans the amount of gadgets children have and how they don't 'play' anymore, Wagler's childhood seemed idealistic. And it also contrasted effectively with later sections in which he was more tormented.These later sections really got across the point that it was impossible for Wagler to be happy anywhere. When inside the Amish community he strained against the restrictions but when outside he was tormented by the certainty that turning his back on the Amish church would lead to him going to hell. That part was hard for me to relate to as a non-religious person (as was the very end of the book), but imagining what having that certainty would do to your mind and self-esteem was powerful enough. I did enjoy learning about the Amish way of life and differences between the various Amish communities. My only criticism was that I wanted a bit more of that, and thought that the book could have taken the exra length.

Jerusalem Maiden: A Novel

Jerusalem Maiden: A Novel - Talia Carner I recently read an ARC copy of Jerusalem Maiden. It tells the story of Esther, born into a very Orthodox Jewish community in Israel in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. Growing up in poverty, she is taught that as a Jewish girl in the Holy City, it is her role and responsibility to marry an Orthodox man and hasten the coming of the Messiah by having as many children as possible. Esther struggles against these expectations and also against the commandment not to make idols as she is a talented artist. Spanning several decades and historical changes, Jerusalem Maiden follows Esther through her attempts to break free from convention and live according to her wishes rather than responsibilities.I enjoyed this book; Carner is a talented writer and her descriptions of the locations in the book (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Paris) were very vivid and I had to remind myself of where I actually was when I put the book down. As I find religion fascinating, I loved the parts dealing with her childhood and community and felt that it was done very well - informative but not over the top. Carner had also obviously completed extensive research about her era and setting as everything just felt right, like being transported back in time.Esther was a great main character in that she was easy to sympathise with. She was engaged in a constant push-and-pull with her religion; as soon as the desire to escape became overwhelming and she actually left her community, the fear and obligations would pull her back. She couldn't truly be happy anywhere. However, some of Esther's thoughts seemed a bit modern for the historical setting of the book, especially with regard to her children and sex. I know that Esther had a somewhat radical art teacher as a child, but it was hard for me personally to imagine someone with such a sheltered and conservative upbringing having such liberal, up-to-date thoughts.The relationships in the book were well written. Although it was soon clear who Esther wanted to be with (Pierre, not Jewish), I liked that Carner didn't take the easy way out by making her husband unlikeable. He just came across as a nice man who couldn't understand his wife and her desires. I also liked how the romance was a large part of the book, but didn't dominate it - it was mainly about Esther and her struggle to find her own way.Overall, well worth a read. It reminded me of The Historian in that the setting was just as important as the characters and I was left with an urge to visit Jerusalem and go back in time to pre-WW2 Paris.

Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid

Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid - Wendy   Williams I received this copy of Kraken through the publishers Abrams Books at NetGalley. It tells the under-rated story of squid (and octopus and cuttlefish) and how they have had a vital role to play in advancing understanding about human health and function. It also debunks some giant squid myths and contains some amazing facts about their life.First off, I was really impressed with the writing style and accessibility of the book. I've read a lot of dry science books in my time that manage to make interesting topics dull, but this wasn't one of them. Williams writes for an interested novice, putting across all the science information in an easy to understand way but also adding interesting details about the scientists and animals themselves. This gave the book a good balance and meant that it was easy to read.And there was no shortage of interesting trivia and facts. I didn't know much about cephalopods before reading, and was blown away by some of the information - about their blue blood, tool use, how they can bite off their own tentacles and make them light up to divert a predator, how a cuttlefish can camouflage to almost any background, how the suckers on some tentacles are more dexterous than human hands, how part of their brains are wrapped around their throats. The startling information for me was just how intelligent they are as a whole, but in a different way to humans. A cuttlefish can be trained to understand simple if..then rules e.g. if this signal comes up, go left; if a different signal comes up, go right. Williams' agenda in writing the book did seem to be to show how intelligent they are and to argue that mammalian intelligence isn't the only kind of intelligence on the planet. The other parts of the book seemed to almost be a cry for more funding for cephalopod research by showing how useful limited research has been. I thought it was very interesting how scientists used the giant squid axon to find out about human brain function and how this could lead to treatment for diseases like Parkinson's. I agree with Williams that we should be spending more money on marine research.If I had to find a criticism of this book, I would say that the title led me to believe there would be more about giant squid mythology/history. I wanted to read about Krakens and monstrous octopuses and ancient mythology alongside the science and there wasn't much of that, only a quick debunk of some giant squid myths.

Lily of the Nile

Lily of the Nile - Stephanie Dray Lily Of The Nile is part one in a series of books about the life of Cleopatra's daughter Selene. Born and raised in Alexandria as the daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, she lives a privileged life in a place where women are free to be as intelligent as men. After Cleopatra is defeated by Octavian, Selene is sent to Rome with her brothers and must learn to comply with the strict rules of Roman life, whilst coming to term with the loss of her parents, her throne and her country.I love historical fiction but was slightly apprehensive about reading this book as I have read Michelle Moran's Cleopatra's Daughter, and liked her portrayal of Selene. But I shouldn't have worried - Dray's Selene is a strong character, heartsick over what has happened to her but determined to do all she can to make the best of her new situation. I liked all of the politics in this book and how Selene was able to use her intellect to manoeuvre something beneficial to her out of the emperor. I also enjoyed the character of Selene's twin brother Helios, and liked how Dray used the two of them to show the reader two contrasting reactions to being defeated by the emperor - Selene chooses compliance in the hope of getting what she wants later on, but Helios chooses to fight. I would say that characterisation for me was the strength of this novel; Dray bought the historical figures to life and made each distinct. I particularly enjoyed Julia, the headstrong daughter of the emperor, and Octavia, the former wife of Mark Anthony who becomes devoted to helping his children.The one thing that stopped me from really loving this book was the fantasy element of it. I enjoyed reading about the cult of Isis, especially the worship Selene witnesses in the temple, but I wasn't sold on the whole magic thing. I can believe that Selene believed that Isis could carve hieroglyphics on her arms, but not that it could actually happen.

Miss Timmins' School for Girls: A Novel

Miss Timmins' School for Girls: A Novel - Nayana Currimbhoy India, 1974. Miss Timmins' School for Girls is a throwback from the British colonial days; now Indian parents send their children there for a British style boarding education. Charulata Apte is a new teacher at the school and must find her own path away from the safety of her family home. Just as she starts finding her feet, a teacher she has befriended is murdered and suspicion falls on various members of the community.This book was much broader in scope than I had anticipated. I expected a who-dunnit set in India but it was so much more - it was truly a coming of age novel, as Charu deals with sexuality, the role of women, becoming an effective teacher, relationships and subtle prejudices.The novel is split into three broad sections. The first is narrated by Charu as she settles into the school, the second by a pupil, Nandita, in the immediate aftermath of the murder, and the final by Charu again as the truth comes out. In my opinion the first section was the best. As a teacher myself, I enjoyed the way Currimbhoy wrote honestly about the challenges of teaching and I liked the boarding school setting (it took me back to my Enid Blyton days!). I also though Currimbhoy wrote the relationships between Charu, the other teachers, her family and the pupils realistically, with emotional depth.However as the book went on, the writing became a bit meandering and it seemed to lose focus. The same scenes were dwelled on by different characters, which became a bit repetitive. There was a clever twist at the end (I didn't manage to guess the murderer), but the book could have been edited down to make the final sections pacier and more engaging. The secondary 'mystery' of Charu's parents' background was almost more interesting to me than the primary mystery of who killed the teacher.

The Ninth Wife: A Novel

The Ninth Wife: A Novel - Amy Stolls Bess Gray is a thirty-five year old folklorist who wants to settle down but can't find the right man. At a singles party she meets Irish expatriate Rory and is swept off her feet. However, when Rory proposes and Bess finds out that he has had not one, not two, but eight ex-wives, she must decide if she can cope with becoming wife number nine.I really enjoyed the first half of this book. The narrative switched between chapters from Bess' point of view about her developing relationship with Rory and chapters where Rory described each of his ex-wives. Considering she had eight ex-wives to introduce, Stolls did a great job of keeping each story distinct and entertaining, and I loved reading these parts. Stolls' writing was very good in general; the characters were vivid and the book hard to put down.I also enjoyed some of the minor characters, especially Bess' grandparents Millie and Irv. They had been married for sixty-five years and Stolls wrote their relationship honestly, showing the rough side of marriage as well as the smooth. I was rooting for Millie and Irv to sort things out more than I was rooting for Bess and Rory. I also really liked the character of Gaia, a hippy pregnant woman. In the second half of the book, Bess goes off on a bit of a quest to find Rory's ex-wives to find out if he has told the truth about them and to see if she can come to terms with his past. For me personally, this section dragged a little bit in comparison to the first and it could have been shorter. I enjoyed the part where Rory came face to face with his stalker ex-wife, Lorraine, but felt as though the other wives were all kind of telling Bess the same thing and the road trip seemed endless. I also couldn't really understand Bess' attachment to Rory. I'm not a swept off your feet kind of girl (I was in a relationship for seven years before getting engaged!), and all through the first section I was thinking: are you crazy for getting engaged? You hardly know him at all! This meant that for me, I was indifferent as to whether they ended up together in the end or not. I was just along for the journey and the ex-wives.


Moranthology - Caitlin Moran Caitlin Moran is a British journalist who writes columns for The Times, and How to Be A Woman is part autobiography and part feminist rant. It tells of her working class background and experiences and also includes her views on being a woman and on feminist issues such as abortion and beauty myths.This book was OK. The conversational style made it easy to read and it was funny at points. Coming from a working class background myself, I could relate to Moran's experiences and she wrote about growing up as a girl in late 20th century England very well. However, after this enjoyable section of the book the rest became very disjointed. Her experiences as an adult were randomly spliced with the parts about feminism. And although these parts were interesting, she was hardly writing anything I hadn't heard before. If you want feminism, there are lots of books I would recommend over this one. And if you disregard the feminism parts, all you have left is a very average memoir.I don't want to be too harsh about this book, as I did enjoy reading it and it wasn't horribly written; I just wouldn't recommend it to others.

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