Rabu, 12 Februari 2014

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

Unbreakable (The Legion #1)

Posted: 10 Feb 2014 08:00 AM PST

Fast-paced action, creepy atmosphere ... pity about the characters.

THE glut of young adult (YA) fiction nowadays can be wearing, especially when talent is thin on the ground. You'll end up with boring, tired stories featuring predictably perfect romantic interests and awkward but somehow "special" protagonists.

Unfortunately, I found Unbreakable, the first in The Legion stories, painfully derivative. Kami Garcia made her name with the Beautiful Creatures series, which blends witchcraft and high school angst, but her foray into balls-to-the-wall supernatural action falls short of originality.

Thankfully, though, that doesn't make it an entirely unreadable novel.

The premise is not only predictable but tired: teenage Kennedy Waters finds her mother dead from a paranormal attack. She is rescued from a vengeful spirit by two gorgeous (but of course) brothers, identical twins Jared and Lukas Lockhart. The brothers reveal that her mother was part of a five-member secret society sworn to protect the world from a demon – a society whose members have all been recently murdered.

Kennedy, Lukas, Jared and two others – Priest and Alara – are forced to take their parents' places in the society and, armed with their individual, unique skills, find a weapon that could help them defeat the demon.

While a story about a group of people is a nice change from the paranormal romances where boy meets girl and weird stuff goes down, Unbreakable shamelessly borrows from other established horror franchises – the biggest example being American supernatural TV series, Supernatural.

Those who follow the series featuring two brothers who hunt all the things that go bump in the night will recognise in Garcia's book similar ghosts, similar methods of dispatching them (salt, holy water, Devil's traps), and, of course, gorgeous brothers with diametrically opposed temperaments, dead mothers, EMF detectors, the end of the world, and a generous dose of angst.

While Garcia could have created a brilliant new book series while playing off established fictional narratives, she disappointed me by just borrowing, and in such an obvious fashion I felt almost insulted.

On the plus side, Unbreakable has one thing going for it: it is undeniably, hair-raisingly creepy. Playing on archetypal horror motifs – orphanages, prisons, wells – Garcia does a brilliant job of sending chills up your spine. The story is definitely well-paced, fast and exciting enough.

Although Garcia sacrifices solid characterisation in lieu of thrills and spills (it's never quite established why, for instance, Alara dislikes Kennedy – She Just Does), for the casual reader it works well.

Sadly, I felt that all five of the main characters are shallow, superficial and poorly fleshed out.

The big emotional reveals lacked panache or passion, and the rudimentary love triangle (but of course!) between Lukas, Jared and Kennedy came across as pre-packaged, stale. It is unclear why Kennedy picks the angry twin over the smiley one, unless we assume she has a liking for distant, stand-offish men (and hey, who doesn't?).

The conclusion to Unbreakable (the second instalment is due sometime this year) was refreshingly harsh and brutal. There's enough of a cliffhanger and a twist to keep you hooked, and when you consider the questions left unanswered (the mysterious murders at the start remain just that) it's clear Garcia has set the stage for a tale that might just pick up as you go along.

Scary but slightly stale, Unbreakable is an easy read and definitely something that will shiver your bones during our warm tropical nights.

If you're searching for well-planned characters and proper emotional development you'll probably be disappointed, but there are thrills and chills aplenty in this heart-racing read.

The Perfume Collector

Posted: 10 Feb 2014 08:00 AM PST

SET post World War II, The Perfume Collector is the story of Grace Munroe, a woman who is feeling adrift and lost despite being a member of London's upper crust. Preferring her literary pursuits to the shopping and parties the women in her set indulge in, Grace is also suspicious that her husband Roger is engaging in an affair but unsure if she should confront him about it.

A letter from France provides her with the perfect excuse to go away for a while. In the letter, Grace learns that she has received an inheritance, but her benefactor is Eva d'Orsey, someone she's never met, and doesn't know. Travelling to Paris in search of Eva, Grace discovers a different, bewitching world – the world of perfumes and the surprising love story behind the three distinctive perfumes inspired by Eva, a story that spans decades and places.

The saying "do not judge a book by it's cover" cannot be used for The Perfume Collector. In fact, the cover is perfect for the story. And the story is a very good one. It's obvious from the get-go that author Kathleen Tessaro has done her research, and done it well, interweaving the characters' lives with accurate pieces of history that enhance rather than take away from the story. They add more depth to the story, and the reader is treated to a compelling narrative of love, life, loss, and history.

The two main characters, Grace and Eva, are strong women in a time when strong women were only beginning to emerge in their own right. While Grace is initially slightly boring and one-dimensional, she really grows into her own person in the course of the book, becoming more self-assured and confident as she learns more about her self. Tessaro effectively shows that coming into your own doesn't have to happen in your teens or 20s, it can happen to you any time.

Eva is by far the best character in the book. Strong and sassy until the very end, she leaves the reader wondering how on earth she could have gone through everything that she did and still be herself. Her life is a roadmap, and it's pretty amazing to read about a woman in the 1920s flaunt convention the way Eva did.

Tessaro alternates between Grace's time in 1954 and Eva's in 1920s up until her death, and while this might be confusing, it's necessary to bring the both lives together. While this style is not the most reader-friendly, Tessaro has skilfully managed to avoid confusing the reader.

The similarities between both women in terms of their daily struggles are also quite apparent. Although both lived in different time periods, being women in a patriarchal society put them at a disadvantage – Grace, with her cheating husband, and Eva, who starts off working as a maid in a hotel and has to struggle to break out of the traditional female stereotype.

Tessaro also did a fabulous job describing the perfumes and bringing them to life. Her descriptions are done so skilfully that one can almost smell them, and see the process of creating them.

If there's one thing about The Perfume Collector that wasn't so great, it was the plot of the story and Eva's connection to Grace, which were both rather predictable. The pace of the book is rather slow, and readers who want to find out what's happening right now may not be big fans of the pace.

To me, though, The Perfume Collector is a haunting tale of love and heartbreak, of life and independence. It's a coming of age story, and one that made me fall in love with it.

Because I Said So!

Posted: 10 Feb 2014 08:00 AM PST

Not all those things you're told as a child – eat your carrots, they're good for your eyes! – are true, it turns out.

WHEN I was a child, I used to be terrified of escalators.

"Watch your shoelaces," my parents would warn me the minute I stepped close to one. "They might get caught in the mechanism, and pull you inside it." Innocent as that warning was, my fertile 10-year old imagination took over, and I avoided those moving staircases as much as I could, terrified at the thought of sliced toes or amputated feet.

Could things like that really happen? I had no clue. But if my parents said it, it had to be true, right?

"Parental wisdom" takes centre stage in Because I Said So!, an informative and engaging book by Ken Jennings aimed at uncovering the truths behind what our parents taught us. Learn, for example, that contrary to what you were taught, drinking eight glasses of water a day may not be good for you, alcohol does not really kill brain cells, and that it is actually very difficult to get trapped in a refrigerator.

Jennings is a trivia master: the author holds the record for the longest winning streak on the famously difficult American game show Jeopardy!, and is the all-time leading money winner on several other American game shows. He is also the bestselling author of knowledge books such as Maphead andBrainiac.

In Because I Said So!, Jennings uses all the wealth of knowledge available to him to analyse, criticise and debunk some of the most sacred commandments of parental wisdom. According to him, most parental warnings are passed through the generations without much thought to their truth or application.

"That's the dirty secret of parenting: it's a big game of Telephone stretching back through the centuries and delivering garbled, well-intended medieval bromides to the present," Jennings writes in the book's preface.

"Possible misinformation ... never gets corrected; it just goes into hibernation for a few decades and then jumps out to snare a new generation, like a 17-year-old cicada. Parents find themselves in these factual blind alleys because they have no resource than the dimly remembered 30-year-old lectures of their own childhoods."

Because I Said So! is divided into sections, each covering a specific area of modern living. My favourite parts of the book were "Your Face Will Freeze Like That!" which touched on looks and grooming, and "What If Your Friends All Jumped Off A Cliff?" which handles adolescent pains. Can touching yourself really make you go blind? Does eating chocolate make your skin break out? This book covers all that!

The book (wisely) does not stray into areas of superstition or the supernatural, so things like "don't stay out late or the ghosts will get you" are not covered here.

Jennings' research is comprehensive and well presented, and backed up with medical case histories, scientific findings and even the odd experiment. His style is light and humorous, with witty observations and pop culture references aplenty.

I learnt quite a few things from this book: my favourite fact, for example, is that during World War II, Britain's Royal Air Force greatly boosted the belief that carrots were good for your eyes. Why? Thanks to radar, their pilots were shooting down enemy planes with greater accuracy, a technological advantage they wanted to keep as secret as possible. So instead, they chalked up their pilot's amazing track records to them eating kilos of carrots!

Perhaps the best thing about this book is that it could encourage a spirit of inquiry: readers, hopefully, will be inspired to question some of their beliefs and not blindly accept something just because someone else told them.

My only issue with Jennings' book is its presentation. The end of each question features a "Truthfulness Bar", which is filled up depending on how true or false the myth is. This was often difficult to interpret (is a "False" bar filled up halfway, a more true than one filled up a quarter of the way?), and felt quite unnecessary.

Oh, and by the way: Because I Said So! sadly did not have a specific question on shoelaces and escalators. It did, however, address the dangers of escalators. Its verdict was that while it was very possible to injure yourself on one, escalators have become safer and they now have brushes to keep laces out. So thank goodness for that!

Hopefully, someone will be inspired to write a Malaysian version of this book someday. I've always wondered, for example, if it's true that the cockles in char kuay teow are always found near waste processing plants, or if drinking water from a durian's skin really cures heatiness. Someone work on this, quickly!

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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