Monday, February 19, 2018

A Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare

I enjoyed An English Murder so much that I borrowed another one of Cyril Hare’s mysteries! A Tragedy at Law is supposed to be his most famous work so I was really excited to begin it.

Drawing on his legal experience (or so I’m assuming), A Tragedy at Law is a mystery that deals with the finer points of the law. Mr Justice Barber is a self-important judge who’s making his rounds on the ‘circuit’, which basically means he’s moving from town to town judging cases. It should be uneventful, but then he gets a threatening letter. That shouldn’t be a cause of worry, but a box of poisoned chocolates comes. And the threats just keep escalating from there.

Thrown into this mix are Derek Marshall, the Marshal, and Francis Pettigrew, a lawyer who is unsuccessful in profession and love (the love of his life having married Justice Barber). Can they find out what is happening?

The book uses a variety of POVs, but the dominant one is Derek. I suppose that as the ‘newbie’, he’s in a good position to wonder at (and try to understand) what’s going on, plus he’s easily convinced to help by Hilda, Justice Barber’s incredibly smart and charming wife.

Hilda, by the way, is an amazing person. You don’t normally see such strong personalities in fiction. Here’s a woman who was called to the bar and is clearly more intelligent and charming than her husband. She’s also got some fears of her own which she’s hiding and deserves all the page time she has (I would love to read about her earlier years). Sheila, the woman Derek falls in love with and the only other woman with a significant amount of attention devoted to her, seems almost dull in comparison. She seems to be more plot device than character.

That said, there is one other female character with a pretty strong presence, but she never directly appears or speaks. She’s very closely tied to Hilda, so I didn’t consider her a primary/lead character.

What I really liked about this book was its tone. There’s a wry humour that’s present throughout the book, and I enjoyed it very much. Clearly, Cyril Hare isn’t above poking fun at the pompousness his profession is sometimes filled with. The humour also fits in with the cynicism of Pettigrew, which works because Pettigrew’s the ‘detective’ of the novel.

That said, the ending of the book was a little hard to understand. There isn’t a grand denouncement like in the Christie novels, but instead, there’s a not-really-clear explanation by Pettigrew towards the end. I had to read that last chapter a couple of times before I understood it.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel, although I personally prefer An English Murder. I liked the humour present in the book and the use of Derek as the main POV character, although the ending does detract from the story a little.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Feathered by Rachel Wollaston

I am a huge fan of fairytales, as you all know by now, and when I heard about Feathered, I had to read it. A retelling of The Swan Princess? Yes, please!

Feathered is a bit complicated, but let me try to sum it up. The book opens with Marion being executed for being a witch. But since she had a deal made with an evil wizard to save her father, Elward, he takes her soul and puts it into the body of a swan. She has only one hour a day where she can return to her original form. However, Marion has also managed to create a double - Ida. Ida was created out of the darker parts of personality and when Elward discovers her, he demands that Marion take over Ida's body to pose as a princess and get close to the royal family. But Ida has a mind of her own, as Marion and Elward will soon see.

I found Marion's struggle to be fascinating. This book takes the idea of a "darker half" literally and turns it into the plot (sort of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but with swans and princess). Ida and Marion's struggle for power was fascinating, although it seems a bit unfair that [possible spoiler alert] that Ida seems to be able to "see" through Marion's eyes a lot more than Marion does through Ida's.

Another thing I enjoyed was the ambiguity of Elward, the wizard. At the start, he's the evil wizard, but by refusing to let him reveal his true plans plus his occasional 'rescue' of Marion has her doubting if he's as evil as he seems. Plus, a 'Healer' wizard as a bad guy was an interesting and unusual decision.

That said, I wasn't really convinced by the romance aspect of the book. Having two personalities split between two human and one swan bodies makes it difficult for me to believe that Marion can spend enough time to fall in love with anyone. Add in the fact that this takes place over a few days and Marion being upset that "he doesn't realise that's Ida and not me" sounds a bit odd to me. I mean, Ida is a part her and they just met after all. (Trying to be vague so not as to spoilt the book. Sorry if it doesn't make much sense).

Overall, I thought this was an interesting take on the Swan Princess. I think that you'll enjoy this if you're into fairytale retellings.

Disclaimer: I got a copy of this book from the author in exchange for a review as part of a blog tour. I also knew the author from WriteOn (I thought her name sounded familiar and her afterword confirmed it!)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett

I have finally finished this book, which was recommended to me by my counsellor. It was a pretty heavy read, so I read it in bits and pieces. Also, I just saw the subtitle and I realised that I’m reading about a lot of secret lives lately, starting with cows.

Anyway, How Emotions are Made basically does what the title says. It tries to explain what emotions are. According to the author, her new theory goes against classical thinking and is completely revolutionary and true. I don’t have any knowledge of neuroscience, and even though about 100 of the 400 page (on my iPad) book consists of citations, I am not even remotely qualified (and didn’t put in the time and effort needed) to talk about whether her idea stands up to scientific scrutiny. Instead, I want to talk about the ideas in the book, which I found thought-provoking.

Ok, so the book says is that there is a classical view of emotions, which says that emotions are in-built from birth and are universal. But, the book asserts that this view is false and that emotions are concepts that we interpret. These concepts are created by our experiences and our environment. In other words:
"Emotions are not reactions to the world; they are your constructions of the world."
This means that emotions aren’t universal. The way you experience stress, for instance, may be different from the way I experience stress. And because emotions are basically concepts that we build from experiences, it’s possible to modify and/or widen them. The book says that

New emotion concepts from a second language can modify those of your primary language

This makes a lot of sense to me. How do I explain the emotion “natsukashii”, which is something like “nostalgia” but not really? It’s something I learnt while learning Japanese, and if you can learn new emotion concepts via new languages, it makes sense that I added this ‘emotion’ through my Japanese study.

Moving on to more practical things, the book says that emotions have three functions:

1. They make meaning. For example, if I’m breathing heavily, am I scared or tired or what?

2. They prescribe action. If I’m panting, what is the appropriate response? That depends on what emotion I’m feeling (constructed based on past response)

3. They help regulate the body budget, which in turn affects health.

The body budget concept and link with emotions is interesting because it says that when your body budget is thrown out of balance, your brain mispredicts the amount of energy you need over and over and that eventually affects your physical health and can trap you in a vicious cycle.

Is that true? I don’t know but from personal experience, following on the tendency to not want to go out makes me feel lonelier and decreases motivation and further reduces my want to go out and there’s the cycle.

The book holds the view that depression “may be a disorder of misbudgeting and prediction” and that autism may be related to an inability to predict emotion concepts. These sound pretty revolutionary to me and I have no idea how I feel about them (the book also says that animals probably don’t experience emotions the way humans do which is a sad thing to hear after The Secret Lives of Cows).

Another thing the book talks about is that it emotions are concepts, and concepts are tools of culture, then emotions can be “specific to a culture”, creating rules that about “when it’s acceptable to construct a given emotion in a given situation.” This is another thing I find intriguing, because it would explain cross-cultural difficulties. If we perceive the world and hence reaction to situations differently, of course, there’ll be times we don’t understand one another.

In that case, persistent cross-cultural communication difficulties might be because the person in question has not managed to learn the emotion concepts of a particular culture. Oh, and in the book, the process of adjusting your emotions to a new cultural context is called “emotion acculturation”, so if anyone/I want to research this more in the future, here’s a possible keyword.

And to end, I’ll just talk about the two suggestions the book has for mastering your emotions.

The first is to move your body and/or change your location and situation.

The second is to try recategorising how you feel. This requires you to be able to differentiate between similar emotion concepts (like grief and despair) and “perhaps the easiest way to gain concepts is to learn new words.”

Which, I suppose, is one good thing that can come out of all my reading (assuming I don’t just read and forge). The book continues the previous quote by saying that:
Words seed your concepts, concepts drive your predictions, predictions regulate your body budget, and your body budget determines how you feel. Therefore, the more finely grained your vocabulary, the more precisely your predicting brain can calibrate your budget to your body’s needs.
The advice in the book is basically what my counsellor advised: do more exercise, drink more water, and go out with positive people (ok the last one isn’t in the book). And I suppose that through the counselling sessions, I’m learning to recast my emotions.

This was an extremely heavy but interesting book. Like I mentioned before, I don’t know how much of it will hold up to further scientific scrutiny since it purports to be revolutionary, but it definitely gave me a lot of think about. If you’re interested in neuroscience and your emotions, you may want to read this.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Skary Childrin and the Carousel of Sorrow by Katy Towell

This was an impulse borrow and read and a good example of why I like the library so much. A book catches your eye, you read it, and while it’s enjoyable, it’s a good thing you didn’t actually buy it (because for me, buying books = will reread in future).

Skary Childrin follows three girls (and one boy). There’s Adelaide, who is supposed to look like a werewolf but that isn’t really obvious in the illustrations. She has really keen senses though. And then there’s Maggie, who’s very quiet and spend a lot of the book being grumpy. Then there’s Beatrice, who’s the youngest and can see ghosts. She’s the sweetest character of the lot but the way she’s drawn made me think of a Black Eyed Child (maybe that was the inspiration?)

The three children are students at Madame Gertrude’s School for Girls and pretty much feared and hated by everyone. In a town that was cursed 12 years ago, anyone that’s different automatically gets the side-eye (or worse). But one day, a new librarian named Miss Delia comes to town. The girls and Miss Delia get off to a good start but Miss Delia mysteriously disappears. Desperate to find the one teacher who was kind to them, the girls enlist the help of Steffen and realise that Miss Delia’s disappearance may be connected to a string of disappearances happening around town.

What I liked the book was basically the concept. A town where the weird and strange exists sounded interestingly scary and I thought the three girls sounded like fitting protagonists (they were).

The mystery was also pretty decent - the girls’ narrative was interspersed with scenes of people disappearing after riding a mysterious carousel and that was enough to keep me reading until the end. It turns out that I managed to pinpoint the villain the minute he appeared, but I didn’t figure out the motive until the end.

Interspersed with the story are scenes that look to be pencil drawings. They’re pretty childish in style, so maybe it’s supposed to be one of the girls’ drawings? I thought it was a nice complement to the story.

What I wasn’t so enthusiastic about was the narrative style. It reads like a third person limited but it was hard to figure out who the POV character was (or if it was just skipping around the whole time), which hindered the suspension of disbelief. And like I mentioned before, the villain was pretty easy to identify, mostly because the majority of the book has them trapped at school rather than doing much investigating.

Overall, this is a pretty fun book for readers (the target audience are probably people way younger than me) who like spooky stuff that isn’t horror.